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