Trouble with Comics

Guest Reviewer Month - Rob Vollmar on Oishinbo

Vol. 1- Japanese Cuisine ISBN 1421521393

Vol. 2- Sake ISBN 1421521407

Vol. 3- Ramen and Gyoza ISBN 1421521415

Vol. 4- Fish, Sushi and Sashimi ISBN 1421521423

Vol. 5- Vegetables ISBN 1421521431

Vol. 6- The Joy of Rice ISBN 142152144X

Vol. 7- Izakaya: Pub Food ISBN 1421521458

There are as many reasons for reading manga as there are manga to be read. I have lots of different ones and could go through my library and explain which interest sets coincided in the decision to take on each series in turn. There have been few manga published in English push so many of my pleasure spots at once as Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki’s Oishinbo. Please do not equivocate a statement like that for one that might have read, “I think Oishinbo is the greatest manga ever created” because I’m certain that it isn’t. But it is so damn satisfying to read!

Let’s start again. Oishinbo is food manga. Oishinbo may well be THE food manga, given that it has been serialized non-stop in Big Comic Spirits magazine since 1983. The premise is disarmingly simple. A major Tokyo newspaper gives a few of its cultural reporters the duty of compiling the “Ultimate Menu,” a single meal that demonstrates the very essence of Japanese cooking. The project is led by food critics Shiro Yamaoka, a humorously sullen anti-hero for the ages, and Yuko Kurita, his cheerful colleague who eventually marries the poor bastard. In order to prepare this menu, they are to travel around to different parts of Japan, sampling the local cuisine and comparing the relative merits and aesthetic differences between the various offerings. A rival newspaper has hired Yamaoka’s father, Yuzan Kaibara, one of the most venerated food and pottery critics in all of Japan, to prepare a menu of his own. Yamaoka is estranged from his father due to their inability to tolerate one another and, predictably enough, these food duels between father and son often take center stage as they contrast different ideas about cooking and eating across a broad range of different kinds of food. 

The English language editions, published by Viz Media out of their Signature line, are collections of several thematically related stories, often focusing on a specific food or element of Japanese cooking. The prospect of reading Oishinbo sequentially is intriguing. It would have allowed readers to make observations about the ebb and flow of different storytypes and the rise and fall of importance in various characters (as we can in the Collected Peanuts Editions) over the course of time. The realpolitik of marketing a series like Oishinbo to a non-Japanese audience dictates the pragmatism of the Viz editions and the reading experience hardly suffers anymore from the occasional narrative timestamp that shows that years have passed between subsequent stories than one might expect from reading any two Archie comics from 1975 and 1985.

While there is no shortage of food manga already available in English, most rely on histrionics that should seem equally familiar to fans of Iron Chef and Dragonball Z alike. Many, like Iron Wok Jan or the otherwise charming Yakitate Japan, rely on a never-ending series of escalating cooking battles won by superhuman cooking techniques.

Oishinbo, in contrast, derives its sense of conflict from a variety of sources that vary in their emotional intensity. More importantly, that sense of stake in the outcomes of the various cook-offs is measured in fundamentally human terms though often exaggerated in their importance to offset the terrible narrative loss implied by not being able to produce fire through one’s nostrils. Often, Yamaoka and crew will help a struggling business turn around by showing them the error of mishandling a vital ingredient to their menu. Even if only patiently explaining how minor differences in procedure or food quality can effect a given dish, Oishinbo reveals its most important function; namely, holding a sustained and very personal dialogue between writer and audience about the nature of food and our relationship to it. 

These themes become more pronounced when Yamaoka and his father tangle in one of their many bouts with neither naturally assuming either a progressive or conservative ideology in regards to what the essence of Japanese cooking might ultimately be.

Of the seven volumes currently available in English, each offers its own unique charms and can be read as self-contained works. The first one, Japanese Cuisine, is the best place to start as it establishes the status quo that underlies most of the series as well as introducing the Western palate to some of the fundamental techniques that shape all Japanese cooking. For those seeking density of information, the fourth volume, Fish, Sushi and Sashimi is fully capable of educating anyone that feels socially awkward about eating and ordering sushi for the first time and features an epic battle between Yamaoka and Kaibara-sensei. The fifth and sixth volumes (Vegetables and The Joy of Rice respectively) are information rich and ably encapsulate the Oishinbo experience.

My favorite volume, however, has to be Volume Two which deals with nothing but sake. Now I don’t know about y’all, but my experience with sake prior to reading this book amounted to some piping hot fluid that tasted like someone had boiled a band-aid in a dirty bed pan. What I discovered was that sake is a complex and singular alcohol experience that draws on centuries-old brewing techniques to achieve a near miracle. I also discovered, on my own, that it can deliver a deceptive punch when imbibed among friends in superfluous quantities. While I can think of many comics, manga and bande dessinee that have inspired me to think or write over the years, Oishinbo is the first that ever got me to throw a party.

Hanasaki’s character designs are very simple, standing in stark contrast to the food porn that he is asked to draw in each episode. While his layouts are more functional than dynamic, his visual storytelling is very clean and clears the basic hurdles of rendering believable human bodies in a wide variety of clothing as well as grounding them in credible environments. Though Kariya’s narrative voice is very strong throughout Oishinbo, it is a testament to Hanasaki’s skill that so many scenery and character demands are met without visible strain on the cohesion between picture and story. 

If reading manga about Japanese food sounds completely unappealing to you, it may well be that Oishinbo is just not your cup of green tea. As a long-time fan of the original Iron Chef series as well as American food programs like No Reservations, I was able to discover, in Oishinbo, a much richer resource than either of those aforementioned foodie classics. Oishinbo blends just the right mix of fiction and fact to make each new volume a delicacy worth relishing again and again.

Rob Vollmar is the author of the Eisner-nominated The Castaways and Bluesman, both with Pablo G. Callejo, and has been a long-time, invaluable contributor to Comic Book Galaxy in its various incarnations.