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The Best Anime For Foodies

by Rebecca Silverman,

As Garfield the cat once said, “If I couldn't eat food, I'd just die.” Food and its preparation, are central to most of our lives, and in many houses, the kitchen is where everyone naturally gravitates. Going out to eat is a small luxury, and cooking shows fill the airwaves. Anime is no exception to this, and with a new season of the first show most associate with the term “food anime” coming up - Food Wars! - it's a good time to look back at the long history of anime about food. While there is a lot of cooking/eating manga out there too, I'm just going to focus on the anime in this article. Many of these titles come from manga with a large number of live-action films and dramas attached too, so if this whets your appetite, there's plenty more Japanese food entertainment to discover out there.

As with many genres in anime, cooking stories can be divided into several subgenres. Since the elephant in the room when we talk about foodie anime is definitely Food Wars!, let's start out by looking at the Competitive Cooking genre. It's not hard to understand why this is a particularly popular form of culinary entertainment – in Food Wars!, the story of Yukihira Soma and his ascension through the ranks at the elite (and elitist) culinary high school Totsuki Institute combines the tense action of a sports story with mouthwatering dishes and plenty of fanservice. But what's the history of the competitive cooking genre? It starts with 1987's Mister Ajikko. Based on a manga by Daisuke Terasawa that ran from 1986-1989, the anime version ran for a total of ninety-nine episodes. In some ways, Mister Ajikko is Food Wars!' grandfather, since like Soma, young protagonist Youichi Ajiyoshi is really only interested in keeping his family's eatery alive. When famed chef and taster Genjirou Murata, known by the title of “Ajiou,” stumbles into the diner, Youichi is outwardly unimpressed. He doesn't care who you are, you're going to respect his food and establishment. When Murata's companion starts badmouthing the young cook, Youichi quickly silences him – and impresses Murata. This inspires him to start a cooking competition for aspiring young chefs, and Youichi, like Soma, becomes caught up in a world of competitive cooking, against rivals eager to look down on him because of his young age and humble origins.

It's been suggested that Mister Ajikko is the earliest of the competitive cooking stories, and I haven't yet found anything to contradict that. (There are even some who credit it with inspiring Iron Chef.) It's certainly easy to see the origins of this subgenre in Mister Ajikko's first episode: Youichi is that perfect shounen hero mix of impudent and unexpectedly skilled, and the initial meal is prepared before our eyes as the expert (Murata in this case) explains how the cook achieved his results. Mouth-watering food is presented with the attendant reactions to its magnificent flavor, providing us with the earliest form of the foodgasm. It all seems a little understated to us now, but it's still impressive, and Mister Ajikko's opening theme's use of live action cooking scenes makes things even more mouthwatering. If you're an anime historian, this show is a must-see for a fascinating look at how much later series owe to Youichi's initial interaction with Murata.

1997 brought the next competitive cooking show, Cooking Master Boy, based on Etsushi Ogawa's 1995-99 manga. At fifty-two episodes long, Cooking Master Boy is significantly shorter than Mister Ajikko, but it has the same theme of chefs competing against each other to become the best. Unlike most other series, Cooking Master Boy takes place in 19th-century China. The story opens on 13-year-old Mao competing with his recently deceased mother's traitorous apprentice for ownership of the family restaurant. Like Youichi, Mao is preternaturally talented, but unlike his predecessor, he's not particularly self-confident. He has faith in his abilities, but he also recognizes that he's only thirteen, and even his mother was fooled by the man he's currently competing against. This dash of realism, along with its unique setting, makes Cooking Master Boy stand out (at least in its early parts). The competitions are just as fierce and the cooking explanations, scenes of mixing ingredients, and relatively understated reactions to the flavors are all present, but there's just enough that's different to make this feel fresh. Part ode to Chinese food, part competitive cooking series, and also part of the Wandering Chef subgenre that includes Toriko, Cooking Master Boy is a fun piece of food anime history, even if it doesn't have quite the same level of influence as Mister Ajikko. It did pave the way for Yakitate!! Japan, the 2004 series about competitive bread baking.

