Despite my huge love for manga and anime, I believe you learn more about Japanese culture through television and film. So what better way for you to soak it all in than to binge watch the newest season of a long running Japanese TV show adapted from a food manga? Originally known as Shinya Shokudo, Netflix was able to get the rights to a brand new 4th season for 2016 called Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. It’s great television with lots of heart as we see the comings and goings of various patrons as they shack up a late night snack with our titular owner chef. Portrayed by Kaoru Kobayashi, the “Master” is a quiet but warm character who acts as the silent cauldron that warms the broth of each new character’s story. Whether it simmers, goes flat or boils over is something you’ll cherish as each episode slowly unfolds.
Right away, the opening theme does its job in setting the mood for the show as it gracefully paints us a picture of a vibrant yet lonely Tokyo with hundreds of people scrambling into the night in search of something. Little by little, the theme song allows us to travel to a quiet alleyway with our Master as he sets up shop. We see him smoke, cook, clean and settle in as he narrates his hours (Midnight to 7 am) like a Bob Ross in the kitchen. I can only speak for myself, but seeing the opening alone had me hooked and I’m certain it will do the same for you.
Each episode of Midnight Diner focuses on a new patron to the Master’s eatery and a story in their life that comes slowly into focus by way of food. This is facilitated thanks to our chef’s simple policy where, despite his bare-bones menu, he will cook whatever you want if he has the ingredients to do so. This provides the catalyst for every episode where each new dish acts as a window into the life of every new customer. Thus, the Master not only acts as our narrator, but as a sturdy beam of support that facilitates the wonderful interactions that take place under the roof of his restaurant. In addition, each episode ends with a nice yet brief lesson in cooking it’s featured dish, so you’ll always walk away with a new recipe to try at home. With all this in mind, Midnight Diner may seem like strange viewing at first, but like soup simmering in a pot, it pays handsomely if you give it time and patience.
Ambiance is also a silent yet riveting element in Midnight Diner. The Master’s eatery is low-key, yet it’s filled with a warm, welcoming air. Right away, you’ll notice a simple three-sided counter-top, a cuckoo clock, a scant yet earnest menu written on the wall and even an old CRTV that he never uses. Yet the greatest tool the show employs for this ambiance is the colorful cast of regulars that dine in and out for each episode. There’s the older guy who’s ALWAYS there with a cap on his head. There’s Ryu the gangster, played by Kodoku no Gurume’s Yutaka Matsushige. There’s the joyful transvestite with a mysterious past. There’s a duo of detectives who bicker about everything, plus a patrolman who we all know is the famous Jo Odagiri. There’s also many more, including the gossipy, ever-talkative Ochazuke sisters, who happen to be my personal favorites. It’s this ambiance and everyday banter from the cast that allows each episode’s new patron to be fleshed-out fully as individuals with a lifetime of tales.
Now these tales may seem a bit different to the rest of us here in the West, but I urge you to have an open mind. Midnight Diner is a slice-of-life show that does its best to ease you into the urban realities of a lonely Tokyo, but leaves it up to you to digest it. Some of the stories feature people running away from their past. Other stories present people who confront it. One episode features a patron who loves to knit sweaters for her crushes, only to find out that someone else may have one for her. We have tales about brothers lost and found, tales of Mahjong hustlers and even a very merry New Year’s episode. One stand-out episode features Korean actress Go Ah-sung as she navigates her romance with a quirky Physicist in the midst of intercultural disapproval from both parties’ families. Yet despite the ups and downs that we see throughout the show, the Master is always there to provide that dish and that moment where food intersects with life in silent appreciation.
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is a wonderful series where one man’s culinary quest gives life to the many that toil under the shadows of a neon-bright Tokyo. Though each dish the Master makes is simple in stature, its importance grows as each new character lays eyes on it. Every bite reveals something about someone, with the Master acting as the solitary man holding all the narrative threads together. Nevertheless, the show is not his alone. Like ships passing each other in a harbor, regulars come and go as they please, yet for whatever time they have left in the night, these individuals make it count with their banter, their eavesdropping, their eating and ultimately, their willingness to engage, to empathize and to care. It’s this sense of belonging, of community and of inclusion that makes this show such a delight. Midnight Diner is a soft-spoken reminder that for every story that we carry with us, there is a refuge, like a lantern in the darkness, for it to be shared under the warmth of companionship, the promise of fine food and the sincere presence of a true master.