‘Midnight Diner’ serves up culture and comfort food
Sometimes the best stories take place in the most unlikely places. This principle provides the foundation for “Midnight Diner,” the new Japanese language Netflix Original series centering around Meshiya, a small restaurant tucked away off the main streets of Tokyo, its proprietor known as Master (Kaoru Kobayashi, “The Great Passage”) and the patrons who find themselves there between midnight and 7 a.m. when the restaurant is open. And it’s during those hours that the most compelling stories are revealed about the show’s miscellaneous characters.
The sympathetic Master has only pork miso soup and a few drinks on his menu, but will make anything his customers order as long as he has the ingredients. Like his menu, customers get more than what they see when they dine at Meshiya. Both regulars and newcomers alike converge at the small, almost hidden location under the pretense of a simple late-night meal. But Master serves up his meals with quiet comfort — exuding an aura that invites customers to share their stories with him and with us.
Under the warm auspices of Master, customers divulge information about themselves that they otherwise wouldn’t. Perhaps it’s the sense of home that’s cooked into his meals. We first learn about them through the food they order — a culinary treat to behold in itself. As the food sizzles over the stove, the same sense of comfort that draws in his customers washes over us. The food is served up with the stories.
It isn’t so much an action or pressing challenge that spurs the story as it is a chance encounter between two customers, facilitated by Master’s quiet acceptance and the restaurant’s intimate atmosphere. Their individual stories intersect at Meshiya, where the true narrative begins.
While the series itself lacks meaningful action and structural variety, it makes up for it in heart. The premise appeals to our basic humanity — the feeling that we are understood and welcomed somewhere. That somewhere is Master’s diner, which serves as a character itself. The lone counter encloses Master in his kitchen, where he is surrounded by his customers. They interact with the diner as they would with another character, sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings. As they go about their lives, they continuously return to the diner where their actions and experiences are given meaning and context.
A taxi driver and former actress encounter a radio host one night in the first episode. At first, the two have nothing in common, as most strangers do, but the woman orders an unusual dish that strikes his curiosity and he begins to dig deeper into her life, uncovering a past she wished to forget. The understated emotion with which the two characters touch one another’s lives is reflective of the significance of a series like “Midnight Diner,” in which the focus of the series is not on the characters themselves, but on how their serendipitous interactions shape each other’s lives.
It may not be the most exciting series. The story and its action unfold primarily through the dialogue, making for lulls in the narrative’s development. But this allows for moments of poignant commentary and specific detail from the characters that bring to life the awareness we often lack for those around us.
Despite the cultural specificity of “Midnight Diner,” the series touches on a concept that is familiar to all: food and comfort. That’s probably why the series was adapted from the bestselling Japanese manga series Shinya Shokudō by Yarō Abe and later adapted into a film directed by Joji Matsuoka. There’s something both compelling and accessible about food that brings the wide variety of stories in “Midnight Diner” within reach of its audience. While customers come and go, Master, his diner and his food remain a constant — anchoring the series’ stories with harmony and compassion.