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