‘Samurai Gourmet’ explores the art of the meal

by

Special To The Japan Times

In the first episode of Japan’s latest contribution to original Netflix programming, “Samurai Gourmet,” Takeshi Kasumi enters a small teishoku (set meal) joint and grapples over whether to have a beer with lunch. Inspired by an imaginary samurai, he gets one. That’s it.

For viewers in Japan, the 20-minute show is filled with the hallmarks of domestic food programming. What viewers outside of Japan may not realize is this type of televised fare is as Japanese as anime or sushi. Sure, many countries have food shows, but Japan has set the bar particularly high. They don’t just teach you how to cook, they teach you how to savor. The cooking shots are in slow motion and close up, there’s a soft focus on the preparation, and the act of eating is climactic.

In “Samurai Gourmet” (“Nobushi no Samurai”), Kasumi enjoys his beer with an eggplant-and-pepper stir-fry (though the camera spends as much time on the meals of the other diners in the restaurant). As he takes his first bite, we’re on the edge of our seats … is he going to say “oishii” (“delicious”) or “umai” (also “delicious,” but a little more masculine)? He closes his eyes and declares … “umai!” Forget “Game of Thrones,” this is Japanese drama. (A side note, if you find yourself at a Japanese home for dinner, the “oishii” verdict is crucial in maintaining positive cross-cultural relations.)

With most of the emphasis on eating, I asked “Samurai Gourmet” star Naoto Takenaka, who plays Kasumi, if nailing the reaction is more difficult on the screen than it is at the dinner table.

“Yes, eating can be hard, but I’ve never distinguished it from other facets of acting,” Takenaka, 61, says with a grin. “I’ll tell you what was harder, it was running into Yutaka Matsushige and feeling a pang of jealousy because he has turned the act of eating alone into an art form.”

The man Takenaka is referring to is the star of “Solitary Gourmet” (“Kodoku no Gurume”), which has run for five seasons on TV Tokyo and begins its sixth today. The shows are connected through artist and essayist Masayuki Qusumi, who came up with the original plot and storylines for both. When “Solitary Gourmet” came out in 2012, it was a game-changer: It not only added a dramatic narrative to the traditional gourmet format, but also highlighted the solitary eating habits of the older Japanese male.

In urban areas, men of a certain age seem to prefer eating alone, and the narrator declares how a table for one is the only place where a man can be truly free — liberated from social, familial and work obligations and sating his own hunger. For a brief moment, he can digest his meal with a side of his inner philosophical musing. Japanese viewers affectionately referred to “Solitary Gourmet” as “shoku tero” (“food terrorism”) in that it sparked ferocious cravings in the middle of the night (thanks to its late-night time slot) when most restaurants were closed.

“Believe me, (Matsushige is) a tough act to follow,” Takenaka continues. “It’s not something I or anyone else could imitate. I had to carve out my own style, and my own approach to the food, and that was the hardest part.”

Both programs are part cooking spectacle, part dissecting of the Japanese male’s psyche — with a splash of melancholy thrown in. Where the 12 episodes of “Samurai Gourmet” mainly differ is with the protagonist. Unlike the middle-aged businessman of “Solitary Gourmet,” Kasumi is newly retired and has a fertile imagination that takes the form of a nobushi (hermit) samurai (Tetsuji Tamayama). When a situation threatens his masculinity (already fragile due to retirement), the samurai appears and shows him how to handle the situation with traditional machismo. His foils include a Chinese waitress, millennials and noisy diners.

“When they first gave me the script, I was a bit overwhelmed. I thought I’d have to do double duty as the samurai,” Takenaka says. “That wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as the setup we have now. The samurai is a part of Kasumi’s imagination, but isn’t Kasumi himself. And I think it’s fun to suddenly see a samurai in 21st-century Tokyo. The venue and the situation remain the same, it’s just that there’s a samurai on the premises and the staff are all in period costumes.”

Much like his “Samurai Gourmet” character often does, Takenaka gets a bit nostalgic during our interview.

“When I was at Tama Art University, we used to make period movies using this same method,” he recalls. “We couldn’t afford to build a set, but we could somehow get the costumes. So this project was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me.”

Takenaka is a native of Yokohama and began his career as a musician and actor in the 1980s. He has won numerous awards, including three Japan Academy Prizes for supporting roles in “Shiko Funjatta” (1992), “East Meets West” (1995) and “Shall We Dance?” (1996).

While much of “Samurai Gourmet” finds Kasumi wandering around Tokyo looking for meals and imagining his way out of awkward situations, at home he shares a comfortable existence with his wife, Shizuko (Honami Suzuki). Interestingly, the only time they venture out together is on the occasion of their wedding anniversary. Any student of Japanese marital relationships will get a kick out of their awkward conversation as they shop for a gift (hers), and pick out a place to have a few drinks and share a meal (oden). Kasumi and his wife have been together for decades; theirs is not a passionate liaison but one defined by peace and a sense of relief at having come this far in their lives without any disasters.

“Honami Suzuki is a very lovely person,” Takenaka says when asked about his co-star. “She makes people feel relaxed and has the ability to call attention to herself without exerting any pressure on her surroundings, which I feel is the Japanese woman’s most wonderful quality. About the marriage thing … well, I think Kasumi has it better than many. I mean, when you reach a certain age you want real companionship and trust, right?”

Much of “Samurai Gourmet,” however, sees Kasumi coming to terms with his new position in life. He may no longer be one of Japan’s corporate samurai, but he can find comfort in the philosophies of the wandering samurai of the past. Unlike his character, though, Takenaka stresses that he himself abhors eating alone.

“Overseas viewers may think that solitary eating — especially among Japanese men — is part of the culture here, but I have to say that is not true,” he says. “I never eat alone if I can help it. I mean, I just feel so lonely, the food loses its taste and it’s no fun. Sometimes, when I’m on location and I’m on a break I find myself wandering into some restaurant or cafe all alone and it’s just awful. Japanese or not, some of us refuse to eat by ourselves, and I’m one of them.”

“Samurai Gourmet” is now streaming on Netflix Japan at www.netflix.com.

Netflix and chow

Japanese screens are rife with scenes of people cooking and eating because this nation is obsessed with food. Here are some of the best food-related flicks streaming out of the kitchen:

“Tampopo”
The 1985 movie that put director Juzo Itami’s name on the map and alerted the world to the range and depth of the Japanese eating experience. (Available for rent and on Amazon Japan)

“Shinya Shokudo” (“Midnight Diner”)
Japanese food drama at its best, this series features a fictional diner in the darkest area of Shinjuku where strippers, yakuza, gay bar “hostesses” and other characters drop in to eat and chat. (Now streaming on Netflix and Amazon Japan)

“Otoko Meshi”
A jewel of a TV mini-series that combined yakuza aesthetics with everyday eating, it’s deliciously fun and instructive. (Now available on Hulu)

“Onna Kudoki Meshi”
The title roughly implies finding love through a meal, and eight different men try their hand at sweeping a woman off her feet in a swanky Tokyo restaurant of their choice. (Now available on Amazon Japan)