This week's review covers three short, delightful, series from Japan, all connected by food and starring off-beat characters.
This 12 episode series is about the customers at a Tokyo food stall that operates from sundown to sunup. The chef, or Master, supplies whatever food he has on hand to his guests, although he will try to make whatever someone wants as long as he has the ingredients.
Although the dishes the Master serves are important, food isn't the main focus here. Rather it's the clientele - including a former sentai star, an office worker who knits sweaters, and a gambler's son - who find connections through their favorite foods.
Each story is stand-alone, focusing on the main character's desire and troubles. Sad, Bittersweet, occasionally hilarious, they find solace and company from their fellow travelers. Sometimes they even find their personal answers.
A slow, gentle, show, Midnight Diner is a slice-of-life tale with engaging characters and an odd sense of humor. I recommend it for any fan of Japanese esoterica or Japanese food.
Unlike Midnight Diner, Samurai Gourmet focuses on a single character's adventure in the Food World. Kasumi is a meek and mild-mannered gentleman of 60. Just retired after years as a salaryman, Kasumi is at loose ends and often under his wife's feet. This leads to him wandering Tokyo in search of something to do and - as you'd expect from the title - something to eat.
Often Kasumi's search for food is based on some old memory, some youthful dish that he once loved. Other times it's simply an interesting dish that he'd like to try. Always his meek demeanor and dislike of speaking up for himself leads to situations where he isn't happy about a situation but doesn't know how to deal with it.
Its at times like those that Kasumi's patronus (I hesitate to call him an alter-ego, they're so very different from each other) appears. Rough, brave and entirely unabashed, the Samurai Gourmet takes shape inside Kasumi's imagination and tells off the 'enemy' in a samurai movie universe. From a slatternly waitress/chef in a poorly run ramen shop to a niece whose manners leave much to be desired, the Gourmet gives Kasumi the courage to stand up and speak for himself and sometimes others.
In this series, the food is often the foundation for the story, creating a theme for the episode as Kasumi recollects both the dish and how it affected his life.
Warm and heartfelt, Samurai Gourmet is a lovely tour of both Japanese food and Japanese culture. Kasumi (who has the sweetest smile) is a gentleman I would love to dine with, with or without his good friend the Samurai.
KANTARO THE SWEET TOOTH SALESMAN
Of the three series I'm reviewing, Kantaro is easily the most surreal. The main character, Kantaro, has left his old job to become a book salesman for a small publisher. Committed and excellent at the job, he has a secret identity. One he is careful to never allow anyone, not even the one co-worker who shares his hidden obsession, discover. That of Sweets Knight, a blogger who reviews the local sweetshop scene.
Part of the reason Kantaro is careful never to allow his secret to get out is because he visits the sweetshops he reviews during working hours. He is equally careful to maintain such high standards as a salesman that everyone at his office believes him to be entirely committed to the cause of selling books. (As a writer, I'd be overjoyed to have him on my side, despite his tendency to play hooky.)
Each episode of the series focuses on a real restaurant in Tokyo. From the fruit dessert anmitsu, to the almond pudding mont blanc, Kantaro seeks out the best flavors, reveling both in his love of sweets and the illicit fantasy of hidden pleasure they represent.
And fantasy it is, for each dessert is accompanied by a wild, surreal, ascent into a heaven of sweets. The dishes Kantaro eats come alive, befriend him, make love to him and create a world where he, himself, is transformed and his greatest wish comes true.
In some respects, each episode of Kantaro is an advertisement for the sweetshops they feature. Yet I seldom find real commercials so engaging as to make me yearn to visit the shops they advertise. Kantaro's loving description of how the desserts are made, how they're served, even how the restaurant feels, draw the viewer in and the wildly surreal fantasy that accompanies them keep one chuckling.
Hilarious and wildly plotted, Kantaro is still warm-hearted and kind, with engaging characters and a premise one can't help cheering. Watch on a full stomach, because some of the food scenes are soft-core porn for the taste buds.
Though each of these shows focus on food in some way, they each bring different elements to the table. Midnight Diner is a tale of connections, both new and old, both found and lost. Samurai Gourmet is about memories and the need to make new ones, as well as about learning to speak up. Kantaro is a bright, sweet, excursion into the land of Japanese desserts, with a tasty syrup of surreal fantasy.
In the end, I highly recommend all three.
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