July 17, 2020 § Leave a comment
“The Truth” (La Vérité) is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first movie made outside Japan, and except for a couple of Japanese visual touches (e.g., a lingering shot of leaves falling from a tree) it’s a genuine French film, and a lot more French than many recent films from France. It stars Catherine Deneuve as Fabienne, a haughty, extremely Deneuve-like movie star; Juliette Binoche as Lumir, her embittered screenwriter daughter; and Ethan Hawke as Lumir’s easygoing TV actor husband, Hank. The movie begins with the arrival of Lumir, Hank and their young daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) at Fabienne’s country house outside Paris. The reason for this uneasy trans-Atlantic reunion: the imminent publication of the Fabienne’s memoir, The Truth.
Family get-togethers are to Kore-eda what Westerns were to John Ford, and as in “Still Walking” parent-child wounds and misunderstandings propel the plot. Fabienne has been famous for so long that she treats everyone, including her current husband, as a robot whose only function is to smooth her way through life. A monster of narcissism, Fabienne defends her high-handed behavior as not only permissible but necessary. “I prefer to have been a bad mother, a bad friend and a good actress,” she declares to Lumir, as no one could possibly succeed in all three roles. “You may not forgive me, but the public does.” (Given her imperiousness, it’s hard to believe Fabienne can fathom what her public thinks, but this statement goes unchallenged.)
As for the memoir, we immediately learn that its title is risibly ironic. Far from telling the truth, Fabienne has concocted a liar’s fantasy in which she was a devoted, hands-on mother and actress who got her most famous part on merit. In fact, she was a mostly absent mother who stole the role from her best friend, Sarah, by sleeping with the director. Though Sarah, a mother figure to Lumir, killed herself after that coup, Fabienne never mentions her in the book. Also absent from The Truth is Fabienne’s longtime, long suffering manager, Luc. Lumir’s father, Pierre, fares even worse: though he unexpectedly turns up at Fabienne’s house and stays for dinner, according to the memoir he’s dead.
At the same time, Fabienne is acting in a sci-fi film called “Memories of My Mother” whose star, a young actress called Manon (Manon Clavel) bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Sarah. Manon’s character, struck by a fatal disease, goes into space to avoid dying, and consequently never ages. Every seven years, she returns to earth to visit her daughter, who ages normally and is played by progressively older actresses, including Fabienne. Beyond the strangeness of playing the child of a much younger woman, Fabienne is alternately threatened by and admiring of Manon, and treats her in similarly extreme ways.
Despite the film-within-a-film structure and its recollection of “All About Eve” and “Day For Night,” “The Truth” is essentially a mother-daughter grudge match, the kind that transcends culture and nationality. Generational family conflict is a familiar theme around the world, and Kore-eda’s script makes the most of it. He also makes the most of Deneuve, who seems to relish playing a deeply unflattering version of herself. “The Truth” is replete with echoes of her life, including a dress like one she wore in “Belle Du Jour.” An even more uncomfortable reference is Sarah, whose acting talent and shocking death recall Deneuve’s sister, Françoise Dorléac, who died tragically at 25. Perhaps for that reason Kore-eda gives Deneuve all the best lines, including, “Nowadays anybody can be an actor,” and “What matters most is personality, presence.” Sometimes it’s not even dialogue: when someone adds Brigitte Bardot to Fabienne’s litany of great French actresses whose names share the same first letter, she merely widens her eyes, shrugs and grunts.
While “The Truth” isn’t a great movie, its cast and director make it worthwhile. Particularly good is Ethan Hawke, who plays another of his charming Americans abroad with skill and grace. Hank is well aware of his flaws and shortcomings, yet he remains a good husband, father and—despite Fabienne’s attempts to insult and undermine him—son-in-law. Though he could easily have made the situation worse, Hank gracefully brings mother and daughter to an understanding. And as in “Boyhood” and “Juliet, Naked,” he’s wonderful with kids, adept at entertaining not just his on-screen daughter but an entire children’s table. The rapport between Hawke and Grenier is amazing to watch: while most child actors give purposeful, one-dimensional performances, Grenier’s is full of fleeting looks and gestures, and so natural that their father-daughter relationship looks real. Credit also goes to Kore-eda, whose skill at directing children made “Shoplifters” and “Nobody Knows” the masterpieces they are. In “The Truth” he works the same magic but in a foreign language, through an interpreter.
