The great thing about anime and manga is that it can propel the experience of eating delicious things to larger-than-life heights, but with “Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman,” Netflix proves that live-action can actually be a better translation. Here’s why.
If you’ve watched enough anime (Japanese cartoons) or read enough manga (Japanese comics), you’ll notice that, strangely, a lot of detail is put into the food.
Of course, there are shows all about food, like carb-centric “Yakitate!! Japan,” “Silver Spoon” and its chronicle of a remote agricultural high school in Japan and “Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma,” which pits aspiring chefs at an elite cooking academy against each other. And you can’t forget the impact of Drops of God, the manga that turned Japan onto wine.
But even in series about battle high schools in the dystopian future and ice skating, food tends to be a main character. There’s “Kill la Kill,” which is about a daughter seeking vengeance for her father’s murder, her fight against the Elite Four that rules her combat-focused high school and addictive croquettes made from mystery ingredients that the whole family fights over. Katsudon (pork cutlet over rice) is the driving force behind a struggling figure skater in the anime “Yuri!! On Ice,” and that over-the-top beauty shot of the rice bowl flickers in his mind again and again as he fights to regain his sense of purpose. “What I love about food in anime is the truth in its hyperbole,” Tejal Rao, a reporter for The New York Times, says of this dish.
That’s the amazing—albeit super weird—thing about anime and manga: It captures the rush of joy and complete satisfaction of eating something really delicious in a way that no other medium can. It’s through the glossy, sensual illustration of the food. It overwhelms the screen, twinkles in its own glory and almost seems to wink back at you. And it’s through the characters’ ridiculous reactions to the food, where time stops and the character is so overcome by the textures and flavors that it leads to an explosive, somewhat orgasm-like response, happy crying or a quiet moment of reflection, depending on personality.
So, it’s curious to me, given the strength of anime and manga to propel the experience of food to larger-than-life heights, that Netflix would translate all that into live action. But that’s just what the streaming pioneer did with Saboriman Amentani Kantarou, a two-year-old series by Tensei Hagiwara and Abidi Inoue about a publishing salesman who skips work to secretly indulge in sweets. (And it’s something they’re continuing to experiment with and invest in: Popular anime "Erased" was just released as a live-action series last weekend.)
"Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman" debuted on Netflix earlier this month. And here’s the thing: This live-action take is better than the manga—or at least in the opinion of this noob anime enthusiast. The story is fictional, but the desserts and the shops are real, and the series shoots each sweet in all its jiggly, syrupy, red bean-sprinkled entirety at the actual locations. It’s glorious.
In each episode, Amentani Kantaro, played by kabuki actor Matsuya Onoe, heads to his drab office job at a book publishing company, rushes through his sales visits and rewards himself by playing hooky at a dessert gem in the area, which he chronicles under the pseudonym Sweets Knight for his blog, Amablo. He details each little thing that makes his finds so special. At Kooriya Peace, a small counter that specializes in kakigori (shaved ice), they slightly warm the ice block before it’s chiseled down to flakes to prevent brain freezes and they juice melons right before drizzling the slush on top as syrup. At Minimal, a bean-to-bar shop, the owner sources the beans from Ghana to Vietnam and presents every part of these precious ingredients at the tasting counter. A drink made of sweet pulverized flesh. Roasted bean bits to nibble on. A life-changing chocolate tart made from one of the bars.
That same transcending, out-of-body response to the food remains in this live-action series, like Kantaro imagining himself doused in simple syrup or his colleagues with chestnuts and jelly for heads. (Sometimes those initial orgasmic reactions seem like a demon or alien is taking over Kantaro. It’s more uncomfortable on screen, I’ll admit.) But the thing that kept me on a roll, watching episode after episode, is the filming of each dessert at each sweets shop. The way the ingredients are artfully jumbled together is similar to those alluring French ads for coffee brand Carte Noir by Proximity BBDO a few years, and you learn the crucial building blocks to each sweet that you wouldn’t know otherwise. You also get a sense of the owner, chef or pastry chef whose been perfecting their craft all this time off the camera.
However, "Kantaro" isn’t just food porn. Sweets drive the narrative here. Though Kantaro’s obsession initially drives him away from others as he tries to keep his delinquency a secret, it ultimately unites him with others in his orbit, from a workplace rival to his boss’s picky son.
After binging the whole series in a few days, it’s made me become a little Kantaro-like. These days, I’m finding ways to eat Japanese desserts just like him. Stopping by a bakery while I’m out running errands. Scheduling work meetings at cake shops. Or even cancelling my dentist appointment to eat cookies at a place I’ve been dying to check out. And there’s something wonderful about indulging for a small moment in these sweets. It’s like I’m sharing a secret with Kantaro. And that’s the magic of this show.