Airing this past March, Samurai Gourmet is Netflix’s original take on Masayuki Kusumi and Shigeru Tsuchiyama’s manga of the same name. Samurai focuses on the 60-year old Takeshi Kasumi (Naoto Takenaka), a newly-retired “corporate man” as he navigates the early days of his retirement. Thrust out of his usual schedule and sense of purpose, Takeshi is struggling to find a new rhythm and meaning in his life. This aimlessness and self-doubt comes to the fore as Takeshi finds himself at the table. The focus point of each episode, the meal is the stage on which Takeshi’s own shortcomings and dissatisfaction with himself are on display as he frets over things like loud diners, appearing uncouth, or ordering the wrong item. Each meal presents him with an existential crisis in which he must choose who to be, and at the height of this crises the shows namesake Edo period samurai appears to Takeshi and provides him with inspiration for his own circumstance. While perhaps an odd gimmick, it offers a adorable take on the personal journey arc.
Gimmick aside, the show is quite literally “eye candy.” The meals are beautifully shot with the steam from the noodles and bubbles of the beer being captured in all their glory. If you don’t crave Japanese food afterward, you are doing something wrong. But, more than pretty shots of udon, Samurai presents us with an in depth picture of self-discovery and, surprisingly, an excellent theology of the Lord’s Table.
Throughout the show, Takeshi’s experience of meals is intertwined with his own past. A breakfast of mackerel takes him back to the freedom of childhood friendships or a stall of croquettes engulfs him in the memory of sneaking in snacks after school. Most meal sequences are composed of food shots, close-ups of Takeshi, and flashbacks to his past. The connection between remembrance and food is something we are all familiar with. Our favorite meals hold memories, our taste buds trigger faded images of the past. But, Takeshi’s vivid mealtimes are not merely the replay of the past, they are moments in which the past is made present to him. Through the meal, he relives the past with all of its tastes, sights, sounds, joys and sorrows.
In the same way, the Lord’s Table is a meal of memory. Not in some dead way, like looking at a faded postcard. No, the meal brings the past into the present. When we take, bless, break, and give the bread we are brought to the original table, or rather, that original table is brought to us. We do not just remember the moment or its significance, we experience it. And this brings us to the second aspect of Takeshi’s culinary adventure.
As Takeshi eats, he does not just encounter his own past, he encounters his own shortcomings, often through hilarious inner monologue. In Episode 2, “The Demoness’s Ramen,” Takeshi is confronted with bad service and his own inability to address it. Episode 10 sees him confronting his cowardice as foreigners are abused by management. In his interactions with fellow diners or wait staff, Takeshi is almost always called to a point to decision on which he must decide how to act and who to be.
Intro the show’s namesake samurai. As conflict rises, the samurai appears and the scene changes with everyone appearing in traditional garb. Time has shifted around Takeshi and he watches in amazement as the samurai resolves his problem. Unlike Takeshi, who vacillates on the best course of action, the samurai acts decisively. He resolves his situation through courageous words or deeds, regardless of consequences. Upon the samurai resolving the conflict, Takeshi snaps out of the dream.
As with the samurai’s appearance, questioning the metaphysical reality of the presence of Christ in the meal would be to miss the major point of the experience. For Takeshi, the reality of this samurai is clear because he is affected by him. These encounters are not asked for, nor are they expected, but for Takeshi they are life changing. They are real moments in which he is encountered by one greater than himself and called to follow in those footsteps.
Transformation (or not)
If Samurai Gourmet was a fine, moralistic show, it would allow each episode to follow a simple path which ends in Takeshi’s following in the footsteps of the samurai. What makes it great show (and good theology) is that Takeshi does not always rise to the occasion. In short, he chickens out.
Take in point, the aforementioned “Demoness’s Ramen” episode. The samurai directly confronts the bad service he receives, enacting culinary justice with decisiveness. Takeshi, emboldened by the example, stands from his chair, ready to act, but at the point of decision… he folds to the waiter, pays the bill and walks out ashamed.
The encounter at the Lord’s Table is similar in many ways. In it, we encounter the crucified and risen Jesus. We receive his grace and example, and this emboldens us towards a new way of life. Yet, anyone who is human knows that failure can always be around the corner. The example we see at the table is high, and even with grace we stumble to emulate it. Luckily, the table is not the magical, end-all-be-all of Christian transformation. Yet, it remains one of the best places to experience that transformation because it provides a rhythm of encounter that helps us to continually reexamine who Jesus was and who we must become.
At the end of the day, I do not know if Masayuki Kusumi and Shigeru Tsuchiyama intended this sort of interpretation of their work. Except for a couple cryptic references to choir practice by Takeshi’s wife, there is never any sort of nod to religious sentiment. Takeshi’s own religious experience remains strictly in the realm of the culinary. Yet, perhaps this ambiguity is well and good. Amos Yong talks about the pneumatological imagination as the capacity to see the Spirit as being both at work in the world and the power which helps us engage the world as followers of Christ. If we dare to imagine it, we might recognize that a great meal, and even a great show, can become a place to remember and be transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Wherever we are at, the Lord’s Table can rise to meet us and call us to follow in the footsteps of a different sort of wandering master.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.