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The Rich Cultural History of Netflix’s New Show The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is no stranger to international acclaim as the country’s most prominent auteur. Two of his works earned awards at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival: a Jury Prize for Like Father, Like Son (2013), and the festival’s grand Palme d’Or prize for Shoplifters (2018)—which was also nominated at the 2019 Oscars and Golden Globes for Best Foreign Language Film.

Now, he’s turning his focus to the small screen, as showrunner, writer, and director of the new Netflix series The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House, which premiered globally on Jan. 12 and is based on a popular manga in Japan.

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The nine-episode series tells the fictional modern-day story of 16-year-old Kiyo, a northern Japanese native who heads south to Kyoto to become a maiko, a young geiko—the Kyoto-specific term for geisha, Japanese traditional professional entertainers. The geiko mentors deem Kiyo unfit as a maiko due to her clumsiness, but she earns their hearts as the in-house cook, or the makanai.

In an interview with TIME, Kore-eda says he had little idea before making the show about the heavily-guarded culture of geiko and maiko, only having preconceived notions based on classical Japanese directors’ portrayals of the art performers in films.

“When I researched the all-women, communal living quarters, known as yakata, in Kyoto, where this story takes place, I was fascinated by how the women call each other mothers and sisters despite having no blood relations,” Kore-eda says. “Their way of life inspired me to recreate this world for the screen.”

The Makanai is a product of the manga moment

Thanks to the power of the internet in enabling increasingly global audiences to find content from around the world, manga (Japanese comics) has seen a rise in popularity among non-Japanese readers. Polygon reports that sales of the top 50 manga titles in the U.S. tripled in 2021. And live-action adaptations are not a new phenomenon. South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film Oldboy is loosely based on a Japanese manga of the same name by Garon Tsuchiya. Edge of Tomorrow, the 2014 Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt sci-fi action flick, was based on the manga All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

Manga adaptations geared toward Western audiences, however, have proven to be hit-or-miss. Spike Lee’s 2013 remake of Oldboy was a box-office flop. Netflix’s 2017 live-action movie Death Note was almost universally panned by critics. The 2017 blockbuster Ghost In the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson, sparked controversy for white-washing. And the 2009 adaptation of Dragonball is often listed among the worst films of the early 2000s.

The Makanai is based on a best-selling manga by Aiko Kayama entitled Maiko-san chi no makanai-san, first published in 2016. Kayama’s comic won one of Japan’s time-hallowed manga awards, the Shogakukan Manga Award, in 2020, and has sold over 2.7 million copies. Because of its domestic popularity, the manga already had an anime series adaptation, which aired on Japanese national broadcaster NHK World in 2021.

Mass media’s problematic past depicting the lives of geisha

The lives of Japan’s locally-revered artisans are shrouded in secrecy. Geiko and maiko as occupations date back to the 1600s. But the geisha population, some 80,000 in the 1920s, is now on the decline, even more so after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. There are estimated to be fewer than 1,000 geisha in Japan today.

In 1997, the world had a rarefied window into geisha life through Sayuri: Memoirs of a Geisha, an English novel by Arthur Golden, which eventually became a 2005 major motion picture by Rob Marshall that controversially starred non-Japanese women in Japanese roles. But the source material itself stirred controversy, too: retired geiko Mineko Iwasaki, whom Golden interviewed to write the novel, filed a suit against him and his publisher for supposedly breaking the code of silence about her community. The two eventually settled out of court.

If there was anything Mineko lamented most, it was the novel’s highly-sexualized depiction of geiko. For years, Western media have conflated geisha activity with dalliance and highly-stylized prostitution. Following the success of Golden’s novel, tourists fled to geisha districts in Japan, book in hand, wanting to catch a glimpse of the women. Soon, geiko in Kyoto’s Gion reported instances of harassment from tourists who wanted pictures (among other cultural taboos), prompting the district to enforce a ban on taking photographs in 2019.

Kore-eda is aware of the past controversy and hopes that his series will do better, though he also hopes that people don’t confuse fiction for reality “once again,” he says. There are no teenage makanai, like the character Kiyo, for example. “I heard that due to the influence of Sayuri: Memoirs of a Geisha, many tourists from overseas misunderstood that all maiko have been sold by their parents,” Kore-eda tells TIME. “Perhaps this series will at least dispel such misconceptions, although I never intended on it.”

The Makanai humanizes geisha culture mostly through Sumire, Kiyo’s best friend who trains to be a “one-in-a-million” maiko, and her other housemates, illustrating the effort and work required to be a maiko, the practices and rules and even superstitions they follow—down to the use of phones and lucky charms, while also shining light on the relatable aspects of their lives like having crushes, maintaining friendships, and navigating romantic relationships.

The Makanai is ultimately a story about food

As a story about the house makanai—which means both the cook and the meal served in a boarding house—Kore-eda’s team indulged in detailed food scenes. Food is a grounding device in many of the director’s films, often used to propel narratives about family. His 2008 feature Still Walking begins with a mother and daughter preparing vegetables together. In a cramped shanty in Shoplifters, a motley band of thieves share dinner cooked from stolen groceries.

The other directors working with Kore-eda on the show see it as a celebration of Japan’s food culture. Audiences will be treated to Kiyo’s excitement over produce, and her joy after seeing people react to food she prepared. Fellow director Takuma Sato says the series is also a reflection of the wisdom of finding joy in the change of food, clothes, and seasons.

Hiroshi Okayuma, another director of the series, had read the manga source material and had found it influencing his own cooking. “I was trying to imitate Kiyo’s cooking and choosing the better quality ingredients,” Hiroshi tells TIME.

Both Hiroshi and Takuma hope whoever watches Makanai will enjoy how food in Japan is treated. Says Takuma: “I would be happy if the audience would pay attention to the aspects of eating that can excite and relax people, and inspire them to think what to cook or what to eat.”