Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Iron Wok Janby Jason Thompson, Aug 5th 2010
Episode XIII: Iron Wok Jan
"I want to challenge you with spring rolls! I will make the one that surpasses your spring roll in every possible way!"
-- Kiriko Gobancho, Iron Wok Jan
Chinese food is my favorite kind of food in the world. My wok, soot-blackened and oil-greased (you're SUPPOSED to let the oil sit in there! Really!), sits prominently on my stove. My fridge is full of oyster sauce and chili pepper paste, and my cupboards are stuffed with dried red peppers, sesame oil, peanut oil and rice wine. And yet, a few years ago I didn't even know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich (I tried making one by putting the cheese on the griddle by itself and flipping it around, you know, to soften it up). I owe all my cooking ability to Iron Wok Jan.
It all happened a few years ago when I was sitting around my apartment in San Francisco, hungry. At the time, my meals consisted mostly of macaroni & cheese and chicken noodle soup, but I ate out in Chinatown a lot, and I had been cooked a delicious meal by Renaissance man and manga author Jake Forbes (http://www.gobblin.net) a few days earlier. Restless, I picked up Iron Wok Jan volume 6 and tried to follow their recipe for green pepper beef, using only the visual instructions from watching the character cook in the manga. Somehow, with a little help from Jake, I managed to do it, and today, while I'm not an expert, I can at least make pot stickers and broccoli beef. Once again, manga had changed my life, as much as when Maison Ikkoku changed my ideas about true love and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure changed my fashion sense.
But it's lucky I wasn't inspired by Iron Wok Jan in other ways or I might have turned into a street-fighting thug, an endangered animal smuggler, or possibly a serial poisoner. Iron Wok Jan is part cooking manga, part battle manga, and probably part horror manga as well. Most of all, it is 120% shonen manga, all high-volume screaming and speedlines and kitchen-related injuries. I love all kinds of cooking manga, from the sedate ones like Oishinbo and Not Love But Delicious Foods to the other over-the-top ones like Yakitate!! Japan, but Iron Wok Jan is the craziest. It is the best graphically violent black-comedy cooking manga ever published.
At its heart, Iron Wok Jan is a lot like the TV show Iron Chef (which started just two years earlier in Japan and certainly inspired it); it's a martial arts story with fighting replaced by cooking, the two most famous Chinese exports merged into one. The story starts out at Gobancho, a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo. The owner's granddaughter, Kiriko Gobancho, is the restaurant's best chef, a buxom teenager who wants to make the most delicious food imaginable to make everyone happy. Then, one dark and stormy night, a stranger arrives. Like Sonny Chiba challenging the dojo in the 1974 movie The Street Fighter>, the scowling young man challenges the cooks of Gobancho to a duel to see whose food is the best! He is 16-year-old Jan Akiyama, is a master chef who was trained by his grandfather, the "master of Chinese cuisine." To make Jan the greatest chef imaginable, his grandfather forced him to endure harsh training – plunging his hand into scalding food to test the temperature, making dishes over and over hundreds of times, getting beaten and lashed just for the hell of it, etc. After his grandfather's death, Jan has followed the old man's dying instructions and headed to Gobancho, the restaurant owned by his grandfather's onetime rival!
Kiriko accepts Jan's challenge, they grab their woks, and the battle is on! It's a close competition, but Kiriko is shocked by Jan's level of skill. The head chef offers Jan a job, and he agrees, but Jan maintains an attitude of total contempt and sneering superiority towards his new coworkers. After all, he is the best Chinese cook imaginable, and they are mere scum! The other chefs grumble as the standoffish newcomer is put to work peeling potatoes (he's still got to endure his apprenticeship at the new restaurant, no matter how great he is) but Kiriko matches his stubbornness head for head and vows to stay by his side just to defeat him. "You're so low, Jan! When the cook's despicable, it seems that his dish becomes despicable as well!" "This battle will be the final cooking battle! I'm gonna make you say 'I'm sorry, Kiriko, I was wrong,' while you cry like a baby!" Jan is great, but he's not quite perfect, and occasionally he overreaches and screws up. Driven by his desire to prove himself the best chef ever, he stands alone with a chip on his shoulder, with no one to help him, hated by all and hating them right back. Will Jan overcome the bitter cruelty installed by his rough childhood and learn the value of friendship?
