Trying to comprehend Japan is a hard by worthy endeavor. I lived there for three years and decades later I’m still learning. Sometimes you run into a gem that’s both fun and helps you along the way.
Lost among the extreme amount of worthless nonsense that Netflix puts out is a 2017 short series in Samurai Gourmet. It lasted only one season of twelve episodes, each a short bite no longer than about twenty minutes each. It wasn’t renewed for another season because Netflix is dumb.
The show focuses on Takeshi Kasumi played by all-purpose multi-talented actor Naoto Takenaka. Kasumi is a 60 year old recently retired salaryman (sararīman) who goes on food based adventures.
A lot of this is straight food porn, but hell so much of television is nowadays. And I find the food aspects interesting but that’s not the real appeal. At its core this is a lighthearted comedy about a guy starting a new (and perhaps his first) real stage of his life. It’s also just plain darn fun, a fact I constantly have whined about on this degenerate blog as missing from much of modern television.
Kasumi is shadowed by the neat, unique concept where his alter-ego is a Sengoku Jidai era samurai (Tetsuji Tamayama) who shares the same experiences but is a badass whereas Kasumi is still figuring out who he is as a person. Essentially if you have any interest in Japan, or food, or just want a fun comedic ride, this is for you. But a few key points I’ll make without getting into the plot, such as it is.
1) Kasumi retires at 60 after working for the same corporation for forty years and ended at essentially middle management. It’s typical sararīman. At more than one point he remarks that he walked to and from the same train station every day for decades and never took a detour. The show (wisely, because it would break the fun) doesn’t dwell on the absolute misery of the life of a sararīman. The punishing hours, the demeaning work, the lack of independence, and absolute total deference one must show to one’s superiors regardless of their brutality or lack of talent. When you understand what being a sararīman really is, it makes Kasumi’s adventures mean so much more. He’s finally free to be his own person, and now that he has that freedom, he’s on an adventure to discover who that person is.
The very first episode he dwells at his anxiety that he cannot possibly have a beer with lunch, oh no, that’s not proper. For a sararīman, beer is for late night mandatory after work events with your boss where you get plastered and arrive home after your wife’s already asleep. But in the episode, Kasumi orders the lunch beer, it’s a release for him. The very first step on his journey to be free, a person he actually wants to be. In many ways, and this is where Naoto nails this performance, Kasumi is also still emotionally a little boy. He wife (Honami Suzuki) has a remark in episode three that’s telling where Kasumi has to overnight at an inn and she’s astounded because he’s never been alone all his life. He grew up with his parents, lived with them through university, and moved out when he got married. Now who he is? Sometimes they intersperse scenes from his childhood, before he became a sararīman, which is of course a perfect foil for what happened to him the past four decades. He’s a free child, had a punishing four decade gap, and now? That’s the core of the show.
2) The other major theme is Kasumi and Shinzuko’s marriage. If you want to understand what a lot of Japanese marriages might be like, particularly in the sararīman theme, here you go. There is a deep respect between the two, but essentially they barely know each other and lead completely different lives. He was a four decade sararīman. It’s never mentioned if they had children. It’s never mentioned if she had a job, because she probably didn’t. She has her own hobbies, she’s completely independent of him, and you clearly get the idea that she really doesn’t need this guy at all to be happy. She cooks for him and helps him here and there but otherwise one could mistake this for a loveless soulless marriage.
I don’t think it is one. They never actually say the word love, but I think it’s there. The closest they come to it is late in the season where they go out for their anniversary. And they both joke about how they hardly ever did this, or even went out to eat together at all. There’s an extremely emotional, even romantic moment where Kasumi opens up to her in a way he probably never has. But the word love isn’t there. He simply states, nearly but subtly tear eyed (Naoto is a superb actor), “I ask for your continued support.” And she says the same back. It reminds me of The Fiddler on the Roof song Do You Love Me? These two people have been together a very, very long time, haven’t had the easiest of lives, and have just somehow made it work. They’re together and in love even if they’ve never realized it’s happening in such a way. I think their marriage would have been explored a great deal more had Netflix not cancelled the show.
3) The samurai parts are fairly typical, but just fun. Tetsuji is cut from cloth to play this era of samurai and it’s such a joy. But they keep it short, and leave you wanting more. Tetsuji is only on screen for maybe two minutes of each episode. But each vignette is a good look at that era of Japanese culture and contains countless thoughts on war, class, etc, etc that are short but on point.
4) The food parts are the food parts. It’s indeed modern food porn. But if you like Japanese food you get the usual oden, yakitori, yakiniku, etc, etc. There’s also a surprisingly large amount of times, about a 1/3 a think, where Kasumi goes and pursues Western style dishes with their own Japanese twist. If you like this kind of food (I worship it) then this will leave you hungry as it should. I went to a local yakitori place off this show’s cravings alone last week. The result? It sucked, I was so disappointed the place failed. Why can’t I live three train stops from Shinjuku? We need teleporters to be invented, right now.
5) A pox on you Netflix, did we really need another season of Bridgerton? How much did that cost them to make, ~$124M? I think the budget for Samurai Gourmet is about five bucks. And it’s more emotionally engaging and thought provoking. It’s been five years, so this is a dead show. But it is very much worth anyone’s time. It’s fun, enjoy the ride.