‘A modern-day fairytale’: the joyful Japanese food and friendship drama you should never watch hungry | Television

With a Netflix Top 10 that, in the UK at least, features Ginny & Georgia, Vikings: Valhalla and Emily in Paris, you might be forgiven for wondering if there is much left on the streaming platform that isn’t either totally daft or about serial killers. There is, though it requires a bit of digging; it would be a shame if the gorgeous nine-parter The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House gets passed over. The series is adapted from a popular Japanese manga and its showrunner is the director Hirokazu Kore-eda, who won the Palme d’Or for Shoplifters in 2018.

The Makanai is quite lovely, and unlike anything else I have seen lately. It tells the story of Kiyo and her best friend, Sumire, two 16-year-old girls who leave their home city of Aomori after seeing maiko, or apprentice geishas, in the street on a school trip. It prompts them to leave school and move to Kyoto to train to be among their ranks. We join them as they adjust to life in the maiko house, where relationships are formed around the idea of a family unit – there are mothers, sisters and brothers – though nobody is actually related.

Sumire is a natural and embraces life as a trainee, despite her father’s opposition to the idea. Clearly, when it comes to the traditional arts of the maiko, she has the potential to become one of the best. Kiyo, meanwhile, dances out of step, has two left feet, can only drum on an off-beat and lacks the skills she needs to progress, though she is as cheerful as she is clumsy. The friends’ pact to train together appears to be doomed. Yet this isn’t a story of thwarted potential, or crumbling dreams. It is much more wholesome than that and has the gentle touch of a modern-day fairytale. Kiyo lacks the ambition to become a maiko, says one of the house mothers, sadly, but as Kiyo is given a warning about her future, she is too distracted to pay it much mind. The day’s takeaway has arrived and she is worried the food is getting soggy.

Food plays a starring role in this show, and, much like the received wisdom that you should never do the big food shop while hungry, it would be ill-advised to watch this on an empty stomach. From the beginning, this is about cooking, feeding and eating. In the opening scenes, Kiyo’s grandmother serves the girls nabekko dumpling soup. On the bus to Kyoto, they are accompanied by a baked sweet potato, split between two and savoured on the backseat. Once they arrive at their posts, the women of the house are cooked for by Ms Sachiko, who sees Kiyo’s appetite and interest and takes her under her wing; when Ms Sachiko is forced to leave to rest a back injury, it opens up the possibility of Kiyo becoming the makanai (the in-house cook, though it also means the meal served in a boarding house).

Natsuki Deguchi as Sumire in The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House.
A natural … Natsuki Deguchi as Sumire in The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House. Photograph: Netflix

Kiyo marvels at the secrets Ms Sachiko reveals, about how the makanai must prepare food that is “normal” for everyone. The women of the house, at different levels or of different status, are from all over Japan, and Ms Sachiko explains that the food they are used to varies greatly, right down to the levels of seasoning. As Kiyo begins to establish her own command of the kitchen, it is a joy to watch her figuring out how to make the ordinary exceptional and the exceptional ordinary. Even the scenes in which she shops for ingredients, at one point finding a vegetable native to Aomori, are an absolute delight.

Kiyo is the glue that holds it all together, but the drama and stories that drive it belong to all the residents of the house. They come to the kitchen and talk to her about their woes and dreams, their crushes, their worries and what they want out of life. She makes a bread pudding for one girl instead of breakfast, and presents Ms Sachiko with her grandmother’s tomato curry, when the older cook is laid low with her back. She says good morning to okra and sweet-talks the pickled plums she has left out in the sun. Yet it never feels twee, only heartfelt, and as soothing as one of Kiyo’s carefully prepared dishes. This is a celebration of appetite and nourishment. Food is taken seriously, and good food, made with love and joy, is treated as a balm. It bears repeating, though, that I wouldn’t recommend watching while hungry. There is a real danger you might begin to salivate.

Shirley McQuay

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