2020 Is A Lot, But Japanese Food Dramas Are Helping Me Deal

Wakako Zake.
Screenshot: TV Tokyo / Crunchyroll

I’ve fallen into a pop-cultural rut: Dunno why, but I feel incapable of ingesting new media that isn’t part of my work. There are shows I want to catch up on, comics I want to read, games I want to play, but getting myself to sit down and engage with them feels nearly impossible... with a few exceptions.

Maybe it’s capitalism rotting my brain into thinking I need to be productive all the time, or maybe quarantine has just got me feeling low, but I don’t know how to let go of my stress. When I’m not working, all I really feel able to tune into is either playing Final Fantasy XIV—my first-ever MMO and a welcome (if occasionally all-consuming) escape from reality—or watching a hyper-specific subset of j-dramas whose plot could be summed up as “person contemplates life while eating stuff.” As of late, my favorite show in this category is Netflix’s sleeper hit Midnight Diner.

For those unfamiliar, Midnight Diner is a television series about a small izakaya in Tokyo called Meshiya, open only from midnight ‘til morning. The restaurant is run by a chef known simply as “Master,” and while the posted menu only features one item, his policy is to make customers whatever dish they like as long as he has the ingredients.

Despite the restaurant’s small size and odd hours of operation, Master never lacks for customers coming from all walks of life, be they office workers, yakuza, sex workers, or manga artists. Episodes generally focus on a new patron discovering Master’s unique approach to cooking, with the diner’s regulars serving as a sort of Greek chorus.

The food Master makes isn’t overly complicated, but allowing customers to order anything they want within his limitations serves as a sort of culinary wish fulfillment. Beloved by his patrons, Master himself is a bit of an enigma, acting less as a main character and more as our window into the complex lives of his many customers, his cooking serving as a catalyst for nostalgia or change with each protagonist.

I’d be lying if I said Midnight Diner doesn’t occasionally tend toward the melodramatic. Yes, there are plenty of light episodes and many comedic moments with Master’s charming goofy regulars, but the show just as often leans into soapy melodrama with customers suddenly healing rifts with long-lost family members over ramen, getting into fist fights over a fish-sausage corndog, and carrying on torrid love affairs because Master cooked them a life-changing clam soup or something. The show manages a deft balance between calmness and absurdity. No less than two episodes prominently feature ghosts.

Midnight Diner is but one of many East Asian TV shows focusing primarily on the individual’s relationship with food, and of the several I watch, it is definitely the most plot heavy.

To name a few other good watches, recent series Wakako Zake details the nightly escapades of a ditzy 20-something office worker named Wakako whose greatest joy is to unwind from a busy workday by herself, seeking out restaurants with delicious food and stiff drinks. Another, the long-running Kodoku no Gurume (Solitary Gourmet) follows a salesman who frequently travels for work, using it as an opportunity to discover new eateries and cuisines. (Actor Yutaka Matsuhige stars in Gurume as lovable gluttonous salesman Goro Inogashira, as well as portraying Ryu on Midnight Diner, a brusque but tender-hearted middle-aged yakuza who bears more than a few similarities with a certain DILF of Dojima).

These shows are far more archetypical for the genre, with little if any plot beyond the main character being hungry and stressed out by work. The characters typically internally monologue to themselves about which dishes they’re excited for, what questions they’re anxious to ask the server, and just how overwhelmed they are with hedonism.

Goro and Wakako find joy in seeking out adventure, Master offers comfort to his customers with culinary familiarity. But despite differences, these series and others like them all coalesce into a genre as calming and charming as it is hard to describe. It’s as “slice of life” as slice of life gets. I wouldn’t call it food porn (a term I dislike for being both boring and misleading); while the food often looks good, I find myself compelled by the story regardless of whether I think the current dish looks appetizing. Hell, I ended up bawling my eyes out over a Midnight Diner episode about red octopus weenies.

I’ve tried getting loved ones into these gourmet J-dramas, and time and again I’m met with “I just don’t get it.” For me, the appeal lies less with the meal and more with each character’s experience. What the shows all share, be it through comedy or drama, is a sense of simple interiority. They focus on a moment of pleasant self-indulgence in which we all partake. It’s about the experience of a comforting meal in a new place. Sometimes deep introspection is on the menu, sometimes just musings on how good a piece of mackerel pairs with hot sake. What is always served, however, is an appreciation of the small moments and little pleasures in an often-chaotic world.

I’ve enjoyed these shows for years now, but I can’t help but notice how much more I’ve been consuming them since social distancing began. I can’t remember the last restaurant I went to. When I see a patron make a custom order in Midnight Diner, I think of the Oakland breakfast spots I’d hit after a night clubbing with friends. Watching Wakako take new routes home to find new restaurants, I remember the nights after I’d log a 13-hour day PAing on sets, wandering the streets of nearby Little Tokyo looking for an eatery I didn’t know about before.

I don’t know when I will next be able to try a new ramen shop. I’m not sure when I’ll get to once again eavesdrop on a messy first date a couple tables away while jamming my face into a burger. For some, watching shows like Midnight Diner might inspire a sense of FOMO rather than calming bliss, but I just appreciate the comfortable fantasy of going to a restaurant and eating stuff again.

Chingy Nea is a writer, comedian, and critically acclaimed ex-girlfriend based out of Oakland and Los Angeles.

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I think my favorite part of Midnight Diner is that while people feel better at the end, it isn’t always in finding the lost friend or the like (though there’s plenty of that), and the Master sometimes doesn’t do anything at all, it’s the setting and the relationships that can change by being present and accepting of others in general.