From the trailer, it’s clear The Makanai: Cooking For The Maiko House is a heart-warmer. And if you’re familiar with the work of Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda at all—even just his gorgeous Shoplifters (2018)—you know this will be something special, even if certain biases initially turn you off to the groups of smiling women and plucky theme music that greet you. You also know to expect themes of community care, found family, and a spotlight on life lived in the margins of society—in this case, one that asks the question: How relevant are geisha in 2023 Japan, and how much less relevant does that make the person who cooks for them?
Western Netflix-watching audiences are likely not familiar with the source material for this particular show, the manga Maiko-San Chi No Makanai-San by Aiko Koyama—it sold 2.7 million copies in Japan and won the 65th Shogakukan Manga Award—or its anime adaptation, Kiyo In Kyoto: From The Maiko House. And if that’s the case, they may need to adjust their pacing expectations as well. There is no violence nor betrayal, only subtle arcs and fake-outs. It seems like an entirely different sensibility from most television fare—and it’s a welcome one.
In Makanai, best friends Sumire Herai (Natsuki Deguchi) and Kiyo Nozuki (Nana Mori), inspired by a geiko (geisha) sighting on a school trip, choose to leave behind Kiyo’s spunky, supportive grandmother and their baseball player buddy Kenta in Aomori Prefecture to become apprentice maiko (geishas in training) at Saku house in Kyoto. But it turns out Kiyo is bad at maiko stuff. She can’t hold a flower straight, drum on time, dance competently, or even say the traditional maiko greeting in a way that doesn’t bewilder and borderline disgust Mother Chiyo and Mother Azusa, the heads of the household. As she awkwardly trains, she becomes entranced by the work of Sachiko the makanai (who cooks meals for Saku house) and begins wondering aloud about, for example, incorporating local vegetables into French culinary styles. Kiyo’s bumbling in her maiko lessons leads to her expulsion from the program just as Sumire’s star begins to rise.
Although she’s expelled, Kiyo does not leave—and not just because Sumire begs her to stay. Sachiko sustains a back injury that prevents her from carrying out her duties, and she seeks Kiyo’s assistance with grocery shopping and cooking in exchange for mentorship. Sachiko insists that the most difficult part of maiko cooking is making food taste “normal” to people from disparate regions of the country with their own distinct food cultures. Kiyo is inspired and quickly excels at this. This experience emboldens her to request the role of makanai herself, which she is given, readily.
As Kiyo is enjoying autonomy, expanding her skillset in the kitchen, satisfying her curiosity about ingredients dear to her housemates, and becoming best bros with all of the vendors at the marketplace, Sumire is on a rigid schedule with her celebrity geiko mentor Momoko, practicing early in the morning before lessons begin and learning all of the maiko rules: no using cell phones, no wearing glasses, no getting married or else risk renouncing the profession. Sumire never loses her motivation, though Momoko does—at least temporarily. (She does, however, draw inspiration from that distraction, writing, directing, and staging a jubilant zombie-inspired performance piece for the annual maiko house showcase. It’s a triumphant tonal shift and a highlight of the season.)
While others in Saku house grapple with worries and doubts, Kiyo does not. And this may make her seem one-note at times, the idea that she’s effortlessly happy and engaged with her work. Rest assured, though, that if characters are vessels for Kore-eda, Kiyo is indeed a full one. But this begs a question: Can we handle a character, particularly a young woman brought to life by a male showrunner, being genuinely fulfilled by work we’re conditioned to think of as servile, mundane, and oppressive? Furthermore, can we accept the maiko/geiko path as legitimate high art when the connotation is that it exists purely for the male gaze?
If we can take the characters at their words as we absorb the vivid, slow-mo sequences of food preparation, costuming, and rehearsal, as well as all of the ASMR-like sound design highlighting those rituals, then yes. “These things have value, see?” Momoko says to Sumire, explaining how each mai (dance) she performs is unique, created by cues from the audience, season, and performer’s inner life; how it only exists in the moment she performs it; how she says “Sayonara” to each mai in her mind as she embodies the choreography. Kiyo has a different approach: Each meal she concocts will be subtly unique, though prepared the same way. (Momoko, too, inspires her to say “nice to meet you” to her ingredients as she begins each day.) Kiyo’s work may be invisible to most while Sumire’s is public-facing and flashy, but both are, in their own ways, beautiful.
The Makanai: Cooking For The Maiko House premieres January 12 on Netflix.