July 7, 2020 § Leave a comment
Although Netflix’s “Midnight Diner” tells universal stories of love, life, death and reversals of fortune, its setting–a tiny back alley eatery in the nightlife district of Shinjuku–is not only very Japanese but traditional to Tokyo. Both the restaurant and its customers have deep roots in the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), specifically the Genroku Period (1688-1703). This brief era marked the flowering of urban culture in the new capital of Edo, the hallmarks of which–restaurants, bars, and all manner of nightlife, licit and illicit–still thrive in Tokyo today.
Although Westerners date the origins of restaurants (those independent of inns) to post-revolutionary France, when chefs were suddenly freed from the kitchens of the aristocracy, in Japan restaurants began more than one hundred and seventy years earlier, after the Tokugawa Shogunate instituted the sytem of alternate attendance (sankin kotai) to prevent its feudal lords (daimyo) from overthrowing it. Because after 1615 daimyo were required to divide their time between their fiefs and Edo, leaving their wives and children in the capital as hostages, a vast economic system grew up to support not only their travels but their substantial, non-productive retinues in the capital. Not only restaurants but all kinds of commerce, including shipping, banking, department stores, theaters, fine arts and crafts, have their roots in Tokugawa Period Edo, which by 1700 was one of the largest cities in the world. As the merchant class grew and prospered, its money and desires created something new and original: nightlife.
Those familiar with the woodblock prints and paintings known as ukiyoe–the “Floating World”–have seen the denizens of Edo’s vibrant nighttime culture: the geisha (literally, “arts practitioners”), kabuki actors, singers, dancers, storytellers, wrestlers, merchants, prostitutes, masterless samurai and revelers who flocked to the entertainment district of Yoshiwara. All of these chonin (townspeople) were inhabitants of what the great Japan scholar G.B. Sansom calls “the world of fugitive pleasures.”
That world lives today in mizushobai, “the water trade”, the wonderful Japanese term that denotes all the nightlife businesses, from bars and restaurants to theaters and nightclubs, as well as the sex trade. In contemporary Tokyo, mizushobai is centered in the Kabuki-cho section of Shinjuku, where “Midnight Diner” is located. Viewers will notice that apart from the annoying Ochazuke Sisters, three loud and embittered single “office ladies” who inexplicably show up for dinner in the wee hours, almost none of the regulars have daytime jobs. They include a bar owner (the cross-dressing ex-actor Kosuzu), gangsters (Ryu and Gen), a stripper (Marilyn) and a jolly retiree (Chu) who is Marilyn’s biggest fan. Other customers include singers, actors, sex workers, local police and criminals, both petty and non-petty. All are served without judgement by Master, whose house rules are simple: no fighting, no arrests, and–for customers who order off the menu–the supplying of any ingredients he doesn’t have on hand.
There’s a memorable Christmas Eve* scene in this one of this season’s episodes, when the regulars, most in festive dress, sit glumly at the counter. “Here we are, a bunch of social misfits with nowhere else to go,” says one of the men, at which point he is pelted with chopsticks hurled by Marilyn and one of the Ochazuke sisters. As heirs to the great Tokyo nightlife tradition, all of them know better: their restaurant is a gem, not a consolation prize. Underscoring that point is a large crate of crab legs brought by the younger of the yakuza, Gen, to make up for trouble he caused earlier. Master grills the crab, everyone chows down, and the Genroku tradition of urban pleasure lives on.
