The Return of Netflix’s “Midnight Diner”: Food, Memory and Geography

June 30, 2020 § 1 Comment

Kaoru Kobayashi in “Midnight Diner”

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.

related post: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/lost-in-translation-american-movie-critics-on-japanese-films/

Next time: Mizushobai: The Origins of Tokyo’s Vibrant Nightlife

“Midnight Diner” and “Sparks;” Two Compelling Netflix Shows from Japan

February 3, 2017 § 7 Comments

Kaoru Kobayashi in "Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories"

Kaoru Kobayashi in “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories”

Kazuki Namioka and Kento Hayashi in "Sparks"

Kazuki Namioka and Kento Hayashi in “Sparks”

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.

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