In September 1982, TV audiences in the US and Canada began watching a weekly show about a handful of oddball characters enjoying each other’s company over a few beer at a Boston pub. CHEERS went on for 11 seasons, introducing us to such endearing and wonderfully flawed characters as Sam, Diane, Carla, Norm, Cliff, Coach, Woody, Frasier, Lilith and Rebecca, and earning a place in history as one of the most beloved and successful shows ever on American television.
In 2009, TV audiences in Japan began watching a 10-episode show about a handful of oddball characters enjoying each other’s company over bowls of tonjiru (pork miso soup) at a tiny Tokyo diner. Based on a popular manga (comic book), MIDNIGHT DINER returned for a second season in 2011 followed by a big screen adaptation in 2015. Its sequel is out now.
Why were CHEERS and MIDNIGHT DINER so successful? My guess is that it can be summed up in the theme song for CHEERS. These are both places where “everybody knows your name”. There is something immensely comforting about going to a place where you are recognized and made to feel special even if it’s only a basement bar or a pint-sized eatery that is open from midnight to dawn. Everyone can relate to these characters because we are one of them or perhaps parts of many of them.
If you’re not familiar with the MIDNIGHT DINER TV series or even the first film, don’t let that stop you from seeing this sequel. Although the characters have been together for a while, they and “Master”, the diner’s proprietor (played by Kobayashi Kaoru/小林薫), make everyone who comes there feel right at home. In addition to the requisite beer and sake, there is only one item on this eatery’s menu – pork miso soup, but few people order it and that’s just fine with Master. He’s happy to make whatever you want, whether it’s an exquisitely made omelette, a napori (“Neapolitan”, or Japanese spaghetti) or fried udon. Because of this warm mix of home cooking and intimacy, the regulars come back night after night. They include the local yakuza (gangsters), the old man who sells wind-chimes from his push cart, the neighbour who runs a nearby soba shop, the police officer who works out of the neighbourhood kōban (police box), the pair of aging transvestites, the madam who runs the nearby geisha house and the young woman who started out as a teen runaway and ended up getting a job as a cook in the madam’s kitchen.
The story’s structure remains consistent throughout the series – each time we are introduced to three new characters who come into the diner and interact with Master and the regulars. In this installment, the first plot deals with a young woman who attends funerals to avoid getting picked up by men. (The Japanese love their fetishes!) Her arrival at the diner dressed in black naturally makes the regulars curious and they all weigh in with their opinions, first with trying to figure out what she’s up to and later, when they find out, commenting on her modus operandi. The second plot takes on a more serious tone when an old woman from Hiroshima arrives at the diner a little worse for wear. It turns out she was scammed out of her savings by someone who preyed on her insecurities. As the regulars start learning her story, it’s Michiru (Tabe Mikako/多部未華子), the former runaway, who steps up and takes the woman under her wing. As Michiru tells the others, it was Master who helped her when she was down on her luck; now it’s her turn to pay it forward. The third plot deals with the son of the neighbour who runs the soba shop. He can’t see himself taking over his mother’s business, which causes much distress to his mother who treats him like a child. He’s secretly seeing a woman who is much older than himself and they’d like to get married but he’s afraid that his mother will never approve. Hilarity ensues when the two women meet at the diner and strike up a conversation not knowing who the other one is.
It doesn’t take long before we feel we’ve known these characters for as long as they’ve known each other. Interspersed between the intrigue, quips and jokes is a fair bit of food porn, though it’s nothing compared to JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI from a few years back. In interviews, Kobayashi has said that he learned to make all foods we see Master prepare for his customers. Though the finished product is no doubt done by a chef, Kobayashi looks very much at home behind the counter and in Master’s kitchen.
MIDNIGHT DINER 2 is as soothing as a delicious bowl of hot soup on a cold day. Check it out and, if you have a chance, watch the first film too. I think the sequel is better than the original but they’re both delightfully sweet and amusing.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 31:10.)
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