Why Aparna Nancherla Loves Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman

Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman. Photo: Netflix

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How can one begin to describe Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman? A man loves dessert so much that he sneaks away from his job as a magazine salesman and visits cafés in and around Tokyo. But then he bites the food and is immediately transported to a land of sweets and CGI. His head turns into dessert, he makes orgasmic facial expressions, and he learns a lesson from the dessert that is somehow always applicable to magazine sales. It’s a food show, it’s a travel show, and it’s a truly unhinged comedy. There is no tonal consistency, especially in the acting styles of the ensemble. Kantaro’s boss is basically the pig boss from fellow Japanese Netflix import, Aggretsuko. The people who serve Kantaro food really work in those cafés, so they aren’t acting at all. And Kantaro veers between total stoicism and re-creating his favorite GIFs from “Jizz in My Pants.”

Comedian Aparna Nancherla sees beyond Kantaro’s grotesqueries to the existential parable at its heart. The show makes you ask: What are you living for? For your career? For pleasure? For your friends and family? Kantaro lives for dessert, but in moderation. Nancherla spoke to Vulture about her love for Kantaro as well as her sweet tooth, work-life balance, and quest to sample a bougie coffee shop in every town she visits.

How did you find this show?
My boyfriend was the one who turned me on to it. I don’t know if I would have discovered it otherwise. Usually when I sign on to Netflix, I get so overwhelmed that I don’t know where to start. I don’t think I even got a satisfactory explanation of how he discovered it, but he somehow did. He watches a lot more than I do, so I think he stumbled onto it. When he first described it to me, I thought it was a cartoon. In no way did I think it was going to be live-action. I don’t have a lot of familiarity with other Japanese TV shows, but I definitely appreciate that they can be on the weirder end of things. Wikipedia describes it as a drama-comedy, and I guess it has moments of drama. But generally, it’s so sweet and quirky and weird. It scratches an itch I didn’t even know I had.

How would you characterize that itch?
I guess the intersection of the soullessness of work life with the small pleasures of life, and how one can be a source of catharsis for the other. It does a good job of capturing how work life can be rigorous and unforgiving, and how everyone is expected to work as much as possible. This businessman who’s seemingly very successful at work takes these secret rendezvous with desserts. It captures some vein of existentialism that I didn’t feel like I’d seen on television before.

Is it odd for you as a professional artist to feel like work life can be soulless? There’s that American ethos that if you love your job, it can’t really be work.
Yeah! I think there’s a romantic idea to work here: No, it’s fine that I work 80 hours a week because I love my job. It’s not even work. No, it’s still definitely work. To me — and I might be coming from an overly self-help place — but if you’re working 80 hours a week, you’re avoiding something else. You’re running away from something if you have to consume yourself with this one area of your life.

As a self-employed person, I feel like every moment that I’m not on my grind is some sort of self-sabotage.
That’s really interesting because I’ve also been essentially self-employed for the past few years. And when I had a job, I almost felt more liberty to goof off at work because I was on their clock. As long as I was there, it didn’t matter if I was doing my job or not. Whereas when you’re freelancing, you’re never really in an office. Every single moment, I feel like I could be working. And because I know that I have a tendency to goof off, every hour I have to question whether I should actually be doing something productive.

Kantaro is fascinating to me because it’s like three shows in one: It’s a Japanese dramedy, it’s a food show, and it’s a travel show.
I know! As someone who’s had to pitch TV shows, I can’t imagine how this was brought to a network. How was it described when it was initially conceived? I guess it’s based on a manga, so there was already a basis from where it was adapted. But it still defies any one genre. You want it to be just a comedy, but then it’ll have much more serious moments. Even his enjoyment of the dessert — there’s so much pathos to it. It’s almost like a soap opera in the moments that he’s enjoying a dessert.

We have to talk a little bit about the way he enjoys desserts, specifically the facial expressions he makes while enjoying desserts.
In that sense, you could even describe [the show] as low-level porn. He’s very visceral. I feel like the director told him, “No, it needs to be more like you’re having an orgasm. You’re having sex with this dessert.” It’s very over-the-top, and I could see it turning some people off. I just love how committed he is to these simple pleasures. It is like a shared humanity. Normally, you’d associate that level of carnal pleasure with sex or something. But he’s just truly enjoying this afternoon treat. It is giving him euphoria.

Is there a dessert from the show that particularly appealed to you? I personally got obsessed with trying shaved ice and went down a Yelp-hole looking for it.
Did you find any?

