A month into isolation I found myself hypnotised by the slowly slithering oil slicks on top of some freshly made chicken broth. I forgot about Covid-19, the friends and family I missed, and even the crusty bits on my share house stove. That unctuous soup filled my entire universe, and for a minute, I felt at peace. I also felt like I was in an episode of Netflix’s spellbindingly mundane Samurai Gourmet.
In Masayuki Kusumi’s 12-part 2017 miniseries, recently retired salaryman Takeshi Kasumi (Naoto Takenaka), the gentle 60-year-old protagonist, is troubled by his new free time. He decides to explore Tokyo on foot alone, eating something new every day.
Whenever Kasumi is challenged by a new experience, an imaginary wandering samurai appears – Kasumi’s idealised self – to show him the way. (When he is too embarrassed to drink a beer with lunch, the samurai swaggers into the restaurant and demolishes a bottle of sake. Emboldened, Kasumi orders two beers.) On his journeys of self-discovery he finds unfamiliar inner strength in the face of uncertainty and lets go of the pressures and worries of his former life, eating and doing whatever he wants.
Each 20-minute episode is a soothing lesson in optimism. In one he swoons over a takeaway bento box as his neighbour asks, “Is it really that good?” He thinks: “It’s just a plain lunch, but eating it under a clear sky makes it special.”
The lovingly shot, slow-panning culinary scenes make ordinary Tokyo kitchens feel like Neverland as each pickled plum, slab of stewed tofu, and paddle of rice glitters through the dewy camera filter, captivating Kasumi’s every sense, and yours, for a moment. Each time Kasumi uncontrollably blurts out “umai!” (“delicious”), jauntily pops apart a set of bamboo chopsticks, or watches beer bubbles slowly bead up his glass, it feels like a scented candle is illuminating the end of this dark tunnel.
Dreamy food visuals aside, Samurai Gourmet is, at its core, about the joy of discovery, and of nostalgia. Kasumi fondly recounts memories of energy in his teens, confidence in his 20s, and young love with his wife Shizuko. While eating grilled dried mackerel at a seaside inn, he’s reminded of a weekend trip he took with friends in high school – the first time he enjoyed mackerel, and the first time he felt adult. “That memory makes this mackerel even more delicious,” he considers, before asking the elderly innkeeper for a second helping.
While Kasumi shows gratitude for past experiences, I, on the other hand, have been recounting my pre-coronavirus life with envy. As my housemates blast Ariana Grande and we dance around our living room at 4am, I long for the dancefloors of Melbourne music festivals and nightclubs. My partner shaking margaritas in a pickle jar makes me miss sitting at a bar. And I still crave my favourite pho restaurant, even after brewing broth for 12 hours. But that attitude won’t get me through isolation.
In one episode Kasumi’s wanderings take him to a traditional izakaya, when heavy rain seeps through the roof, drenching plates of karaage chicken. The tension is mounting as Kasumi, inspired by his inner samurai, has just asked one drunk and cantankerous customer to pipe down. The bar owner releases the pressure valve by fetching a handful of umbrellas for everyone in the joint, uniting them in laughter. “Another problem solved,” says one punter.
Samurai Gourmet has taught me that the quotidian can be remarkable in vexing times. Like my unemployed partner who’s merrily taken up sweeping leaves; the feeling of connection I get from sharing a stir-fry with my housemates; or my friend Jax who baked me a cake while recovering from a mid-lockdown mastectomy.
I’m noticing how the people around me, like Kasumi, are coping with uncertainty by living in the moment, and if I can enjoy any food as much as he does, I think I’ll be alright.
• Samurai Gourmet is streaming on Netflix