The cultural origins of Tokyo might explain the failure of the Korean and Chinese adaptations of “Midnight Diner”. Although China and Korea have their own urban cultures they didn’t originate four hundred years ago, and lifelong night owls are a more recent phenomenon. In contrast, Shinjuku is home to a substantial population that barely sees the light of day. Like Master, who can be seen enjoying a solitary pre-work cigarette on his balcony as darkness falls, their world is nocturnal–and deeply historical.
*In Japan, Christmas Eve is celebrated the way New Year’s Eve is in western countries, with parties and without religion
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
February 26, 2020 § 2 Comments
Of the many heartfelt acceptance speeches by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, the most memorable was not made at the Academy Awards, where his film won four Oscars, but at the Golden Globes. Accepting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bong said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Who could argue with that? Well, President Trump, for starters, who recently ranted bizarrely about the injustice of “Parasite” winning the Academy Award for Best Picture at a rally. Beyond the fact that his predecessors never involved themselves in awards season, Trump clearly hadn’t seen “Parasite.” Why would he? The film is entirely in Korean, which means that he would have had to read subtitles for two hours and twelve minutes.
Ah, subtitles. From the time I was a child, I remember hearing that Americans—apart from intellectuals who worshipped French cinema and the films of Ingmar Bergman—would never willingly read them, thus dooming all foreign language films to art house theaters and meager receipts. I always found this hard to believe, but then I grew up in Japan, where every non-Japanese film was subtitled and audiences of all ages and backgrounds still flocked to see them.
Japanese is a difficult language to master, with complicated grammar and levels of formality, the highest and lowest of which sound quite different from standard speech. Korean is even more complex, but at least its writing system—Hangul—is a single alphabet. In contrast, written Japanese mixes kanji (Chinese characters) with hiragana and katakana, syllabaries that bridge the gaps between Chinese and Japanese, which are very different languages. Though homonymous, kana serve different functions: hiragana is used for Japanese words, while katakana is used for foreign and technical terms. In addition, Japanese subtitles use furigana—hiragana renderings of harder kanji that younger viewers might not know yet. So Japanese audiences, while at the same time following the onscreen action, appreciating the performances and listening to sound effects and music, have to read several lines of dialog at rapid speed. This is far more challenging than reading English subtitles on foreign films, yet no one objects.
After “Parasite” won its historic superfecta (Best International Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture), Morning Consult published this survey https://morningconsult.com/2020/02/04/for-u-s-audiences-foreign-cinemas-one-inch-wall-of-subtitles-seen-a-mile-high/?fbclid=IwAR0zLbIpwdtGd89O79M5mTSnlaV7CAK8xVk_UY-ZqaLc5A5w0Ow1nFfq8Ag
In addition to listing American viewers’ many reasons for disliking subtitles, it ranks non-English language movies as the least popular of all genres. Reason Number One: “It’s hard to read subtitles and follow the action of the movie.”
Because Japan and America have the same literacy rate—99%—the American aversion to subtitles is clearly a matter of custom, not ability. It’s understandable, since until recently the vast majority of films shown in the United States were, if not American-made, in English. Now, as international films garner greater recognition and popularity, American audiences are seeing and liking them more. And fans of Jong Boon Ho, whose films explore such universally compelling themes as economic inequality and environmental crisis, already seem to read subtitles without complaint.
October 13, 2019 § Leave a comment
The last movie I saw, Todd Phillips’s “Joker,” was inflated by many into a treatise on our winner-take-all economic system (though not by me). This week “Parasite,” the 2019 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, accomplishes that aim, and brilliantly. Unlike “Joker,” “Parasite” not a superhero backstory. It’s not even American. But the Korean director Joon-ho Bong, who co-wrote the script, has made a brilliant, universal black comedy that says everything about the cruelty of class inequality.
