Midnight Diner

Midnight Diner

The first time I ever had an inkling that I might want to live in Japan was while watching Juzo Itami’s 1984 film “Tampopo.”  For those that do not know the film, Tampopo is both an homage to and parody of American Westerns; the location is Tokyo, the “damsel in distress” is a widowed ramen shop owner.  Itami, playing off the name of the Italian produced westerns of the 60s and 70s, called it a “Noodle Western.”  The plot is simple and classic — a stranger arrives in town, rescues the ramen shop owner and proceeds to mentor her (along with a variety of characters) in ramen expertise.  Alongside, this straight forward narrative, Itami weaves a number of food-related vignettes with totally unrelated characters.  This includes a gourmand gangster (who in a previous scene had employed a live prawn and egg yolk as erotic devices), that, in his dying moments, uses his final words to describe, to his moll, a particular sausage of wild boar intestines. His last words are “I would have loved to eat them with you.” True romance.  It is a hilarious film —  explicit about the relationship of food to sex — and made me leave the theater alternately horny and hungry.

Before seeing Tampopo, my experience with Japanese food was extremely limited: a few California roles, some beef thing wrapped around scallions and a knowledge that I did not like the “Terriyaki” sauce a friend’s mom served with a chicken dish. After seeing Tampopo, I gained an insight into a food culture that seemed eerily reminiscent of my own family’s obsessions: Food as a prism through which everything else was filtered.

The role of food in Japan’s popular culture is impossible to downplay.  There are hundreds of Manga (Japanese long-form comic books) that come out each year featuring sushi-making superheroes, lone-wolf diners, super-charged natto and more.  A large number of these Manga have been turned into Anime programs, TV shows and movies — the most popular of which is Kodokuno-Gurume which translates to “Solo Diner.”  The show basically follows the hero, Goro-San, as he eats in a different restaurant during each episode.  The restaurants are all real and the camera work fixates upon his delight while eating everything from fried chicken to Matsu Nabe (offal hot pot).  Most of the program’s dialogue is Goro-San’s interior monologue describing the deliciousness of what he is eating.  Even the most banal celebrity-led talk shows (of which there are many!) will touch on food, be it a group of young, male idol singers cooking their favorite dishes or a gaggle of comedians visiting a much-loved bakery.  Click on the news shows in the morning and there is a high probability of a man-on-the-street interview regarding some food trend or another.  And then there are the actual food-travel-cooking programs.  In Japan, professional eaters — women and men who can knock of 200 bowls of soba in a sitting — are household names.

The reason I bring this up is to share my love for the Japanese program “Midnight Diner” which is now available on Netflix.  The show revolves around the customers and chef/owner of an all night diner in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo.  Each episode is titled after a specific dish and finishes with a little explanation of how to prepare it.  These dishes act as both a framing device for the plot and a metaphor for the issues that arise.  One episode entitled “Plum Rice Ball” concerns the relationship between one of the restaurant’s regulars (a stripper named Marilyn) and her old high school teacher, now suffering from dementia.  The rice ball in question was a treat that the teacher and Marilyn shared during her high school days where she was ostracized by her classmates.  In the space of thirty minutes or so, the dish becomes a metaphor for small kindnesses, the vagaries of age and the healing of old wounds.  Some episodes might be a bit sentimental, a dose of cheese, but overall, it is a warm, human show that illustrates how deep food resides in the Japanese consciousness.  Try it, you’ll like it!

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