In one of the initial scenes of the Japanese food film Midnight Diner, a woman rejoices in eating Napolitan: spaghetti with tomato ketchup and various ingredients which may include onion, button mushrooms, and sausage. In the movie, the pasta is actually served on top of a simple omelet in a cast iron skillet. An expression of what is commonly known as wafu pasta (pasta in Japanese style), it’s comfort food and the woman is grateful to the person who cooked it for her, the male owner of a tiny diner in a back alley, one of the protagonists of the movie together with the diner itself and an array of quite peculiar characters.
Yakuza gangsters, drag queens, prostitutes, students, and neighborhood types all mingle in the little eatery, where the cook (always addressed as “master”) does not really have a menu and is willing to cook anything the patrons request, as long as he has the ingredients and knows how to make it. Shinya shokudo literally means “deep night eatery,” as the tiny restaurant with a minuscule kitchen overlooking a crammed counter with a few seats is only open between midnight and seven a.m. For various reasons, its customers all live at night, from the salary men finishing their shifts to somewhat unsavory but lovable characters that do not really fit in with daytime society.
The Japanese feature film, released in 2015, is part of a larger media phenomenon that developed around the core concept of the Midnight Diner, offering an unconventional view into Japanese urban society and stretching from Yaro Abe’s manga Sinya Shokudo, published in 2006, to the series recently launched on Netflix, with the same title. It a very interesting case of a unassuming but effective narrative idea that bounces around in different media, maintaining part of the original spirit but also adapting to each specific form of communication.
In between, three seasons of a TV drama inspired to the manga were produced in Japan starting in 2009, and a Korean TV series broadcast in 2015 (and available on DramaFever) with the title Late Night Restaurant has also enjoyed considerable success. A Chinese TV remake will also be released soon. The manga definitely set the tone for the proliferation of media products with Midnight Diner at the center. Its aesthetic is quite different from what we frequently identify with the Japanese genre, with a simple look that manages to convey unexpected emotional depth. In many ways, its visual approach is quite similar to a Western graphic novel, offering narrative and psychological complexity.
Considering its numerous avatars in different media and in various countries, the late night diner and its inhabitants seems to resonate strongly in the East Asian context. The food is at times very simple, the kind that people would make at home with what they may find in their fridge. Viewers can familiarize themselves with specialties that are rarely in Japanese restaurants abroad, uncommon ingredients, and peculiar customs surrounding food consumption, especially in a social setting. On other occasions, certain dishes require a certain amount of work and the use of implements varying from grills to hot pots. In those cases, the camera lingers on the skills of the master and his hands’ movements. Although at times the film and the Netflix series indulge in what is now often referred to as “food porn,” with beautiful and sensual food images, in general the viewers are intentionally drawn towards the social value and the emotional impact of eating, especially when sharing meals. In terms of shots, the same attention is paid to common comfort food and to more exotic fare, regardless of the techniques required.
In all the various versions of the narrative, both the regular customers and the people that stumble unexpectedly into the diner manage to create a sense of intimacy and familiarity that counterbalances other, less joyous aspects of their lives. The master himself, although a professional, tries to provide comfort rather than perfectly made food. He cooks in the tiny kitchen, one step from the patrons, so that he can welcome newcomers, participate in the discussions, and offer a friendly ear to those who just need somebody to talk to.
The overall tone is quite tender and sensitive, hitting us in our soft spots. It feels different from other Japanese food-related productions that instead highlight chefs as quasi warriors that take up challenges, push themselves to the limit, and fight their competition with abandon. The cook in Midnight Diner is above all a nurturer, a caregiver, without relinquishing his rugged masculinity. Maybe that’s what makes the manga, the shows, and the film so refreshing and enjoyable.