Japan’s most delicious graphic novels are being adapted for TV.
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If you've ever been yearning to visit Japan, an excellent place to start is with the latest season of the Japanese Netflix series Midnight Diner, set inside a Tokyo izakaya and featuring Master, a chef who opens his restaurant from midnight until morning only. As customers dig into crispy bowls of karaage chicken and slurp steaming servings of hot pot, he watches them sort out romantic relationships and family squabbles or reconcile their work and private lives.

The show is a lens into Japanese restaurant culture based on the manga series by Yori Abe. It's a seminal work of culinary manga—a subgenre that transforms the stylized bento boxes, chopping, and seasoning into stories of fantasy, romance, crime, and mystery. Its live-action adaptation exemplifies how graphic novels, comics, and animated films can be reimagined as dramas, comedies, and competition shows. I found myself watching hours of Japanese cooking manga adaptations online, absorbing the many relationship-driven stories that often center on culinary schools and restaurants. In one, the protagonist balances the rigors of restaurant cooking, while others explore the nurturing and restorative qualities of home cooking. Midnight Diner might be a cultural touchstone, but more importantly, it shows how cooking manga can go from eye-popping illustrated fantasy to live-action reality (and everywhere in between).

Illustration
Credit: Miguel Ángel Camprubí

In that imaginative space, I also discovered shows like Samurai Gourmet on Netflix, a series based on Masayuki Kusumi's essay and manga of the same title. In it, a recent retiree reimagines his life as a warrior. His awakening is buttressed as he watches dried mackerel crackle under a flame while slurping bowls of broth and seaweed. Each episode is a transportive way to experience a graphic novel that beautifully illustrates the nuances of Japanese cuisine.

Once streaming algorithms catch on that you're watching "TV shows based on manga," you'll be flooded with recommendations like Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salarymanthink The Office meets The Great British Baking Show, in which the hero obsesses over pancakes and éclairs instead of his desk job, or Wakako Zake, which follows a woman's journey pairing Japanese food and drinks.

Although Wakako is a rare female protagonist, women are often absent as central characters in live-adapted series. Like much of the genre, culinary anime revolves around men who aspire to become chefs, while women are presented as nurturing home cooks. But perhaps we can look forward to a potential live-action adaptation of Kiyo in Kyoto, an anime series released on-demand in February. In it, teenager Kiyo and her friend Sumire move to Kyoto to become maiko (apprentice geisha), but instead, Kiyo finds herself shining as a cook, preparing meals for her new housemates. Until then, we'll be streaming, patiently. 

Where the Women Are

Watch & Listen

Akiko Katayama hosts Japan Eats!, a podcast about Japanese food culture, while Yu Hayami, who hosts Dining with the Chef on Japan's NHK TV channel, cooks alongside chef Tatsuo Saito.

Find the Recipes

Self-described otaku (obsessive) Diana Ault translates dishes from anime series into a book, aptly titled Cook Anime. $17 at amazon.com.

Take a Class

Women are cooking on AirKitchen, a startup that launched in 2020 in response to the pandemic. For about $45 to $100, you can learn to make ramen, sushi, or soba with Japan-based home cooks.

Circling Back

Check out Restaurant Fiction, a podcast that reviews the fictitious restaurants of pop culture, including Midnight Diner.