Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman, the over-the-top musical dramedy-cum-food porn, is offbeat, bizarre and delightful and makes for ultimate lockdown viewing.
How can one begin to describe the insanity that is Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman? Each of the 12 episodes is just over 20 minutes long, and here’s the basic structure: Kantaro Ametani, played by kabuki actor Matsuya Onoe, leaves his job as a computer programmer to become a salesman at a Tokyo publishing company. He quickly becomes the company’s top performer. But Kantaro has a secret. He is a self-described “perverted masochist for sweets”, and his sweet tooth is so dominant that he devises the perfect sales routes so that he will always have some time left over to visit the best dessert hotspot in the neighbourhoods around his sales calls. Along the way, he reflects on the wisdom of famous historical figures and applies it to his obsession with sweets. Once in these local neighbourhood sweet sanctuaries, he savours his dessert-of-choice, makes orgasmic facial expressions and is immediately transported to a theatrical realm of sweets and CGI and homages to Japanese film. These elaborate fantasy dreamscape sequences are a metaphor for his sheer pleasure: dancing, ascending to heaven or getting drenched in a torrent of sticky syrup. His head turns into the dessert, and he role-plays whatever conflict he’s having in his life, thus learning a lesson that is somehow always applicable to his book sales. Then he returns to the office, where he evades his coworkers’ ongoing speculation about what’s really going on under his serious exterior… which means that Kantaro must become even craftier with the planning and execution of his dessert runs. Further complicating matters is the fact that, like a Batman villain, Kantaro can’t resist leaving a little trail to his secret life. He actively chronicles his exploits on an anonymous dessert blog, Amablo, under the pseudonym ‘Sweet Knight’.
And somehow, it all works. Wonderfully!
Kantaro defies any one genre. You cannot pigeonhole it. It’s an unhinged musical drama-comedy crossed with the most ridiculous anime crossed with labour-of-love dessert porn crossed with a travelogue about the dessert cafes of modern-day Tokyo. It’s so sweet (pun intended) and quirky and weird and uplifting and is one of Netflix’s most addictive shows.
The show is based on a manga called SABORIMAN AMETANI KANTORO by Tensei Hagiwara and ABD Inoue. Saboriman is a play on Salaryman, with ‘Saboru’ meaning “To skip” – the truanting Kantaro does to hunt down his desserts. Ame means sweet, and Ametani means ‘Sweet Valley’, and the Kan of Kantaro is written with the Kanji ‘甘’, which means ‘sweet taste’.
When looking to adapt the manga for television, the apparent medium would have been anime. Through sensual illustration of the food and the use of its larger-than-life tropes, animation can capture the rush and total satisfaction of indulgence in a way that no other medium can, overwhelming the screen and revelling in its glory. With ‘Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman’ Netflix has proven that live-action can actually be a better translation. This is one of those rare adaptations that surpasses the original story in its original medium.
Kantaro is besotted with sweets and fans of the show soon join his obsession. Some episodes feature incredible-looking Japanese specialities like anmitsu and mamekan; others feature western desserts like parfait and pudding. One shop he visits specializes in chestnut-based confections, another, caramel pudding and another matcha bavarian cream.
Sweets drive the narrative here, and Kantaro approaches its subject matter with tangible exuberance. However, it isn’t just food porn. It also educates its viewers about the art of Japanese desserts. Audiences love watching the process of creating delicious treats, but few previous shows have effectively captured the joyous sensation of digging into some kakigori or biting into some perfect hotcakes. The dramatic depiction of each dessert being deliciously savoured at each shop is mouth-wateringly seductive.
The cherry on top is that the Tokyo establishments featured in Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman all actually exist, and any intrepid dessert adventurer can visit them too! The desserts they serve are incredible, and the series shoots each sweet at the actual locations. The attention to detail is typically Japanese. Our hero obsesses over each dish, focusing on how all of the ingredients work together to create something irresistible. The depths they go into describing the different elements and where they’re from is like an infomercial which teaches the essential building blocks of each dessert. You also get a sense of the shokunin, the trained masters who have been perfecting their craft over decades to create the perfect treats. The people who serve Kantaro really do work in those cafés and restaurants. When you go to the outskirts of the city, and take your first bite of salted caramel kakigori in a backstreet shop that only seats seven people, you think of Kantaro. He takes your personal experience of the dessert to another level, and you find yourself feeling forever grateful to him, almost as if a friend had introduced you.
