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

A Tale of Two Rivers

March 27, 2018 § 2 Comments

The Los Angeles River alongside Warner Bros Studios in Burbank, Jan 2017/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

The Meguro River’s Cherry Blossom Festival, March 2013

Last week’s rains transformed the narrow channel that confines the LA River into something that actually looked like a river, albeit an ugly one hemmed in by high concrete walls. Staring at it from the windows of my gym, a fellow member said, “I keep expecting to see a body going by.” We’d already seen tree branches and plastic bottles in the fast-moving water, so anything seemed plausible.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, and throughout my years here I’ve been hearing about plans to restore the LA River into a more natural body of water. To date, one can only access the river in small sections: at the Sepulveda Basin and the Glendale Narrows near Dodger Stadium, and in Frogtown. Burbank is another area slated for restoration, but so far it hasn’t happened.

The main problem with the LA River is that it’s not really a river. It’s an arroyo, running dry in the summer and dramatically coming to life in the rainy season. (Los Angeles is unique among the world’s major cities in lacking a navigable river or deep water harbor; only Brasilia, with its artificial lake, compares, but it’s a master-planned city founded in 1960.) Before the LA River was channelled it regularly flooded, causing fatalities and property losses. After the devastating flood of 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers concreted it almost completely, putting an end to flooding but creating a massive eyesore.

Given our desert climate, Los Angeles will never have an unchanneled river. But even channeled rivers can be beautified and improved. I grew up in western Tokyo, on a hill above Meguro River, which in those days was less a river than a dank urban waterway filled with garbage. Whenever our car crossed its bridge, an ominous thunk made me imagine the horror of falling in. Then, around the time my family left Japan in the 70’s, the river was cleaned up by the city. Cherry trees were planted along the banks and walking paths were built on both sides. As the trees grew, new apartment houses sprang up on both sides of the river. The neighborhood became chic.

I had all but forgotten about the Meguro River’s existence, so I never saw its transformation. Then in March of 2013, I arrived in Tokyo and was told by a friend to hurry and see the cherry trees there. An unexpected hot spell had forced an early bloom that year, and the trees alongside the river were already past their prime. It was also raining that day, but no matter: the experience was magical. Festive lanterns lined the riverbanks, and the fencing was low enough to allow picture-taking. The pathways were carpeted in petals, and as I walked blossoms fell with the rain. Though the Meguro River was still channeled, the sweeping branches of the cherry trees detracted from the concrete, giving it a more natural appearance. Why can’t the LA River be like this?, I wondered. I still do.

A Walking Path Along the Meguro River, Tokyo

Paper Houses: On Writing About Japanese Architecture

August 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Teahouse and Garden of the Nezu Museum/Hope Anderson Productions

The Teahouse and Garden of the Nezu Museum/Hope Anderson Productions

Inside Kengo Kuma's Nezu Museum in Tokyo/Hope Anderson Productions

Inside Kengo Kuma’s Nezu Museum in Tokyo/Hope Anderson Productions

Although I started Under the Hollywood Sign to write about film, both the ones I’ve made and those I admire, from time to time I’ve written about architecture, particularly that of Los Angeles as seen in “Blade Runner,” “500 Days of Summer” and “Mad Men.” Recently I finished a novel whose protagonists are both architects. And this month I’ve been writing about Japanese architecture for the online design magazine HOUZZ (www.houzz.com).

Although I have no formal training in architecture, I’ve been studying it my entire adult life. I also had the good fortune to grow up in an architecturally significant mid-century house in Tokyo. Designed by the French-Czech architect Antonin Raymond, the house was a hybrid, a mostly western-style house that contained such Japanese features as a genkan (step-up entryway) a tokonoma (display alcove) and tsuboniwa (courtyard gardens). It was the only house I knew and I loved every inch of it, but it didn’t belong to my family. After we left Japan, it was torn down and replaced by an apartment building, which was later torn down and replaced by a much larger apartment building that obliterated what remained of the garden. Today the only reminder of my childhood home is its driveway. Yet the house lives on in my mind, indelible though it was demolished forty years ago.

During our years in Tokyo, my family made biannual visits to the United States. Each time someone would ask me, “Do you live in a paper house?” No matter how strenuously I said no, that person would insist, “we learned it in school–Japanese houses are made of wood and paper.” Somehow shoji, the wood and paper room dividers of traditional Japanese houses, were interpreted as structural materials to generations of American children.

While it’s been a long time since anyone has asked me whether I lived in a paper house, today I’m constantly confronted by “zen.” Used in English to describe anything even vaguely Japanese or minimalist, the term is as wrong as it is ubiquitous. Zen is an esoteric sect of Buddhism, and its use beyond specific temples and gardens is as discordant as “Jewish” and “Christian” would be if they were used to describe architecture and interior design.

