When people finish their day and hurry home, his day starts. His diner is open from midnight to seven in the morning. They call it “Midnight Diner”. He makes whatever customers request as long as he has the ingredients for it. That’s his policy. Does he even have customers? Well, more than you might expect…
My tradition over the past couple of years with these posts has been to list my top surprise anime from the year – titles that I didn’t have high expectations for, assuming they were on my radar at all, but which turned out to be far different (and typically far better) than anticipated. Unfortunately, 2020 was an incredibly sparse year for good anime, anticipated or not, and as I didn’t want to just rehash a top 5 list, I felt forced to rethink my plan.
I’ll admit, I’m not normally big on Japanese dramas. I watch them every now and again, but I wouldn’t call myself any kind of connoisseur when it comes to live-action shows, generally preferring to stick to my anime comfort zone. I chose to talk about Midnight Diner specifically for my end-of-year post for two main reasons (neither of which is because I think this show is the be-all and end-all of Japanese TV). First, I had no idea what sort of thing I was in for prior to watching and therefore had zero expectations. And second, it nonetheless turned out to be exactly the kind of thing I needed to watch given the total global shit-fest that was 2020, and I very much wanted to end the year on a positive note.
So, without further ado, let’s jump right into it. Midnight Diner (the final two seasons of which was released under the title Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, making a total of five seasons) is an anthology series based on the manga of the same name. Its only consistent main character is the unnamed master of the so-called Shinya Shokudou/Midnight Diner located somewhere in a backstreet of Shinjuku. As the sole owner, chef, and bartender of this small izakaya, Master whips up whatever his customers happen to request – so long as he has the ingredients for it on hand. Open from midnight to 7am, as you might expect, the izakaya sees all manner of customers come and go, from teachers to salarymen, novelists to student filmmakers, strippers to yakuza, most of whom seem to get along despite having seemingly little in common outside the confines of the Midnight Diner.
For me, one of the biggest draws of Midnight Diner is that at no point does the show appear to moralize. Each episode, presented as its own standalone story, has a different main character dealing with some challenge or issue in their day-to-day life, be it to do with work, family, romantic relationships, or simply self-identity. With such a colorful cast of regular clientele (among them, for example, a gossipy gay crossdresser who runs a bar in the same neighborhood, a yakuza boss, a divorced and moody alcoholic, and an exotic dancer struggling with her love life), you’d be forgiven for expecting a certain amount of criticism about these characters’ personal choices. To my delight, although Master often dispenses quiet and somewhat cryptic advice whenever he’s asked for it, you won’t find any sermons here. Midnight Diner isn’t a cooking show, yet it’s typically more interested in the food that’s dished up than placing any judgment on its cast, leaving it entirely up to the audience to decide whether or not they agree with what’s going on and how things ultimately resolve themselves. Much as in real life, almost nothing here is viewed in terms of black or white, and whether or not things end well for the character in question often has little to do with whether their decisions are “correct” in the eyes of mainstream Japanese society.
Of course, the other huge advantage of a title like Midnight Diner is that you can jump in almost anywhere. A purely episodic series that usually requires little to no familiarity with any of the cast to be able to follow along, I found it incredibly soothing to watch late at night myself – in fact, I often fell asleep to it. The vibe it presents, as I mentioned, is extremely non-judgmental, and if you do happen to slip off halfway through an episode or even begin watching mid-way through any of its five seasons, it takes very little effort to understand or appreciate the show for what it is: a generally calm and muted drama that rarely takes itself too seriously and acts as something of a balm to whatever 2020 might have thrown at you. Plus, there’s a usually pretty decent Christmas and/or New Year-themed episode to close out every season – so if Midnight Diner sounds up your alley but you don’t want to commit to the full 50 total episodes just yet (and if you’re in the mood for something end-of-year related but, like me, aren’t interested in your standard Hallmark-esque fare), these episodes could serve as a good jumping-off point.
Here endeth my unintentional review and Netflix ad for Midnight Diner. Wishing you happy holidays, however you choose to celebrate, and cheers to a hopefully brighter 2021.