Midnight Diner (深夜食堂 Shinya Shokudou) is a pared back collection of short stories which takes place around the counter of a hole-in-the-wall eatery, and has all the warmth and subtle pleasure of a homely meal.
Directed by Joji Matsuoka, Midnight Diner is a film adaptation of Yaro Abe’s award winning manga series of the same name. Open in the small hours of the Tokyo night, the Midnight Diner is run by the laconic yet kind Master (Kaoru Kobayashi). Although the only item on his menu is his special pork soup, the Master will try and cook whatever his patrons request. It is a formula that attracts customers from all works of life, from the yakuza and a pair of quarrelling detectives to unlucky salarymen. Good cheer, heartache and quirkiness abound at meals, including a puzzling funerary urn that somebody has left behind.
Although the Master is the main character of Midnight Diner, the film is divided into short stories that are centred around the people who eat there, with chapters named after dishes like Japanese Neapolitan pasta and grated yam on rice. There is the demanding mistress Tamako (Saki Takaoka) and naïve businessman Hajime (Tokio Emoto), the young homeless Michiru (Mikako Tabe) who is taken under the Master’s wing and Fukushima volunteer Akemi (Akiko Kikuchi), troubled by the romantic advances of Kenzo (Michitaka Tsutsui). The Master never offers specific solutions to their problems – their stories simply unfold by themselves, coaxed by the diner’s easy atmosphere. These are tales that span the spectrum of daily human drama, including love, loss, heartbreak and self-discovery. The patrons make for a motley yet oddly familial crew, which is greatly helped by the stellar work of the supporting cast.
Although all of the vignettes are enjoyable, the story of Michiru in the middle of the film is more fully developed and engaging than the others and leaves the film feeling a little unbalanced. This imbalance could make the film feel a little overlong for some viewers.
This film is not a glamorous food porn blitz. However, the simple dishes whipped up by the Master will leave you with cravings for not only something tasty, but the human connection that a meal can bring. If you’re looking for high-stakes drama, Midnight Diner is probably not for you. Instead, Matsuoka’s work highlights the stories that abound in and enrich our everyday lives. The pace of the film is relaxed but never drags, a reflection of the respite that the diner offers in the frantic Tokyo metropolis. The cinematography is inviting, giving the viewer a front-row seat at the counter with a beer and the Master busy in the kitchen. Despite the fact that the stories have little connection in their plots, human curiosity keeps the audience guessing, reminiscent of anecdotes that come to light during meals with family or friends.
Midnight Diner is uncomplicated and well-executed cinema that will leave your heart warmed and your stomach in need of a good home-cooked Japanese curry. This film is best enjoyed late at night and savoured in good company.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Catch the Japanese Film Festival in Adelaide October 30-November 8, Sydney November 5-15 and Melbourne November 26-December 6.
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