Makanai: Inside Maiko’s kitchen, a short series recently released on Netflix, charms us right from the start, immersing us in the traditional Japanese world of the geisha, through the sparkling eyes of two young girls who leave everything behind to travel to Kyoto and discover this art form and their dreams. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s cinematography is realistic, detailed, simple, beautiful and warm.
Makanai is a short series of 9 episodes created by Hirokazu Kore-eda on Netflix, on January 12th, 2023.
This series takes us in the unexpected daily life of Sumire and Kiyo, two young girls who leave their hometown to go to Kyoto, planning to become maiko, in other words geisha apprentices.
Thus, we discover through the eyes of these young girls this captivating Japanese tradition of the geiko, also known as geisha. They will then join an okiya in Kyoto, a house where various maiko, future maiko and geisha live together as a family led by an okasan, the mother of all the young girls. Kiyo and Sumire do not only leave to meet their dreams, but also to meet new surrogate mother and sisters. What is even more striking is that one of these two young girls has always lived with her grandmother and the other one has a difficult relationship with her father while her mother isn’t even mentioned.
All this art is highly codified and sometimes seems very cold or aloof, notably in the West. With this series we discover the daily life of these women within this art in a real way and although they are passionate and determined, we mostly see that the relationship developing between all of them in the house, no matter their age, is very warm, respectful and beautiful. They even get to ask themselves about tradition and its codes, especially with the question of marriage. They all have something to learn from each other; the maiko learn a lot from the geiko, aspiring to become like them, but sometimes they could see things that their elders wouldn’t notice.
It’s a “lovey” work, like many of us could call it, because it comforts and distances us from all the negativity that surrounds us in our current society and which instead plunges us in a soothing, romantic and cultural bubble. We learn a lot and not only about geisha art and its vocabulary, but also about cooking.
You will notice in the title that there are also makanai.
The makanai, within an okiya, is the one who cooks food for the whole family. We soon realize that the concept of destiny, future, work, passion, goal and identity seeking will be central in the series. Indeed, from the first episode Kiyo sees her departure for Kyoto questioned. Not designed to become maiko, she was soon asked to go back home until she cooks dinner on a weekday evening before her departure. She then has an eye-opener, to become a makanai.
Thus, throughout the series we discover characters who seek to become and achieve. Between Kiyo, who was following Sumire to become maiko, finally finding her true passion, Sumire who seems to be meant for this art but sees that the journey will be intense, Momoko a geiko who seeks to renew her art and asking herself about what she likes and what she truly wishes for her future, Ryoko, a young girl who lives in the okiya where the only link she has with this art is her mother, wandering in the house without finding her place in this world. Or Oshino, the clown of the group who shows up once again in the okiya after she left this tradition for a while, or even mother Chiyo who inspires everyone with her life experience. And many more obviously, but nothing is left to chance – every character is covered, from love to passion, failure, homesickness, etc. All of them so similar but also so different.
Destinies are turning up and mixing up together, soft feelings reach the viewers, a lot of scenes are moving without being sad and it feels good. It’s a series that knows how to show us the real difficulties to find our path in life without hurrying us, saddening us, and how despite reality we stay motivated and lighthearted regardless of our pace or our life course.
All of this in a right and detailed imagery; many shots look plain but beautiful. This series is powerful in its simplicity. Usually, the characters exchange few words but those are strong enough to paint us a relationship with finesse.
A very striking dialogue illustrating this well would be this one: Kiyo the makanai tells one of the geiko that every time she cooks a new dish, she says Nice to meet you! while the geiko says Farewell! whenever she begins a performance.
Translation by Théo Tran