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'Midnight Diner': Manga and meals from Japan for your lockdown diet

This Japanese drama series on Netflix unfolds in bite-sized episodes, perfect for binge watching

Kaoru Kobayashi as the Master in 'Midnight Diner'.
Kaoru Kobayashi as the Master in 'Midnight Diner'.

A decade after its release in Japan, Midnight Diner, a television series based on manga created by Yaro Abe, came to Netflix India last year. Such had been the popularity of the show in Japan that it was adapted for the big screen in 2015, besides having local incarnations in Korea and China. The first two seasons on Netflix found their loyal fans in India, too, though the typically understated Japanese charm of the production was not conducive to mass appeal. The third season dropped recently, and there are at least two more to go.

Set in an izakaya, which is a version of an American diner, in Tokyo, each of the stories in the series unfolds around a signature Japanese dish, usually a local or regional delicacy. The central character of all the stories is the unnamed owner of the diner, who is referred to, simply, as the “Master" (Kaoru Kobayashi) by his clients. Open from midnight to 7AM through the week, his establishment has a quirky policy. Although the menu features only three, unchanging items (pork soup, sake and beer), as long as the Master has the ingredients in stock, he will rustle up any dish that his customers fancy. He is even game for making an item on request if customers bring in all the ingredients with them.

In less than half an hour, each episode unlocks an individual’s universe, their darkest secrets and deepest sorrows, through one dish that is special to them. In Midnight Diner, food is not merely a repository of cultural values, it is a vital link between the past and the present. Food is the site where joy and sorrow, trauma and truth reside.

The first episode of Season 1 starts with fried eggs and red wiener, not the traditional Japanese fare you might expect, but a popular choice nonetheless for professionals headed home at the end of Japan’s infamously long work days. In the course of the three seasons, a parade of dishes—from the more common steamed clams and pan fried noodles to regional delicacies like pickled red ginger tempura and simmered taro and squid—has made an appearance. And nearly every episode ends with a potted demonstration by the Master of the right way of cooking the dish associated with it.

Apart from assembly-line executives toiling at corporate jobs, a host of people from all walks of life come to the diner. Lawyers, teachers, crossdressing homosexuals, a stripper, a failed manga artist, a yakuza (gang) boss—there is no dearth of diversity among the clientele. Then there are a few constants as well: the Ochazuke sisters, for instance, the three working ladies who provide choric commentary to the action; and an elderly man called Tadashi, whose role is to lend a friendly ear to those who need to unburden themselves, and come up with wisecracks when gloom threatens to darken the mood.

Although a pivotal figure whose hospitality brings these different characters together, the Master is a quiet sort, deep and somewhat inscrutable. Little is known of his past, especially about the conspicuous scar that runs across his face. Like the textbook bartender, he quietly listens in on the conversations, and offers his tuppence only when asked. Over 30 episodes across 3 seasons, he remains a witness to adultery, heartbreak, sorcery, betrayal, even supernatural goings-on.

In spite of its heartwarming narratives, Midnight Diner holds a mirror to a hard society, where only the fittest survive. The value system that defines it isn’t always morally sound. Pragmatism tends to win over noble intentions, the good don’t always end up being rewarded. But at the end of their toil and trouble, the characters always find a reliable refuge in their favourite diner, and are soothed by the aroma of their favourite dishes, cooked up by the Master.

Midnight Diner seasons 1,2 and 3 are streaming on Netflix India.

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