Netflix’s anthology series are undoubtedly the best in the game, from Tim Miller’s (Deadpool) to the groundbreaking sci-fi animated Love, Death + Robots to Charlie Booker’s Black Mirror. New projects are judged on whether or not they can pull you apart like Black Mirror’s infamously wild dystopian narratives, or raise the animation stakes in LD+R’s experiments with space and mythology.
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, adapted from a manga of the same name, is no different. The show’s success in Japan propelled similarly inspired shows in South Korea and China. It relays lighthearted motifs, but also complex challenges into curiously relatable stories that feel personal no matter how abstract they are.
These are tales of failed actors and struggling comedians, prostitutes, and compulsive gamblers. There are typical themes of misguided love and lost siblings, but the plot also boldly ventures into the unusual, like in an episode in which a woman meets her former lover, with whom she shares an inexplicable semi-professional career in the adult film industry.
At the heart of the show is a diner known for its unlikely working hours. It’s set in an urbanized district of Tokyo called Shinjuku, where the employees of large corporations often burn the midnight oil. A range of troubled protagonists arrive at the sliding doors of the snug diner, bow before the chef, and subconsciously try to resolve their problems through conversations with the other patrons, while the secondary characters dutifully perform the task of character exposition. ‘The Master’, the diner’s owner and chef, narrates the characters’ challenges and inner motives at the beginning of each episode.
Each episode is named after peculiar dish, some of which are derived from regular Japanese cuisine, and all of which relate to the characters’ problems. In the second episode, Corn Dog, a famous actor asserts his right to a corn dog that his former boss, an ageing comedian, wants to get his hands on. This metaphor slowly unfurls into a story that spans several years of the comedian’s career. We find that it’s taken a downturn, while his former pupil is now popular, especially with the audience of the opposite sex. That’s why he wants whatever the actor has desperately. The rivalry culminates when the the actor learns to share the fortune on his plate and helps the comedian secure a job in television.
A large reason for the show’s success lies in the ingenious placement of seats within the restaurant. The tables are connected and form a three-side periphery around the kitchen, allowing The Master to serve his customers directly. This blocking technique, adapted from theatre, increases the energy and involvement on all three sides dramatically, as the show cleverly places the most talkative characters to one side, the most secure and quiet ones opposite, and the protagonists in the middle, directly facing the kitchen and interfacing with the other patrons.
It’s almost as if the diner becomes a nocturnal gateway to the days when everyone in an eatery would engage in alcohol-fueled conversations of love and betrayal, politics, and careers, instead of relying on music for entertainment. If the diner and its emotionally damaged customers were realistic, the scene would be much like Edward Hopper’s remarkable painting Nighthawks, in which the patrons of an isolated diner sit solemnly side by side in misery.
I’m fascinated by the unbelievably chivalrous nature of the characters, even in distress. While the characters drunkenly roll along the walls and floor of the diner during a brawl, The Master quickly pours a glass of cold water on the head of the youngest one, following which he timidly bows, apologizes and promptly leaves.
Much could be said about the title sequence, which is a masterclass in making the background a character. While the camera slowly drags by busy, heavily lit offices, commercial buildings and malls, Suzuki Tsunekichi softly sings, “Misty white breaths you exhale (we exit an underground tunnel), slowly blown by the wind now, (into the busy wayfaring of a Tokyo night) into the clouds in the sky, gradually fading away.”
The beauty of Midnight Diner lies in its empathy towards people, their difficult circumstances and towards us, the audience. All are safe and content upon entering the diner. The Master knows when to stop and listen, but also when to leave the troubled customer alone.
This open-mindedness is so well embedded into the script, it even shows up in the diner menu. While a couple of generic dishes are served regularly, the beauty of this Izakaya (informal bar) lies in the customers’ ability to order whatever they wish to eat. As long as The Master has the ingredients and knows the recipe, he will make it. If he doesn’t have the ingredients, he will still make the dish if you buy them for him.
The opening music, the impassioned words of the protagonists as they resolve their issues and their casual conversations all form a concoction akin to the warm sake served in the diner, guiding the audience and the characters towards resolution.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.