Naoto Takenaka, Shizuko Kasumi star in series premiering in March.
I’ve just finished watching all 12 episodes of this series, and I really like it. It’s engaging, superbly-crafted, well-suited to binge-watching, or casual episodic viewing. I consumed the whole set faster than a plate of toro sashimi at a Sumo wrestler’s convention.
Samurai Gourmet is the story a quietly-heroic everyman, a newly-retired salaryman, Takeshi Kasumi, who at 60, without a structured routine to guide him, finds himself a bit lost in his own surroundings. When it occurs to him he can explore as he wishes, he wanders into a nearby cafe, and realizes he can drink a beer in the middle of the day if he wants. The beginnings of his new life unfolds before his eyes. It’s as if time slows down, and he can feel and taste and experience everything that happens to him, as if for the first time.
Alternating between reality and fantasy, Takeshi embraces the unpredictability of his new freedom. Takeshi is introspective. When he finds himself unable to prevail in a socially-awkward encounter, a self-questioning internal monologue begins. When he witnesses an injustice but feels powerless to intervene, Takeshi escapes further into his imagination, time-travelling to a romantic, chivalrous past. He imagines the kind of man he should be: a fearsome Samurai warrior – depicted in fully-costumed fantasy sequences – who dispenses justice, and restores order, sometimes with confrontational bluntness, sometimes with ancient wisdom, but most often with a good old-fashioned ass-whoopin’.
These dream sequences usually resolve with Takeshi finding himself once again in his ordinary surroundings, watching passively as the conflict resolve itself without his intervention. Takeshi remains the shy observer, unwilling to impose his will on anyone else’s reality, except in very small doses. It’s in these small, incremental lessons that Takeshi gains confidence, and insight. This is where his personal journey is revealed.
If this were a western civilization fairy tale, the fantasy warrior hero would be a Knight in Shining Armor. If this were a contemporary American setting, perhaps a gunslinging cowboy figure would appear as the imaginary hero. Or a no-nonsense Humphrey Bogart-type character, appearing through the fog. In Japan, this heroic dream figure is a courageous Samurai. It’s all done with an exquisitely light touch.
There’s something oddly familiar about the storytelling style. It reminded me of mid-20th century American TV shows where a character overcomes hardship, makes a choice, or learns some life lesson, all wrapped up neatly by the end of each episode. After decades of ironic, amoral, anti-hero stories in television and movies, a jaded viewer might find this “moral of the story” traditionalism both refreshingly novel, and comfortingly corny.
Takeshi wants to be courageous, to command respect. But he’s inhibited by modesty and uncertainty. His dilemma is familiar: modern man’s struggle to reconnect with traditional masculine virtues. Over-civilized, worn down, polished to a smooth banality, Takeshi longs for the earthy simplicity of a Samurai warrior’s honor code. He’s an unremarkable man, trapped in the unromantic reality of everyday life. His Samurai warrior time-travel fantasies are welcome little bursts of escapist anarchy.
As a result, there’s a veil of melancholy that hangs over the whole enterprise. It’s a revealing of graying Japan’s increasing social isolation. The main character’s self-defeating loneliness that can be unsettling to watch. We can almost read it in Takeshi’s posture, facial expressions, even in the faded color palette of his clothes, the streets and buildings.
A feeling of exhausted modernity, relieved by escapist fantasy, is a not-uncommon way of life for many in contemporary Japan, and in the industrialized world in general, not just in this story. But it is consistent with the source material. To its credit, this narrative style faithfully captures the manga artist’s medium. It’s a solitary, reflective, intimate storytelling medium. It translates well to the screen. Samurai Gourmet retains this feeling of intimacy.
Samurai Gourmet’s strength is in its simplicity, fidelity, and affectionate humor. It’s really about this Takeshi’s inner life. Every one of his small victories feels earned. It’s structured very much like a graphic novel, the pacing, the frame-like visual narrative. All from the point of view of our hero. It’s impossible to not want to root for him, he’s likable.
A curious observation about the character of Takeshi’s wife Shizuko, played by the lovely actress Honami Suzuki: She is so rarely on screen, until the last few episodes, it caused my wife to wonder aloud if Takeshi is actually a widow, and the occasionally-glimpsed wife Shizuko is a ghost! My wife – an avid fan of Japanese ghost stories – is imagining an alternate story. But her observation reveals an interesting flaw in the series. The isolated Takeshi and the curious distance of his wife are so peculiar that it can a cause viewer to question if the Shizuko character is a memory, rather than a living person. For a very brief moment, we wondered if Samurai Gourmet is hiding this from us, to be revealed later in the series.
As the series progresses, however, Shizuko’s character becomes more visible, more engaged, and these concerns are neutralized. Shizuko is an almost idealized figure of an easygoing wife, an amiable, patient, good-natured — if somewhat distant — companion. Because Shizuko’s brief appearances are suggestive, but underdeveloped, it leaves unanswered questions and unexplored possibilities. My only real complaint about the series is that we don’t see more of Shizuko. I’d like to see more of them interacting with one another.
Most of all, Samurai Gourmet is a story about food. And about discovery, and reflection. Taking pleasure in the small, easily-overlooked things in life. An solitary moment with a bowl of broth and noodles evoke extended dreamy sequences that are revealing, or rhapsodic, in Takeshi’s inner monologues, or gentle interactions. The series gets close to being overly sentimental at times, but contemporary reality reasserts itself, and Takeshi or Shizuko’s self-awareness helps keep things grounded. The beautifully-photographed food is a signature element of the series, and the fantasy Samurai sequences are funny, and subversive. Good art direction, and a lively percussive musical score make it easy to watch, easy to get involved in. I highly recommend it.