In 2019, Mika Ninagawa, known from Helter Skelter (2012), did not only deliver No Longer Human (2019), a biopic about Osamu Dazai, but also an adaptation of the Yumeaki Hirayama’s novel Diner (2012). But while Diner is adapted from a novel, we should nevertheless state – or warn spectators – that the content of Yumeaki’s novel, as is evident in the movie as well, has more affinity with manga/anime narratives than with stories one would expect in novels.
Kanako Oba (Tina Tamashiro) has yet to find meaning in her otherwise miserable and lonesome life. One day, she is surprised by the appearance of a very colourful parade of people dressed up as skeletons. Due to this chance encounter Ooba, desiring to find a place of belonging, becomes focus on travelling to Guanajuato, Mexico.
To be able to pay for the trip – she needs 300000 yen, Kanako Oba starts looking for a better paying part-time job. While the offers she finds are highly unrealistic, Ooba nevertheless decides to apply for one. Her job, given by the eccentric ‘Cherry Honey Pie’ Cowboy (Takumi Saito) and his equally eccentric girlfriend DD (Erika Sato), merely consists in driving his car. But things, as can be expected, quickly go wrong. Luckily, she survives by being forced by Bombero (Tatsuya Fujiwara) to work as a waitress at his restaurant for contract-killers.
Ninagawa’s Diner, an exploration of the crazy extravagant world of contract-killers, turns around two central relational dynamics. The first dynamic concerns the master-slave dynamic between Oba and Bombero. Oba, the slave, the one who, in fear of being killed by either Bombero or any of the customers, must obey Bombero, the master, the one who forced her to work for him. Let us note, in passing, that neither subject is free. While it is evident that Oba’s life depends on fulfilling Bombero’s demands, Bombero also structurally depends on the position of a slave for the success of his restaurant. To put it more directly: without a slave, not only would Bombero be no master, but Diner would be nothing.
Oba, quickly, succeeds in protecting her life, in making sure she is not easily replaceable, by stealing and hiding a very valuable vodka. Does this act radically alters the master-slave dynamic? No, but it does introduce one capital difference. While, at first, the position of slave can be fulfilled by anyone – everyone is disposable, her act ensures that she is not that disposable anymore. Oba’s act allows her to avoid a quick death by seizing a position of life, which is the symbolic position of slave. The question is: will she be able to break this dynamic? And if she does, how? (Narra-note 1(spoiler))?
The second relational dynamic important to the development of Diner is the dynamic between mother and child. This importance is underlined by Kanako Oba, who is subjectively marked by her mother who abandoned her – her mother who, by disappearing, refused to give Kanako the object she desired, i.e. her love – as well is by Skin (Masataka Kubota), whose desire to eat the perfect souffle hides the problematic and abusive relation he, as child, had with her. But Skin’s narrative also allows us to underline a well-known aspect of human desire: one always desires what one does not want or, in less cryptic words. one does not want the fulfillment of one’s desire.
Mika Ninagawa’s composition of Diner is energetic and highly dynamic, using all kinds of different cinematographical movement to bring the narrative visually to life. While the dynamic fluidity of the composition is already noteworthy, the aspect of the composition that stands out the most is its colour and lightning design. Each frame in Diner is, in some way or another, marked by Ninagawa’s expressionistic colour palette and/or lightning-design. Colour is – and this is important – not only used for purposes of visual pleasure, but also used to express Ooba Kanako’s subjective position and desire. It is, for instance, by contrasting the bleak colours that mark Ooba’s daily life with the colourful parade of people disturbing this bleakness that Ooba’s desire to find colour and meaning in her life becomes sensible.
Ninagawa’s composition is, furthermore, adorned with many visual decorations. These stylish decorations have, in most cases, no direct narrative purpose, but do heighten, due to their fluid integration into the composition, the spectator’s visual pleasure. The reason why the action-sequences are so visually pleasant is thus not only due to the snappiness of the composition, but also due to the stylish flair by which said action is framed and staged. This is also true for the action-packed finale, but Ninagawa’s stylish flair does have a less pleasing side-effect. The juggling with different mood and styles ultimately causes the finale, while enjoyable, to feel somewhat uneven.
Overall, Diner’s composition, just like her other narratives, shows that Ninagawa is a master in artistically or stylishly dressing up her narratives. Some may call it style over substance, but, in this case, it would be more correct to say that style, generally, empowers the narrative’s substance (Cine-note 1).
The pleasing energy that drives the unfolding of Diner ‘s narrative does not only derive from its dynamic cinematographical composition, but also from the generally energetic acting-performances – especially Tina Tamashiro impresses. The broad palette of different characters – some extravagant, even bordering on the ridiculous, some more serious – is brought pleasantly and in a truly engaging way to life by the star-studded cast.
Ninagawa’s Diner is not only a visual treat, but also a very entertaining narrative dealing with the birth of desire and exploring the importance of assuming a symbolic place from where one can desire and speak. Ninagawa’s stylishly composed narrative – a splendid mix of absurdity, moments of tension, touches of emotionality, enjoyable action-scenes, and even some appetizing flashes of food-porn – will not fail to entertain and move the spectator.
Narra-note 1: Oba will eventually succeed in breaking this master-slave dynamic by assuming a place from where she can desire. While her desire, on the surface, concerns her wish to be able to cook like Bombero for others, what she truly desires is the other’s oral desire – their desire to eat her food. It is only within a network of desires that one can fully assume a symbolic place and find one’s purpose within the Other.
Cine-note 1: The influence of John Woo’s action-cinema on the framing of the narrative’s entertaining finale is very clear.