Food is a well-established sub-genre in the field of manga publishing. Indeed, the range of food-related manga is quite stunning. Some examples: Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki’s Oishinbo series, whose original run in Japan spanned more than two decades, was premised on two newspapers (staffed by a rival father and son) competing in food coverage with each other; the competing newspaper trope has since been widely replicated. Gido Amagakure’s Sweetness & Lightning series features a widower learning to cook now that he must raise his daughter on his own; premise for plenty of family-friendly sappiness. Fumi Yoshinaga’s What Did You Eat Yesterday? series adds a queer twist to the genre; two gay male professionals, who must selectively hide their relationship from co-workers, experience the fraught drama of being a gay couple in a still largely heteronormative country, but cook extravagant meals for each other in the evening. Shin and Yuko Kibayashi’s Drops of God series zeroes in on wine, as the estranged beer company salesman son of a famed wine connoisseur must solve an elaborate wine-themed mystery bequeathed to him by his father (and reconcile their competing alcoholic passions in the process; the series has won prestigious awards in France and is credited with actually impacting the Japanese wine industry). Other series, like Yoshitsugu Katagiri’s series Red Hot Chili Samurai (yes, the adventures of a pepper-loving samurai) take a more light-hearted approach to the genre. Suffice it to say, the plot range of food manga is as expansive as its culinary repertoire. Most of these series also offer pages full of recipes for featured dishes as a bonus.
In fact, the food manga sub-genre is almost overdone. The novelty wore off years ago and much of the work appearing these days is derivative. They may still be profitable, but it takes more than a manga about food to impress the critics these days.
Not so with live-action manga adaptations, however, particularly when it comes to the North American market. That genre is still young in America and its pioneers have set a standard that’ll be hard for others to follow (although it looks like this is one genre that’s about to explode, for better or worse — Chef’s Table, Midnight Diner, Samurai Gourmet are other recent Japanese-themed Netflix series that riff off the food and/or manga theme). Either way, the Netflix adaptation of Hiroshi Motomiya’s manga Kantaro: The Sweet-Toothed Salaryman is a remarkable, quirky, superbly-acted live-action manga adaption of the comic.
Netflix is so ahead of the game on this one that the manga version of Kantaro hasn’t even been published in print in English translation (yet).
The premise of the show is simple: Kantaro Ametani, a young Japanese man who’s addicted to sweets and keeps a pseudonymous food blog in his spare time, takes a job as a sales rep with a publishing firm in Tokyo. Some people choose careers based on a desire for profit, prestige, or professional pride; Kantaro chose the job he thought most likely to offer him spare time to eat sweets. As he roams the myriad neighbourhoods of Tokyo, on assignment to visit bookstores and promote his company’s products, he races through sales visits and organizes routes in such a way as to have enough spare time to visit each neighbourhood’s premiere dessert shops and cafes. Of course, he keeps his ‘playing hooky’ a secret from boss and co-workers. One co-worker—a prospective romantic interest—suspects him, but he always manages to narrowly throw her off his trail when she comes close to exposing him.
Matsuya Onoe (screengrab / Netflix trailer)
Episodes follow a similar pattern: Kantaro plans a dessert mission; something threatens his ability to carry it out, but in the end, he overcomes the challenge and gets his sweets. The comic drama is only the partial focus of each episode, however — his sweet reward is just as important. The desserts and shops he visits in Tokyo are real, and each episode concentrates on a specific type of dessert (eclairs, caramel pudding, hotcakes), offering detailed information on the dessert and gorgeous videography of the sweet and its production. As he consumes the item, there follows a truly manga-esque montage of the absurd, as he enters a dream-like, orgasmic euphoria and experiences heavenly fantasies induced by the dessert (picture your workplace suddenly floating in the clouds, and then turning into a baseball game, with everyone’s heads replaced by desserts). It would be the equivalent of Monty Python’s more absurd animated trips if Monty Python had had access to modern graphics and a Japanese sense of humour.
For all its quirkiness, the series is brilliant, and three factors contribute to its success.
