As TV becomes more streamlined into easily binge-able seasons, more unconventional and single-serving narrative options are harder to come by. One recent example is HBO's cult hit High Maintenance, which follows the trials and tribulations of a low-level chill-bro weed dealer and his oddball roster of NYC customers. Similar in tone but less talked-about is Netflix's Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, which is anchored on Japanese comfort food.
Based on a best-selling Japanese manga, the show's aired for three seasons and has culminated in a film adaptation featuring many of the series's actors. The first season was recently added to Netflix and is perfect viewing for those who want to watch stories about real people connecting. Each story is based on people bonding over a specific dish and begins the same way: The proprietor—also known as the Master (Kaoru Kobayashi)—prepares the eponymous diner for operation from midnight until 7 AM.
There are slow, neon-lit shots of Tokyo at night, a Japanese folk singer croons a somber tune, and the Master explains that he will make anything diners request, as long as they bring in their own ingredients. Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories follows new characters in and out of the diner—even to other countries—in each episode, always culminating with a joyful ending where the characters wave goodnight to the audience and give tips on how to make the episode's thematically pertinent dish.
Similar to a bartender, the Master mainly functions as a psychiatrist-cum-chef—someone for characters to project their insecurities onto or mull over their problems with. He mainly nods and grunts, seemingly relishing the act of cooking and keeping the place bumping through the night. When characters ask for him to interfere in their lives—like when a lonely, unmarried man asks him to throw away his porn after he dies—the Master is reluctant to get involved; he'd rather just clean dishes or smoke a cigarette in the back of the kitchen. The only time we really see him interfering in a situation with his customers is when two characters—a master comedian and his apprentice—start to fight. The Master pours alcohol over their heads, insisting that they take it outside, and it's a significant moment: For the Master, the restaurant is a sacred place of food and bonding.
In Midnight Diner, the characters have small epiphanies about growing up through their interactions in the diner. Mostly, these epiphanies form organically and slowly: One guest can't stand the diner's take on sour plum—a sort of dumpling—and realizes it's because his mom makes them better. This causes him to muse on the fact that he misses his mother, eventually leading to the thought that he will one day die alone. In response, the show's gossipy Greek chorus of recurring customers advises him to find a romantic partner while he's still alive.
In another episode, a radio host recognizes a cab driver at the diner as a daytime television actress from a TV show he watched when he was younger. He asks to interview her on his show, which leads to the discovery that another guest at the diner was also an on the same show and has since transitioned into a woman. Some of the episode structures are a bit more fanciful, such as a bizarre story-within-a-story where a character hallucinates that there's something haunting the restaurant.
Throughout, Midnight Diner advises to reflect carefully on life as we grow older, as well as to allow ourselves to have bits of joy in our daily routines. It focuses on feelings as much as it does on specific plot points: In a scene where patrons eat fresh watermelon and remark on how it brings a summer feeling, the Master sets out mosquito repellant on the counter to add scent to the mood—a small and effective touch.
There are little philosophical asides in the series, sometimes simplistic ("One good day must follow a bad one") and sometimes related to the food: Referring to a New Year's Eve tradition, one character muses, "We eat buckwheat noodles because they are easier to cut… this is to cut off the misfortunes of the past year." After a particularly odd year where people felt more divided than ever, it's moments like these that remind how it's more important than ever for people to connect and bring joy to one another's lives.
Follow Jonathan Peltz on Twitter.