Well, no, thankfully. The thing about stories that are built around a crazy, antisocial character is, no matter how much you think you want see the main character tamed and socialized, deep down you really don't, and the creators know that if the asshole main character turns into a good guy everyone will say "aww, that's sweet" at first and then immediately lose interest in the story and stop following it. (I call this the House, M.D. effect. You can also see it in the manga The Wallflower.) And so, although Jan shows a few moments of kindness early on in the manga (particularly to his buddy Okonogi, an incredibly bad but cheerful chef who plays the role of Ratnose to Jan's Terry Tsurugi), eventually he hardens his heart and just becomes increasingly vicious and nasty towards all who dare to challenge him! To paraphrase Julie Davis, who reviewed Iron Wok Jan for Manga: The Complete Guide, he looks like Satan, with his sinister eyes and massive grinning mouth of vampire-bat teeth. His trademark laugh, in the Japanese, is "ka ka ka ka ka" or "ke ke ke ke ke"! He also swears a lot, as does every other character, even the old men. Jan does sort of team up with Kiriko, the nicest character in the series, but they're always allies of convenience, never buddies who share tender moments like in, say, Yu-Gi-Oh!. After all, in a true battle manga, the hero can't just beat his enemies in power and skill, he has to assert the dominance of his ideology as well! Thus, every character in Iron Wok Jan has some theme or phrase which sum up their attitude towards cooking. "Cooking is about competition"! Jan sneers. "Cooking is about heart!" rebuts the earnest Kiriko. "No! Cooking is about abundance!" says Gobancho's No. 3 champion cook, the French-Chinese chef Celine Yang. (I can't help but think that both Celine's and Kiriko's cooking philosophies could also refer to their massive chests, which Saijyo draws larger and larger over the course of the manga, like Wally Wood drawing Power Girl (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_Girl), until they look like they have torpedoes shoved down their chef's uniforms.)
And so the cooking action rages on for 27 volumes! At first a marginally realistic story which takes place in ordinary restaurants and kitchens, the story soon balloons into a direct Iron Chef parody, with cooking tournaments set in gigantic amphitheaters full of cheering crowds. Of course there are enemies, such as Gogyo the Taoist, who uses Chinese herbal methods to make food which can incapacitate and kill; Dan Hikime, a gangster type who breaks both of Jan's arms and then challenges him to a cook-off; and Ransei Koh, the next in line for the leadership of a sort of mysterious Chinese cooking mafia. ("To dominate the cooking of the world is to dominate the world economy! Ahahahaha!") The main bad guy is not a cook at all, bbut Nichido Otani, a fat food critic with the "tongue of god," who abuses his fame to sell a line of cheap packaged food and lord it over the restaurant industry. (Although Otani hates Jan and wants nothing more than to see him humiliated, he's too honest as a critic not to admit when Jan's food is awesome. He hates having to do it, but he usually awards Jan the top score.) To face these foes, Jan uses every kind of bizarre cooking technique imaginable. In addition to cooking at incredible speed (for instance, throwing meat and dumpling wrappers up in the air and making dozens of pot stickers in midair before they hit the ground), or doing dangerous things like holding his wok over a flaming gas leak shooting a pillar of fire ten feet high, he specializes in using ingredients which are poisonous, hallucinatory, or have other extreme effects on the human body. ("Tibetan pepper is the original ancestor of Szechuan pepper! It doesn't just numb the diner's mouth! It's gonna paralyze you from head to toe and everything in between!") One battle between Jan and a rival ends with both of them on the floor together, paralyzed, panting and twitching helplessly, in probably the only yaoi-esque moment in this brain-damagingly manly series. (The female characters are all pretty kick-ass, actually, despite their HH-size breasts which in reality would probably get in the way of their cooking. This manga is completely devoid of sexuality, hetero or homo, all such weak feelings having been subsumed into the desire to eat pork chow fun and to see your opponents crushed before you.)
As the manga continues, Jan and his foes also develop a habit of using bizarre and shocking ingredients. At one point I made a list of all the recipes which the characters make in Iron Wok Jan:
fried rice (green onions, pork, eggs, ginger, green peas)
custard soup with duck eggs and black boned chicken (or sheep brains)
qin jiao niu rou (beef dish with yellow, red & green peppers)
hui gou rou (boiled pig's stomach, peppers, cabbages, etc.)