From the first bite of his dessert, Kantaro is ecstatic. Orgasmic, even, approaching low-level porn. Those initial reactions seem like demonic possession, eliciting a transcendent, out-of-body response to the food. At this juncture, the show segues into a lush, lovingly shot scene of Kantaro’s fantasy sweets heaven. These sequences are full of choreographed action, slow and deliberate camerawork and irresistible dessert landscapes.
That’s the food porn element, but the show is much much more than that. Kantaro captures a vein of existentialism that has rarely been seen on television before. The show explores the intersection of the soullessness of work with the small pleasures of life, and how one can be a source of catharsis for the other. Though Kantaro claims to derive joy from his bookselling, the show appears to be an indictment of the way work, and over-work, can be potentially soul-destroying for the worker, if they allow it to overshadow their passions, interests and pursuits.
Kantaro veers between two extremes: from total stoicism and professional pride to pure, unadulterated self-indulgence. Yet they coexist harmoniously. Kantaro is very successful at work while also taking his secret sweet rendezvous extremely seriously. They form a simple pleasure in his life that helps him escape the stress of work and people politics. He truly enjoys his afternoon treats – euphorically so. Normally, you’d associate that level of carnal pleasure with sex or hard drugs. He freely indulges without guilt or shame. For us onlookers, Kantaro’s journey becomes both identifiable and aspirational. Identifiable because we all have to endure work, while the secret excursions to eat dessert during worktime become entirely aspirational, unless that is what you already do during your normal office routine!
In modern society, food is an existential dilemma. Dessert can feel like a forbidden pleasure in an age where many people are trying to cut down on their sugar intake. There is a lot of social pressure to eat ‘well’ and to eliminate ‘bad’ things completely. Kantaro rejects this ethos. The story of a man whose entire day is structured around what sweet he’s going to have provides a counterpoint perspective, and the show associates dessert with positive experiences and feelings.
Kantaro lives for dessert, but only in moderation. Even though he lets himself have dessert every day, he’s not apologetic about it. You never get the sense that his obsession has gone too far. Well, maybe sometimes, like when he uses a sugar lipstick in lieu of dessert, to help him get through a surprise visit from his dentist mother (the most personal episode of the series). Plus, he does whatever it takes to increase his enjoyment, for example wearing thermal underwear on a sweltering summer’s day so his kakigori will taste even better. OK, perhaps he is an addict, but you always feel like he is in control.
Kantaro attempts to keep his obsession private but it ends up bringing people closer, even problematic individuals such as his boss’s rebellious son or office rivals. In Episode 5, ‘Hotcakes’, one of his colleagues still reminisces over his past baseball career, with an adverse impact on his work. Kantaro sets him straight. As Kantaro tells one of his coworkers during a saccharine motivational soliloquy, “Sometimes it’s important to be kind and sweet to yourself, too.”
Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman delivers an expert blend of creepy, informative and funny. Much of the reason that works rests squarely on the shoulders of Kabuki actor and star, Matsuya Onoe who delivers an impressively committed performance whatever craziness he is asked to act out. He imbues the imperturbable Kantaro with a sense of pathos and delight. The rest of the cast are fantastic too. Ren Ishikawa plays Kanako Dobashi, the nosy coworker watching Kantaro like a hawk. Their boss, Toru Miyake, played by Sarutoki Minagawa, is wonderfully over-the-top. Every screen-minute with him is a blast.
It may take a few episodes, but eventually you see beyond Kantaro’s absurdities to the existential parable at its heart. The show makes you question what you are living for. For your job? For your family? For pleasure? For desserts?
Only Sweet Heaven knows.