‘The Makanai’ on Netflix: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Netflix Show is delightful

Makanai: Cooking in the Maiko House is the director’s trademark of finding magic in the everyday, this time through the eyes of a teenage chef.

It’s hard to make food look appetizing on screen. Fill the screen with the most gruesome monstrosity possible, and the very fact that it’s on a TV gives it a certain kind of initial appeal. Fiction can suck in our stomachs in a way that sometimes even real life can’t.

Oddly enough, this makes Makanai: Cooking for House Maiko seem even more challenging. Kore-eda Hirokazu’s new Netflix series can’t rest on just watching a few rice dishes or stews. It must convey the idea that Kiyo (Nana Mori), a bright-eyed teenager looking for a new life in Kyoto’s Gion district, is so fascinated by the possibilities of her own food that it changes her life.

“Makanai” finds the same magic in the everyday as in Kore-eda’s cinematic resume. He shares directing duties for this nine-episode series, but as showrunner, he’s able to bring his own brand of calm to Kiyo’s story. The wonder happens early on when Kiyo and her best friend Sumire (Natsuki Deguchi) venture to Kyoto with the dream of joining the maiko ranks. They want to put on traditional face paint and dress, learn the art of traditional dance, and be attractions that young girls stop and take photos with. This youthful certainty appears without judgment or irony. When they arrive in Kyoto, the sun-drenched streets share their wonder.

The word “intimate” is perhaps an exaggeration when describing such serene, atmospheric stories. But as Kiyo and Sumire spend more time at the Saku house and get to know their peers and elders, this feeling begins to overwhelm the series. Even when the camera is across the room or across the street looking through the window, “Makanai” captures the small dramas of everyday life with ease and clarity. It shows not only what Kiyo is going through in this new chapter of his life, but also how he perceives it.

"The Makanai: Cooking in the Maiko House"

“The Makanai: Cooking in the Maiko House”

The adaptation of Aiko Koyama’s popular manga series “The Makanai” is entirely based on this perspective. He makes a story full of disappointments, failures and misunderstandings, instead he makes a show full of excitement and discovery. Kiyo’s disappointment at being rejected from her dream job turns to wonder when she finds herself in a different role: cooking for Sumire, the other students, and the rest of the house. At one point, Kiyo feels so at ease in his new position that he’s a little jealous of everyone else’s problems.

The real trick of “The Makanai” is that these problems don’t go away. As the show focuses on Kiyo and Sumire’s every utterance, there are genuine concerns from other characters who see themselves as more of a crossroads. Constant questions arise about love and its role in the lives of those who want to realize Sumire’s particular dream. There are casual encounters with old flames and lingering questions about whether one can get all the fulfillment one needs in life through one’s work alone. Just as Kiyo’s friends describe his brew as a mix of the mundane and the extraordinary, “Makanai” hides some serious questions beneath its occasional glossy sheen.

"The Makanai: Cooking in the Maiko House"

“The Makanai: Cooking in the Maiko House”

It’s an added joy to watch ‘The Makanai’ thrive on the tiniest details. It takes a certain kind of show to get real insight into who stole someone’s dessert from the fridge or the tender care of a batch of prunes. In isolation, any of these elements might seem fluff or frivolous, but over the course of nine episodes, they all add up to what makes these characters more than just some modern-day fairy tale. This also applies to Kiyo’s cooking. Light embers on onions, a garnish for a breakfast dish, the perfect consistency of breading. An idealized, “Chef’s Table”-like performance, but you can see the care and love that Kiyo puts into it.

All this emotional balancing makes it not just a spiritual sibling to other Japanese dramas (see also “Midnight Diner” if you’re in the mood for more fine-grained on-screen fare), but to something like “All Creatures Are Great. and small.” While this show speaks to the present from the late 1930s, “Makanai” uses the history of the present to touch on something timeless. A nimble score by famed anime composer Yoko Kanno helps this show move between vague daydreams and the practical reality behind them.

So, whether you’re coming to the show for a story of young friendship, delicious dumplings, episode-long treatises on the rigors of artistic pursuits or the nature of unrequited love, “Makanai” lets you take your pick. Even if you’re just looking for nine episodes of a main character with a reliable smile and cheerful disposition, Mori and Deguchi deliver. All of this is presented with plenty of sunlight through the window, but this show is about more than empty calories.

“The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House” is now available on Netflix.

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