Deguchi Natsuki as Sumire and Mori Nana as Kiyo in "The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House".

Spellbinding and Gentle — “The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House”

Two best friends leave their hometown for Kyoto. Kiyo and Sumire want to become geisha, who perform traditional forms of dance and music in present-day Japan. They live in a house with both practicing geisha (geiko) and apprentices (maiko). Sumire is a natural who loves every second of the training and picks it up with elegance and ease. No matter how hard she works, Kiyo washes out of it. She has no head for rhythm and choreography, and falls further and further behind the other girls.

On the verge of being sent home, Kiyo begins cooking for the house. The house’s usual chef is injured, unhappy with her commute, and the other girls have little idea how to cook. Kiyo quickly becomes the house’s new chef, or makanai.

“The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House” is a slice-of-life series that’s beautifully gentle. We see the characters’ daily lives and there’s no artificial conflict in the plot. Sure, there’s some inner conflict about what makes a few characters happy and one or two characters are difficult for some of the others to live with, but everyone sorts themselves out pretty well.

The series is less about these things and more about Kiyo and Sumire coming into their own. Kiyo is a remarkable character. Played by Mori Nana, there are moments where she’s disappointed, but she’s able to find so much satisfaction throughout her day. Kiyo never struggles to be herself, and as much as our storytelling prizes conflict, there can also be something captivating to find in its absence.

The realizations about character in “The Makanai” are subtle and rarely conveyed outright. It feels real that way. Did Kiyo want to become a geiko for herself or so that she could live life alongside her best friend? Can Kiyo not be trained as a geiko because she lacks ability, or simply because she’s someone who already is who she is – who can’t be molded because she’s already so shaped as a person? These answers matter, but they also aren’t crucial for the story to answer because the story is about the moment-to-moment experiences of daily life, and we only find these answers through those experiences.

Kiyo never seems disappointed that she can’t become a geiko. She’s heartbroken that she has to leave, not because she can’t train. One character suggests Kiyo will struggle with being lesser-than as the house’s makanai. The thought never crosses Kiyo’s mind. It’s the role that feels most right to her. She’s proud to share every dish and continue being a part of Sumire’s and the entire house’s lives.

The sense of watching “The Makanai” is to feel things slow down to its pace. It evokes a transcendent sense of calm. After I watched the first few episodes and stopped, I just listened to the wind outside and felt how still things were inside. It’s hard to describe the effect of “The Makanai” in exact terms. I want to avoid using Westernized descriptions like oneness, presence, or mindfulness because they’ve been co-opted as commercialized keywords for us as much as they still describe sensations.

I’ll go with something simpler. “The Makanai” makes me feel like everything’s OK. It doesn’t fix things in the world or make life easy, it’s not magical and it doesn’t cover things over, but it creates a space for gentleness – even to yourself. I wasn’t going through anything pressing or intense surrounding my watching it – it wasn’t soothing a stressor, though I’m sure it could.

We strive for moments that are special, unique experiences, to achieve something memorable. In doing so, we often overlook the ordinary moment we’re already in, that it’s nice to simply feel it slowly and calmly. It’s not difficult to hope a moment of joy or achievement never ends. What if those ordinary, everyday moments were something we also don’t want to end? The space the show creates is one where it’s OK to be still, listen, take no actions. It says that’s enough to be human. To experience is to be worthwhile, before function or schedule. To close my eyes and listen to that buffeting wind and feel still, that this is the best thing I can do in this moment. We don’t think like that or afford ourselves the time to fulfill that basic human need.

“The Makanai” doesn’t even ask us why not. It just creates the space for it that makes it obvious and recognizable, that clarifies how much we miss it.

There’s one scene where a girl wakes up early and asks Kiyo for something simple because her stomach’s upset. Kiyo cooks and listens as the girl talks about her younger sister. It’s a moment of two people sharing a space we don’t normally get to see, one that’s typically so unimportant it’s never thought of in Western series, or that’s left on the cutting room floor if it is.

The characters often call Kiyo’s food “ordinary”, or so the subtitles communicate. To us, this would be a deep insult. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, or a difficult translation, but it’s clear this is meant as a compliment and Kiyo always takes it this way. And why shouldn’t it be? “The Makanai” is almost entirely about the ordinary in its characters lives, and it feels so calm and peaceful for it. It makes the ordinary feel detailed and captivating, the way it actually is in our lives if we ever bothered to notice.

There’s no empty space in “The Makanai”. There’s always a conversation to be had, a human being to be better understood. Every scene features exchanges and actions. These moments may be quiet and uncomplicated, but every corner of the experiences we see feels inhabited and loved. Every action, no matter how ordinary, feels deeply real and human. Every person feels important, easy to understand but impossible to grasp, a universe of experiences even as they hang laundry, set out candied plums to dry, or watch someone having their photo taken. How often do we overlook these things in our lives?

Often, when a geisha dances we see less of the dance than the reaction of the person watching. This is how we know it’s art, to see someone else’s entire being changed for moments at a time. “The Makanai” reminds us that someone hanging laundry or cooking or listening can also be art, that as human beings our lives are filled with these moments that we’ve taught ourselves not to appreciate. In overlooking the ordinary, the everyday, how many opportunities to be moved and to appreciate the artist do we miss?

There’s a brief scene of Kiyo sitting over a river to enjoy a popsicle after a hard day of work, a moment that communicates how content and fulfilled she is to be here. I wish you could have seen my reaction as I watched, so I could convey to you this is art, that my entire being changed for moments at a time.

You can watch “The Makanai” on Netflix.

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