How the Yakult Yogurt Drink Became a Netflix Star—Again

Writer and director Alice Wu told VICE why the sweet probiotic drink was an essential addition to her film, 'The Half of It.'
May 1, 2020, 12:49pm
Screenshot via Netflix

"I can't believe you drink Yakult," the awkward teenage protagonist Ellie Chu says in a scene in The Half of It, Alice Wu's coming-of-age film that hit Netflix today. To this, Paul Munsky, a high school jock and unlikely friend, gives a matter-of-fact reply about the Asian yogurt drink: "Stadium vending machine. Coach is gonna provide it for free—keeps him regular." Having grown up in the seemingly-fictionalized town of Squahamish, Washington, Ellie says, "Seriously? The only Asian grocery is three hours by bike." The two move on to bickering about a romance movie on TV.

Written and directed by Alice Wu, The Half of It is a story of friendship and yearning that follows Ellie, played by Leah Lewis, as she ghostwrites love letters from Paul (Daniel Diemer) to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), the popular girl they both secretly love. Though Ellie and Paul's interaction starts out motivated by money, they become solid friends—the type who sit together in front of the TV, eating microwave meals and sipping Yakult. To those unfamiliar, Yakult is a sweet probiotic beverage from Japan that's especially popular in Asian cultures.

It's not the first time Yakult has gotten the spotlight in a Netflix movie made for an American market. In fact, according to Wu, there was a point in the development process when she considered striking the Yakult from this scene entirely—all because of Noah Centineo's character taking a swig from the same small, red foil-topped plastic bottle in 2018's To All the Boys I've Loved Before, the teen romance film starring Centineo and Lana Condor. The scene was so iconic that it helped Yakult sell out at many retailers and led to a 2.6 percent rise in the company's stocks, according to Bloomberg.

"Just as we were getting ready to figure out pre-production [for The Half of It_], _To All the Boys I've Loved Before came out. They don't say [it's] Yakult [in that scene], but they have a yogurt drink," Wu told VICE in an interview. With both films featuring teen romance and Asian lead characters, the two Netflix movies have more than Yakult in common. "I was like, 'Oh no, I've gotta get rid of my yogurt drink—it already showed up!'"

The Yakult scene stayed because, Wu said, "I couldn't think of anything else that had that same resonance for me." To people from many Asian cultures—like Ellie, who was born in China, and Wu, whose parents grew up in Taiwan—Yakult needs no introduction. Invented in Japan in the 1930s and made using the bacteria Lactobacillus paracasei Shirota (named for microbiologist Minoru Shirota, who discovered it), Yakult gained popularity in Asia because of the idea that, like yogurt, its live cultures could have health benefits. As the South China Morning Post has reported, its popularity in places like Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City has also been spurred by "Yakult ladies" who deliver it door-to-door.

"I grew up drinking it. It turns out, it's very common across a lot of Asian cultures. When I was younger, I would visit Taiwan for periods of time. My grandmother would give me a treat every day and I loved it," Wu said. "It's considered a health drink, which is kind of hilarious because it's actually filled with sugar, but delicious and probiotic. It turns out that almost all of my Asian friends from different cultures have some version of Yakult that they grew up with."

For that reason, Yakult was unparalleled as far as personally relevant yet still identifiable foods for Wu to feature in the movie. (Mirroring Wu's life, those foods run the gamut from the Swanson frozen pot pies Wu would heat for meals with her dad, to her mom's own braised pork over rice.) "There's Ovaltine, but Ovaltine doesn't make like, a little bottle—it wouldn't work in the fabric of the story, and I remember a friend of mine, another Asian American, was like, 'Alice, I think it's totally okay for Yakult to show up,'" she said. "It's like, I don't know, having Coca-Cola. In Asia, everybody knows what it is."

While Yakult hasn't quite crossed over in the United States in the same way that Japanese exports like Cup Noodles or Pocky have (although search interest in Yakult skyrocketed around the time of To All the Boys' release), it's still common enough that it didn't seem unreasonable for a person like Paul, rooted in a tiny and homogenous town, to have tried it.

"For me, it felt like a very natural thing that has slightly crossed over into, you know, Western culture," Wu said. "There are a lot of Asian things I've eaten that no one who wasn't Asian would know, but Yakult is something that sometimes people do."

Throughout The Half of It, food is a form of connection, and for both Paul and Ellie, it's a way of exploring parts of their identity they don't always acknowledge. Though Ellie and her dad spend time together, they often don't speak; instead, they sit watching classic movies on TV, eating pot pies, and drinking Yakult. It's clear they've both experienced discrimination for being Chinese in Squahamish, and for Ellie, a teenage girl still learning who she is in the confines of high school and rural life, Wu saw writing Yakult into the story as having even more resonance.

"The idea that Ellie would once in a while bike three hours away to an Asian grocery in one of the larger towns, in order to bring something back—there's a poignance to that," Wu said.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.