How Food Wars Lost Its Flavorby Nicholas Dupree,
WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the entirety of Food Wars: Shokugeki no Sōma's final arc.
From its very first pages, Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma caught the eye of a lot of Shonen Jump readers. It was hard not to, with the opening chapter mixing deliciously rendered food with some of the most shameless cheesecake to reach the magazine's pages since To-Love-Ru. The series went on to use those paired features to carve out its own sort of shonen action to turn the life or death battles of its peers into imaginative cook offs, running for almost seven years and inspiring a still-ongoing anime adaptation in the process. The series never quite reached blockbuster status, but it was assuredly a hit for quite a while, with fans clamoring for the mouth-watering gourmet of its lovable and eccentric cast.
And then it all went to hell.
Fans of long-running manga are likely all too familiar with disappointing final arcs. Ask anyone and they can probably point to at least a couple of favorite series that lost their spark at some point and limped to the finish line. But what sets Food Wars apart is just how universally its final act is looked down upon by even the series' most ardent fans. Despite the lengthy and convoluted Ninja War arc, fans still love Naruto and have kept up following the story of his son. People may mostly dislike Near and Melo's arc but can't deny that Death Note finale was still fantastic. There were somehow enough vocal vans clamoring for it that we're even getting Bleach's final arc animated next year. Yet the most consistent reaction I saw to the news of Food Wars getting a full adaptation was confusion and rolled eyes.
It would be easy to just say the last storyline was bad and move on, but the nasty aftertaste of the final arc has lingered for long enough past the manga's conclusion it seems in poor taste to simply throw it out. Instead, we'll need to take a hefty bite out of the final chapters and chew it over to figure out how Food Wars took a recipe for success and cooked up a full-course meal of disappointment.
Part 1 – L'apéritif
The first major hurdle of what would become known as the BLUE arc was, rather unfortunately, proving it needed to exist at all. While the conclusion of the preceding story line had left a few dangling plot threads, it had more or less wrapped up the central conceit of the main cast's narratives by the time it ended. Sure, Megumi had never gotten to win on a big stage, there were some lingering questions about Soma's mother, and none of the first years had graduated, but Soma had made good on his entrance ceremony challenge to become the 1st Seat on the Council of Ten. Furthermore the team shokugeki had fully completed Erina's face-turn and capped off her own emotional arc by turning the reins of Totsuki over to her capable hands. It wasn't a perfect ending, but one could easily imagine the series calling it there.
But that ultimately didn't happen. Instead, Food Wars soldiered on by introducing a new threat to Totsuki with “Les Cuisiniers Noir,” the dark underbelly of the cooking who make a living preparing the finest food for the criminal underworld, where even the slightest mistake in a meal can cost the cook their life. It's a suitably over-the-top escalation from the maniacal food fascism of Azami's arc, but it causes a notable shift in the series' dynamic. Up 'til now, Soma and his friends had always been underdogs working to subvert and break past the expectations of the gourmet world's elite, using their humble means and unique connections to food to show up the food snobs who dismissed their dishes before so much as sniffing them. But with the Noir, it essentially turns the Totsuki kids into Food Cops who have to stamp out the crazy and unique talents of their criminal counterparts. That's just not as engaging as their eternal underdog conflict, and it sucks a lot of the fun out of each cooking battle when our heroes are the top dogs defending their perch.
It doesn't help that, uniformly, the Noir characters just aren't interesting. Save for their leader they're a gaggle of one-note weirdos most memorable for their horror movie character designs and cheesy gimmicks. Previous antagonists in the series were often gimmicky and trope-laden, but they almost always featured some level of humanity to make them more rounded people. Not so with the Noir – the closest any of they come to personality is their devotion to their general. Which leads us to…
Part 2 – L'entree et Hors D'oeuvres
From his very arrival, Asahi Saiba starts off on the wrong foot as a character. For one, his introduction as Joichiro's “other son,” who he just happened to have never mentioned to anyone in 15 years, is clumsy. For two, his first appearance as anything besides a masked shadow is when he declares he wants to marry Erina in order to “own” her Divine Tongue. This would be cliché enough on its own – turning the final conflict into a lopsided love triangle between Erina, Soma, and this new antagonist out of nowhere – but it gets worse because every new thing we learn about him only serves to make Asahi feel less interesting.
He of course has a tragic backstory featuring an abusive parent – the go-to for making your anime villain easily sympathetic – and was taken in by Joichiro during the chef's globetrotting, learning his techniques and eventually using his talents as a cook to support himself and escape his family. This isn't bad in its own right, but the entire time it's playing out you can't help but wonder how absolutely none of this was ever mentioned beforehand or why nobody seems to really care outside of Asahi posing a threat as a really good chef. That leaves the would-be rival feeling like a contrived amalgam of rehashed motivations to make one final rival for Soma to overcome. His entire personality is that he's a supernaturally good chef that nobody ever knew about before, and despite his bleak and serious backstory he manages to feel less like a real character than even his cartoonish cronies.