It starts with four-member Kim family, long on smarts but short on cash, barely surviving in a dank basement apartment in a poor neighborhood in Seoul. In spite of their work and academic credentials, all the Parks are unemployed until a stroke of luck lands the college-age son, Kim Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), a lucrative job tutoring the high-school age daughter of a rich tech executive named Park (Sun-kyung Lee). Soon Ki-Woo’s sister, Kim Ki-jung (So-dam Park), a talented graphic designer, is teaching art to the Park’s son, in the guise of her brother’s acquaintance. Realizing the pot of gold they’ve discovered in the naive, vacuous Park family, the Kim parents then get themselves hired as the family’s chauffeur and housekeeper, again as unrelated workers.The Kims’ brilliant plan proceeds without a hitch until the discovery of a disturbing secret in the bowels of the lavish modernist Park home. Then, just as quickly as it succeeded, their clever scheme unravels. In the film’s shockingly violent denouement, neither family escapes unharmed or unchanged. What emerges from the catastrophe is a stark truth: economic inequality is a disaster for rich and poor alike.
“Parasite” owes a debt not to incoherent movies like “Joker” but to last year’s Kore-eda film “Shoplifters.” Like the Shibatas, Kore-eda’s family of unrelated but caring grifters, the Kims are economic losers living at the margins of a rich, uncaring society. But unlike the Shibatas, the Kims are ruthless in their pursuit of money and position, and not above using violence to achieve their aims. In “Parasite” the Kims emerge bloodied but scrappy, while their victims the Parks are vanquished. This reversal of fortunes cries out for a sequel, and I hope Bong makes it.
February 21, 2019 § Leave a comment
This week marks the tenth anniversary of this blog, which I started to promote my third documentary feature film, Under the Hollywood Sign. At that point, UTHS was in post-production, and my editor Kate Johnson and I were shaping scores of interviews, around eighty hours of footage and hundreds of archival images into a cultural history of Beachwood Canyon.
Wanting to explore the film’s many topics in greater depth, I wrote about the Theosophists, film stars and oddball characters who populated the Canyon in the early 20th century. I described Beachwood’s natural beauty and wildlife, and the California holly that blooms in the hills each December. I detailed the creation of Hollywoodland, California’s oldest hillside planned community, from its granite walls, gates and stairs to its most famous features: the Hollywood Sign and Lake Hollywood.
After exhausting Beachwood Canyon’s history, I moved on to present-day matters. By then neighborhood was becoming a mecca for GPS-guided tourism, and between 2010 and 2015 the number of visitors in search of the Hollywood Sign surged. Crowds overwhelmed the narrow streets, eroded the trails and drove the wildlife back into Griffith Park. Hollywoodland’s narrow streets, tricky to navigate in the best conditions, became chaotic and frequently gridlocked. Until permit parking was instituted a couple of years ago, residents were frequently trapped in or out of their houses by vehicular and pedestrian traffic that also blocked emergency vehicles. Writing about these issues brought me a slew of hostile comments, the gist of which was our right to use your neighborhood for recreation trumps your right to live here. Long after I stopped writing about local issues, angry and even threatening letters continued to roll in.
These days I write mostly about film–not mine but other people’s. I also write about Japan, where I grew up and whose history and culture I’ve studied for most of my life. As for documentary filmmaking, I’ve stopped. I’ll explain why in my next post.
January 17, 2019 § 2 Comments
Longtime readers of Under the Hollywood Sign will remember my articles on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous films and the linguistic and cultural confusion they engendered. Some of the problems stemmed from a lack of understanding of Japanese culture by American critics, while others were caused by Kore-eda’s English subtitles.
An example of the latter occurs in “Nobody Knows,” where the criminally neglectful mother refers to herself in English subtitles as “Mother.” Although in Japan it’s standard to refer to oneself by familial title–mother, father, brother, sister–it isn’t in western languages. This led to one American critic using “chillingly” in describing the mother’s perfectly normal Japanese. Clearly, “Mother” should have been translated as “I.”
In light of this, I was relieved that “Shoplifters” has much better subtitles–at least until a key scene near the end. In it, Osamu Shibata, the head of a fictive family of societal throwaways says–according to the English subtitles–to Shota, the boy he has lovingly fathered, “From now on, I’m not your dad.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what he says in Japanese. As spoken by the actor Lily Franky, that pivotal line is: “So, I’ll go back to being your uncle.”
