You have to watch the first ten minutes of Food Wars!, an anime show streaming on Netflix, for a summary introduction to the gale-force absurdity of Japanese comedy. A disturbingly hot cartoon dad competes in a cook-off with his teenage son in smiling good faith. Hot Dad wins. Soma, the teen, goes off the deep end. When the schoolgirl who judged the cook-off approaches Soma shyly to say he did a good job, he shoves a fried squid tentacle in peanut butter into her mouth. “My body felt violated,” she quavers. In her mind, the squid, re-animated, slithers around her, squeezing her limb to slimy limb.
So far, so shunga (link very NSFW). But transforming the whole picture are Hot Dad and Squid Teen’s competition entries: two identical plates of fried rice, studded with green onion and shrimp, gleaming on the counter of their diner, looking for all they're worth like pirate treasure. If you’re watching it before a meal, it will make your eyes glaze over with desire. If you’re watching it on a full stomach, you will grind your teeth in unfulfilled frustration.
The combination of staccato, absurd manga storytelling, sitcom framing and food doesn’t produce high art. But there’s something about the low-brow entertainment of the Japanese food show that combines all these things to create something uniquely fascinating and memorable - and very lovable. Between Midnight Diner, Samurai Gourmet and Kantaro! The Sweet Tooth Salaryman, they overturn some of the more anxiety-inducing tendencies of food programming to make it safe again for us to eat, and cook, and laugh about both things.
It feels like Western food shows have long been in a testosterone-filled arms race, trying to entice men into admitting they like food. They’ve made it about Stone Age eating (bloodied meat, paleo proteins), militarised gear (knives, blow-torches, whatever computerised hot-pot they’re now hawking instead of pressure cookers) and capital-s science (read between the lines of this recent profile of food-blogging idol Kenji Lopez-Alt.) If there was a US-Marine-approved guidebook to forcing girls to eat squid tentacles, they’d lap it up.
In Japan, they make shows that overturn these expectations. The protagonist of Midnight Diner is a lean, scarred man with the bearing of a soldier, called ‘The Master.’ He could be a cop or a gangster; but he runs a tiny all-night kitchen where he cooks and serves up comforting home food. His voice is soft. His smiles are wry. He’ll make omelette-rice - the ubiquitous rice and tomato sauce with eggs - for a child whose father, a professional gambler, makes him stay up all night. He listens patiently to the story of an office worker’s horrible romantic misunderstanding with her handsome co-worker. He helps his night-owl customers make moments of happiness through small acts of compassion. The Master’s cooking is clean and simple, and above all things, nurturing. Midnight Diner isn’t about finding a home in a big, lonely metropolis: it’s about making one.
That omurice, and his egg tofu and corn dogs, represent another wonderful aspect of life in the Japanese food show: everyone eats for pleasure. The food can be simple or elaborate; restaurants can be historic and run by mad geniuses, or shacks where you go get pub lunch. You might dream of stalking the land like a samurai of old, but you are not unhappy to be yourself. The newly retired salaryman of Samurai Gourmet lives a small, self-sufficient life. Food is his adventure: in every episode, he steps out on some sort of errand, and diverts himself by taking a detour to some sort of restaurant. Drinking a second beer at lunch, or getting yakitori at a restaurant with a grumpy chef, are moments of high drama in his life; his alter-ego, a medieval warrior, takes over his imagination, enjoying the food as it’s meant to be. Naoko Takenaka, the actor who plays the retired Kasumi, turns in one of the easiest, most twinkly-eyed performances available in Netflix’s entire library of grimaces and gnashed teeth.
But even his limpid charm is eclipsed by the comic brilliance of the sweetest, most absurd hero of last year: the protagonist of Kantaro! The Sweet Tooth Salaryman. Kantaro is most like Food Wars! in its surrealism and sharp sense of the ridiculous - it’s also based on a manga, and glossily animated in parts (as when characters’ heads turn into the fruit they happen to be eating). The dessert-nerd blog Amablo is run by a diligent critic who calls himself ‘sweets_knight,’ and single-mindedly pursues great dessert. He knows Tokyo’s sweet shops like the back of his hand. He knows ever great chef, each detail of their histories, and the provenance of each ingredient in every dessert. He loves experimentation as much as tradition. His taste and craft make him one of the most formidable critics of the Tokyo sweets scene. He is Kantaro Ametani, a buttoned-up sales executive who gave up his programming job to work in publishing, so that he could play hooky on his field visits to go eat dessert.
Even total aliens can tell that the whole show is a comment on Japan’s unrealistically stressful work culture, and the fractures it produces in the imagination of salary men and -women under pressure. But it’s also a love letter to Tokyo (all the sweet shops featured in the show are real); an IRL anime that expertly walks the anarchic line between sexy and embarrassing; a celebration of sweetness; and sincerely, sublimely nuts. The kabuki actor Matsuya Onoe, who plays Kantaro, delivers a brilliantly uninhibited performance, full of ugly o-faces, feline smiles and deadpan line readings.
He makes it okay to like sugar again. As in both Midnight Diner and Samurai Gourmet, the idea is that it’s good to want things for yourself, and to let them make you happy. To watch them is to realise how many other shows about food are actually about guilt, or pride, or prestige. And that’s fine - when life gives you lemons, you must drink bitter lemonade. But when life gives you melons, as Kantaro would advise, make premium melon sherbet.
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