A staple of Japanese television is what is called "gourmet reports." Nearly every variety show has one and they're popular enough that there are now standalone gourmet report television shows. Basically, each gourmet report involves the host and/or some guests having a meal in the studio or at a restaurant. They discuss the food and how it was prepared, but the primary focus of the gourmet reports is emotional. Intricate explanations of how the food tastes, attempts to convey the smells and experiences of the meal. These segments are much more focused on the emotions connected with food instead of the preparation. It's an on-camera relationship with food that is completely different than the traditional Food Network "Diners, Drive-ins & Dives" approach.
Netflix just added season one of the 2017 TV Toyko series "Hyper Hardboiled Gourmet Report" and if you can get past the initial unfamiliarity of the presentation, you'll discover a show that is maybe the most memorable food series I've ever seen. Imagine if Anthony Bourdain did a series that focused on the food eaten by entry-level criminals and other marginalized individuals and you'd get something a bit like this show.
Each episode begins with Chiho Kojima, a traditional gourmet report host, being brought in to sit in front of a monitor that will display an already produced episode of the show. The producers are often heard in the footage and occasionally glimpsed. But the footage primarily focuses on the people of a particular city or small area and as the footage rolls, the host pops up in a small window to add his on-the-spot instant comments to what he's witnessing.
Episode one was shot in Liberia, which is still recovering from a nearly two-decades civil war that killed at least 250,000 people. Both the government and the rebel army enlisted thousands of young children to fight in the war and some of those now orphaned children are in their 20s and 30s. They have no family, no support system and given that they spent their childhood killing people, no usable life or job skills.
The show's producers talk their way into a local cemetery where as many as 900 former child soldiers now live. They've pried the lids off of caskets and mausoleums and sleep on top of the bones when they're not stealing or prostituting themselves to make a little money. It's just horrifying to watch and at the same time seeing what they eat when they do have money brings some strange context to their lives.
We all need to eat and that's what "Hyper Hardboiled Gourmet Report" attempts to show viewers. It's part hardcore crime documentary and part exploration of what people eat who live on the margins of society. From a completely street gang-staffed hamburger joint in South Central Los Angeles to a state-run Russian restaurant that caters to North Korean migrant workers, the show is as gripping and unforgettable an experience as I've had watching a food-oriented television series.
One of the factors that make the series work is that the Japanese producers are able to get access in a way that I don't think an American crew ever could. Many people seem to see the Japanese producers are not being dangerous and not being there with any hidden agenda in mind. They get away with questions that dance on the line of being intrusive, but time after time the participants shrug and give up a little bit of their souls on-camera to a group of strangers.
The show is a quick binge-five episodes that only run about 30 minutes each. And if you give the show five minutes, I suspect you'll blast through the entire series in one viewing. "Hyper Hardboiled Gourmet Report" is unlike any food show you've ever seen and it isn't often that watching a show about food is so emotional and tragic.
"Hyper Hardboiled Gourmet Report" is now streaming on Netflix.