What difference does it make? For starters, what seems to be Shibata’s rejection of the boy he bestowed with his own first name (both Osama and Shibata being pseudonyms) is anything but. He desperately wants to remain a part of Shota’s life, as Kore-eda makes clear when Shibata subsequently runs after the bus Shota is riding. In fact, it is Shota who rejects Shibata by not looking back, though when he is out of sight the boy whispers, “Dad.”
At a reception before the recent Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium, I broached the translation with a member of Kore-eda’s production team. She told me that they had discussed the line but decided not to translate it literally because they assumed the word uncle would confuse non-Japanese viewers. “He’s not really his uncle,” she said, and was surprised when I told her that avuncular relationships among people unrelated by blood are common in America and Europe, too.
“Shoplifters” is a masterpiece, and highly deserving of the Palme d’Or it won last year at Cannes. But Kore-eda, who speaks no English, needs a subtitler who understands cultural nuance as well as Japanese and English. There’s so much more to languages than words.
January 13, 2019 § 2 Comments
Last weekend’s pre-Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium at the American Cinematheque, always an interesting event, was even more revealing than usual, thanks to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s comments about his film “Shoplifters.” Asked by moderator Mike Goodridge about how he created the film’s family from his ensemble of actors, Kore-eda, speaking through an interpreter, said “The first day of the film was the summer sequence….I watched them as they interacted on the beach…I was inspired by this short scene that we took and built the script from there through my imagination.”
That Kore-eda’s beautiful film–about an unrelated group of children and adults on the margins of society who to live as a loving family–could have been made without a pre-written script elicited enthusiastic applause. One certainly couldn’t tell, as “Shoplifters” has structure and coherence. But it also has looseness and spontaneity, particularly in the scenes with children.
It was Alfonso Cuarón, nominated for his own film with children, “Roma,” who drew Kore-eda further into a discussion of his technique. (I had seen the two directors beforehand in the wings speaking avidly, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when Cuarón shifted from nominee to interviewer.) About the scene in which the boy and girl run home through monsoon rains, nearly interrupting an intimate moment between their fictive parents, Kore-eda said that he thought of adults’ scene after filming the children running through the rain. He also revealed the secret of his child actors’ naturalistic performances: never having them read a word of the script. Instead, Kore-eda said, he explains each scene, then gives the children their dialogue, line by line. The result in “Shoplifters” is the gold standard for child actors: performances in which they don’t seem to be acting at all.
July 24, 2018 § Leave a comment
Few centenarians’ deaths come as a shock, but last Thursday’s announcement of Shinobu Hashimoto’s passing at 100 marked the end of an era. Hashimoto, whose blazing career with Akira Kurosawa began with “Rashomon” and continued through the decades with such classics as “Ikiru,” “Seven Samurai,” “Throne of Blood,” “The Bad Sleep Well,” and “Dodes’Ka-Den,” was a giant of cinema, and not just in Japan. His screenplays, whether written alone or in collaboration, have resonated throughout the world since 1950, their relevance unfaded by time and trends.
Though deservedly famous for the samurai films that brought fame to Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, his most important leading man, Hashimoto was equally renown for his contemporary films. Poverty, wartime devastation and existential dread were his themes, and he explored them with compassion and an unsparing eye for everyday cruelty. In “Ikiru,” my favorite film of all time (if I had to choose just one), Watanabe, the dying bureaucrat, not only finds life’s meaning in his remaining two months but does so in secret because his doctor has withheld his fatal diagnosis, as was the Japanese custom until recently. Watanabe’s only son treats him with disdain and his daughter-in-law regards him as a nuisance; neither will listen as he tries to break the news of his impending death. So Hashimoto, after granting the abstemious Watanabe a brief period of hedonism, sets him on a path to greatness: creating a park from an urban swampland, against almost insurmountable odds.
