Samurai Gourmet


Although Japanese television is sometimes associated with wild and wacky antics, Samurai Gourmet also shows that it is capable of an immense tenderness.

Samurai Gourmet is about the food adventures of newly retired former salaryman Takeshi Kasumi (played charmingly by veteran Naoto Takenaka), as he ambles around Tokyo in his newly freed-up time. Defined by corporate convention and etiquette all his working life, his querulousness often manifests in small daily misadventures – hesitating to order a beer at a restaurant in the middle of the day, being scolded by his text-obsessed guitarist niece at dinner, or just by being self-conscious at a fine dining restaurant where all the food names go over his head.

During these times, when all seems lost, Kasumi daydreams of a masterless samurai (Tetsuji Tamayama), who shows him the way to assert himself with confidence and sincerity as he bulldozes his way through feudal Japan.

Samurai Gourmet is essentially a slice-of-life story of an old man who, in his retirement, finally learns how to live well – a lesson that his stay-at-home wife Shizuko has already mastered with graceful aplomb. He overcomes his self-consciousness to eat spaghetti with chopsticks at a fine Italian restaurant. He stays over at a seaside inn by himself and orders extra rice with his meal. Small stakes, but you can’t help but share Kasumi’s triumph at his little victories. Takenaka’s performance as Kasumi is heartfelt, genuine and truly naturalistic, and lends the old man the requisite charm and interest needed to drive a show of this nature.

Food is also a big part of the show’s raison d’etre. Shot nostalgically in soft focus (a stark contrast to the tack-sharp, slow-mo theatrics of Kantaro), the show’s food is a powerful emotional link between Kasumi and his memories of youth, of secretly eating storebought croquettes coming home from school, or learning how to love saba at a seaside minshoku. It is also something that binds people together.

There is one episode where Kasumi eats at a crowded but ramshackle izakaya, but the food is good and the customers companionable – but when it rains and the ceiling springs multiple leaks, the chef nonchalantly brings out a bundle of well-used umbrellas, and the clientele laughingly eat and drink as they hold up their umbrellas together in that tiny restaurant. It’s powerful little moments like these – heartfelt but not cloying, genuine but not banal – that truly form the core of the show’s appeal to me.

There are a couple of things wrong with the show – one of which is its tendency to normalise the kind of relationship that Kasumi has with his wife – who angelically tends to all his needs and patiently suffers his lack of romantic instinct and brusque manner with her – but ultimately, the show is possibly one of the most emotionally nourishing I’ve watched on Netflix, and a comforting soul food for the heart.

I give this show: 4.5/5 extra lunch bento boxes



Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman


And thus begins my foray into the weird and wonderful world of Japanese Netflix TV shows.

At first glance, Kantaro might be regarded as a cross between your usual stereotype of Japanese TV weirdness with heavy doses of product placement. The premise is simple: a straight-laced salesperson (Kantaro, played by the doughy-faced Matsuya Onoe) working for a publishing company leads a double life: in between his sales visits, he secretly sneaks off to indulge in his life’s passion – to sample (and blog about) the many delectable confectioneries that Tokyo has to offer. (In fact, the show’s Japanese name is a pun on this – rather than sarariman (salaryman), it’s saboriman – where saboru means to slack off).

The first episode hits you on the head with its weirdness. Kantaro, who has newly joined the company, sneaks off to eat anmitsu; upon his first bite, he is subjected to a bout of orgiastic bliss that sends him into a fantasy in which he is splashed, in ritualised fashion, by cascading anmitsu syrup. Later on in the same vision, he’s surrounded by his colleagues, whose heads have mysteriously turned into anmitsu ingredients.

It’s a type of Japanese humor that is culturally situated and hard to understand if you don’t get the things they are parodying; I usually skipped these fantasy portions whenever they appeared in later episodes. Some can be slightly disturbing – like the episode where Kantaro’s psycho sweets-hating mother comes to visit and he enacts a bizarre fantasy of eating eclairs in front of her while she is sleeping.

But the whole thing is beautifully shot, especially the exquisite sweets, which are captured, glistening, tremulous and perfect in high definition and luscious slow motion as they are prepared by master craftsmen. The visceral visual appeal of the show when it comes to showcasing the sweets cannot be overstated.

