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In addition to its original televised sagas about superheroes who defend and creepy serials about haunted, stranger-than-thou children, streaming entertainment giant Netflix is serving up delicious food-themed visual fare these days. Its ostensible growing focus on Asian cuisine—Japanese and Korean in particular—has spawned a number of serials to satisfy viewer appetites. Whether those hungers are for tasty meals to try at home and at restaurants, or for engaging characters and relatable storylines driven by mouth-watering culinary cultural snapshots, any lover of Asian cuisine is sure to come away from these three shows feeling well-fed.
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories
Added October 21, 2016
Meshiya is a cozy back alley eatery run by a quiet man known to his customers as “Master”, who at first glance looks like a character that's stepped straight out of a suiri shōsetsu (Japanese detective genre fiction). Master rarely smiles. Master, one senses, is as scarred on the inside as his face is outwardly; an engraving of past suffering at which the show hints, but doesn't rush to disclose. Master doesn’t tolerate any foolishness on the premises of his establishment, which he opens nightly between the hours of 12 a.m. and 7 a.m. Despite having a set menu of only two or three standard dishes, the stern-yet-personable chef tends to prepare any dish a patron requests, as long as he has the ingredients in his kitchen.
In addition to providing comforting meals to Tokyo’s night owls, Master is by turns counselor advising those who seek clarity, bartender listening as diners vent their woes over beer and shochu, and confidant with a keen sense of discretion regarding his guests and their secrets. Newcomers to his establishment tend to at once fall under the thrall of the Master’s culinary prowess and his authoritative calm. It is often arguable which seizes them first. Like any eatery, Meshiya also has its colorful regulars that appear at Master’s counter nightly; fixtures who’ve carved out a sanctuary where they come to share drinks, trade jokes and fishermen’s tales, and good-natured jibes.
The show does a skillful job of making the food as much a plot-driving character as the actors. A typical episode finds Master preparing a meal that ends up striking an emotional chord in a customer struggling with a personal issue. That significance, along with the special camaraderie found at Meshiya (as well as the occasional pearl of straight talk from its proprietor) invariably contributes to the eventual resolution of the story. The ability to have that significance take shape and tell complete stories with themes ranging from reconciliation and intercultural connection to familial obligation and loves unrequited and forbidden—and deal with these over the course of a scant 24-minute episode that leaves no element feeling neglected or rushed—testifies to the strong, insightful writing to be enjoyed with this Netflix Original series. In that way, this program is as much a balm for the viewer’s soul as Master’s food is for the patrons of Meshiya.
Cast: Mansaku Fuwa, Reiko Kataoka, Joe Odagiri, Kaoru Kobayashi, Koen Kondo, Bsaku Sato, Yutaka Matsushige, Junko Miyashita, Ken Mitsuishi, Kosuke Toyohara, Tamaki Ogawa, Kimiko Yo, Yoshiyuki Morishita, Mitsuru Hirata, Yoshinori Okada, Hirofumi Arai, Ah-sung Ko, Toshiki Ayata, Tamae Ando, Toru Kazama, Mikako Tabe, Mamiko Itoh, Asako Kobayashi, Yuma Yamoto, Risa Sudou, Kotaro Shiga, Shohei Uno, Takashi Yamanaka
Added March 17, 2017
This Netflix original series places us in the company of Takeshi Kasumi, a mild-mannered retiree with a secret alter ego. That this sounds like the stuff of comic books is no accident, since the show is based on a manga series. Each episode follows 60-year-old Takeshi, still adjusting to his new non-working status and all the free time that comes with it, on a dining experience taken by himself.
The overarching theme of the show approaches eating as a form of introspection. Takeshi, whose wife has grown accustomed to filling her days with choir singing and errands while her husband worked, must learn to function as an independent entity whose daylight hours are no longer ruled by deadlines and meetings. So each episode becomes a brush stroke in the portrait of an introverted, man rediscovering the joy of things like a mid-afternoon beer he could never have taken while on the job, or stopping into a local diner he’s commuted past daily for years but never visited. There’s a contagious element to that joy as the viewer watches Takeshi find his feet again (doing so on his stomach, as it were) and transition into an Autumn period of life that he has earned. Despite this, he remains self-conscious in public and struggles with having gone from big, important fish in a small company pond, to dismissible minnow in uncharted waters that sometimes feel like a frying pan. To his good fortune, Takeshi’s alter ego was forged in fire, and shares none of his reticence about speaking up for himself.