Of course I realize the odds against my stopping the misuse of Zen. But in writing about real Japanese architecture–as opposed to “japanese-y” architecture–I can at least try.

Links to my first two articles for HOUZZ:

Other writing on architecture:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/BLADE-RUNNER–FOUR-ESSAYS?keyword=BLADE+RUNNER%3A+FOUR+ESSAYS&store=ebook
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/07/27/500-days-of-summer-and-its-real-star-downtown-los-angeles/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/the-jet-set-house-frank-sinatras-glass-hideaway-in-chatsworth/https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/07/06/marie-russak-hotchenor-and-moorcrest-the-theosophist-opera-singer-and-her-architectural-fantasia/

Apples and Oranges: The Pointlessness of Comparing Los Angeles to New York, and the Comparison That Fits

March 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

New York City/Courtesy favim.com

The Los Angeles Basin/Courtesy skykeepers.org

A few weeks ago I was waiting in line at the register of a store on Larchmont when I overheard the following from a visiting New Yorker. “I really love LA,” said the woman to an employee, “but I couldn’t live here. It’s so suburban–I mean, I’ve been in my car all day!”

Once again I was forced to wonder why so many New Yorkers equate driving with suburban living. After all, cities everywhere, New York included, are full of cars driven by their residents. In fact, I know some New Yorkers–Manhattanites, no less–who not only have cars but drive them daily, which they don’t find suburban in the least. Perhaps because the woman from New York was a walking, talking cliché, dressed in the kind of outfit–shorts, sandals and tank top–no Angeleno her age would wear off the beach, let alone in February, she made me wonder isn’t it about time these comparisons stopped?

It doesn’t take more than a glance to see that New York is an older, vertical, European-style city, sited on a navigable river and a deep water harbor, and that Los Angeles is a younger*, horizontal, sprawling metropolis that–alone among the world’s great cities–lacks a navigable river. It does have a harbor, albeit one that was created less than a century ago and located some thirty miles south of downtown, in another city. But the most important difference between the two cities is that Los Angeles isn’t European at all, despite once having been the westernmost outpost of the Spanish Empire. In the modern era, its appearance has been influenced more by the American Midwest and Asia than by Europe, and in all aspects of its culture, Los Angeles has looked away from Europe. In short, there are so many more differences than similarities between New York and Los Angeles that to compare them at all seems an exercise in futility.

But there is a city that shares many of Los Angeles’s characteristics–Tokyo. Both cities sprawl across vast plains, incorporating not only former farmland but substantial former towns. Both have historic centers but also multiple newer downtowns–urban hubs that could serve as the centers for sizable cities. Just as greater Los Angeles boasts commercial districts in Pasadena, Hollywood, Mid-Wilshire, Westwood, Long Beach and Santa Monica, Tokyo has such hubs as Shinjuku, Ueno, Shibuya, Roppongi and Shinagawa.

Metropolitan Tokyo from Mt. Tsukuba/Courtesy mytoyota.jp

Another similarity is their relative inaccessibility to visitors. Tourists can visit such well-trod attractions as Omotesando and Rodeo Drive, but the best of Tokyo and Los Angeles remains tucked away from major thoroughfares, out of visitors’ sight. Both cities save their charm for natives, revealing their secrets so gradually that even longtime residents are forever discovering something new. Just as I found the route to Lake Hollywood only after a decade of living in Hancock Park, each visit to Tokyo–where I lived from one to thirteen–brings a new revelation. Once I toured a walled garden in a monks’ residence near Sensoji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple (est. 645). Though thousands of Tokyoites and tourists visit the temple and surrounding neighborhood daily, the garden was unmarked and hidden from view; if not for a Japanese friend, I never would have known it was there.

As many features as Los Angeles and Tokyo share, however, there is one aspect in which they differ hugely. For the past four hundred years, no one in Japan has thought Tokyo wasn’t the most important place in Japan and the capital of everything; whereas Los Angeles so often has been the Rodney Dangerfield of major cities, disparaged by residents and non-residents alike. But that attitude is changing, and it’s about time.

*Nevertheless, it isn’t quite the young city portrayed by Anglo-centrics who conveniently ignore both its millennia of Native American settlement and its decades (1781-1848) under Spanish Colonial and Mexican rule.

Next time: how the events of the past two decades have transformed the civic mood.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/no-more-la-la-land-part-i-changing-references-to-los-angeles-in-the-new-york-times/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/no-more-la-la-land-part-ii-how-los-angeles-became-the-center-of-the-art-world/

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