After binge-watching the wonderful but depression-inducing season 3 of Black Mirror, I was looking forward to something to balance out the high-tech and hopelessly dystopian show. While browsing through the Netflix India carousel, I stumbled upon Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. The visual of a what looked like a chef with a serious countenance and a scar across the left side of his face, and ‘Tokyo’ in the show’s name, was enough to make me start playing it.
This is a Japanese language show, with English subtitles. A quick Google search told me that it is based on Yaro Abe’s best-selling graphic novel Shinya Shokudo.
Midnight Diner opens with a drive-through around a busy lit up Tokyo night, presumably around the Shinjuku/Ginza neighbourhood, at a time when everyone is headed home after a hard day at work. Enter the narrator, Master (played to perfection by Kaoru Kobayashi), who introduces us to his diner while telling us that his day starts as others end theirs and hurry home. The diner is operational from midnight to seven in the morning, Master tells us, which has just four items on the menu. Pork Miso Soup Combo, Beer, Sake and Shochu. “But I make whatever customers request, as long as I have ingredients for it. That’s my policy,” concludes Master, as the wind-up clock strikes 12 and his work begins.
The show is an anthology of human interest stories which unravel inside the diner, named Meshiya. Unlike the sophisticated restaurants one comes across in Tokyo, this diner is quite a cosy one where you can have a conversation with the chef, as he is cooking your meal. If you have dined at any one of the Yakitori alleys in Tokyo, you will know what I am talking about. For those who haven’t, it is a family-run establishment where the table is arranged in such a manner that it surrounds the chef. Where the menu is fixed and food is served hot and fresh in front of you, with drinks such as beers and sake to wash it down.
Each episode is a different story. The protagonists keep rotating with the stories. But there is a steady cast who make cameo appearances in most episodes. Like that old gentleman in a cap with a heart-warming smile, who seemed like an old version Dustin (from Stranger Things). While this supporting cast doesn’t add a lot to the story, it definitely adds a quirky embellishment to the show, taking the narrative forward. Just like a Japanese dish where you may have some decorative items, which you may not necessarily eat, but which elevate the appeal of the dish nonetheless.
Do not watch this show on an empty stomach though, as there is some mouth-wateringly simple Japanese cuisine doing the rounds of each episode. At the end of the show, you also get a brief glimpse into how it’s made. Food is definitely a character in this show. After all, every episode is named after a food item, which is generally a favourite of the protagonists.
The thing that endears one to the stories is their simplicity. In an age where TV shows are made with hooks towards the episode climaxes, in a way that you want to binge watch an entire season in one night, Midnight Diner takes things slow. You are told a complete story in under 30 minutes and as a parting gift, the protagonists break the fourth screen and wave Sayonara while the credits are rolling.
Just like the fare served by Master, which is simple but full of flavour, presented in quite an artistic way for such a small establishment, the stories which appear straightforward at first glance have many layers to them.
Here is a gist of some of the memorable stories: A radio announcer realises that the lady-diner, towards whom he is passing a snarky comment, has a connection with his childhood; A lady is obsessed with knitting sweaters for a yet-to-be-boyfriend; A Japanese scientist falls in love with a Korean hostess, only to find out that cultural differences will rear their ugly head; One patron’s formerly wealthy crush is doing menial jobs to support her drunk, wayward nephew; An old shopkeeper is worried about people discovering his porn stash after his death; A trophy wife recognises a porn star with whom she starred in her first and only film, a fact unknown to her husband.
They touch upon many themes such as unrequited love, honour, friendship, pride, melancholia, guilt, among others. All of that is ensconced within a typically Japanese societal setup. This is far removed from the otherwise popular representations of Japan that streams into our media — vending machines, manga, weird advertisements (PPAP?), technology, raw fish based food, etc.
All the stories begin inside the diner, with protagonists opening up to Master, as he serves their favourite meals. Master also fills in as a narrator, giving the background of a lot of characters, taking the story forward. And while the aim of Master is just to serve food, he does end up resolving the conflicts which the protagonists are duelling with. We never come to know Master’s story though. That scar-marked face definitely looks like it hides some very interesting past. Some Yakuza connection? Who knows.
Midnight Diner showcases a lot of elements which are typical to a Japanese society. If you are not a Japanophile like me, it will take you some time getting used to it. But it is a lovely peek into many not-so-popular aspects of the Japanese culture, regardless. It certainly brought back a lot of memories from a week I had spent in Tokyo, where every hour I was exposed to something new.
Characters such as the Salarymen in their suits, Harajuku fashionistas (played here by aging characters), beautiful women working at hostess bars, Kimono-clad women in wooden clogs, are very different from ones you will come across on American, British or Indian shows. Even simple details such as beer being had from a small glass, saying Itedakimasu while slightly bowing with hands pressed together before eating your food, using chopsticks to cook the food, the sliding wooden door of the diner, the Japanese chochin lantern outside the diner — all contribute to creating an atmosphere, which is typical to these establishments. Typical to Tokyo. Typical to Japan.
I particularly loved the way food is represented. It is as if the food is a metaphor for the story being told. Initially, apart from salivating at the food I didn’t give it much thought. But I realised that as the story was progressing, I could easily draw some parallels with the food. Close up shots of food being cooked will certainly make you hungry. It is as good as watching a cooking show, without Nigella Lawson. Most of the dishes (which are episode names as well) such as Corn Dog, Ham Cutlet, Omlette Rice, Sauteed Yam seem surprisingly easy to make. Maybe I’ll try the ham cutlets and corn dogs one of these days!
Watch Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories for the really well-told tales. Watch it for the strong character-driven performances. Watch it to learn how food can become a character within a TV drama. Watch it to get a glimpse into Japanese society.
But most of all, watch it, to expose yourself to TV content outside of the popular American and British fare that you are used to. It is quite refreshing.
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is airing on Netflix India