At times of stress or inner conflict (as in episode 2, when he wanders into arguably the worst ramen joint in Japan, run by a chain-smoking matron who couldn’t care any less about customer satisfaction if her continued breath depended on faking it with conviction), Takeshi’s imagined inner warrior (played by Tetsuji Tamayama) emerges. What’s unique about this concept is that when this happens, Takeshi’s demeanor rarely changes beyond a look of shocked relief when a physical manifestation of an armored, blade-wielding, feudal era samurai strides into the restaurant to kick butt and inspire the old man by saying all the things Takeshi lacks the temerity to say.
The swordsman’s scenery-chewing presence and id-driven coarseness play nicely against the effete older gentleman’s evolving battle between newfound freedom and adherence to social convention. They are an odd couple that never interacts directly, despite the frequency with which Takeshi’s shy nature finds him challenged by life’s WWtSD? (“What Would the Samurai Do?”) moments. This is a funny, heartwarming series made funnier by Takeshi’s exaggerated reaction shots when he feels affronted, and more heartwarming by actor Naoto Takenaka’s gift for portraying a credible sense of awe as Takeshi wanders through his local dining landscape as if seeing it with new eyes and tasting it with a fresh tongue. Seasons 1 and 2 of this flavorful series are ready to be sampled.
Cast: Naoto Takenaka, Tetsuji Tamayama, Honami Suzuki
Added April 21, 2017
Career woman Jegal Jae-young’s next meal is never far from her mind. Enjoying food is her comfort during stressful moments, her solace in times of grief, and her reward for overcoming life's frequent slings and arrows. For examples of the latter, viewers need look no further than her secret employment search to escape an unfulfilling job, bosses who observe no boundaries in discussing her personal life, and a shifting social landscape as friends and colleagues move on to bigger, better personal and professional accomplishments. Still stinging, as the first episode reveals, from a fresh breakup, and surrounded by meddlesome colleagues, Jae-young projects an early prickliness that’s at once relatable and justifiable. This fades without fail in the presence of some good food, cold beer, and her best girlfriend Wu-jeong, whose appetite runs second only to Jae-young.
This comedic drama series highlights food’s ability to sooth and connect people, and elicit emotional reactions; food calls back to happier times, as when Jae-young reflects on her ex-boyfriend’s cooking skills and the restaurants they used to visit together. It inspires, as when receiving tragic news drives a tearful Jae-young to sample a food she’s long avoided, simply because lost opportunities might never be found again. It incites jealousy, as when a former lover turns up at the same restaurant as Jae-young, with his new girlfriend in tow. It forms the basis of lasting memories, as when a visit from her mother following Jae-young spending some days away from home coincides with a power failure that caused most of the food in her refrigerator to spoil. From what remains, mom cobbles together a beloved recipe from Jae-young’s childhood that hasn't lost its power to comfort.
One of the series’ funnier sequences takes place in episode two, when Jae-young hurls a delivered box across her living room in a fit of anger, believing it to be from her ex-boyfriend. She soon realizes that the parcel was not sent by her ex, and that its now damaged contents were in fact, intended for her neighbor. While her attempt to redress the wrong begins with her heart in an admirable, well-meaning place, the lengths to which she goes to conceal her transgression once the increasingly irate neighbor comes knocking to collect the box are inspired, to say the least.
Navigating personal and professional up-and-downs never compromises Jae-young’s ability to eat well, as this is one area of her life over which she exerts total control. As if to punctuate that control and her retained agency no matter the events of the story or to what degree they got resolved, an episode typically concludes with Jae-young leading a brief step-by-step demonstration of the dish featured in that story. At just 9 to 13 minutes per episode, this series is one that can be watched to completion in short order, while guaranteeing repeated viewings, if not for its more memorable plot-driven scenes, then for the cooking demos that cap each show.
Cast: Park Hee-bon, Phillip Choi, Hong Wan-pyo