Warm and heartfelt, Kore-eda substitutes plot for a rich sense of place in a nine-episode series that’ll satisfy like any good meal.
This review of the Netflix series The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House Season 1 does not contain spoilers.
Imagine, if you will, cozying up to a warm meal, perhaps on a winter night when it’s dark and cold outside. The meal is up to you – choose something you love, something nostalgic, something that unlocks fond memories with every forkful. Now, if you can, imagine distilling that experience into a television series. In many ways, you’ve just imagined Netflix’s The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House.
The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House Season 1 review and plot summary
Across nine episodes, writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters) crafts an entire slice-of-life drama using homely meals – shopping for them, preparing them, eating them – as a metaphor for all kinds of things, but mostly to create a cozy atmosphere that gives you a warm connection to the characters who’re indulging in the dishes. Every title lingers over a close-up of a meal that features in the episode to follow, setting the tone and, to be frank, most of the content for the upcoming installment.
That’s the thing, you see – this isn’t really a show about its plot, even though there’s an overarching story about two 16-year-old best friends, Kiyo (Nana Mori) and Sumire (Natsuki Deguchi), but about the everyday ambiance of the house where the girls are training to become maiko, or apprentice geisha. It’s an intimate, crowded setting, and while little happens within it in a dramatic sense, it’s rich with detail and character if you’re on the lookout for it. Whether that’ll be enough for some viewers is obviously going to depend, but “your mileage may vary” probably undersells the amount of richness that Kore-eda has been able to imbue here.
The title comes from clumsy Kiyo almost being expelled from the program until she showcases enough culinary ambition to become the traditional chef, or makanai, of the household, making her somewhat apart from the rest of the girls – especially Sumire, whose growth into the traditional role helps to form part of season’s arc – and her dishes reflective of what they’re feeling and experiencing. Kiyo fits so snugly into the role that it’s easy to imagine having her around in your everyday life, and her relationship with all the girls – though, again, especially Sumire – is the primary source of the show’s warmth.
And The Makanai is about this almost fantastically healthy friendship much more so than it’s about a longstanding tradition’s manifestation in modern-day Japan. The writing smartly assumes that you’ll be reasonably familiar with this world through cultural osmosis, and if you aren’t that you can figure things out for yourself. That freedom from exposition and plotting allows us to settle in much better, and the organic way we learn who these people are – such as the resentful Ryoko (Aju Makita), the daughter of the house’s mother, Azusa (Takako Tokiwa) – is refreshing in a streaming landscape that is all about reinterpreting the same genre staples.
The only downside of this approach is that the show can sometimes feel too insular, and you might occasionally wish it had more on its mind about how a traditional art form fits into a contemporary context. There are hints in this direction, but never anything concrete, and I can’t help but feel like there was a more incisive commentary to be made here that falls by the wayside.
Is The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House good?
Ultimately, though, there’s a pure sense of warmth to this show that you’ll inevitably be taken in and comforted by. It’s very well crafted and deeply reassuring in its depictions of love, friendship, tradition, and the power of a good, hearty meal – and anything that vindicates my own love of grub is fine by me.
What did you think of The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House Season 1? Comment below.
You can watch this series with a subscription to Netflix.