If you’re looking for a new show to savor or binge (or both!) may I suggest Midnight Diner on Netflix(US)?
I learned about this show in a Reddit thread (though I wish I could remember which one) likening the peacefulness and relaxing nature of it to Great British Bake Off. I’m not entirely sure that’s accurate. There’s food, and people caring for one another, and more food, but the tone is different from GBBO. That said, the rec is 1000% correct about one thing: I do indeed feel relaxed and content after watching an episode.
Midnight Diner is a Japanese show that’s now on Netflix in the US. The show began in 2009, and there are several seasons plus additional episodes in Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. I learned while researching this recommendation that the show is based on the 2006 Japanese manga called Shinya Shokudo by Yaro Abe, and has since spun off into multiple movies and a Chinese version and a Korean version, too.
Midnight Diner is in Japanese with subtitles, and I haven’t looked to see if there’s a dub version elsewhere. I prefer subtitles for a number of reasons, and given that I watch at the end of the day, each 20-22 minute episode is plenty of story for my brain and input for my eyeballs. It’s a quiet, slow moving show so it’s not as if I have to read quickly. (I also watch tv with subtitles on most of the time.)
Master (Kaoru Kobayashi) runs an Izakaya, a small diner that’s open only between midnight and 7am. There are regular customers who reappear in different stories, but each episode focuses on one or two new customers of the diner.
Sometimes there are two people who seem destined to meet, and sometimes the featured character is encouraged to achieve something for themselves. Each story is a mix of hope and melancholy, and food plays a role in each person’s life, whether it’s finding a dish from their childhood or trying a new way of preparing an old favorite. The food influences the characters, and Master, as the proprietor of the Midnight Diner, is the foundation of each story.
Each story is extraordinary and mundane, and I feel very safe placing my empathetic emotions into the show after watching 8 episodes of the first season. I feel confident in the safety of the show’s narrative context to recommend it to you, too. There are episodes that deal with death, sadness, melancholy, loneliness, and all those troublesome feelings that show up between midnight and 7 am, but there is also so much kindness, caretaking, vulnerability, and comfort, all housed in the central conceit of the show: food. Some episodes deal with death or estrangement, and others are about falling in love, learning to care for the people around you, and accepting how you are, or how you’ve changed.
The food is tied up into each episode, and into the style of the episodes, too. I particularly like the end segments which feature a very brief cooking lesson or tip for making the featured dish of that episode. Master has one menu and one item on that menu, but he’ll make anything by request if he has the ingredients. He listens very carefully to different customers and sometimes offers advice.
There’s an element of fate to each episode, that the character was meant to be in the diner at that moment, that they were meant to eat that particular dish at that particular time, for larger, sometimes inscrutable reasons. So far, among my favorite episodic characters are a porn star named Mr. Erect Oki, and I am often delighted when the regulars reappear in an episode, like Mr. Chu, Kosuzu, and The Ochazuke Sisters.
The magic aspect of needing something to nourish you, of finding a tiny, out of the way diner open at the smallest hours of the morning, and of being served exactly what you needed by someone who is quiet, patient, and welcoming makes for deeply comforting watching. Each episode is a standalone story, but they feed (ha ha) into one another slowly.
There isn’t a dark moment in each episode; no danger or peril or high stakes, fear-based drama. Each episode has emotional turns but for me, as I said, they feel safe. I trust that even if the ending of an episode is poignant or bittersweet (some have made me tear up) it’ll also be satisfying and comforting.
I’ve been watching it one or two episodes at a time with Adam, and I asked him why he’s been enjoying it, since our tastes in television are very different and very rarely overlap. He likes the “storytelling mechanism of using food as an anchor around which to tell individual stories:”
The idea that there’s this out of the way place that people come and go at off hours givers you the jumping off point for individual stories, and also that every one of these people has a different food that is their comfort food for reasons unique to them.
The basic premise of each episode is “Here is Person. Person’d comfort food is X, and here is how that relates to Person’s story.”
I agree. There’s the diner as a safe space, and Master’s role in preparing, serving, interpreting, or intervening in that story. Person’s story wouldn’t happen without the diner, and the food, and the person preparing it.
I also like that it’s both unique and familiar: I haven’t watched a lot of Japanese television programs, so the story beats, narrative structure, character types, and the language itself are new experiences for me. But at the same time, I recognize each person, and especially the emotional or experience they represent. I am invited to connect with each individual, and understand this moment in their lives and how this food connects them to themselves.
NB: this is the opening sequence to Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, but it is very similar (I think a few extra shots were added). It’ll give you a sense of the tone and style of the show, and you see Master and the diner.