And the funny thing is that all these shops are real – you can find them in Tokyo and they are purportedly every bit as famous as the show makes them out to be. Product placement or tourism ad? Maybe both. But all aspersions to wit fade away before the tantalising food porn on display and the sincere presentation of the down-to-earth nature of these shops and their food.

As one gets used to the weirdness of Kantaro as the episodes go on, the show turns from bizarro sweet-shop advertisement to a genuine comedy that delves more deeply into the lives of its various characters – even the comically brazen manager Miyake and his excessively long sideburns. And at its heart, the show propagates an aphorism that is sure to resonate with the legions of overworked corporate suits in Japan’s still-stifling traditional business culture – after an honest and hard day’s work, it’s good to indulge in the sweeter things in life, too.

I give this show: 4 out of 5 bowls of mont blanc

Black Mirror (Season #3)


Black Mirror is a cultural phenomenon at this point. While the reasons for its popularity might be distilled by many to be symptomatic of a general public discomfort with the excesses of unfettered technology, I find such explanations overly eager to posit narrative significance. I prefer to think of Black Mirror as being popular because most of its episodes tell compelling, unsettling stories using technological excess as a source of narrative conflict. 

In other words, it’s not because it’s cautionary sf (that reflects our primal fear of the unknown) that it is compelling, but because its formula is to tell unsettling stories that just so happen stem from technological excess, as a matter of branding.

Season 3 of Black Mirror has its share of good and mediocre episodes. Overall, it has a hit rate about the same as Seasons 1 and 2 – three better episodes and three that were somewhat mediocre, or showed promise but just kind of fell flat at the end.

Nosedive is not like your typical episode, which starts by mystifying the viewer with a technological innovation and slowly peeling back layers of mystery to arrive at an unexpected conclusion. Rather, Nosedive is, as its name suggests, the slow-burn story of a woman’s inevitable descent into the shit. In that sense, it’s a well-told episode that doesn’t rely on the whole “twist” shtick for its own sake, though if you’re not a fan of watching people make fools of themselves, it could be quite painful to watch. Set in a world where public standing is gamified through a public rating that is determined by the opinions of other, Nosedive is the rare Black Mirror episode that is actually a little too close for comfort to the real world – one in which one’s extrinsic social and economic standing is not only quantified (which it is today), but also directly manipulable by everyone around you (which it isn’t quite, but is starting to happen with China’s social credit rating). The tyranny of the majority is one of the most stifling.

Playtest is an intriguing episode with many brilliant moments – like the entire haunted house sequence, but ultimately falls a bit flat because of its muddled message and overreliance on weird plot twists, an unfortunate staple that can come off terribly if not done right. It’s an episode, I suppose, about video gaming and how overly realistic games could one day blur the distinction between what is real and what isn’t, but somehow, the resolution doesn’t really justify all that buildup.

Shut Up and Dance is actually a genuinely disturbing episode with a twist that is actually genuinely discomfiting and changes your entire impression of the events that came before in macabre fashion. The whole blackmail through spyware thing is also quite genuinely frighteningly plausible, which is actually quite rare for Black Mirror, which is generally more satirical than anything in its depiction of technology and is meant to provoke parallels to more grounded technological developments today. But the scenario in this episode could actually happen in real life.

San Junipero is that universally lauded episode that is about as un-Black Mirror as they come, when it comes to Black Mirror episodes. It is genuinely beautiful, evocative, dreamily shot and actually quite thought-provoking in terms of how it makes the “rightness” of Kelly’s choice ambiguous. While most people would see it as a happy ending, it asks the question of whether Kelly chose what she did because she thought that the version of her that would spend eternity with Yorkie was a simulacrum and her real self joined her husband in death.  The last shot of the blinking servers also serves as a chastening final note to highlight that in truth, paradise is an eternal row of whirring machines. San Junipero deserves the chops not just because of its evocative story, but also how it gracefully peels back the layers of mystery to reveal the truth at the core of its world, a “twist” that isn’t one at all because it feels so inevitable in the telling.

Men Against Fire is mediocre Black Mirror and is mostly stuff we’ve watched before – soldiers getting misled by brain implants that the enemy is subhuman when they really are just normal, just to remove their sentiment in the middle of a ethnic holocaust. The cause of the war is never really explained and the story is just not particularly engaging to start with, leaving the viewer somewhat empty once the “twist”, which is telegraphed quite early, is revealed.

