Samurai Gourmet star does not like food shows that leave nothing to the imagination

Japanese star Naoto Takenaka plays a solitary gourmet in a new Netflix drama series, but in real life, he cannot dine on his own

Naoto Takenaka plays a retiree who embarks on a series of little culinary adventures in Samurai Gourmet.
Naoto Takenaka plays a retiree who embarks on a series of little culinary adventures in Samurai Gourmet. PHOTO: NETFLIX

In the wake of Netflix's acclaimed original Japanese drama series, Midnight Diner, comes another Japanese show about food from the content streaming giant.

Samurai Gourmet has actor Naoto Takenaka, 61, playing recently retired salaryman Takeshi Kasumi, who suddenly finds that he has a lot of time on his hands and embarks on a series of little culinary adventures.

In a touch of fantasy, the series features Tetsuji Tamayama, 36, as a wandering samurai who is both a guide for Kasumi and the liberated person the retiree aspires to be.

The show not only depicts tempura and sushi as "A-class cuisine", but also explores the more casual side of Japanese culinary culture, from modest little diners to dishes such as the humble natto (fermented soya beans).

It is based on Masayuki Kusumi's essay and the manga of the same title, Samurai Gourmet, and it premiered on Netflix on March 17.

Stories revolving around Japanese food have always had a strong appeal, from ramen comedy flick Tampopo (1985) to Midnight Diner, a manga which has been adapted for the big and small screens, including two seasons on Netflix.

At a recent press event for the show, Takenaka says he is not sure why this is so. "Maybe it's because people want to obtain some information about certain foods," he suggests.

Tamayama adds that some food shows lie halfway between documentary and drama - "maybe after you watch a drama, maybe you can actually go there and try that dish yourself so you're getting a lot of stimulants from the show".

But many food shows rub Takenaka the wrong way.

"The person who's eating explains the texture and I don't like that. I think it's too much, you don't want it explained because you want to imagine it and try it yourself. I don't even like food-rating websites," he says in Japanese through a translator.

Audiences here might find Takenaka familiar from his comic turns in movies such as Sumo Do, Sumo Don't (1992) and Shall We Dance? (1996).

He has an aura of a rock star in person with his silverstar-patterned black blazer, blackand-silver pants and multiple earrings and, clearly, he is a pro at playing to the media with his humorous gestures and game poses during the photo calls.

Pointing out how he is quite different from the protagonist in one fundamental aspect, he says: "I am an only child, so I can't eat alone.

" I want to share and talk about delicious food. I started drinking at the age of 47 and to drink alone and order at the counter alone is too difficult."

Asked about his favourite dishes, he zeroes in on curry.

"I love Indian curry with its spices. The aroma makes me happy. I love it from the bottom of my heart. Wherever I go, I always look for curry places."

On a visit to Singapore three years ago, he had satay and lots of curry in Little India, he adds. "It was all delicious."

Eating for pleasure is all well and good, but would eating take after take for a show about food ruin the experience?

He says: "Being on set is the place I want to be, so I don't see anything as a challenge. As an actor, you have to portray that you're enjoying the food, that's a must, but I really and truly enjoyed it."

While Takenaka the actor is quite different from Kasumi the retiree, there is one aspect of the character he can fully empathise with.

Kasumi initially is at a loss when he stops working. There seems to be little danger of that happening for Takenaka, given his active schedule in film and TV.

He has even directed a few movies over the years, including the well-received biopic about the wife of top Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, Tokyo Biyori (1997).

He says with a chuckle: "Being an actor is a job I've always aspired to. If that's suddenly taken away from me, I would probably hit a low.

"Embodying someone else supports me spiritually. If that is taken away, I would probably fall into a state of desperation."

Samurai Gourmet is part of Netflix's grand plans, which will see it spending US$6 billion (S$8.4 billion) on content this year, with original material being made in 15 countries across Asia, Europe and Latin America.

The line-up of shows coming out of Asia includes South Korean film Okja by acclaimed director Bong Joon Ho; a film adaptation of the book First They Killed My Father: A Daughter Of Cambodia Remembers, directed by Angelina Jolie; the first animation movie of the Godzilla monster from Japan; Sacred Games, Netflix's first Indian series based on the 2006 best-selling crime thriller novel of the same name by Vikram Chandra; Love Alarm, Netflix's first South Korean series based on the webtoon of the same name; and Kingdom, a South Korean drama set in the Joseon period written by Kim Eun Hee, the scribe behind the hit K-drama Signal (2016).

• Samurai Gourmet is available on Netflix.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2017, with the headline 'Actor eats alone only on screen'. Subscribe