Concise storytelling is one of the hallmarks of Japanese dramas, and the good ones make sure scenes contribute to plot, characterisation and the overall big picture. This is even more evident when it comes to dramas whose episodes are at most 25 mins each – you need to tell a story in that period of time and not leave the viewer feeling shortchanged. Fortunately, when Japan does something like this, it tends to do it well, as both Neko Zamurai and Shinya Shokudo will attest. The two dramas are slightly different in the sense that Neko Zamurai is one whole story divided into 12 episodes of 20 minutes each, while Shinya Shokudo is more episodic with loose connections between stories. But they both leave you wanting more.
1. Neko Zamurai
A friend had told me about Neko Zamurai some time before the broadcast of the first season, saying this was just the drama for me since I’m such a cat slave. But it wasn’t until recently that I actually sat down to watch it, and I’m glad I did because it’s such an adorable romp and has all the elements that hit my sweet spot. The plot is simple: Once a feared swordsman, Madarame Kyutaro (Kitamura Kazuki) is poor and now lives quietly on his own. He doesn’t know how to earn a living without his sword and still hopes to find service with a clan. One day, Madarame is approached by Sakichi for an unusual task – to kill a white cat called Tamanojo belonging to Sakichi’s master Yozaemon, who has become besotted with the kitty and has neglected the business. For the sake of money, Madarame reluctantly accepts the task, but finds himself unable to lay a finger on the adorable kitty. He lies to Sakichi he has done the deed, and then spends the rest of the drama learning how to be a cat slave.
The episodes tread familiar ground for any human who has cats at home. Through a few incidents, and some not-so-subtle prodding from Oshichi (Takahashi Kaori), the owner of Nekomiya (your Edo-period equivalent of a cat-care store), Madarame learns how to take care of Tamanojo and eventually becomes so attached to her that he’s sad to return her to Yozaemon. The fun parts come from Madarame’s grudging acceptance of Tamanojo in his life – he learns to bathe and feed her (cooking his special meow meal for her), plays with her, is aghast that he’s taken to talking to the cat, annoyed that she pees on him and upsets his attempts to make umbrellas (to sell for a living). In a way, Tamanojo saves Madarame from making one of the biggest mistakes of his life, and it’s really heartening to see their deepening bond. I also love how the drama is all cat. There’s an Edo cat cafe, haha, a sly nod to the many such places dotting modern-day Japan. There are also plenty of cat lovers in the drama – Oshichi, an old man who has five cats, the kids and abbot of the temple, and even the police chief! And there are tons of cat-related puns and wordplay, but they’re so funny and everyone had such a blast doing it that it didn’t come across as cheesy at all.
As a cat lover, I am very pleased that the drama emphasised throughout that cats come and go, and we don’t really own them – at most, we love and care for them, provide them with food and shelter, and do our best to ensure their safety, but they have a mind of their own and we’re not their master. This is really how cats are and every cat lover knows this basic principle. In this end, Yozaemon understands this principle too and lets Tamanojo return to Madarame, because it’s clear the cat knows who she wants to be with. And the way our gruff samurai cradles the kitty knowing they’ll be together for good got me real teary. I guess one reason I’d held off watching this was because I knew I’d be a bucket of mush – the drama had so many feels and and adorable silliness that I was sometimes weeping with laughter. I’d also never seen so many cats populate one drama – it must be a record!
I really like the cast and thought they played their roles well. Madarame has a grumpy face and is forever getting stick for it from his wife and Oshichi, which is kind of funny. Kitamura Kazuki did a marvellous job as the gruff samurai with a huge soft spot for Tamanojo, and I love how he breaks out into a little ditty about how fearsome Madarame used to be. I also really like the actress for Oshichi, she and Kitamura had some really good chemistry and I’d have wanted their characters to end up together but for the fact that Madarame already has a wife and daughter. Madarame also befriends his neighbour, a young girl named Wakana (Hirata Kaoru) who sells cat-shaped doughnuts. In a way, even though Madarame is far from home, in Edo he gets a makeshift family in the form of Oshichi and Wakana. I love how cat people always bond together and look out for one another, and this was shown in more ways than one throughout the drama. The opening theme song, Waga Michi yo by NOAH, was fantastic and had so much oomph, while the ending theme music had a wonderful old-school flavour. I’m definitely on board for season 2!
2. Shinya Shokudo 2
Season 2 continues from where season 1 left off and appropriately opens with the mob boss who loves ’em red wieners. There’s a sense of warm familiarity, like meeting old friends again, even as new ones are introduced and become regulars as well. I love how Master remains Master, and although he seems to be a bit more chatty in season 2, as usual he doesn’t say more than he should and always takes care not to make his customers feel obligated to accept any advice he might offer.
I’d read prior to watching season 2 that there seemed to be more outside scenes this time round, but fortunately most of the stuff still happens in the little diner. I do like the new round of stories, and some of the more memorable ones include the middle-aged guy who has a bickering but warm relationship with his cranky-pants mom, the screenwriter who is having an affair (the segment features a kitty!), the prostitute who is trying to get a new lease of life, and the tale of the two con-artist sisters. The drama preserves the efficiency of storytelling, not spelling everything out and not treating the viewer as stupid – though certain scenes may look ordinary at first glance, they have powerful impact in the overall scheme of things, and that’s what I like about Shinya Shokudo, that it knows how to tell a story and tell it well. The final story focuses on the mysterious Katagiri (Odagiri Joe), who first appeared sporadically in season 1 – he always sits in one corner of the diner and spouts pithy statements in response to customers’ dilemmas. This time we’re given a look into Katagiri’s past and present, and I guess it’s no surprise a woman is involved. But how the drama handled it was beautiful – again, nothing overly dramatic or out of sync with the overall tone, but the characters’ reactions towards the end were a lovely, bittersweet touch. Sometimes things aren’t meant to be when the timing and circumstances don’t permit it, and the characters ultimately acknowledge it as such. I appreciate their acceptance was low-key and sans histrionics, even if there was that lingering feeling of unfinished business, emotions that might never properly find closure. I thought Odagiri Joe nailed his segment, especially in the final moments.
Now that Katagiri has his own backstory, I kind of feel it’s enough and that I don’t need to know Master’s backstory as well. It would be nice, but even if we never know how Master got his scar or why he is running such a diner late at night, that is perfectly all right because the drama already feels like it is complete in its own little ways. In life we cannot have everything, and there is no way of filling all the holes and missing parts the way dramas usually have things worked out as per drama logic. Besides, we don’t know everything about the customers who pop by the diner, what more Master? I kind of like that his aura and sense of mystery are preserved even as he remains affable and approachable, and I hope it continues this way in season 3. It’s just the vibe Kobayashi Kaoru exudes – he is Master, and I can’t imagine anyone else in that role.
I like that season 2 continues to feature actors who can act – they may usually play supporting roles in other dramas or be overpowered by star names elsewhere, but in Shinya Shokudo, in their own little stories, they are the protagonist and get their fair share of the spotlight. There is no need for big names to give the drama a boost when well-crafted stories and solid acting chops will do the job just as well, if not better. I have liked watching Ichikawa Miwako and Ukaji Takashi appear in their respective segments, just as I cheered seeing the return of old regulars from season 1. If there was one nitpick, it was that I didn’t quite like the singer who appears towards the end in some of the episodes singing about food – somehow the singing felt jarring and didn’t go with the mood of the drama.
Overall, I have enjoyed season 2 and while I think season 1 edges it, Shinya Shokudo proves that with a deft hand at the helm, it is possible to keep a good thing going.