When browsing through Netflix I sometimes suffer from the affliction of indecision. So in a momentary fit of frustration I took a dire risk and selected the “Surprise Me” option.
Fortunate favours the brave. And anyway, it’s a dated perception to expect the worst from a well programmed algorithm. The recommendation of Midnight Diner made sense, I’d been watching a Raymond Blanc series and a couple of hard boiled oriental crime thrillers around this time.
Midnight Diner’s morsel sized (roughly 25 minutes each) episodes centre around a bloke called “Master” who runs a dainty diner in Tokyo from midnight to seven in the morning. The food he serves his patrons triggers a variety of often serendipitous tales which fluctuate from tragic to witty and all in-between.
Placed in an ideal context Midnight Diner succeeds by exploiting our inclination to romanticise nostalgia and inherently seek shared experience, as both are essential part of food’s enjoyment. You envy Midnight Diner’s patrons, they have managed to find a cordial enclave among the claustrophobic streets of Tokyo’s excessive sprawl, where feeling as anonymous as a needle in a haystack is easily attained. Pitch up regularly and this place will feel like yours, where everybody knows your name, and in this case, what you order. Think a Cheers based in Japan kind of vibe, but without the canned laughter.
Details about the regular patrons and their circumstances arrive eventually, but invariably my first question is: why are they regularly eating at this time? Sometimes we receive no answer to that. Take the hippy fella who sits in the corner in front of the door to the toilet (this show’s all about the details), peeling shells off hard boiled eggs or monkey nuts (and the ASMR of food preparation too) and interjecting with Buddist proverbs to assist the other clientele, what’s his deal? Only in the last episode of season two do we receive some insight, but in this instance you’re still left with yet more questions.
Master remains wholly enigmatic. Each episode starts with his narration; “When people’s day ends, mine is just beginning”. His routine becomes the show’s motif, often bookended by his mid-episode interjection, which implies that he strongly believes in the value of his service, that the Diner has become essential to maintaining the sanity of others by offering them an escape; “people finish their day and hurry home, but sometimes they don’t want to go straight back home, so they drop in somewhere else”. The problems, irritations and disappointments of the daily life and the grind of its routine don’t seem so dire after a night time snackette, say a bowl of butter rice, and the sage wisdom offered by master.
While this is very enjoyable, in, dare I say, a kitsch way, it’s the magnetism of master’s grounded aura that makes being in his presence so appealing. You want to know more about him the more you watch. How did Master get his scar? Why does he have a policy of making whatever the customer demands (provided he has the ingredients)? Why only pork and miso soup on the set menu, and what’s the motivation behind stating that he wants his diner to remain relatively unknown, and not be spread by word of mouth?
On that last point I suspect Master, just as his patrons, wants to keep their ‘social’ world cosy in such a massive city. Maybe Master’s mystique will be unravelled in season three, or in Midnight Diner – Tokyo Stories, which is the sequel. It’s here I’ll pause and question whether that’s what I truly want from Midnight Diner. It feels risky to me, this show thrives on speculation and teasing you with the prospect of affirming it but smartly not quite doing so. I suspect the formula won’t change, those behind Midnight Diner understand that people and their motivations are more interesting when we’re still left guessing.
The recipe guides at the end of each episode are worth it alone, and no joke here, you’ll actually learn a thing or two about cooking, even if you’re a philistine like me. Just as the patrons always have seconds, you should tuck into this.