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Food, Stories and Communion in the Liquid City: A review of Midnight Diner

Thursday, 22 February 2024  | Matthew Tan

Midnight Diner

(A TV series directed by Joji Matsuoka)


Back in 2000, the late Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote a book entitled Liquid Modernity. In two words, Bauman was able to provide a glimpse into what is a widespread cultural condition. It is a condition in which sources of stability no longer hold, and individuals are thrust into all manner of cultures, tasks, situations and relationships in which commitments have been replaced by the qualifier ‘until further notice’. Liquidity and flux are now the hallmarks of what might be called ‘global cities’, where industrial outputs have been whittled out and have given way to ephemeral services. Historical points of reference are less sources of reverence and more potential resources, to be appropriated for the next profit-generating sound- or pic-byte. Awash in this never-ending flood in these new global cores, a few might clamour for something, anything, to anchor and stabilise themselves. These can be artifacts, memories or communities. Yet, it seems that it is only in the peripheries that such anchors can be found.

The Netflix series Midnight Diner focuses on the owner of a tiny back-alley diner in one of these liquid cities, Tokyo. The diner’s owner, known to his patrons as the Master, has a very limited fixed menu, but is also willing to make anything his patrons ask, so long as he has the ingredients. Because the diner opens from midnight, it does not serve what we might call a conventional clientele of office workers or shoppers. Instead, the diner’s clientele consists of the various subcultures housed within the vast city of Tokyo. There are some office workers, retirees and public servants. Then there are the mob bosses, newspaper delivery boys, drag queens, taxi drivers, standup comedians, former pop music or movie starlets, food critics and the odd retired porn star. All of them have in some way been rendered disposable by the liquid city, and all of them find solace in the diner.

Each episode of Midnight Diner is organised around a dish made by the Master. In itself, the dish is unremarkable, but it is made remarkable because it is the favourite dish of one of the patrons. As each episode unfolds, the dish becomes a window into the biography of that patron. More often than not, the dish is enjoyed because it is a placeholder for a memory in that patron’s life, and more often than not, it is a memory that speaks of happier days - of days of youth, of past relationships, of better fortunes - before they were swept away by the deluge that is the new liquid status quo. On a few occasions, the dish is ordered not by one patron, but by other patrons, who long not just to taste the dish, but to enter the worlds foreshadowed by that taste. Each dish is a story that gives viewers a biography of not only the individual patron, but also a fragment of the city of Tokyo and its subcultures, which have become imprinted onto the patron.

If the dish is insufficient to anchor the patron, he or she might find another anchor in the commitment of fellow diners. After every episode, the patron does not simply disappear. Instead, a good number become regulars at the diner, some appearing in every season. They may not be major protagonists in those other episodes, but they remain all the same, becoming like the furniture of the diner. What becomes apparent is that the diner has become a refuge from the brutal demands of the stories told by the lights and sounds of this city, as each patron goes to the Master not just for food, but also for advice from him or from the other patrons. Bit by bit, the fragmented threads of Tokyo’s stories become woven into a common story of solace at the diner, and a communion emerges out of the dim lights of that tiny alley. Episode after episode, the series sets a rhythm as the viewer is taken into the ragtag community of regulars gathered at the Master’s table, fortified with the Master’s food, advice and a new common narrative thread sewn amongst the diverse stories of patrons that enter the diner. Each patron’s story is then taken out into the byways of Tokyo, now a paragraph of a new narrative of the communion at the diner.

Shows like Midnight Diner demonstrate the important link between human dignity, stories and community. As Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in After Virtue (1981), we are not mere entities taking up space, nor are we simply moral beings who follow moral dictums. Instead, MacIntyre states that we are a ‘story-telling animal’ (216) that derives meaning in our lives because we have a story, embedded into wider stories told and lived by others. It is our being bracketed by stories that enables us to meaningfully live lives of virtue, framed by an origin, trajectory and destination. As Christians, we live not as followers of rules, but as ‘witnesses to these things’ (Acts 5:32), living fragments of a story bound together by the biography of Jesus of Nazareth. His biography of incarnation, passion, death, resurrection, ascension and return forms the grammar of a story that gives meaning to my actions. At the heart of my faith is a story of an encounter with one that knows me and wants to weave his biography into mine, such that, in the words of St Paul, ‘it is not I that live, but Christ that lives in me’ (Gal 2:20). What is more, because the biography of Jesus is a narrative thread shared in common with others who also have encountered the Master, to be a human person means that I am also meant to be in communion with others.

The proof of this being storied into communion is found in the celebration of eucharistic communion, in which food plays a central role. The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote in his For the Life of the World (1963) that food is more than a source of biological nourishment. What Midnight Diner puts on display is what Schmemann calls secularism’s failure ‘to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian’. Instead, Schmemann says, food is ‘the last “natural sacrament” of family and friendship, of life that is more than “eating” and “drinking”’ (16). Christians go to church not only to hear biographies of Jesus, but to enter into relationship with him. Where communion is part of the service, the biography of Jesus is sacramentally made present to us by the Master at his table and consumed by us, and we come into relation with Christ by sharing in the biography of the body of Christ. As bread binds together the scattered grains, our consumption of communion binds us together into the common body of the Church, of which the patrons of the midnight diner act as an analogy through their commitment to the diner, the Master and patrons alike. What this means is that, when I go to Church, I am not an individual fulfilling my own ecclesiastical duties. My common participation in the narrative of Christ should draw me out of my isolation into the lives of others. What is more, this makes my communion more than a mere friendship, but a constituent element of my personhood, with the person of Jesus Christ as its centre.


Matthew Tan is the Dean of Studies at Vianney College Seminary, the Wagga Wagga campus of the Catholic Institute of Sydney. He blogs at Awkward Asian Theologian (


Image credit: Empty Pathway in Between Stores by Alex Knight on Unsplash.


This article will appear in the forthcoming issue of Zadok on ‘Multicultural Odysseys and Storms’, Issue 162 (Autumn 2024), pp.26-27. Republished with permission.

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