In “I Live in Fear,” Nakajima, a foundry owner, is so convinced of a coming nuclear war that he decides to move his family to the safe haven of Brazil. His family responds by having him declared incompetent. “Dodes’kad-den,” explores the daily lives of impoverished shantytown residents, including a boy who lives in a fantasy world in which he imagines himself a tram conductor.
Beyond his work with Kurosawa, Hashimoto wrote for other major directors of his time. His screenplays for “Summer Clouds” and “Whistle in My Heart” became two of Mikio Naruse’s best late-period films. “Harakiri,” for Masaki Kobayashi, is considered a masterpiece.
Still, it’s not necessary to have seen any of these films to know Hashimoto’s work well. “Seven Samurai” became “The Magnificent Seven;” “Ikiru” spawned “Breaking Bad;” “Hidden Fortress” inspired “Star Wars.” And even the least cinematically inclined are familiar with “Rashomon,” which has entered the English language as a word for conflicting yet true accounts. It’s hard to imagine life without these touchstones, all of which sprang from the pen of Shinobu Hashimoto, who survived World War II and tuberculosis to forge an unparalleled and unforgettable body of work.
February 3, 2017 § 7 Comments
One of the bright spots of the past couple of months has been my discovery of two new Japanese series on Netflix, both excellent. Both shows are based on books: “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories” (“Shinya Shukudou“) on a manga (graphic novel) series, and “Sparks” (“Hibana“) on a novel. Season One for both series is available on Netflix, and both will continue.
“Midnight Diner,” takes place in one of the countless small, owner-operated restaurants located on side streets throughout Tokyo. What distinguishes this one is its hours–midnight to 7am–and its owner, a handsome, stoic man known as Master (Kaoru Kobayashi). Master’s facial scar and bearing suggest a mysterious past as a sword fighter, though it is never discussed. In his current life, Master is a talented cook who runs a tight ship: only one item on the menu but endless possibilities, based on ingredients he is given or has at hand. And though diverse viewpoints are welcome in the diner, there’s no fighting allowed.
Each episode is named for a different dish, most of which evoke strong feelings of nostalgia for those who order them. In “Corn Dog,” an old, washed- up comedian continues to treat his former protégé, now a successful TV actor, as his lackey. In “Tan-Men” (a kind of ramen), an actress-turned-chauffeur meets a late night D.J., who later recognizes her as the superhero idol of his youth. “Ham Cutlet” follows a soon-to-be-retired lawyer and his long-lost stepbrother who is fighting eviction from a city-owned apartment building.
Though each episode features different people, a core group of regulars provide both color and continuity. They include bar hostesses, two men who dress as women and a group of ladies who are either insomniacs or office workers on the night shift. Though separated by gender, sexual orientation and income, all are loyal to Master, who observes the action and offers sage counsel.
There’s a beautiful melancholy to the series that is at once universal and very Japanese. Watching it, I felt as if Yasujiro Ozu, Edward Hopper and the writers of “Cheers” had gotten together to make “Midnight Diner;” it’s that good.
Less accessible but no less fascinating is “Sparks,” which follows a two sets of Manzai stand-up comedians as their careers rise and fall. Manzai, which originated during the Heian Period (8th-12th centuries) but is strongly identified with Osaka during the Meji Era, involves rapid-fire bantering between a straight man (tsukkomi) and a fool (boke).
When the series opens, the young boke protagonist, Tokunaga (Kento Hayashi), and his partner arrive in Atami, a seaside resort city, to perform at its summer festival. Though they bomb, Tokunaga strikes up a fateful friendship with Kamiya (Kazuki Namioka), the boke of an older, more skillful duo, and quickly becomes his protégé. As the series progresses, Tokunaga’s star rises while Kamiya’s falls, changing but not destroying their friendship, which (like those in “Midnight Diner”) is cemented over restaurant meals.
For Japanese speakers, “Sparks” offers a bonus: it’s a crash course in slang-laden, Kansai dialect, male Japanese. For everyone else, it’s a bromance that sheds light on an ancient but still vital Japanese comedy tradition. Although it took me a few episodes to get hooked on it, I’m looking forward to Season Two.