Move over Chef’s Table as there’s another TV series that has been quietly gaining a cult following on Netflix. It’s called Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stores and is based on a bestselling Japanese manga called Shinya Shokudo. It tells the story of the owner of a tiny Tokyo restaurant, known to his customers as Master, and his interactions with the regulars as they come into his diner between midnight and 7am.
The food also takes centre stage, serving as the link that brings strangers together as they discuss their problems. The issues range from the mundane – like the stresses of parenthood – to the unusual – one man asks the Master to dispose of his porn collection for him after he dies (the chef refuses to get involved).
The series has also cultivated a strong following in China, where episodes are streamed online via video site Youku. On Douban, the Chinese film and TV series review site, the Japanese drama has received a rating of 9.0 out of 10, with many viewers saying that the show is “soulful” and “thoughtfully produced”.
Given the country’s obsession with food and Midnight Diner’s loyal fan base, expectations were high when Caixin Weekly reported that a state-owned TV and film producer HLBN had purchased the rights to adapt the show locally.
The Chinese version, which uses the same title, stars actor Huang Lei in the lead role. Actress Zhang Junning and Taiwanese actor Mark Chao are some of the diners.
But reviews for the show, which premiered last week, have been overwhelmingly dire. On Douban, the series has so far generated a rating of just 2.5 out of 10 (with 2 the absolute lowest score on the platform). Some audiences were so dismayed with the remake that they took their complaints to Huang’s personal weibo (the actor recently established a kitchenware brand).
“Even though the show might have been good PR for your company, as a performer in the cultural industry, do you have no shame or dignity? Does that not bother your conscience?” one lambasted.
“The show is an insult to our intelligence. I haven’t logged onto Douban in four years but I did so today so I can give it the lowest star,” another thundered.
So what’s wrong with the Chinese adaptation? “Too disappointing! It copies everything from the Japanese series but fails to capture the essence in the original. The acting is also too exaggerated, as if the actors confused themselves with comic characters. I turned off the TV after 10 minutes,” one internet user fumed on weibo.
“You copy the original show’s aesthetics; you don’t even bother to change the name from the Japanese series; the set and costumes are exactly the same; even the scar on the chef’s face is just like the original. But what you forgot to copy is the soul of the show and the love they have for food,” another wrote.
Another complaint is the show’s excessive product placement. As many as 19 advertisers are said to have paid to have their products featured, says 21CN Business Herald. Although most of them are food-related, some disgruntled viewers reckon the scenes are so awkward they feel like they are watching a very badly made commercial. Some even joke that the producer should rename the show “Midnight Infomercial”.
In one episode, the camera lingers on Huang holding a bottle of cooking oil, as he reads its ad slogan out loud. Audiences were incredulous too that another diner would ask the chef to prepare a bowl of instant noodles.
“Who goes to a restaurant and asks for instant noodles?” one netizen wrote on weibo.
The reason: Taiwan’s Uni-President, one of China’s major instant noodle makers, is the lead sponsor of the show.
Still, Taiwanese director Tsai Yueh-hsun defended the inclusion. “To be honest, we first came up with the instant noodle idea before we signed with Uni-President. I also believe that if audiences weren’t aware that the instant noodle manufacturer was an advertiser, there wouldn’t have been so much negativity about us choosing that as a dish on the show,” he told Southern Metropolis Daily.
But then critics reckon that remaking Midnight Diner in Chinese was always bound to be a thankless task. Unlike South Korean dramas, Chinese producers haven’t had much success adapting dramas from Japan. More recently, Operation Proposal, which is based on a series of the same name in Japan, recorded a 4.0 rating compared with the original’s 8.7 on Douban.
Nevertheless, Midnight Diner won’t be the last Japanese adaptation. Chinese production firms have now turned their attention to Japan after restrictions on South Korean formats due to Beijing’s displeasure at the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system. In the past year alone, at least six remakes of Japanese originals have debuted in China, though most have fallen flat with critics and viewers alike.
“The reason South Korean drama is so popular in China is because Korean producers are very good at understanding the female psyche [the largest viewing demographic]. When it comes to family values and structures, South Koreans are also more similar to us. So that’s also why South Korean TV dramas perform so well here,” says Southern Metropolis Daily. “Japanese dramas, on the other hand, are best at revealing Japanese society’s moral values, aesthetics and family dynamics.”
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