quail stuffed inside chicken
shuang xian (ice shrimps & scallops) in XO sauce
zhu ye niu liu (beef fillet wrapped in bamboo leaves) (w/minced onions, XO sauce) (aka shaliapin steak)
white sesame ice cream w/whipped egg whites, coated with warm brandy and set ablaze
tian ban shao, aka teppan-yaki (beef skewers)
tai chi guo ba (rice crisps w/ meat and vegetables, w/liquid starch)
feng tai fen si (steamed chicken stuffed w/harusame noodles)
qun cha feng tai yu chi (chicken stuffed w/shark fins)
mi cun yuan rou tan lian gao (lotus root, jujube and longan fruit soup)
lian gao chao shan qiu (eel and lotus root stir-fried in coconut milk)
knife shaved noodles w/sauces (salty chicken, crab and shrimp; soy sauce; flavored pork sauce; miso flavored sauce made with tian mian sauce)
ravioli in korean sauce
red-coral-colored buckwheat noodles wrapped around meat & vegetables
At this point, all of the food actually sounds pretty tasty, despite the creators' habit of featuring food based on questionably rare or illegal animals. The hunter/cook who specializes in bear meat gets eliminated early in the tournament, but soon all the characters are cooking even weirder stuff, like bugs, live fish still twitching as they are eaten, pigeons, and the pets of people in the audience. Jan sometimes has to kill animals by hand before he eats them, leaving him dripping with blood and gore. It's not quite Toriko, but in a way, it's more disturbing because it's semi-realistic; no one reading this will ever eat a Garara Gator, but you might eat ostrich meat. Or jellied pigeon's blood. The recipes are not bland, Americanized Chinese food, and this is not a manga for vegetarians or animal lovers. Then again, I question to what extent they're authentic Chinese recipes either, despite the involvement of chef/author Keiko Oyama as the manga's official food advisor. (According to Japanese Wikipedia, Oyama and Saijyo argued a lot while making the series, and Saijyo occasionally depicts Oyama in chibi form complaining about the artwork: "Listen! Go eat Chinese food! It looks so fake when you draw without looking at the real thing!") Whether the recipes are inspired by real Chinese dishes, or whether it's all some fantasy of Oriental decadence like the stories of monkey brain sushi and Roman emperors eating live nightingales baked inside of pies, the creators end up on a monstrous cycle of foody "power inflation," coming up with more and more elaborate and disturbing dishes as the series progressess:
yi sha zhu du (pig stomach with job's tears kernel stew)
tiao qiang ("pot stew of delicacies")
congee (lotus flower & crystal sugar congee, and a complicated Chinese medicine congee)
zao ni gui yu (mandarin fish wrapped in jujube and fried) (sweet)
bu sui tang (pork bone marrow and snapping turtle soup)
geckos, iwatake mushrooms, scorpions, black rhino horns, whale gallstones
crane meat, sea turtle meat, ginseng
nan hai lu sun (durian and giant clam dish)
civet cat dish
cantonese fu rong xie (crab meat, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, scallions, lots of oil)
kao ru zhu (cantonese style roasted piglet)
go koku zen chi (fried piglet with five-grain stuffing)
And that's only halfway through the series, before they REALLY go for shock value. At times the craziness of Iron Wok Jan reaches such as point that you think: they have to be kidding. And they probably were. Weekly Shonen Champion, the magazine where it ran, is best known (at least to me) for manga which push the bounds of bad taste: Apocalypse Zero, Baron Gong Battle, Eiken, Enmusu and many more. Although they publish lots of just plain mediocre manga, all their most famous titles of the last 10 years are ones which are so extremely gory, sexual and demented that you wonder how they could even call this "shonen" manga. My personal theory is that, since they know they can't match Shonen Jump in sales, they go the route of "let's see what we can get away with." Rather than softening their edge like Jump in an attempt to appeal to mainstream audiences, Iron Wok Jan goes for violence and machismo so demented it seems like it has to be self-parody. Or is it? The exaggerated artwork and the frantic cooking action were an inspiration for James Stokoe's OEL manga Won Ton Soup, and the design of Jan Akiyama – both the massive fang-like canine teeth and his pitch-black antiheroism where you don't know whether to like him or hate his guts – also inspired some character designs in me and Victor Hao's OEL manga King of RPGs. This is a manga that will leave you poised between hunger and nausea, between drooling and vomiting, between rooting for the main character and rooting for his enemies. (Of course, the enemies are just as bad.) But no matter how twisted it gets, it always makes me think of hot and sour soup and cashew chicken and green pepper beef, and then I forgive it for everything.
Iron Wok Jan: a manga which triggers strong physical reactions! Somehow, all 27 volumes were published by the small publisher ComicsOne, which later became DrMaster. I don't know what the sales numbers were like, but they must have been good enough to keep it going – way to go DrMaster! It's an oddly appropriate title for them, since DrMaster was also known for publishing Chinese manhua, with its tales of legendary fighters and martial arts. (Incidentally, although Jan's grandfather is clearly Japanese, Jan's first name is rendered in katakana, suggesting that it's a foreign name and he just maybe might be multiethnic. Or maybe not.) Saijyo and Oyama later did a sequel manga, Iron Wok Jan R: The Summit Operations, which was pretty much exactly the same as the first one with even less plot and more absurdity. It is, however, inferior in my mind for two reasons: (1) the title makes me think of Yu-Gi-Oh! R and (2) in the sequel, Jan's trademark buzz-cut is replaced by typical spiky manga hair, which surely any reasonable cook would put in a hairnet. But whether it's made fresh or reheated, Iron Wok Jan is delicious, a classic story for anyone who likes cooking, mayhem, and manga so deranged it might all be a Stephen Colbert-like parody of the real thing.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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