Set in a small late night diner in the busy, frenetic Shinjuku district of Tokyo, director Joji Matsuoka’s Midnight Diner (深夜食堂- Shinya Shokudo) is a culinary heart-warming drama that intimately delights the senses and comforts the soul. Based on the popular manga and hit Japanese television drama of the same name, Midnight Diner brings a collection of light hearted and poignant vignettes, stories of the people surrounding the establishment, whose mysterious proprietor and chef is known only as the Master (Kaoru Kobayashi). As the day comes to an end and people make their way home, the Master’s own day begins.
A gay drag queen bar owner and local yakuza gangster comes together in the name of righteousness. A mistress (played by the stunning Saki Takaoka), whose graceful looks are slowly fading has her financial future is in doubt when her suitor passes away without her name in the will. A young homeless migrant worker with an issue with her former lover shows up one night and does a quick dine and dash.
All misfits and outsiders. It’s both fun and fascinating to watch their interactions and the way they almost rebel against the accepted behaviors and norms of rigid Japanese society.
Open only from the hours of midnight till 7am, the diner’s eclectic clientele, each beautifully flawed in their own way, come and go to share in the communal experience of both dining and local gossip around the bar, serving as a form of group therapy for both the characters involved and the viewers at home. It’s at the same time a cathartic healing process and almost a form of voyeurism to catch and overhear intimate details of the customer’s day. One night, a deceased guest in the form of a mysterious funerary urn joins the diners.
There’s a long gash runs down the left side of the Master’s face, a scar from another time, another past life. The Master’s past is not explicitly told, he remains mysterious, listening to the stories all while quietly cooking in the tiny kitchen for his guests.
The Master listens to their stories and cooks up just the right dish, the right prescription for their ailments. The characters are often quirky and charming, at times hilarious and melancholy, not totally developed given the short timeframe of the film itself, but each interesting in their own imperfections.
The scenes are filmed gorgeously, particularly the close quartered cooking sequences inside the bar’s tiny kitchen. From sizzling plates of spaghetti and marinara sauce to tiny sausages cut intricately to look like octupi, the cooking leaves your mouth watering.
Keeping with the food theme, each chapter of the film is named after a key dish like “grated yam on rice” or “neapolitan” relating to the main character’s story for the segment – often a comfort food designed specifically for the character’s story. It’s all Japanese soul food in essence.
There is a chapter of the film with characters involved in the Fukushima earthquake disaster, something still fresh in the collective mind of Japan as a country, and still something they are recovering from both with the physical rebuilding efforts as well as the emotional rebuilding. It’s interesting to see how the characters interact and try in their own ways to heal from their emotional scars.
Director Joji Matsuoka brings viewers into the world of Japan’s deep love of food in Midnight Diner, but also brings insight into the daily lives of people living in Tokyo and their daily yearnings and struggles. People come to the Midnight Dinner as an escape from modern pressures, and like the film itself, it’s all about comfort food for the soul.
Midnight Diner, 深夜食堂, [Shinya Shokudo]. [Japan] . Directed by Joji Matsuoka. Written by Yaro Abe, Katsuhiko Manabe, Joji Matsuoka. Starring Kaoru Kobayashi, Saki Takaoka, Tokio Emoto, Mikako Tabe, Kimiko Yo, Toshiki Ayata, Yutaka Matsushige, Michitaka Tsutsui, Akiko Kikuchi, Yuko Tanaka, Joe Odagiri. 119 mins. In Japanese with English subtitles.