First and foremost, Matsuya Onoe, who plays Kantaro, is a brilliant actor. His background training is as a Kabuki stage actor—that traditional Japanese form of theatre which relies so heavily on facial expressions and deliberate, stylised gestures. These he deploys to full effect, achieving a real-life interpretation of manga far superior to most manga live-action translations. An accomplished star on the stage, his range of facial expressions is truly impressive, from the subtlest twitch of the cheek or nose to the full-blown rolling of his eyes. He’s mesmerizing to watch and is perfectly on-cue in every episode. His generally restrained manner in the office—a typical strait-laced Japanese salaryman—contrasts beautifully with the sugar-trips of euphoria he enacts as he eats his treasured sweets; he knows how to work his audience between the contrasts of his style. There’s a wry, sardonic sense of humour in his manner that’s shared by many of his colleagues, and this too contrasts nicely with the occasional slapstick journeys of fancy. The sugar-fueled fantasy sequences are deliberately ridiculous and over-the-top, complete with orchestral crescendos and echo-chamber voiceovers, but they achieve that level of over-the-top humour that eludes so many North American shows. While all the characters in the series are superb, it’s Kantaro who defines it, and he achieves a remarkable mastery over the material. His boss Toru Miyake, played by Sarutoki Minagawa, also deserves credit; the brusque bullying boss comes to life as though he emerged directly out of the pages of a manga, alternating masterfully between gangster-like meanie and innocent, angelic baby.
The second factor, which succeeds equally well in holding the viewer’s attention, is the videography, particularly the prolonged focus on foods. This component of each episode, usually narrated by Kantaro, offers the history and explanation of a particular dessert (or shop). It’s accompanied by segments illustrating the ingredients or production of the item: long, gorgeously-shot sequences of sweet beans cascading into a jar; of luscious cream being stirred in a bowl; of buttery pastries billowing into shape; of syrup flowing over piping hot pancakes. These segments are almost documentary in nature while retaining the humorously over-the-top edge. The videography is superb; it’s a foodie’s dream. The glimpses offered into different neighbourhoods and districts of Tokyo are also a bonus and certain to ignite the wanderlust of viewers.
Finally, the series is remarkably well scripted and directed. Every moment is tightly wrought; the aura of quirkiness which imbues the show is ably conveyed by all the actors. Even background comments and secondary or tertiary actors sustain the high quality of humour. There’s nothing awkward or out of place here; the flow and pacing of the series is excellent.
Matsuya Onoe (screengrab / Netflix trailer)
Culturally, the show is important too. Its tongue-in-cheek style rails against the neoliberal, hard-working ethic of the stereotypic Japanese salaryman. Kantaro plays hooky; not only that, but he’s a superior salesman, too. The implication is clear: having control over his working conditions and being able to set his own goals and schedules allows him to achieve greatness, even though it involves him playing hooky from work. There’s a subtle working-class resistance to neoliberal workplace norms going on, and it’s playfully presented throughout the series. It’s okay to pip off from work and indulge in dessert-cafés while the employer’s clock is ticking.
Moreover, all the characters engage in some level of anti-work on a regular basis. One employee practices his baseball swing while pretending to be on sales visits; another sneaks off to go to the gym. During business meetings, employees appear as though they’re raptly focused on relevant work on their laptops; in reality, they’re surfing their favourite blogs. They do the same at their desks; when the boss appears, they deftly angle their laptops out of his range of vision. The series is over-the-top, yes; but it’s also highly realistic in its depiction of daily workplace resistance. Despite their avowed dedication to the job and their apparent conformity to workplace norms, in reality, each employee is focused on their own passions and interests and uses every opportunity to pursue them during the workday. They’re unapologetic about it, either; while aware they must hide it, they also accept it as their just due to be able to manipulate their work in order to pursue their personal passions.
But more than anything, Kantaro is simply the most fun a foodie can have and will appeal to a much broader audience as well. It’s quirky, hilarious, superbly acted, and full of the most delectable desserts. The episodes are subtitled; it’s good to see Netflix exposing North American audiences to brilliant non-English shows without stooping to the awful tactics of their cable television predecessors, of butchering shows in an effort to ‘Americanize’ them. Kantaro is quite simply brilliant, and even North Americans are mature and cultured enough to delight in the genius of a show grounded in a foreign setting and language. Will there be more seasons, and will the team be able to sustain the high quality of acting, scripting and directing that distinguishes Season One? To quote the iconic Kantaro: “Only sweet heaven knows!”