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At the close of its opening credits sequence, Netflix’s The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House splashes its title over a close-up shot of a meal. What meal specifically varies from episode to episode, depending on what the characters eat in any given one. Invariably, however, it’s some form of home-cooked comfort food: oyakodon or tomato curry or stewed eggplant, often still bubbling in the pot.
The dishes aren’t necessarily pretty, by the standards of your typical foodie show, nor do they look particularly fancy or original. But that’s precisely their appeal. They’re simple, straightforward, deceptively humble and irresistibly cozy — much like the series itself.
The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House
Cast: Nana Mori, Natsuki Deguchi, Aju Makita, Keiko Matsuzaka, Ai Hashimoto, Mayu Matsuoka, Takako Tokiwa
Showrunner: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Adapted from the manga by Aiko Koyama, The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House centers on a rare adventure. At the start of the series, 16-year-old best friends Kiyo (an irrepressibly sunny Nana Mori) and Sumire (Natsuki Deguchi) strike out from their rural hometown of Aomari for Kyoto, intending to train as maiko (apprentice geiko, or geisha). But where Sumire proves to be a quick study, impressing her teachers with her natural poise and quiet determination, clumsy Kiyo finds herself on the verge of being cut from the program entirely — until she finds a new calling as a makanai (traditional cook), responsible for feeding the roughly half a dozen maiko and two managers who live under one roof.
Writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda brings to The Makanai some of the same tenderness and compassion that’s made films like Broker and Shoplifters so beloved. (Megumi Tsuno, Hiroshi Okuyama and Takuma Sato wrote and directed episodes along with Kore-eda; Mami Sunada is additionally credited as a writer.) Though it’s technically serialized — with the nine-episode season unfolding over the course of a year and leading up to Sumire’s official debut as a full-fledged maiko — its individual chapters serve up a slice-of-life intimacy. The ongoing narrative is defined not by dramatic twists but by an eye for mundane details and an ear for the familiar rhythms of the everyday: the idle chatter among roommates at breakfast, the rush of preparations before a performance, the scrape of a shovel over snow.
Granted, it’s an everyday that may not feel particularly recognizable to foreigners who may come in knowing next to nothing about the culture of geiko in modern-day Japan. And The Makanai doesn’t do much in the way of hand-holding, trusting that audiences will be able to absorb the traditions and relationships that define this society without awkward exposition dumps. As such, it may take a few episodes for viewers to get their bearings amid the intricate rituals, sprawling supporting cast and not-quite-translatable Japanese terms. (I get the general concept of a makanai, for instance, but still couldn’t explain it to someone else in any real detail.)
But that’s hardly a detriment, when The Makanai makes it such a pleasure simply to be in this world, in the presence of these characters. Kiyo and Sumire’s unshakable bond becomes a warm and fuzzy anchor for the whole season as the pair giggle over a shared slice of cake or sigh over memories of home. The two are so in sync that their housemates compare them to a married couple of 30 years. If it seems slightly implausible that nary a trace of jealousy or impatience ever seems to pass between them, that, too, is part of the fantasy cast by The Makanai — that of a single, perfect friendship.
Gradually, the other maiko, geiko and various friends, clients and helpers surrounding them also come into clearer focus; such is The Makanai‘s unassuming humanity that even relatively minor characters, like the bartender pouring after-work cocktails for the geiko night after night, have the texture of complete people. But Ai Hashimoto is a particular standout as star geiko Momoko, whose refined public persona belies a wry sense of humor and a hardcore passion for horror movies. (In one of the season’s most purely amusing installments, she gets to parlay that fandom into her work with the eager, impressionable maiko.) And the fraught relationship between house mother Azusa (Takako Tokiwa) and her non-maiko teenage daughter Ryoko (Aju Makita) makes for one of The Makanai‘s most bittersweet subplots.
Their arc, like the others, is cast in muted, melancholic tones. The conflicts and tragedies that arise in The Makanai are rarely the stuff of screaming matches or impassioned declarations. They’re more likely to play out in misty eyes, a barely repressed sigh, a conversation that seems to land everywhere but on the one topic its participants are too timid to acknowledge head-on. Likewise, the joys tend to be minor, and no less touching for being so: Kiyo spends one entire 45-ish-minute chapter trying to scrape up tickets to enter a lottery for a bread machine at a local store, and practically squeals with glee every time a friend thinks to pass one along.
The flip side of The Makanai‘s intimacy is a lack of scope. Aside from irregular check-ins with a couple of Kiyo and Sumire’s loved ones still in Aomari, the series remains resolutely focused on the insular lives of its cloistered characters. It offers little sense of how Kiyo and Sumire’s yakata (geisha house) fits into the larger Kyoto community, for instance, or how their traditional art form might be evolving over time.
There are occasional references to the arguably outdated rules guiding geiko life (among other things, no cell phones are allowed in the maiko house, and geiko must retire if they get married) but they register as blips in this otherwise comfortably regimented existence. For all the warnings passed from older geiko to younger maiko about the hardships of this particular calling — and for all the attention paid to unexpected small challenges, like the difficulties of trying to fall asleep while keeping intricate traditional hairstyles intact — The Makanai‘s portrait of it feels pleasantly idealized.
But that’s precisely what makes it such a soothing watch. Real life can be hard and uncertain, full of unpleasant shocks or harsh reversals. The Makanai doesn’t eschew those realities entirely, but absorbs them into its simpler, gentler world — one guided by timeworn rituals, populated by caring souls and nourished by the rib-sticking stews concocted by a friend, in an act of pure, undiluted love.
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