Today’s Special: Nothing Special
Adapted from a stage play turned into a movie, the Shinya Shokudo (hereafter: Midnight Diner) series is a very much welcome addition to Netflix original productions. It’s as remote to the Marvel TV heros than street food is to a traditional kaiseki, the common point being one of the many Japanese cultural obsessions: eating. But forget about sophistication, pottery and lacquer ware craftmanship: apart from rare escapades, all the action takes places in a tiny diner tucked in a narrow street of Shinjuku, a hole in the wall accomodating 10 clients at most. The chef prepares anything his customers ask, providing he’s got the ingredients; they do not ask for anything complicated anyway, and the only time he shows any annoyance is when someone asks for sushi, which of course requires a specific chef. The chef, who evyerone calls “Master”, multitasks as a confessor, a shrink, a guide, and ultimately a friend.
Accompanied by the type of hideous musak one hears all the time in Japan, the diner becomes a crossroad, a confessional or a stage, with some funny breaking of the fourth wall at the end of each episode. Simple stories as heart-warwing as the simple soups and dishes the chef prepares are like them depending on the quality of their ingredients: acting, comic timing, lightning of the cooking scenes, and this unmistakable feeling of work true to life.
Each episode is titled after a dish like pork steak (tonteki, also vernacular for “ugly girl”=, hot pot or rice omelet, and the ensemble offers a variety of quotidian, if dramatically concentrated in the short format, situations: unrequited love, hookers with heart of gold, lost children and dangerous flirts with addictions. This is Japan, where mah-jong could as well be the most dangerous game, where a ghost motivation can be a porn collection instead of just plum wine, and where everyone is always forgetting one’s umbrella. A land of bad encounters and delightful coincidences worthy of an Anthony Powell novel, triggering some very different emotions indeed: some episode are comedy when others border on the ghoulish.
Anchored in the Japanese soul by the Master’s stoic presence and some impossible noble behaviours, Midnight Diner is well worth your time and appetite. Just sneak in, find a seat and either listen and watch or dive in. Viewing advised.