June 30, 2020 § 1 Comment
This post contains plot spoilers
Readers of this blog might recall my previous piece about “Midnight Diner,” Netflix Japan’s show about a tiny backstreet eatery, its mysterious chef/proprietor and the colorful night owls who make up its clientele. https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2017/02/03/midnight-diner-and-sparks-two-compelling-netflix-shows-from-japan/ Over the past three years, the series has found a devoted fanbase of not only cooks and Japanophiles, but afficionados of the moving and universal tales of love, loss and missed connections, bound by the dish highlighted in each episode. the latest installments of “Midnight Diner” are labeled Seasons 1-3, it’s the same show as before, plus or minus some characters. The earlier two seasons, called “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories”, are still on Netflix and provide a good introduction to the major characters. This time around, the proprietor, “Master” (Kaoru Kobayashi) offers his customers less advice but sticks to his old policy: a single unchanging menu item (pork noodle soup), plus whatever he is asked to make from ingredients at hand or ones that his customers bring him. As in earlier seasons, these dishes, like Proust’s madeleine, evoke the lost world of the characters’ past. They also provide tantilizing clues to the geographic origins of the customers who order them.
In Episode 5, a portly restaurant critic and food snob orders butter rice, a dish that immediately identifies him as a native of Hokkaido, Japan’s dairy belt. As it happens, the diner has another affixiando of this unusual (and, to most Japanese, off-putting) dish: an impoverished busking guitarist who sings of his lost love in Hakodate, Hokkaido’s second-largest city. Improbably, the two men are acquainted: the busker was the high school boyfriend of the restaurant critic’s sister, and the critic sets out to reunite the long lost lovers.
Another geographic clue pops up in Episode 8, with the appearance of Rinko (played by You, baby-voiced, one-named actress best known for her role in Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows”) a former teen idol who always orders her favorite childhood dish: yakisoba (fried noodles) topped with a fried egg. When a homeless man returns Master’s lost wallet and refuses a reward, Master offers him a free meal instead. The man sees Rinko interviewed on the diner’s TV. When Master tells him she’s a regular who always orders yakisoba with egg, the man tells him to sprinkle green nori from the Shimanto River on it. “You won’t believe it’s the same dish,” he says. Master obliges and buys the nori, then adds it to Rinko’s yakisoba the next time she comes in. At that point, the mystery unravels: the homeless man is Rinko’s long-lost father, who abandoned her as a child. But before he left, he was a devoted father who cooked his daughter’s favorite dish, always making sure to sprinkle Shimanto nori on top.
Although there’s no happy reunion between Rinko and her father, Master is able to convey the homeless man’s love for his daughter through a regional food. Intrigued, I did some research on the green nori that elevated Rinko’s yakisoba. Although I grew up in Tokyo, I had never heard of the Shimanto River, which is located in southern Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands. Nor did I know that nori, usually translated as seaweed, is also found in fresh water. I was fascinated to learn that the Shimanto is not only Shikoku’s largest river but the last pristine river in Japan. Unspoilt by channels or dams, it is famous both for its natural beauty and its 22 footbridges that, lacking sides, allow flood waters to pass over them.
Regional details such these illustrate Tokyo’s role as Japan’s great melting pot, a megacity of dreamers and strivers who sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. As several of the new episodes illustrate, both the successes and failures of “Midnight Diner” find themselves unable or unwilling to return to their hometowns and families. Adrift in the nighttime world of Shinjuku’s entertainment district, they are pulled back in time through food: the childhood dishes that Master, a fine cook in a humble establishment, recreates for them.
Next time: Mizushobai: The Origins of Tokyo’s Vibrant Nightlife
June 22, 2020 § Leave a comment
After George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, large-scale protests began in Hollywood, the Fairfax district and downtown Los Angeles. These were met by a heavy police presence that failed to prevent looting and burning, and by May 30 Los Angeles was locked down by curfews that continued until June 4. The screenshots above, from the June 1 protest on Sunset Blvd. between Vine and Gower Streets in Hollywood, show large formations of police in riot gear advancing on protesters. Because all of this took place only a couple of miles from my house, watching it on TV was frightening and surreal. It was also gut-wrenchingly familiar.
Because I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over thirty years, memories of of the LA Riots came rushing back. But this time felt different, because it was different: in contrast to 1992, the outrage was national, and even international. And the fact that this year’s protests and property damage were spread across Los Angeles County made it impossible for people in places like Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles to ignore them and their cause: police brutality against people of color.
In 1992 I lived in a different neighborhood: Hancock Park, a wealthy HPOZ with a high crime rate and an atavistic Frederick Law Olmstead plan: sweeping front lawns with no front fences or gates allowed except on Rossmore Avenue, a major thoroughfare. Even in the best of times Hancock Park is surrounded by gang territory, and its location–flat, centrally located and well-served by public transportation–is a magnet. Hancock Park also lies on the borders of Koreatown, which in April of 1992 erupted over the unpunished murder of the teenaged Latasha Harlins by a Korean liquor store owner. Korean-American stores were looted, fires broke out, and for days my young son and I listened to gunfire and smelled acrid smoke. Aside from the fear and uncertainty, what I remember most vividly are the phone calls from Westside friends lamenting our “dangerous” neighborhood and inviting us to shelter in their “safe” ones. Because this us-against-them sentiment was widespread and the physical damage from the Riots was not, Los Angeles soon returned to business as usual.
This time, as the plywood comes off the buildings and the protests wane, Los Angeles has another chance to change. Mayor Garcetti’s decision to divert $150 million for the LAPD’s budget and redirect the money toward housing, health care and gang intervention is a step that should have been taken in 1992, when reforms consisted of weeding out the most egregiously violent cops and hoping the younger ones didn’t follow in their head-cracking footsteps. If, going forward, mental health and homeless problems are handled by social workers, police officers will be able to fight crime instead of tackling crises they weren’t trained for, with sometimes fatal outcomes. At any rate, that’s the idea. As a citizen whose encounters with LAPD have been met with indifference at best, and who has never had a crime against her pursued despite pleas and ample evidence (fingerprints, video footage, license plates, and positive identification), I welcome any signs of progress.