Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Makanai: Cooking For The Maiko House’ On Netflix, Where Two Teenage Friends Find Separate Passions During Geisha Training In Kyoto


In a new Netflix scripted series from Japan, viewers get an inside look at the geisha culture that’s been present in Kyoto for hundreds of years. Namely, we see what happens at a school for maiko, or apprentice geishas.

Opening Shot: Shots of a snowy village in a mountainous region of Japan.

The Gist: After graduating middle school, 16-year-old best friends Kiyo Nozuki (Nana Mori) and Sumire Herai (Natsuki Deguchi) are set to move from their sleepy village of Aomori, where the two have been their entire lives, to move to the big city of Kyoto. There, they are going to live at a Maiko house, where they will train to become maiko, which are essentially apprentice geishas.

They’re considered initial apprentices, who are going to learn the basics, such as movement, politeness, and the right way to say and do things. The women who run the school, Mother Chiyo (Keiko Matsuzaka) and Mother Azusa (Takako Tokiwa), seem friendly, but another recruit warns the girls that if she had to do it all over again, she’d run.

Sumire takes to the training, but Kiyo is having a rough time; she’s not as coordinated as her friend and gets distracted too much. One of the things she gets distracted by is food, namely, the wonderful soups and stews that the cook for the house, the makanai, cooks. They not only remind her of the great soups her grandmother makes, but she seems to enjoy assisting the makanai on the rare occasions she comes around. She only works part-time, with the maiko eating takeout the rest of the time.

When, during one visit, the makanai throws her back out, Kiyo jumps in and makes the food for the maiko and instructors. It sets her down a path that will lead to her doing this full-time, especially when she’s about to wash out of the house for not cutting it during training.

Makanai: Cooking For The Maiko House
Photo: Netflix

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Take Euphoria and turn it completely inside out, and you have Makanai: Cooking For The Maiko House.

Our Take: Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda based on the similarly-named comic, The Makanai: Cooking For The Maiko House isn’t designed to be scandalous. It’s designed to be about two besties pursuing different lives under the same roof and everything that generates. Sumire is on her way to becoming a maiko, and Kiyo is on her way to becoming a makanai, and both will have challenges and triumphs on their selected paths.

Whatever conflict there is, it’ll likely be minor. What is more interesting about the series, at least to those of us outside of Japan, is just why modern teen girls and women want to become geishas, and the training process they go through to become them. Sunmire will learn about being a maiko with the help of Momoko (Ai Hashimoto), one of the senior maiko in the house, and then among the other young women there will be speculation about the young man who comes around with his father to do work in the house and help with the training, among other tasks.

But what we’re looking forward to the most is seeing Kiyo’s journey to becoming the house’s makanai. Kore-eda lingers over the pots of food that are made in the various kitchens shown in the first episode, making sure we see the vegetables being chopped and the broths being stirred. It looks delicious, and as Kiyo really finds herself, we want to get hungry watching the show, which is one of the biggest compliments a show like this can be given.

Sex and Skin: None.

Parting Shot: Someone at the maiko house gets a call about Kiyo as she watches everyone eat the stew she made. Her voice over says “At this point, I had no clue that this phone call would drastically change my fate.”

Sleeper Star: We’re going to give this to production designer Yohei Taneda, who really gives people a good feel for what being at a maiko school is like, along with the fantastic food shots.

Most Pilot-y Line: An older man who takes photos of the maiko complains about tourists taking pictures of the girls with flashes and digital cameras. “Where’s the ambiance in that? Amateurs,” he says as he takes out his SLR to take more artistic but just as unwelcome photos.

Our Call: STREAM IT. If you want to see a pretty straightforward series about two best friends going down different paths, then the gentle drama of The Makanai: Cooking For The Maiko House should fill the bill.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.