'Midnight Diner' ('Shinya Shokudo'): Shanghai Review

Midnight Diner Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Shogakukan/Shinya Shokudo Film Production Committee

Midnight Diner Still - H 2015

Subtle, sentimental soup for the soul

Yaro Abe's Japanese manga set in a late-night eatery makes the leap to the big screen and territories beyond.

An adaptation of a long-running manga revolving around the comings and goings at a small snack bar in downtown Tokyo, Japanese director Joji Matsuoka’s latest offering is as simple in its aesthetics as the egg rolls and stir-fry spaghetti repeatedly made and served onscreen. Compared to the banquet of a narrative in his epoch-skipping 2007 hit Tokyo Tower: Mom and Me, and Sometimes Dad, Midnight Diner is a more homey meal built around three narrative strands, each reflecting the slow-burning sentiments felt by the people living in the margins of a glimmering metropolis.

Matsuoka is no stranger to Yaro Abe’s nine-year-old comic, having helmed episodes over three seasons of a TV adaptation, the last of which aired in 2014. While the film version does reprise some key stylistic elements of the small-screen incarnation  — the trademark opening sequence of a traveling shot showing Tokyo at night, episodes named after the dishes cooked up at the eatery  — Matsuoka has strived (and succeeded) in making Midnight Diner cinematic.

Leaving out the pans, the incessant voiceovers and inevitable bursts of melodrama which shaped the TV series, Matsuoka makes use of cinematic space by adding plentiful wide shots of unforgiving urban landscapes looming large over the characters, giving the film the feel of a meditation on modern urban life in Japan, with existential and social crises galore.

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While offering subtle food for thought on social inequality, urban-rural divides and the fallout of the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, Midnight Diner is, at its core, tasteful human drama, spiced up by its plentiful scenes of meals being made, served and consumed. Since its release in Japan in January, Midnight Diner has enjoyed robust returns in Taiwan (opening on April 30) and Hong Kong (May 28)  two territories which have long lapped up Japanese culinary-themed films and soap operas with relish. Its June 18 release in South Korea  — ahead of the bow of a local TV adaptation of Abe's manga  — should generate further international success, followed by a boost in profile in China after screenings at the Shanghai International Film Festival.

In contrast to the hyper-modern, neon-blighted streetscapes at the film's start, Midnight Diner unfolds like a throwback to a more austere age. Located in a dank back alley with its decor tarnished by years of cooking fumes and cigarette smoke, the titular eatery has a menu offering just pork stew and drinks. But the owner of the eatery, known as The Master (Kaoru Kobayashi, leading the line as he did in the series), would readily cook anything to order  — a human touch which has made his joint a gathering place for a band of quirky down-and-out regulars (all of them reprising their TV roles).

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Just as in the TV series, this Greek chorus of supporting players (plus the appearances of brand-name characters like Jo Odagiri and Yuko Tanaka) exists for comic effect or commentary, just as the Master serves as the narrative's moral fulcrum. What motors Midnight Diner are the transitory characters bringing their life stories to the counter.

There's the nightclub hostess Tamako (Saki Takaoka), who's in a rebound relationship with nerdy salesman Hajime (Tokio Emoto) after the death of her tycoon lover; young provincial runaway Michiru (Mikako Tabe), who's learning cooking at the Master's eatery, in the process revealing the reason she ended up in Tokyo; and Akemi (Akiko Kikuchi), a young office worker trying to brush off the aggressive advances of Kenzo (Michitaka Tsutsui), a man she helped while volunteering with the survivors of the tsunamis (and then nuclear plant leakages) which hit northeastern Japan in 2011.

While these tales offer few surprises, there's refreshingly little in the way of histrionics or contrived closure. Ryo Ohtsuka's camerawork helps shake off Midnight Diner's small-screen origins, while Mitsuo Harada's production design (and "food stylist" Nami Iijima's culinary direction) ensure the viewer is ensconced in a warm and often gently melancholic atmosphere. While not exactly haute cinematic cuisine, Matsuoka's film offers a plain and fulfilling supper.

Production company: Shinya Shokudo Film Production Committee

Cast: Kaoru Kobayashi, Saki Takaoka, Joe Odagiri, Mikako Tabe, Akiko Kikuchi

Director: Joji Matsuoka

Screenwriters: Katsuhiko Manabe, Joji Matsuoka, based on the comic book series by Yaro Abe

Producers: Shogo Ishizuka, Ryuhei Tsutsui

Executive producers: Tomoaki Harada, Shinichiro Tsuzuki, Naoya Kinoshita, Shigeyuko Endo, Tamotsu Osano, Masao Honda,  Masamichi Iwase,

Directors of photography: Ryo Ohstuka

Art director:  Mitsuo Harada

Costume designer: Masae Miyamoto

Food stylist: Nami Iijima

Editor: Shinichi Fushima

Casting: Natsuko Mori

Music: Tunekichi Suzuki, Kimie Fukuhara, Keisuke Hinami

International Sales: Toei

In Japanese

No rating; 119 minutes