The Master's (Kaoru Kobayashi) food satisfies his patron's physical (and often emotional) needs.

‘Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories’ Offers Filling Comfort Food for the Viewer

Ten different Japanese dishes tell the story of ten different Japanese individuals finding love, battling personal demons, and searching for meaning between midnight and 7AM.

There’s something about watching food being prepared that calms the soul on a visceral level. The rich sizzle of garlic in a pan, the staccato chopping of root vegetables, the slicing and coaxing of pliable meat, it hooks us in our visual greed. Food provides the ultimate Pavlovian response. You know exactly how that garlic will smell as it spits and browns in olive oil, and how good it will be taste on pasta. Those carrots will be the exactly right amount of firm between too soft and too hard, cold and crisp and ready to crunch an alliterative melody of consummation. For the carnivores, who can resist that succulent duck oozing juice between the fatty layers of meat?

It’s no wonder all the buzz words we use to describe food have the almost indecently luscious consonants of “s” and “l” and “r”. Salivating, slavering, frothing, relishing; the way we look at food on-screen is akin to sex. Films such as Chocolat and the more recent Chef appeal to us, despite their lackluster storylines, because food is universal and food preparation is seduction for the senses. Perhaps that is why Netflix’s Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is such sweet respite. The stories themselves are often sad, the characters depressive, and the lessons learned almost suicidal, and yet each episode is comfort food.

Based on a best-selling manga and widely popular in its original home, Japan, Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories focuses on the Master (Kaoru Kobayashi) and his little restaurant. Open from midnight to seven in the morning, the diner caters to a small crowd of regulars who watch, Statler and Waldorf-like, to the comings and goings of the various individuals who make the diner their last stop before heading home. The Master is the all-knowing narrator who decides the menu, but he’ll also cook anything his patrons ask for, often food that speaks to their desires or disappointments. As he puts it, sometimes when the day is done and people hurry home, they don’t want to go immediately home. He’s there to fill in the element missing from these peoples’ lives.

Each episode focuses on a specific food and how it speaks to a specific character. In “Tan-Men”, a famous radio broadcaster jokes about his weight but can’t resist the broth of noodles, meat, and vegetables every night. At least until he meets a woman who forgoes the noodles, making the dish a hearty but healthy choice so late at night. He studies the woman and realizes she used to be the star of his favorite ninja show as a kid. He talks about it on his show and when he meets her again at the diner, she admits to it. Then she gently chides him for putting the spotlight on her without considering why a TV star would choose to be a cab driver now: unrequited love with a costar that struggled with his sexual identity. Despite the gravity of the situation, and without dwelling too much on the emotional trauma, the cab driver and the radio broadcaster bond over their mutual love of noodle soup without noodles and ninja programs. At the end of the episode, the original cast of the show reunites for a bowl of tan-men.

That’s the joy of Midnight Diner: the quick tips on each food at the end of the episode, a sweetly delivered, fourth-wall breaking, “good night”, to the viewers, and a happy ending. Don’t be fooled, though; there’s a lot of subtle commentary about Japan happening in each episode. From cultural issues like the love between a Korean girl and a Japanese man in the episode “Omelet Rice”, to the social expectations of unmarried women of a certain age in “Tonteki”, the show gently chides the norms of a country that’s rather strict in what it expects from its citizens.

Yet it’s not the show’s aim to be didactic or depressing. It’s up to us to derive our own meanings from the un-prepossessing plotlines that never veer away from showing us the bittersweet to the outright heart-breaking, although they all have the opportunity. In “Egg Tofu”, we get to know a gambler stuck with a child he doesn’t know what to do with, with as well as a hostess (a more genteel version of an escort) girl who puts all her hopes on the obviously bad-for-her guy. Her gentleman caller abandons her, and the kid is taken by foster services, and yet it’s all okay because they’ll always have egg tofu. The father pulls himself together enough to visit his kid, and the story ends with them happily bond over the game, mahjong, that took over the man’s life. We could derive from this that the pattern of self-destruction is continuing with this lost child picking up where his absentee father left off, but why dwell on that when it’s so warm and friendly in the diner?

The regulars don’t escape the stories the other patrons bring, and neither are they blind to the hardships the narrative sometimes sugarcoats. A former wealthy daughter from a rich neighborhood becomes a love motel cleaning lady in order to support her bum nephew. A diner regular, a rather filthy old man in a loving scoundrel way, recognizes her as his old schoolmate and at the pinnacle point of the story, yells at her for letting her nephew get away with everything (including robbing her life savings). The poor woman, who comes in for a “Hot Pot for One” (because it’s too much work to make a hot pot for herself), excuses her nephew’s increasingly bad behavior until he’s finally arrested. She gets custody of his son, and finally has someone to take care of, which is what she’s always wanted. The pair come in and order something else, because now she can make hot pot for two.

Every chapter follows this pattern: establishing a rather sad but endearing individual, and working the circumstances so that they find someone or something that fills the missing piece in their lives. An aging comedian fights with his protégée over corn dogs, while a demure, traditional, kimono-wearing wife of a businessman reestablishes her relationship with a porn star while sharing sautéed yams. In the former story, a career almost ends, while in the second, a marriage, yet fate works to keep the happy ending for both.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, there’s a lot of sex in the periphery of these episodes, which is both entertaining and a little uncomfortable. For example, the episode in which a grocer eats the last of his mother’s sour, pickled plums and comes to the diner to have the Master’s. It’s not the same, he sighs, depressed and thinking about his own death. He wants the Master to get rid of his porn collection if he dies, and that’s when his dead mother comes to haunt him in order for him to get rid of hers. It’s not really pornography — it’s Ukiyoe artwork that new brides receive to ward against evil and learn about what to expect on their wedding nights — but the graphic illustrations don’t lie.

The series ends with “New Year’s Eve Noodles Again”, putting the focus back on the faces we’ve seen commenting on the stories. There’s a cameo by a woman who’s never properly introduced, but whom we can presume is the Master’s own wife. They wash dishes together and she leaves after he declines visiting a shrine with her. Traditionally, shrines of the dead are visited on New Year’s Day, and without saying a word, it feels like the shrine in question belongs to the couple’s own child. The Master remains his stoic self, and while it wouldn’t be right to call it a happy ending, there’s nothing definably sad about it either.

Finding the joy and personal happiness through duty and expectation is what makes Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories both a cultural phenomenon and as easily palatable as those New Year’s soba noodles.

RATING 7 / 10
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