Then there's his “Crossed Knives” cooking specialty, which we're told multiple times, for chapters on end, is an unbeatable and freakish talent that no one can hope to beat. The only problem being that it amounts to him combining two other characters' skills to make a new dish with their specialties, which is just a more simplified version of what Soma and the rest of his entourage have been doing for the whole series as they learned and took inspiration from their rivals and enemies. It's also got a glaringly obvious flaw – Food Wars has evangelized how important a chef's personality is to making a truly great dish since the beginning, and so making your ultimate villain another copycat gimmick makes every win he gets over the established cast feel totally unearned. And there are a lot of those because Food Wars goes out with that most classic of Shonen manga storylines: a tournament arc.
Part 3 – Le Plat Principal
BLUE – the greatest international cooking competition in Food Wars' world – always seemed like it would make for a good final setting for the series. After all, it would allow our budding super chefs to test themselves against the whole wide world of cuisine and see how they measure up, right? Unfortunately, for whatever reason, that never comes to pass in the final chapters. Instead the series cuts the cast down to Soma, Erina, Megumi, and Takumi Aldini and pits them against the aforementioned one-off gimmicks of the Noir. The ensuing battles are rote reiterations of earlier conflicts (What's this? Soma made ANOTHER seemingly banal dish with a secret element that makes it amazing? The devil you say.) when they don't just happen entirely off screen. Boring non-battles with equally boring villains are certainly a bad handicap, but Food Wars had proven before it could still ring some great character moments out of less than perfect setups with the conclusion of the Team Shokugeki, right? Surely the relationships Soma and Erina have built up across the series could be mined for some solid drama in this final act?
Sadly that hope is crushed shortly after the introduction of the person in charge of The Blue: Mana Nakiri, Erina's mother and another owner of the Divine Tongue. In some awkward exposition we find out that Mana abandoned her young daughter years ago after the “Curse”of the Divine Tongue swallowed her up and left her unable to enjoy any food. Now she's invited Asahi and his Noir to The Blue because she believes none of the chefs her daughter or father have cultivated could hope to intrigue her pallet ever again. Already this isn't a great start – it hinges Erina's major conflict on a made-up superpower while also regressing her back to where she was before overcoming her abusive father in the previous arc. Oh, by the way, it's also revealed Azami abused Erina and took over Totsuki because he was actually trying to save Mana from this “curse” and we're meant to feel bad for him. So that's a thing.
So our ultimate enemies end up being a rehashed version of Azami that retroactively makes the past arc worse, and a shoe-horned in ultimate rival whose defeat you can see coming a mile away. The series still tries to ring some emotion out of its lingering story threads – a brief flashback explains how Soma's mother was his real inspiration to become a cook and the ultimate conclusion that a chef needs to experience “the taste of failure” to innovate is a fitting enough moral for the manga – but it's mostly too little too late. Thus Food Wars ends with a limp, disappointing finale and strolls off into the sunset to join its brethren in the pantheon of completed Shonen Jump series.
Except it didn't.
Part 4 – Le Desert
Food Wars could have ended the way every Shonen Jump series seems to end – skip ahead to a few years, show us what everyone's doing as adults, end with a fun callback to the first chapter and call it a day. And it does do that, eventually. But first the creators saw fit to fill in the blanks on what were apparently very vital shreds of plot with a 3-part epilogue, Food Wars ~Le Desert~ . The first entry is almost a carbon copy of the conclusion to the Team Shokugeki. We see all the students as 3rd years or graduates, catch a glimpse of how Soma's influence as the 1st Seat has inspired his underclassmen, and everyone's haircuts are different so we can tell time has passed. We're then treated to a pleasant enough flashback to how Joichiro met Soma's mother and learned to love cooking again, and if the series wrapped there it would almost be nice enough to wash away the lingering bitters of what preceded it. Then the incest happens.
Well technically almost happened. Apparently one of the other lingering questions the creators sought to answer was who Asahi Saiba's real father was, and in a flashback so poorly considered it could make you lose your lunch, it's revealed his father is none other than Azami Nakiri, who had a drunken tryst with Asahi's mother at some point and unleashed his inferior villain spawn into the world. Which also means that this whole time Asahi was trying to win the Blue and force Erina to marry him, he was actually trying to bang his half-sister. That's awkward enough, but it turns out Food Wars just loves forgiving villains with no real justification, and this is all a way for Erina to accept her newly found brother into the family and fix all his lingering issues from being an abused criminal.
And from there everything wraps up neat, tidy, and totally without satisfaction. We skip ahead to everyone's mid-20s with even more new haircuts, get cliff notes versions of their futures that in many cases have almost nothing to do with their previous characterization, and wrap it all up with one last two-page spread of the whole cast being molested by peanut butter-squid tentacles. It would almost be heartwarming if it weren't the 3rd time in a year we saw this and also, you know, the incest.
Yet that's how Food Wars goes out: with a poorly planned final dish that only serves to remind you of when the series could cook up a meal that knocked your socks off. While there are doubtlessly series with worse endings, the real nail in the series' coffin is the utter lack of anything worthwhile to experience. Naruto, Bleach, and plenty of other troubled finales still featured something in their last moments that might make it feel worthwhile, but here readers would be better served going to bed without dinner. Or at least skipping dessert.
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