Based on Takashi Haguchi's 2002 manga, this series is the strongest link between early competitive cooking shows and Food Wars!. It's much heavier on the humor than either Mister Ajikko or Cooking Master Boy, finally leading to the most familiar staple of the genre: the foodgasm. Termed “reactions” in Haguchi's series, this is the exaggerated facial expression and hyperbolic imagery that a character experiences when they eat some of the master chef's cooking. In Yakitate, this can vary from a simple costume change or hair restyling to completely over-the-top scenes like a character actually traveling back in time to right the wrongs of the past because he ate protagonist Kazuma Azuma's bread. This is probably its most significant contribution to the genre, though I think it's the weakest of the competitive stories, too reliant on one-note gags and an overly large cast. But the way it discusses Japanese views on bread, a non-native food, is important to the development of the genre. It also opened the door for the shoujo version of competitive cooking anime, 2009's Yumeiro Pâtissière.

Based on Natsumi Matsumoto's original manga, the story is fairly typical shoujo – Ichigo Amano is cute, sweet, and clumsy, but she has a perfect taste for sweets. After encountering pastry chef Henri at a festival, she transfers to St. Marie Academy to study confections, something she initially struggles with. But with the help of the three most desirable boys in school, the so-called “Sweets Princes,” Ichigo begins to develop as a skilled patissiere in her own right, eventually competing and later even moving to France. Although the manga ends with twelve volumes, it has an impressive two anime series and an OVA, and it's honestly so cute and sugary that it might give you cavities. Yumeiro Pâtissière is aggressively the “girly version” of the competitive cooking subgenre, but it's also a nice change from the testosterone-fueled worlds of its predecessors. It's far from the only female-oriented show in the game – there's also the 2014 series BONJOUR Sweet Love Patisserie, which is based on a mobile game. In that show, we meet Sayuri Haruno as she enters the elite confectionary school Fleurir (“to bloom” in French), where she soon finds herself surrounded by hot young pastry chefs and confectioners. The show is a surprising amount of fun, and unlike many other reverse harems, it seems to settle on a specific route, with Sayuri pursuing her initially reluctant lab partner Ryo Koudoki. The show's 24 three-minute episodes pack in a lot of confections, culminating in a pastry contest where all the guys and Sayuri have to work together, which brings out the theme of eating and cooking being better when done with the people you love. That leads to the second most prominent sub-genre of foodie shows, Family Dining.

The family dining sub-genre can be traced back to Cooking Papa, which aired in 1992. Technically, its manga by Tochi Ueyama predates Mister Ajikko, since it began in 1985 and is still running, which puts Cooking Papa's take as the first in cooking manga. With 151 episodes between '92 and '95, Cooking Papa's anime also has the most impressive episode count. The story follows Kazumi Araiwa, a 31-year-old salaryman who comes off impressively hard-nosed at work. Every day he brings lunches so fantastic that people try to trade their most expensive takeout for them, and the general assumption is that Mrs. Araiwa must be the one making them. But as the title suggests, Kazumi himself is actually the family cook, something he takes great pains to hide from the outside world. The story's premise is culturally interesting, as it represents the weird dichotomy of ideas about cooking and gender, which simultaneously assume that cooking is a woman's job but that the best chefs are men. It's also a fairly relatable premise – one of my elderly relatives was a better cook than his wife, but he kept it hidden until she broke her arm after they'd been married for ten years. After that, he said, “her arm's been broken ever since!” That idea is alive and well in Cooking Papa, with Kazumi's hidden cooking skills speaking both to his wish not to embarrass his wife and his need to preserve his masculinity. Thinking of this as a predecessor to something like 2016's Sweetness & Lightning makes the eventual changes in the genre notable – the hero of that series is all about cooking to care for his daughter.

Of course, before we get to Sweetness & Lightning, there's Ristorante Paradiso, the 2009 series based on Natsume Ono's manga of the same name. This series has more of a focus on “friends as family” than Cooking Papa, theming itself around the idea that eating and cooking good food brings people together. Set in Rome, Ristorante Paradiso follows young Nicoletta as she works at Casetta dell'Orso, a hole-in-the-wall Roman eatery, and interacts with its staff of silver foxes. As the men show her what they know about cooking, they're also teaching her life lessons, and before long, Nicoletta has fallen for Claudio. Food and love are inextricably intertwined in this series, making it one of the slower cooking shows in terms of plot. While food is a major piece of the story, it's also much more metaphorical than in most other foodie series. That's a recurring staple of this particular subgenre, with Kazumi's cooking standing in for his softer side that he hides from the world and cooking representing familial love outright in Sweetness & Lightning. The fact that most of these series are aimed at an older audience is also worth noting – food as love is a much bigger concern to adult viewers than it is to a younger audience that would rather see bread make someone rocket out of their chair.