Finally, Hated in the Nation fields an initially interesting premise – robot bees that replace real ones after a nationwide collapse of bee colonies – but is also Black Mirror at its meh-mediocre. We’ve seen this all before – crazed genius loner that uses technology to teach the population a violent, bloody lesson about the evils that arise out of the misuse of technology. Nothing new, and plays out exactly as you’d suspect. It’s watchable and even engaging, but isn’t Black Mirror at its most provocative.

Verdict: Some big hits, some misses, Season 3 nevertheless continues to exemplify the franchise’s core elements of cautionary-sf tropes motivating its disquieting narratives.

I give this: 4/5 ADIs



Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 4)


What it’s about: More precinct adventures with Peralta and Posse.


  • Four seasons in and B99 just keeps on giving. But it’s interspersed with a few elements that set it apart, just slightly, from the first three seasons.
  • First, the crimes have upped the ante, from the somewhat comical, isolated crime incidents in the first couple of seasons to more serious ones like mob shootings, escaped convicts and serious police corruption.
  • Second, there’s an attempt to tackle more serious issues, like the episode where Terry has an unfortunate run-in with a racist white cop who profiles him based on his skin colour. It’s a good episode, and sensitively handled, but doesn’t have that saccharine chirp of most low-stakes B99 episodes.
  • Last – the season ends on a real downer and might count as one of the few times I’ve felt genuinely stressed watching the show. I mean, being chased by the mob is one thing – but Jake and Diaz being framed by a corrupt cop and facing the prospect of 15 years in prison is something else – the system of justice that was once on their side is now turned against them in full force.
  • Jake and Amy’s relationship is still a bright point of goodness though, and let’s hope they keep it that way.
  • Unfortunately, there are bells tolling for B99, or so it seems – it’s a rank injustice that one of the best comedies on TV right now can’t get the ratings it deserves.

Verdict: Still good old B99, except for a stressful last few episodes. Treasure while it lasts.

I give this: 4/5 bags of coca’ina

The Saga of Tanya the Evil


What it’s about: A sociopathic Japanese HR executive is murdered by one of the people he callously fired. He is reborn as a girl in an alternate version of 20th Century Europe in which magic is used in concert with machines to fight wars. Memories of her past life intact, she channels her innate aggressiveness into distinguishing herself as an effective commander on the field.


  • This is one example of an anime series that somehow works despite its odd, extremely circuitous premise, which essentially is just exposition to give us the story hook – that of having the protagonist be a cute but evil girl that somehow commands a squad of airborne death angels. Japanese anime/manga has a tendency to force-fit the cute girl that subverts expectations trope into all its intellectual properties, and this is just another manifestation of that tendency.
  • But putting aside all that, and the strange meta-plot involving Tanya’s face-off with Being X, the God that puts her in this predicament to begin with, Tanya is actually a very competently told story of an alternate World War I in which the Germanic Empire utilises superior military strategy and tactics to crush its neighbors and emerge victorious.
  • The worldbuilding, while simple in its analogousness to the European theater in WWI, is deep and effective in setting the stage for a conflict between factions that have both the benefit of mechanisation on the ground and magic aerial support in the air. The series is the brainchild of someone who clearly is a military buff and knows their basic history, drawing on famous battles of the past to fashion scenarios and stratagems that have the air of verisimilitude to them.
  • Anime theatrics and grandiloquence, while present, is kept to a tolerable level, and it is quite refreshing to see the series eschew the usual pandering audience exposition so endemic in anime, instead having their characters explain things to each other as if not actually trying to accommodate the attention spans of an invisible, layman audience. Tanya herself is a refreshing main character, ruthlessly practical to a fault and not at all constrained by the bounds of morality, an extremely lawful neutral-to-evil executor of the military will, but with a very human desire to just survive, and a competent commander to her men.
  • The series balances on the fine line when it comes to the question of where its sympathies lie. Tanya fights for an Empire that is clearly a stand-in for the Germans in WWI, and the series portrays them as ravenous imperialists operating under an absolute monarchy. The characters never question the rightness of Imperial supremacy and don’t blink an eye at the horrors of mechanised, total warfare – yet the characters come to realise that the Empire has bitten off more than it can chew – it can conquer, but it has no resources or gumption to govern a populace seething in resentment.
  • While I don’t think the series celebrates imperialism, it does put us in the odd headspace of rooting for those that serve the country at the whims of its political masters, who are imperialists through and through. But that’s just realistic of them to do so, given the social climate of the time, and really the only character who I feel deserves some moral reprobation of supporting imperialism (apart from the politicos themselves) is Tanya, whose memories of her past life give her a historical perspective and appreciation of the effects of imperialism that she nevertheless casts aside to serve.
  • There are some who criticise this anime for being sympathetic to fascism and Nazism, just because it tells the story from the side of the Germans. I don’t think that’s at all true – this is a stand in for the Kaiser’s, not Hitler’s Germany, and people who think otherwise need a crash course in the difference between the two. In World War I, no one really had the moral high ground.

