2017/05/02 What's On
Midnight Diner and the revival of classical TV Anthology
By Ben Lindstrom-Ives
photo by http://getnews.jp/archives/1555601
Debuting last year on Netflix, Midnight Diner has emerged to become one of Japan’s most interesting new television shows. One of the first Netflix original series to be produced in Japan, Midnight Diner is without a doubt one of the most underrated and overlooked TV shows in modern day television. The series takes place in a back alley in a secluded area of the vibrant Tokyo neighborhood of Shinjuku. The main protagonist of the show is known as the ‘master, he is played by Kaoru Kobayashi. We as audience members, are never told what the master’s given name is. The master runs a diner in Shinjuku which opens from the stroke of midnight, up until seven in the morning. As the master say in the beginning of every episode, “When people finish their day and hurry home, my day starts, my diner is open from midnight up until seven in the morning.” Within the series itself, the master meets and greets a diverse array of characters who come in and out of the diner between the hours of midnight and seven in the morning. As the characters in each episode change, so does the food which is served in each story. In some episodes omelette rice will be served, while tonteki and sautéed ham will be served in the others.
The food which the master cooks in each episode for his many loyal and devoted patrons of the diner is transformed into a kind of art. Relatively simple foods such as corn dogs, sautéed yam, amongst other dishes, become transformed into high cuisine and fine dining by the master’s fine touch. The master holds a remarkable ability to create and produce remarkably good dishes, but is also able to connect both intellectually and psychologically with each of his patrons.
They become transformed by both the food that they consume, and in a sense they themselves become purified by the master’s omniscient sense of optimistic and spiritual/intellectual insight. Customers from all wakes of life including the very poor, to the working class, to the educated, and uneducated, come in and out of the Master’s diner on a nightly basis. Despite the different backgrounds from which they come, everyone is able to come in and out and find a sort of refuge from the urban loneliness of modern day Tokyo. The master himself creates space for much philosophical engagement and discussion, as his customers come in and out of the restaurant at these very late night hours. Part of this is enabled by the fact that the master has a remarkable ability to listen to what his customer’s wish to share with him.
As mentioned above, the role of the master goes far beyond just that of a diner owner and a cook. He is a reclusive sort of intellectual, who has seen both the ugly, beautiful, good, and evil sides of the human experience. With these experiences, he is able to act as a sort of healer and leader for those who feel lost, and are trying to find their way in life. His guidance is potent for all those who come into his diner, even if their visit merely endures for a short period of time.
The Midnight Diner stylistically belongs to the ‘anthology’ television series category. The anthology series by definition is a TV show which often presents a different story along with a different set of characters, but often with a recurring theme. In the case of Midnight Diner the location is always consistent, the master is always in every episode, but the characters and the food which is served in each episode consistently changes. Some other well known anthology series on TV today are American Horror Story, Black Mirror, American Crime, and Doctor Who.
Midnight Diner is not a show, however, where much action happens. The stories which are presented in each episode are narrated through the conversations which the master holds with his customers who come in and out of the restaurant. Some of life’s biggest questions and mysteries are often discussed between the master and his customers. Questions such as the meaning of life, whether there is a God or not, what exactly one’s purpose in the world happens to be, whether life is merely a dream or the only reality, etc. Questions such as these which are raised of course, never find definitive or solved answers. Within this quest for truth, however, we do see amazing things happen in some episodes of the show. Now and again ‘Kami’ Japanese for spirits will come in and out of the diner now and again, customers will sometime encounter paranormal phenomena as they reveal their secrets and problems to the master, often finding themselves visited by the ghosts of their past. In this sense, Midnight Diner may be described as both magic realist and philosophical in character.
The show reminds me most of the French director Louis Malle’s 1981 film My Dinner with Andre. In this film similarly to Midnight Diner, the majority of the action in the story takes place in a restaurant. The story itself is merely about two men who have a long chat at a restaurant. It may sound at first glance rather dull, but it was not the case at all. It was similarly also a very witty, philosophical, and entertaining film. Midnight Diner from my perspective, also succeeds in a very similar way. From a very simple context; setting a story in a diner and making ‘conversation’ the backbone of the story, works brilliantly well for a series such as Midnight Diner. Watching shows such as Midnight Diner, also reminds me that special effects are ‘not’ a neccessity or any kind of adequate substitute for great storytelling. Midnight Diner, proves this point well I believe.
Midnight Diner has recently gone through its first season on Netflix. I highly recommend this show to anyone who is interested in watching a genuinely funny, thought provoking, and fascinating sort of show. No you will not see any exploding helicopters, gunfight, or any sort of explicit action of that sort. If, however, you are looking for a highly creative show which weaves some of Japan’s great philosophical and culinary traditions into one show, you are in for a treat. I find that this show has a way of ultimately ‘soothing’ one’s soul, and I cannot wait for the arrival of Season 2 to come!!!
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