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