Verdict: A surprisingly effective alt-history of World War I that is not overly saddled by its borderline ridiculous premise.

I give this: 4 out of 5 Elinium Orbs

Archer (Season #3)


Archer’s Season 3 continues the cavalcade of Archer-style secret agent hijinks, meshed with getting-tiresome jokes about the characters that feels like it could get old real fast, but somehow, still stays faintly amusing.

It remains perhaps the sterling (ha – see what I did there) example of how to air racist, sexist and country-stereotype jokes without coming across as meaning them. Just make the purveyors of the jokes awful people and watch the audience laugh at the audacity of the joke rather than the joke itself.

It helps that the two most put-together characters in the show are a black woman and a gay former pastor, which means they’re the butt of many imprecations hurled at them by the ever-vulgar Archer, but they rise above it all as long-suffering straight men to the excesses around them.

There are some faint attempts at cross-episode continuity, character development and actual sincerity – I really thought the Katya thing could have gone somewhere after she was resurrected – but actually, these are mostly just extended setups for Archer to reach a high of decency before crashing back down into the cesspit of his own pathologically childish narcissism.

The last episode is a case in point – while escaping a space station on a spaceship, Archer swallows his pride and backs away from a mecha showdown with the evil cyborg antagonist Barry in a rare act of circumspection, but then, as the episode ends, he just has to mess up his good karma by seizing the joystick from Cyril just as they’re about to land their spaceship back on Earth, causing a crash. A good moment frittered away for a cheap laugh, and symptomatic of the general trend that keeps Archer from rising beyond mere comedic accessory to a series worth watching in its own right.

I give this show: 3 out of 5 full body latex suits

BoJack Horseman (Season #2)


In its second season, Bojack Horseman seems to have started to really perfect its formula of combining animal pun jokes and existential despair into one hilarious and sobering package.

Bojack is by far the most dysfunctional character on the show, but it seems that dysfunction has a kindred spirit in Diane, too. Both have made it in Hollywoo – Bojack is making a comeback in the new Secretariat film, while Diane is a successful – if eternally dissatisfied – writer with a big chip on her shoulder (and big character incompatibilities with her husband, the chippy and simple Mr Peanutbutter).

They’re both massively screwed-up people who express it in different ways – Bojack by being an unrelenting asshole to everyone around him, and Diane through withdrawal and shutting people out of her life to an almost pathological extent.

Bojack is capable of such awfulness, yet we keep coming back to him, like all his hangers-on and friends do, because he is far too complex and self-aware a character to be put into a box and sent off into social oblivion. He is the endlessly intriguing specimen of psychological dysfunction that we can’t tear our eyes from, and because the nature of his dysfunction is so well-interrogated in the show, we also empathise with why he is the way he is, even as we despair over the ways he rips his life apart when it so often tries to do better for him – Wanda, his career resurgence, his big house on the hill.

He even buys (and lives in) a boat (albeit without premeditation) in a not-too-subtle lampshade of the fact that he is probably suffering from the world’s biggest mid-life crisis, and acting out on it in the worst possible ways.

Bojack is about despairing over what you can’t ever have while ignoring or casting away the things that you do have around you. What striver for things beyond their current lot cannot relate?

On the flip-side, there are the awesomely surreal and hilarious B-plots that mostly involve Todd getting involved in some bizarre misadventure. After his turn as a hapless target for Bojack’s manipulative selfishness in the first season, he becomes the show’s most cheerful character. For an unemployed and same-clothes-wearing layabout, he sure knows how to keep himself happy.

I give this season: 4.5/5 boats