The Quarantine Stream: 'Midnight Diner' Offers a Safe Haven of Slice of Life Stories and Hearty Japanese Meals

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The SeriesMidnight Diner

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix

The Pitch: A tiny, tucked-away diner in Tokyo opens only between the hours of midnight and 7 A.M., thus attracting all manner of quirky guests, each with a favorite dish and a melancholic backstory that they unload on the unnamed Master (Kaoru Kobayashi) of the restaurant. A taciturn and mysterious man, he serves any food that his patrons request, as well as a couple nuggets of wisdom to his struggling regulars.

Why Its Essential Viewing: I stumbled upon Midnight Diner by accident — while researching a trip to Japan, I was searching for food shows that could give me a taste of Japanese culture — and instead discovered a lovely little anthology series about the hidden fringes of Tokyo life. But that’s probably the best way to enjoy this gem of a slice-of-life series: wearily stumbling upon it at 2 A.M., hidden in your recommended list, and settling down for a warm, comforting piece of television.

Originally released on Netflix as Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, Midnight Diner has been renamed to its original title — as it should be, as the hit Japanese anthology series would inspire various remakes in Korea and China. Its simple premise makes it easy to adapt to other settings, but the original Japanese show is by far the best.

Midnight Diner has only one main character: “The Master,” a mysterious, taciturn figure who offers advice and a warm hearty dish to each of his customers. While he has a very limited menu, he always offers to produce any dish that a customer may want, as long as he has the ingredients on hand and as long as they’re not beyond his skills or overly complicated. Sometimes customers will contribute the ingredients, particularly if they’re a very specific craving. Because of his diner’s unique opening time, he welcomes a range of customers, from salarymen to yakuza and sex workers, all of whom are united in their late-night loneliness.

Generally, each episode deals with a drama focused on a particular customer and the particular Japanese dish that plays a part in their story. The episode unfolds sometimes like a philosophical lesson, sometimes like a magical realism fable, and always features the Master teaching the audience how to cook the dish, with the customer breaking the fourth wall to give instructions. The episodes can be lighthearted and comedic, but more often than not they end with a bittersweet resolution — an estranged father and son reuniting after they’re both old and gray, an abusive relationship disintegrating, a foreigner who feels alienated in his new city.

Like the tiny, 12-seat diner that acts as its setting, Midnight Diner offers a safe haven for viewers who crave comfort food television, with a slice of melancholy. It’s a lovely, whimsical anthology series that feels like sitting down with a home-cooked meal and a cozy blanket.

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