Warm fuzzies: Shinya Shokudo 4 & 5

It’s been a while since I watched any Shinya Shokudo. Season 3 was a bit blah, so I was glad to take a break and move on to other things. I was a little hesitant upon hearing that Netflix has taken over producing the next two seasons, now with the tag “Tokyo Stories”, but am glad to report that it’s almost like the good old times. I’d initially intended to watch only season 4, but mixed up watching some episodes of season 5 and decided to barrel through both.

It is safe to say that while Shinya Shokudo seems to have mostly self-contained storylines and there is no overarching big plot line, the recurrence of many side characters means you won’t really understand the significance of why they are there when they are if you haven’t seen the previous three seasons. In both seasons 4 and 5, a few characters who appeared in seasons 1 and 2 have “continuation” storylines, and it took me a while to remember their original story arcs. That said, once it all clicked for me, it was like a meeting of old friends – the moment where you go “aha, I’ve seen you before”, and the warm nostalgia that bubbles up is lovely. I thought both the continuation stories for Erecto Oki and the lady who ran a marriage scam were nicely done, and in the case of the former, rather bittersweet.

We also got to know some of the backstories of the regulars. Chu-san, the old man who always wears a cap, reunites with his old schoolmate and marvels at what she’s gone through in the years since they last met. I particularly enjoyed how one of the drag queens turned out to be quite different from his former self, and how he’s embraced his current flamboyance. If there’s one thing that Shinya Shokudo has done well, it is that the drama is not afraid to showcase people who don’t fit society’s definition of “normal”, and how some of them are proud to be different. At Master’s cosy diner, they are all equal, and they are all there to enjoy his food and seek company and a listening ear. Food humbles, bonds and satisfies. There is no big drama, only understanding and friendship. This aspect, which is often difficult to replicate in the half-baked remakes, continues to be deftly handled in each season.

Seasons 4 and 5 got a boost in terms of star power, bringing in both bigger names in the Japanese acting scene, and a Korean actress and a Taiwanese actor. I liked Go Ah-sung’s episode – she played Yuna, a Korean working at a club to pay off her family’s debts. Yuna encounters a physicist, Amamiya, at Master’s diner, and they fall in love over omurice. Go Ah-sung spoke pretty good Japanese and I thought Yuna’s romance with Amamiya was lovely. Joseph Chang’s episode was a bit over the top – he was a newish director struggling to break out of the shadow of his father, a famous director, and meets the man who starred in one of his father’s films. I didn’t think much of this one, though the revelation of the identity of the one-time actor was nicely done. Odagiri Joe reprised both his roles as the koban policeman Kogure and the mysterious Katagiri – this time, Katagiri is more like a fly on the wall who appears in both episodes featuring Go and Chang. I’ve come to like Kogure quite a bit, and often look forward to his scenes, which are sadly still in short supply. Fortunately the drama seems to be teasing a one-sided crush – one of the ramen stall sellers has a huge crush on Kogure, and it is hilarious watching him cringe at her shy advances.

The bigger local names included Nakamura Toru, whose segment involved old-fashioned chicken rice and an unexpected reunion. I was happily surprised to see him there, and he did really well. Nagayama Kento played a good-for-nothing loser who didn’t want to work, and Katsuji Ryo was the ex-classmate who tried to help him out. Emoto Akira seemed to be the new constant as a senior policeman and gamer, while his son Emoto Tasuku played a rich businessman who turned out to be a player. The appearance of these big-name actors was a bit disconcerting for me, for I had come to expect Shinya Shokudo to feature much less prominent actors, the ones whose faces you may see often but whose names you may not remember if their roles are small or if they aren’t ikemen enough. I’m not sure if bringing in more big-name actors is a trend to continue if there are more seasons to come, but I hope it won’t become a regular thing. I could discount for the likes of Odagiri or Matsushige Yutaka – who plays the mob boss Ryu – as they have become part of the framework of Shinya Shokudo and fit right in. However, part of the charm is seeing your average supporting actor get his time in the spotlight – too much star power and the cosiness feels a little out of sorts.

Overall, seasons 4 and 5 are an improvement over the rather lacklustre season 3, and watching the episodes was like meeting up with an old, cherished friend and having a nice long chat in a cosy kissaten. Most of the endings this time round have been quite happy, which isn’t a bad thing, but I do miss the lingering melancholic and pensive vibe of the earlier seasons. Master’s diner is still warm and inviting, however, and the food introduced has been interesting, such as fried chicken breast with cheese, hotpot for one, sautéed yam, ham cutlet and curry ramen. Soba capped off each season finale, as per its tradition as toshikoshi soba. The season finales this time are better done than in season 3 and feel more like a coming together of all things good instead of a time filler. The dishes featured in Shinya Shokudo are mostly simple ones, and some are so ubiquitous, such as egg tofu, but paired with heartwarming stories, they gain extra meaning and significance. It’s always wonderful to see how characters connect with food, and discover the stories behind each particular dish.

Looking forward to season 6, if any!

junny@3.12pm

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