Over the past few months there’s been a tsunami of high quality Japanese food shows on Netflix. They’re specifically about eating and stories built around the routine of going out to eat, you know: universal stuff that everyone can relate to. The setting—Japan—is incredibly conducive to this kind of zen storytelling, especially if you like the food. But even if you’re not feeling raw fish and seaweed you’re bound to find something mesmerizing about these shows. “Midnight Stories: Tokyo Diner,” Samurai Gourmet,” and to a lesser extent, the profoundly affecting “Hibana Spark” (not strictly about food, but reliant on softcore visuals of cooking; every episode is dominated by late night pub crawls), are the most recent entries to this genre on Netflix and I’m dying to see more.
“Midnight Stories: Tokyo Diner” is an unassuming series, taking place mostly in a little hole-in-the-wall (“Meshiya”) that opens for business at 12 a.m. each morning. The place stays open until 7 a.m. and what happens in between is pure magic. Understated and reflective, each episode takes its title from an item on the menu (episode 2 is titled “Corn Dog”; episode 8 is “Sauteed Yam”), and sometimes even things that aren’t on the menu. The premise of the show, and the philosophy of Meshiya itself, is that the owner, “Master,” must cook whatever his customers ask for. Regulars who are feverishly chasing down some long lost feeling of nostalgia are always welcome, feeling at home at Meshiya’s teeny tiny counter. You can’t help but feel a little nostalgic yourself as you become invested in each character’s story.
Midnight Stories is the least exotic of the Netflix food shows. The action always goes down at the tiny diner, and the fare is usually on the level of comfort food. There’s nothing bizarre or especially adventurous here, but each episode still feels like an escape. Each episode wraps up with a quick tutorial on the dish featured, and before you know it you’re intensely craving what you just saw prepared—even if you’ve never heard of it before. This is a wonderful, evenly paced show that makes you hungry for a nostalgia that you have never even experienced.
And then there’s “Samurai Gourmet.” Like “Midnight Stories,” “Samurai Gourmet” is based on a popular manga. But unlike “Midnight Stories,” “Samurai Gourmet” is fantasy food tourism, dealing with a retiree who is sowing his wild oats one bowl at a time. He sees visions of an imaginary (or so it seems) inspirational samurai figure who can really pack it away. Here’s the opening to every episode:
“After retiring, he lost his title as a corporate man and the support of his company. Takeshi Kasumi, 60 years old: This story is about a normal 60-year-old-man who is helped by a masterless samurai, eating freely without being held back. A gourmet fantasy.”
The thing I really like about this show is how the actor, Naoto Takenaka, alternates between timidity and eating with rapturous delight. His bug-eyed expression when he first bites into something delicious is probably the most relatable recurring moment in any show right now.
Where “Midnight Diner” is mainly about comfort food, “Samurai Gourmet” is all about getting outside of your comfort zone. Many of the episodes have a variation of a scene where Kasumi is walking around and saying, “Hmmm, I’ve walked down this street every day for 30 years and I’ve never noticed that restaurant before.” More often than not, in the course of chewing his meal he’ll have a moment of realization. Kasumi may not be relatable to every viewer, but his method of teasing out how our relationship with food is tied into understanding memories is immediately recognizable.