Yeah, Mr. Coffee in [L.A.’s] Koreatown.
Koreatown is a treasure trove of desserts that you wouldn’t think about. There’s this place called Besfren — they have this dessert that’s basically a pile of cookies in a cup. And they fill it with milk and it’s basically like a cookie cereal. What else do you want in life?

On the show, all the Japanese desserts fascinated me because they were entirely new to me. The first one, anmitsu, was incredible. The depths they go into describing the different ingredients and where they’re from is very much like an infomercial for the dessert. But it definitely makes you want one. I was also into the Western ones that had been adapted to these little Japanese cafés. The pancake one was fascinating to me. It was treated not as a breakfast food, but as a dessert. Because it is a dessert — we just have never acknowledged it as such.

There are a lot of breakfast foods that are really just desserts. It’s the one meal where we collectively go “I don’t know, cake?”
And I’m fine with that level of denial. But it was funny that the show was like, “No, pancake has cake in the name. It is a dessert.”

Let’s circle back to the travel-show aspect. As a touring comedian, you go to many places, but do you consider that “travel,” in that magazine-show way? You’re not really vacationing.
No, but I will say when I do travel, I am very much a sucker for a bougie coffee shop. I feel like no matter where I go, I’ll be trying to find the bougie-est coffee shop. All the cities I’ve been to, you can safely assume I’ve been to one of their bougie coffee shops.

What do you like about a bougie coffee shop?
Bougie coffee shops are essentially a chain. Their brand is that none of them are a chain, but they all look the same. They all have succulents and some thing you can buy that has a quote on it saying that you’re living your best life. They’re all essentially copycats of each other. But there’s something about the aesthetic that feels familiar to me. I find one in every city, and I know there’s someone that has the same uninspired aesthetic as I do.

Of the basic bougie-coffee-shop aesthetics, which do you prefer: Everything is a chalkboard, or white tile and concrete floors and Edison bulbs?
I think the former. The industrial-chic vibe is a little too sterile for me. I need it to be like somebody’s aunt came through first.

And tried her best.
Or at least sold a few of her crafts.

I want to go back to the fantasy sequences on Kantaro. Every time he bites into a food, his head turns into that food.
Right. I like how the dessert ends up being him role-playing whatever conflict he’s having in his life, to the extent that he becomes that dessert. This is kind of a more personal experience I’ve been having, but I’ve had to cut back on sugar as I’ve gotten older. I had a really bad sweet tooth when I was little, and now I can’t eat anything too sweet. I have to do dark chocolate over milk chocolate, stuff like that. So now, if I do have something that sweet, I can feel it coursing through me. I can feel sugar more intensely than I did when I was younger, so I really relate to his head becoming that dessert. If you ever have to cut back on sugar and then reintroduce it, you realize it’s this really powerful substance that maybe we take for granted because it’s in so many things. But it has a noticeable effect on our brains.

Do you still get cravings for those supersweet things?
I do, but they are just so much more intense when you only have it every now and again. It made me relate to the show more than I might have when I was younger, in that dessert feels like this more forbidden pleasure.

That is something that I was also feeling. I almost never get dessert because of trying to cut down on sweets or whatever. So this person whose entire day is structured around what dessert he’s going to have is such an interesting POV.
That episode where his mom comes to visit really got to me. It got really uncomfortable when he was having the dessert over his mom’s sleeping body. But I really related to it because it showed the two extremes of this man. He’s allowing himself these indulgences in life and not really giving himself guilt or shame about it. Versus where he came from, which was the farthest extreme of No Sugar Ever. It’s the devil. And obviously, the healthy balance is something in between those two, but it was interesting to see him reject that ethos that we have in our culture, too: I’m going to cut all these things out of my diet and I’m gonna be completely “good.”

I was struck when you said the show was existential because I’d never thought of it that way. Food really is an existential crisis. We talk about food and desserts as things that will kill you. But if you deny yourself constantly, then what are you living for? Have you found a balance?
I struggled with food issues in college. So since then I’ve had a very conscious attitude toward what I’m eating and have shied away from dieting or anything too extreme. I think I’m always trying to find that balance between what is right but not too extreme, in terms of denial or overindulgence. I appreciated his outlook that was [more indulgent]. Even though he lets himself have dessert every day, he’s not overdoing it. He obviously has a super sweet tooth and lets himself indulge, but I never got the feeling that he needed help. Once a day, he allows himself this treat and he’s not apologetic about it, and I think that’s something our society has trouble with. There’s this fascination with being completely pure — cutting something out completely, or just being “good” around food completely. So I appreciated the way the show approached dessert like it wasn’t something bad. It was just associated with positive things.

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Aparna Nancherla Loves Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman