Takeshi Kasumi has just turned sixty. He has just retired after decades of work as a Japanese salaryman, and he doesn’t really know what to do with himself anymore. After years of dedicating himself to his career and the betterment of his employers, he feels directionless in his old age. He spends his first day of freedom walking around, and he ends up at a small eatery that he must have passed thousands of times to and from work, but has only just noticed now. He orders some food, and notices that they serve beer. “A beer sounds great,” he thinks to himself, but it is midday, and he is afraid that people might judge him for drinking so early.
Here’s where things get weird. The scene around him changes. He is in what appears to the Tokugawa era of Japan in the very same eatery. The people around him are now dressed in clothes appropriate to that era. Takeshi’s attention is drawn to a lone samurai loudly eating and enjoying some sake. Some other diners take note of the samurai and chide him for drinking in the middle of the day. The samurai, undaunted, stands up and draws his sword. He uses the blade to carve a point on a chopstick, which he uses as a skewer for his food. The other diners back down.
Takeshi Kasumi is in the present again, and he is emboldened by the vision. He orders a beer, and for the first time in decades, the salaryman is truly free.
This is the synopsis of the very first episode of Samurai Gourmet, a Japanese show on Netflix. It is a food show, but it is unlike anything most people have probably seen. It shares some DNA with another Japanese drama, The Solitary Gourmet, which has been a hit for all of its six seasons in Japan. The two shows share creators, and have the same approach to this very specific subgenre of television where we watch people eat.
Rather than just have celebrity chefs or foodies wandering from restaurant to restaurant, just telling us what’s good, these shows put the experience into greater cultural and narrative contexts. These shows aren’t simply about watching people eat. These shows, through their succession of meals, paint a portrait of the life of a modern Japanese male.
The stories that they tell seem pretty lightweight, like wisps of narrative to get through before getting to the eating. But they provide all of the context that makes the meals meaningful. The shows treat the food as an opportunity for catharsis, the depicted struggles of everyday life fading away as the characters indulge in something tasty. In The Solitary Gourmet, a good lunch is like the reward for the hardworking salesman, a time of meditative nourishment that provides comfort and solace in a life that seems so entirely transitory.
Samurai Gourmet comes from a very different side of modern Japanese life. Takeshi is near the end of his life, and has been so consumed by his dedication to work that he doesn’t seem to have found the time to enjoy it. He is terribly conscious of the way that he is perceived, and this manifests as an overwhelming politeness that renders him unable to properly interact with the world around him. But in his dreams, there is a youthful samurai that serves no master, showing him the path to a more fulfilling everyday.
This is a strange show of gentle triumphs, a midday beer or a second serving of rice played as genuine celebrations. It isn’t a show about meals that are reserved for celebrity chefs or famous foodies. It is about the appreciation of the simplest components of a meal, and how that make that whole. This is where these shows really differ from the rest of food-centric television. The hosts of those other shows consume, express delight, and then just move on to the next thing. In these shows, the entire experience is relished, and the characters often emerge from these meals having changed. These dramas acknowledge that there can be something profound to the eating experience, and that there is more to life than adding to our Sissyphian checklist of places to eat before we die.