Shinya Shokudo – the Japanese manga that’s the basis for Midnight Diner - is about as far from a traditional American comic book as you can get. Instead of high stakes battles between buff men in tight outfits, it’s set in a small one-man restaurant where each night the owner-operator serves up various tasty dishes to his night-owl clients. The focus is on food and small, personal stories rather than threats to global safety; the closest our big-screen superheroes have come to its warm, personal vibe is that end credits sequence in the first Avengers movie where the heroes sit around a trashed restaurant silently eating shawarma while the staff try to tidy up.
Comics and movies are now roughly interchangeable when it comes to subject matter, which is why so many comics (both high- and low-brow) are turned into movies; super-powered beings in bright costumes fighting has become mainstream big screen material in the English-speaking world in a way that, say, romantic comedies no longer are.
In Japan, it’s different. Just about every interest or hobby has a manga devoted to it, whether it’s gambling, music, or gardening. Sometimes they’re more like thriller novels: Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President was a straight political drama following Senator Kenneth Yamaoka (a Democrat from New York) as he ran for the US top job. Others are a combination of video-game style levelling up such as King Golf, in which a high school bully who, upon realising people fear him but don’t respect him, decides to focus on winning the admiration of others by becoming the best there is at golf. And some just keep on keeping on: Salaryman Kintarō is about a high school drop-out and motorcycle gang member who gets a steady job and… keeps working at it. It must have something going for it: it was made into a movie (directed by Takashi Miike) and a live-action television series that ran for 45 episodes.
Food manga first took off in Japan in the early 80s, and today it’s a thriving genre. Many series combine food and fighting: titles include Solider of Food, High Plains Gourmet, Detective Glutton, and Internet Shopping Prince Yoshimi Ida (who is, as you might suspect, a master of shopping for food online). It might not be big on fights or online shopping, but Midnight Diner’s source Shinya Shokudo is now a well-established part of the genre: written and drawn by Yaro Abe, it began in 2006 as a serial in the popular monthly Big Comic Spirits, and in 2009 won the 55th Shogakukan Manga Award.
One of the more popular series is Food Wars, where teen Somo Yukihura finds himself in a school for master chefs surrounded by students who specialise in various meals. They’re constantly pitted against each other in cooking battles, with plenty of discussions of cooking techniques and how to get the best results from their ingredients. There is an added hook to this series though: when Somo cooks something especially delicious, the taster’s clothes fly off in delight. Artist Shun Saeki was originally known for drawing softcore porn comics, but this series is an equal opportunity offender - even the portly principal’s clothes burst from his body when Somo does a good job.
The longest running food manga series is Oishinbo, by Tetsu Kariya. It’s been going since 1983, having run up well over a hundred volumes. The story of Shirō Yamaoka, a plucky reporter sent to discover the ultimate Japanese meal, a job that obviously requires him to eat pretty much everything, The twist is that Shiro does not get along at all with his father Kaibara, founder of The Gourmet Club and perhaps the most knowledgeable gastronome in the land. The series features plenty of fun food facts and recipes, as well as examining the role many foodstuffs play in Japanese culture (Tetsu is a big supporter of eating whale meat). It’s also a drama, as Shiro and his father are constantly running into each other and battling over whether a meal has been prepared properly or is as good as it’s been hyped up to be.
These aren’t quirky series attracting a niche audience. There have been four series of the television adaptation of Shinya Shokudo in Japan alone – the last one was a co-production with Netflix Japan – plus two live-action feature films. Throw in a South Korean adaptation in 2015 and now a Chinese version, and you’ve got a bigger multi-media success story than Daredevil.
But the west is starting to catch up to the idea of food-related comics. In 2012 renowned chef, author and television host Anthony Bourdain co-wrote the graphic novel Get Jiro, the story of an ultra-violent sushi chef in a futuristic LA battling rival food gangs and costumers foolish enough to order California rolls. It was a hit, and in 2015 there was a prequel titled Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi. Now together with his co-author Joel Rose he has an all-new series currently on the comic book shelves: Hungry Ghosts is a four-part anthology where chefs from around the world try to outdo each other with their creepy and unsettling food-related tales. Can a western rival to Shinya Shokudo be far away?
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You can stream the Chinese adaptation of Midnight Diner now at SBS On Demand: