Exploring Japanese Netflix Dramas: A Review of ‘Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories’

A couple of months ago, I decided to wean myself off Hollywood staples and your standard English dramas on Netflix in favor of exploring some of the web streaming offerings of my host country, Japan.

And there, I discovered Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories or 深夜食堂[Shinya Shokudō] as it’s called in Japanese. 

Originally released in 2009, with three seasons and a movie or two behind it already, this 2016 Netflix Original Series of ten episodes lets old fans experience the magic once more, while bringing new (and more international) viewers like me into its comforting fold.

The story is simple: at a small, old-fashioned Japanese restaurant tucked away in a Shinjuku alley, the business hours are from midnight to seven in the morning. 

Does this place even get any customers? you might be wondering.

An enigmatic but plain-speaking elderly gentleman known as 'Master' who runs the place and serves as its sole chef and server assures you that he has plenty of business. Though there’s a set menu with all of five options, he promises that he will do his best with the ingredients he has around to cook something for you on request.

The sun goes down, the city lights up, and people head home…but not all. Past the slit blue curtain and glowing paper lantern that beckons patrons inside, and amongst the wood paneled walls and counters, Master and his regular customers serves as witnesses to the unpredictable encounters that make up the more dramatic and whimsical parts of our shared human existence.

Via YouTube

The best part? All of it revolves around food.

Each episode is named after a Japanese dish that somehow links to the featured character’s life history or current dilemma and reappears at various points through the show as they attempt to face their conflict and reach a resolution. Through the course of the episodes, we the audience get tantalizing glimpses of Japan’s rich culinary culture, with not only traditional staples such as pickled plums, ramen, egg rolls, sauteed yambuckwheat noodles, and more, but also internationally adapted items such as Omelet Rice (or Omuraisu as it’s fondly called), ham cutlets, corn dogs, and pancakes. At the end of each episode, the Master comes forward with a central character in the show to literally ‘teach’ the audience how to recreate the dish or offers a cooking tip or two to help those who are taking notes (like me!)

Omuraisu Via Pinterest

Each episode narrates a self-contained story where the plot ultimately brings people together. Some of the tales are poignant, like the heartwarming romance between a dorky Japanese physicist and a shy Korean immigrant who bond over food at the strange diner and struggle to transcend cultural differences until the latter’s parents give their blessing for the marriage. 

In a more surreal episode (and my favorite), a lonely middle-aged man wonders what to do with his belongings after his death, while trying to help his mother’s unsettled ghost find peace at the same time. The stoic Master is not thrilled at being asked to help dispose of another man’s pornography collection but after several fumbling attempts by the characters to find an answer, everything ends well.

Spoiler Alert: the lonely man stumbles across his dead mother’s own pornography collection in the form of explicit ukiyo-e scrolls (unlike his own CDs), and realizes that she just wants him to have human companionship. He finds a girlfriend and the content ghost glides away to the afterlife.

Via Drama-Max

The show is enjoyable for a number of reasons. First of all, the acting is engaging yet realistic. Whereas exaggerated emotions seem to be the norm in many Japanese media channels, the customers and the Master in Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories are the kind of people you might stumble across on a random outing. Furthermore, their stories are original and well-written without turning cliched. They address many of the existing issues of Japanese (and world) society today such as the isolation of old age, gender and racial discrimination, the pressure to fit in and be uniform, surviving in broken families, and the desire to succeed professionally without giving up on love. Though there’s always a resolution at the end of each episode, it’s left for you and me to judge if the ending is happy or not.

Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is perhaps not the right choice for viewers looking for a fast-paced and thrilling drama with plenty of action, but I highly recommend it for those who appreciate an unflinching yet light-hearted analysis of society, or want a short and sweet TV series that they can watch without the danger of bingeing. If nothing else, it’s a great way to learn about Japanese culture and cuisine at the same time. 

So, itadakimasu

You can enjoy Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories on Netflix Japan and watch the trailer here!