Terrace House has become Netflix Japan's breakout international hit — and with good reason — but for my money it runs second place to another of the streaming service's Japanese shows. Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories follows the owner and clientele of a tiny Tokyo restaurant, telling short, touching stories of family, friendship, and humanity in the heart of urban sprawl.
Like Terrace House, Midnight Diner had a life before Netflix, existing as a manga, a TV drama, and a movie before the streaming company bought the rights as part of its Japanese expansion. But that doesn't mean you'll need to bone up on years of back story to dial into the new series.
The salient facts are simple: the owner of the diner, known to his customers as "Master," only opens his restaurant from midnight to 7AM, and serves a revolving cast of diner customers, both regulars and visitors. Master serves only pork miso soup as standard, but will make anything his customers ask for — assuming he has the ingredients at hand. Each episode is loosely based around these dishes, but despite the lingering cooking shots and neatly presented dishes, it's not a foodie show.
Instead, each meal is a springboard for stories that deal with the customers' various problems. They're heavy issues, too. The acceptance of international marriages, familial piety, the stresses of parenthood, the regret of wasted lives, the panic of a porn collection being found after death — all are focuses of the show’s short episodes.
The people they happen to are drawn in broad strokes. Some are lifted straight from anime or Japanese TV dramas, the kind of stereotypes defined by their jobs, their age, or their gender. There are occasional visits from porn-obsessed college students, hyper-aggressive gigolos, overly doting mother figures, waster fathers, and supremely shy young women. Others are more nuanced, like adult movie star “Erect” Oki, who radiates calm confidence, and a young real estate agent who flips traditional gender norms to learn how to knit.
A handful of characters make more regular appearances, including cherubic old man Chu-chan — whose flat-brimmed baseball cap seems glued to his head — and a trio of gossipy women who offer their opinion in every situation. These characters seem to exist as manifestations of the room itself. Chu-chan, in particular, might as well be a Yokai: one of the countless supernatural figures from Japanese folklore. Having spent three years of my own life living on the edges of a small Japanese city, I swear I’ve seen him in real life, waving cheerily as he passes on his bike or propping up the corner of a local izakaya.
Above all of these characters is Master. He's a detached presence most of the time, content to sit in the back of the diner and smoke as his customers chat, bicker, and laugh among themselves. When he does step in, it's usually with a piece of sage advice, his calming voice soothing arguments and helping people see sense.
Master intersects with his customers' lives briefly, catching specific moments while they eat and let their guard down. The show takes us a little further, giving us glimpses into their daily routines, but it's not much more. The rest is instead left for the viewer to fill in, to imagine what characters were doing before they arrived at the diner, where they go after, and how they live. This is how Midnight Diner deploys its most powerful storytelling tool: the sense of place.
Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s busiest districts. It’s the kind of place you might think about when you think about modern Japan: a dense, bright, and noisy warren of bars, electronics stores, and infamous robot restaurants, where vast LCD screens scream advertisements and offers from the side of every building. It's also the district the Midnight Diner calls home, supposedly tucked away in a back street mystically separated from the din of the pachinko parlors and traffic.
Such oases of silence do exist in Shinjuku, but everything about the area around the diner suggests this is something different, something otherworldly. Locals sit out on the street together and share peppery black cider, an idyllic summer scene playing out in the midst of the city, while street sellers hawk squawking wind-up toys. It's like nostalgia brought to life — an effect amplified by the half-light of early morning, which coats diner scenes in a weird haze. Major story beats, on the other hand, like fights, chance meetings, or climactic mahjong games, almost invariably happen outside in the cold light of day.
When the floating green ghost of a patron’s mother appears outside of the diner, demanding to be let in, it almost feels normal. The message is clear: the square, and the diner, are spaces outside of reality.
It's a place where everyone bows to the Master, and everyone is hungry — where porn star and physicist, famous actor and failed talent sit and eat beside each other. Customers who step into the diner are stepping out of the physical plane, and into their own heads, like a slightly seedy reimagining of Pixar's Inside Out. The bar's regulars play the parts of visitors' personalities, chiding and congratulating them for their decisions and actions, while the Master acts as the arbiter of common sense, stepping out to provide wisdom only when entirely necessary.
The Master himself is less a man, more an anthropomorphic conscience, his wicked scar and soothing voice suggesting he's already learned all there is to know about life. While other patrons come and go, grow up and die, it feels like the Master will endure forever, operating his tiny diner on geological time. He doesn't pry for gossip, doesn't press decisions on people, doesn't hurry through life. He languorously smokes cigarettes on his tiny balcony instead, waiting for midnight to come, and his shift to start.
Unlike Terrace House, his customers aren't aspiring models and actors. They're love-hotel maids, escorts, gamblers, and bums, people who get overlooked in the noisiest corner of a city of tens of millions. Midnight Diner's powerful sense of place makes the restaurant feel like Shinjuku's own reflex response to these forgotten people, giving them a place to escape from their tough lives, and a patient ear to hear their stories.