Netflix is perhaps the worst service to host a show such as Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, a Japanese drama whose second series recently premiered on the service on October 31st. The company is known for how it transformed the ways in which people consume media, in particular television, thanks to the streaming revolution it spearheaded and the binge-watching model of media consumption it prioritized. Without the wait, fans could watch hours of new content from a single program in the space of just a few hours, changing how people consumed media forever. Why watch an anime weekly when you can wait till it’s over and release it all at once?
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories could not be more diametrically opposed to this Netflix ideal, which does in some ways make sense when you consider it wasn’t originally conceived by the streaming giant. In its original form, Midnight Diner was a manga series and then a drama for Fuji TV Japan before Netflix picked it up for a new series in 2016. From a company that likes to make a statement who makes programming, this drama can often feel out of place when placed alongside a show such as Stranger Things in the service’s vast library of programming. The show’s episodic structure and messaging requires viewers to ponder each episode in a way that binge-watching doesn’t allow.
While it may seem out of place on the service, it is thanks to Netflix that the show was given a second chance in the first place. They introduced Midnight Diner to new fans around the world, with its more relaxed yet intimate exploration of human identity and personal introspection reaching far beyond the Japanese audience it was initially created for. Its first series on the service was lavished with praise from around the world for this, and deservedly so. After such a strong first series, will these fans find more of the same in this new set of episodes, or will they be left with an undercooked meal that leaves a sour taste in the mouth?
Finding Humanity in the Night Before the Dawn
Netflix’s Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is about trying to find the humanity within the hustle and bustle of the Tokyo cityscape and the stress of daily life, finding the humanity in the warmth of the small interactions and moments. With the bar a central meeting point for people from all walks of life to gather, it acts as a home for many of the forgotten souls that enter through its doors.
Each episode eases you into its slow pacing with a slow, plodding ballad set to a journey through the neon lights of the bustling streets of Shinjuku. Without lingering on these eye-catching cityscapes, we are soon whisked away to a small yet well-maintained bar down an unknown side street, into the fictional Midnight Diner where this show predominantly takes place. This is a special bar, one with only a small menu yet the ability to serve almost anything on request after its unusual midnight opening. The Master of this bar is an old man, its customers an eclectic group of people who come and go like the seasons. Inside the bar, everyone is equal; inside the bar, everyone is heard.
What defined the first season of this series was this human element. Each episode, tangentially told around a thematic piece of food cooked by Master within the bar, explores the worries and concerns felt by many in daily life. Often these were relatively low-key affairs, and even when it allowed itself the freedom to be a little sillier, such as with season 1’s ‘Tonteki’ story about a woman who knits sweaters for the men she likes, there is often a moral to the stories told that is not only heartfelt but universal across borders.
The second Netflix series of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel in that regard. Where this series really steps things up, however, is in how it factors in the ways in which our senses can reinforce and remind us of our past, and how food itself, the drama’s central defining aspect, can bring people together.
Master’s Chicken and Rice
Nowhere is this idea felt more than in the show’s opening episode, a story that revolves around a famous game designer who grew up as an orphan after being abandoned. The only recollection they hold to their birth mother is the chicken and rice dish they used to make for them. Master’s chicken and rice brings memories of his childhood back to him, and it is this dish which could help them to reconnect and understand his past.
During a documentary that airs on TV about the development of his latest gaming project, we learn about how the dish was the meal he had on special occasions before his abandonment, leading to his mother visiting the bar to try it for themselves. While we never receive closure on this story during the episode, not entirely, the dish brings these blood-relatives together for the first time after all these years, the gap not yet closed but a connection being formed. Thanks to the dish, they find each other, are honest with their own feelings, and move forward. All they needed to do was reach out.
Netflix’s Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories – Finding Yourself in the Crowd
No matter the story being told, no matter how exaggerated or down to earth its premise, there’s a similar theme of connection found within every episode of this new series of the show. Netflix’s Midnight Diner encourages viewers to look inside themselves and reflect on their own memories, their joy and their sadness, their worries and their lives as a whole. Not only that, the stories it wants to share are stories where, just like life itself, the most important thing about them is the journey and not the destination.
Within the hustle and bustle of central Tokyo, it’s easy to forget about the human side of the city and the people who reside within it. While you may feel lost and alone, Midnight Diner serves as a reminder that the issues you overcome in your daily life are not too dissimilar to the ones faced by the nameless faces of those around you. Family struggles, cheating marriages, wasted potential, belief in yourself, these are all issues the patrons of Master’s bar are dealing with in their personal lives. While he isn’t there to solve your problems, he acts as an instigator for change and a bedrock of support in the crazy world we live in, and a reminder that we aren’t alone.
It’s easy to allow yourself to get lost in the crowd and become trapped within your own thoughts. Especially in the modern global landscape where human interaction is increasingly virtualized, even when you are connected through the internet to those you love, the inability to reach out and stand side by side with them can make you feel more alone than ever.
When I mention how this show is almost a rebuke to Netflix’s structure, it isn’t just because the melancholic, philosophical ideas it embodies make it a show best enjoyed in short bursts as opposed to binge-watching the entire series in a single evening. As streaming grows, with so much content at your fingertips, what reason does someone have to, say, go to the cinema with friends? Even though you can watch streaming content with others in the comfort of your own home, why bother meeting in person to do so when a voice call and a bit of coordination could simulate that same experience without even leaving your bed.
The internet is a wonderful tool for bringing people together, and it has personally allowed me to connect with so many people I would never have got to know otherwise. Yet it can also place an electronic barrier between you and others, while it can equally cause you to neglect the in-person relationships you once held dearly.
Netflix’s Midnight Diner reminds its viewers of the importance of human connection, as each episode tells a story of people coming together and humanity itself through a shared love of food. It’s a wonderful experience and one that can leave me laughing one minute and crying the next. It is essential viewing, in my opinion, and I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already.
And hey, if nothing else, the cooking tips hidden at the end of each episode might inspire you to make yourself a nice meal afterward. Personally, I want to try making some chicken cheese cutlets for myself sometime.
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories Season 1 and 2 are now streaming on Netflix.