Coming in between Ristorante Paradiso and Sweetness & Lightning is Gourmet Girl Graffiti, a 2015 show based on a four-koma manga by Makoto Kawai. As a “cute girls doing cute things” story, the series revolves around middle school student Ryo Machiko trying to recover from losing her grandmother. Despite her cooking prowess, her food hasn't been tasting like anything to her since her grandmother's death, and Ryo can't quite figure out what's missing. As it turns out, that's because she's been eating those meals alone. As with Ristorante Paradiso, food in Gourmet Girl Graffiti is an emotional metaphor for the connection with others that Ryo really craves. Through her cooking, she eventually builds up a new family of friends, giving herself a reason to use her skills while healing her wounds of grief. That carries over to Sweetness & Lightning, where Kohei Inuzuka has been struggling to keep his daughter happy and fed following the death of his wife. It turns out that one of the things five-year-old Tsumugi misses the most about her mother is her cooking, so Kohei determines to learn how to make good meals for his daughter. He teams up with his student Kotori, whose divorced mother is constantly working, and the three of them form their own family unit by learning to cook together. As with Ryo and her friends, the act of preparing a meal and eating it together is healing for all involved. This journey in gender roles as related to cooking from Kazumi to Kohei is fascinating, although it may be worth considering that Kohei has no wife – everyone knows he's a widower, and he may also be expected to be a little more sensitive as a teacher than a salaryman. On the other hand, in volume five of the manga, Amagakure specifically says that cooking family meals is not a gendered activity – possibly a shout-out to Cooking Papa's early attitude that says this skill must be hidden.

Similar to the Cooking Family subgenre is what I think of as the Healing Restaurant story, which takes out the food preparation part of the equation entirely to focus on characters finding a place to eat together. When compared to the previous two subgenres, this is more tangentially part of the foodie anime genre, largely because it does leave out the cooking aspect that's so integral to other series. These anime are much more about atmosphere and the comfort of eating on its own, like a slice-of-life with food at the center.

This summer season has one of these airing right now – Restaurant to Another World, based on the light novels of the same name by Junpei Inuzuka. It's an interesting variation on the usual theme in that the restaurant in question somehow sprouts doors to a fantasy world every Saturday, allowing mages, lizardmen, and elves to come relax and eat Japanese-style western food. This "Isekai Restaurant" is thematically similar to the comedy series Polar Bear's Café, which ran in 2012-2013 and features a mixed dining experience for humans and animals alike. Polar Bear's Café is more about the comedy stemming from the amusingly humanlike traits of its animal patrons, so it uses the café to point out the oddities that come with its basic premise. It's still an easy recommendation as one of the most fun series to take place in a restaurant.

Other series take this premise in a cuter direction, like Is the order a rabbit?, a 2014 show that blends the healing restaurant with the everyday adorableness of moe girls. There is a slight fantasy element to its plot, but for the most part this series is strictly about cute girls being cute in a charming café, making it a more tangential entry in the Healing Restaurant subgenre. Perhaps the best example of the Healing Restaurant is 2008's Antique Bakery, based on the manga by Fumi Yoshinaga. It has a similar theme to Ristorante Paradiso but focuses more on the pastries themselves and the way that characters interact with the setting and customers. The story takes place in the eponymous bakery, where four handsome men work out their issues together while providing an atmosphere and cakes for others to do the same. While the anime doesn't hold up when compared with the source manga, which won the Kodansha Manga Award for shoujo in 2002, it's still a nice experience.

Of course, these are only the three most prominent types of foodie anime – many other subgenres abound, each with their own stand-outs. 2015's Wakako-zake is a short that follows an office lady unwinding after work with her favorite food and drink, while Toriko, like Cooking Master Boy, features a quest for the newest and wildest in cuisine. There are even shows about fighting with food monsters or spirits – 2001's The Fighting Foodons is a combination cooking show/monster battler, and two separate magical girl series rely on pastry as a theme if not a full-out method of battle: the well-known Tokyo Mew Mew and Kira Kira Pretty Cure a la Mode, where each girl has a signature sweet worked into her transformation, attack, and costume.

In any case, there are plenty of foodie anime out there to discover and even more manga. While we all wait for Food Wars!' third season, stop by the forums to let us know your favorites!

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