Foreign film and TV is a welcome reprieve when you are seeking to tune out your immediate world. With an abundance of Netflix content devoted environmental fatalism or human evil in true crime, a departure is in order, not only from our own world but from content about worldly problems. With this in mind, a sampling of the Japanese TV drama Midnight Diner was apropos.
The lead character is the owner of a ten seat diner. He’s a classic stoic about whom we learn little other than that the diner comprises most of his existence in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. His business is open from midnight to 7 AM and his patrons refer to him, not by name, but as “Master”. Master is a one man operation with a minimalist menu of just a few items, serving beer and sake as well.
His customers seek out his establishment not only to eat but for reprieve from the toll of life in Tokyo — a city in a state of perpetual motion for which the price of failure to keep up is steep. His regulars are an eclectic mix of drunks, lonely singles, drag queens, yakuza gangsters, porn stars, celebrities seeking anonymity, strippers, sex workers, scam artists, failed actors, ex-cons, overworked salarymen and scam artists. As surely as people are people, they bring their problems to the diner and Master ends up being their unintended confidant.
But his customers aren’t just regular people. They are unattached seekers and loners living out an alternative existence to domesticity in the human landscape of after hours Tokyo. Their quest for self-realization against the backdrop of one of the planet’s most unrelenting and unforgiving cities brings them to the edge of their capacity for survival and self-preservation.
Master likes his steady clientele, even cooking off menu items for them when ingredients are available. But in defiance of the hyperactive capitalism of Tokyo, he eschews promotion and expansion. When a food blogger offers to promote his establishment in her column her beseeches her not to. He likes his manageable community of night creatures and cuts them off after three bottles of sake when overindulgence looms.
Master’s diner serves as a rallying point for Shinjuku’s misfits where they come together united on the one thing that they can all agree on — great food. Each episode focusses on a dish that has sentimental value to the lead character, taking them back to a past they seek reconciliation with or escape from. These night owls form an unlikely community where they advise and support each other in the face of the sea of sharks behind every Tokyo corner.
Master’s stoic disposition, wise counsel and healing comfort food provide succor to his regulars who survive in an impersonal and predatory city. Yet behind each one’s world weariness and external show of fortitude is an individual seeking meaningful personal connection or falling from grace. Finishing all the episodes could leave viewers hungry to be a part of their personal and nocturnal world.