The Mundane Delights Of Izakaya Bottakuri
For those who frequent Netflix's food-oriented offerings, Japanese TV series Midnight Diner is a familiar franchise, and for good reason: its unique format of a tight-lipped izakaya proprietor who welcomes roving, melancholic souls into his nocturnal establishment has become an unlikely hit, with five seasons, two feature films, and Korean and Chinese remakes completed to date.
Seeking to replicate this success is Izakaya Bottakuri, aired in 2018 by Japanese broadcaster BS12 and only recently made available on Netflix within Southeast Asia. There are many similarities with Midnight Diner: based on a manga of the same name, the show centres around a homely izakaya where a regular host of characters from the neighbourhood stop by for dinner and a dose of community—cue the requisite hijinks, tantalising shots of Japanese cuisine, and comically exaggerated proclamations of 'oishii!' Yet at the same time, Izakaya Bottakuri (which literally translates to 'rip-off izakaya') avoids becoming a mere facsimile of Midnight Diner with its own subtle flourishes, making it a welcome addition to the Japanese tradition of capturing the mundanity of modern city life and transforming it into delightful, healing television.
The premise is simple: two sisters run an izakaya with an 'unsettling name' in a suburban Tokyo neighbourhood that they inherited from their late parents (though their deaths are never touched upon in great detail). As elder sister Mine (played by Japanese 'idol' Moemi Katayama) explains, the izakaya is named as such because the food they serve can easily be made at home, hence the 'rip-off' in charging money for these dishes. However, as we have all personally discovered this past year, it's often not the food that brings people into restaurants, but the promise of lively conversation and good service, and the magic that happens when the right mix of people come together to be nourished in more ways than one.
Those who frequent this establishment are a cross-section of characters who might be found inhabiting any Japanese suburb: a pharmacist with an encyclopaedic knowledge of sake, a hot-blooded air-conditioner repairman, a wizened former geisha, and a mix of salarymen and women, all of whom shoot banter back and forth. The plot of each of the 11 episodes is equally quotidian. In one, Mine tries to create a dish to win over the tomato-averse son of a customer; in another, a visit from a doctor causes the sisters to reconsider the health implications of their cooking. The calm centre around which the show revolves is Mine, the proprietress of the izakaya whose mature demeanour belies her young age. Little sister Kaoru (Sara Takatsuki) helps out with serving customers, her bubbly and optimistic personality adding a jolt of liveliness to each episode.
In many ways, Bottakuri seems tailor-made for our current reality. The sense of community is palpable amongst the characters, made even more apparent in the context of social restrictions and partisan politics that are fracturing societies in the real world. It's a show that I've found myself savouring in the midst of gloomy news cycles and hard-hitting documentaries (Seaspiracy, anyone?); a balm for the mind and a throwback to happier times when Corona was just the name of a Mexican beer. Those still stuck in lockdowns will appreciate the quick tutorials at the end of each episode on how to cook the hero dish from the plot, as well as a short explainer on the alcohol served during the show—from obscure bottles of sake and shochu, to a beer made especially to pair with gyoza.
But the most emotionally impactful aspect of the show is the genuine concern that the two sisters express for the everyday struggles of their customers, and in return, the way in which their regulars have become stand-ins for the family that they have lost. The izakaya becomes a place where yearnings are fulfilled—if only over the course of a meal—and where those who lose a bit of themselves, whether to family, work, or the process of ageing, can find a moment of reprieve and acceptance in delicious food and drink, and the company of new and familiar faces again.
See also: 'Love Our People Like You Love Our Food': How Overseas Asians Are Fighting Racism With Food
3 more Japanese food dramas not to be missed
- Midnight Diner: Set in an austere izakaya in a Shibuya backstreet, this drama offers a fascinating if melancholy look at the down-on-their-luck characters that arrive to eat at this nighttime establishment run by a gentle yet mysterious cook.
- Samurai Gourmet: A restless, recently retired salaryman breaks the boredom of his golden years by venturing out and eating alone at various restaurants, with an imaginary samurai to help cut down his social anxiety along the way.
- Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman: Described variously as a drama, comedy, food and travel show, this quirky gem follows a magazine salesman who sneaks away from his desk to sample desserts across Tokyo. Expect foodgasms galore as he is transported into alternate CGI dimensions upon first bite.