From its opening moments, Netflix’s Midnight Diner treats cooking like poetry. “When people finish their day / And hurry home / My day starts,” recites a voice like that of a withered bard, over images of bustling downtown Tokyo at night. I almost started snapping my fingers out of habit.
The voice belongs to The Master (Kaoru Kobayashi), a humble gem of a cook who runs an impossibly quaint little food shop called the Midnight Diner. The place is aptly named: from midnight to 7 am, The Master invites any soul wandering through the city’s back alleys to pull up a chair and order whatever dish they crave, as long as he has the ingredients to make it. Keeping the Midnight Diner afloat despite its questionable business model is a devoted handful of customers, who together represent a colourful cross-section of Tokyo.
Midnight Diner is already a sensation and a veritable franchise in Japan, where it began as a manga by Yarõ Abe—still running and on its thirteenth volume—before being adapted into a series for Japanese TV in 2009 that ran for three seasons, followed by a feature film in 2014. Netflix, apparently hoping for a Jiro-style crossover success in North America, ordered this newest ten-episode season, released in October 2016.
Like previous installments in the Midnight Diner canon, the Netflix version is a string of isolated character studies that play out over various tasty-looking dishes, with each episode spotlighting a different dish that ends up being integral to the story. In “Corn Dog,” a juvenile fight between a famous stand-up comic and his young apprentice over a breaded sausage becomes a flashpoint for their troubled relationship. Likewise, “Omelette Rice” finds a brilliant young physicist and a Korean student realizing through their shared love of the fried egg dish that, heck, they’re not so different after all. Not by coincidence, patrons of the Midnight Diner have no choice but to face one another across the restaurant’s three-sided square table arrangement, making new connections—and unpleasant confrontations—pretty much inevitable.
The most successful episodes are the ones that stick to simple narratives with a classic feel, punctuated by moments of wry comic relief. “Corn Dog” nails the power shift that results when bigheaded comedy star Serao Que-Será starts losing fans to his assistant, rising TV actor Hajime, the bittersweet drama unfolding like an Annie Hall-era Woody Allen film.
Other episodes, however, rely too heavily on expository dialogue to hold our attention. In “Sour Plum & Plum Wine,” a produce store owner delivers a four-minute monologue to The Master about why he needs to break his addiction to his mother’s sour plums, when we could have understood him better with a 20-second scene of him struggling to tear himself away from the jar. Luckily, the vignette structure keeps things moving, piquing our interest in the next episode with a fresh set of characters.
A number of times, I was reminded of another vignette-style Netflix series from 2016: Joe Swanberg’s Chicago-repping Easy, which like Midnight Diner shifted nimbly between isolated stories taking place within a single bustling metropolis. One criticism leveled against Swanberg’s series was that it presumed to tell real stories about real Chicago folks, when in fact neither Swanberg nor his actors seemed to have a deep understanding of who the characters really were. Midnight Diner’s evidently fine-tuned scripts help it avoid that kind of superficiality (all the dialogue in Easy was improvised), but by the same token that scriptedness sometimes gets in the way of authentic moments between the characters.
By the end of the episode, though, writer-director Joji Matsuoka usually manages to feed our appetite for soul food, both literally and figuratively. Indeed, amidst mouthwatering shots of stews and stir-fries brewing in The Master’s kitchen, a couple of episodes even wrap up with tongue-in-cheek cooking lessons from the characters themselves. Hell, who needs Michael Pollan when you’ve got The Master showing you the ropes?