Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - The Seven Deadly Sins of Manga: Gluttonyby Jason Thompson,
Episode XCVI: The Seven Deadly Sins of Manga: Gluttony
I think one of the keys to the success of manga in Japan is that you can read it over your food. If you're slurping udon in some restaurant, you don't want to be reading your iPad or an expensive hardcover book that might get damaged if it gets soup on it; but if you're reading a cheap manga magazine, who cares? And I'm definitely guilty of stand-reading lots of manga while snacking in Borders, before they went out of business. Hey: I bought a mocha and a muffin. Don't judge.
Perhaps this is why there's so much food manga: the manga makes people hungry which makes people want to read manga and so on. In Japan they call it ryori manga, which I usually translate as "cooking manga," but it might be more accurate to translate it as "culinary manga," since a lot of it doesn't actually involve cooking. For all the manga like Iron Wok Jan, Kitchen Princess or Cooking Papa where the protagonists are cooks and where you can follow their example and learn something, there's an equal or greater number of manga that are simply about the pleasure of eating. Nevermind learning how to cook; just feast your eyes on beautifully drawn pictures of food, like photographs in a restaurant menu! Listen to the characters describe in detail how everything tastes, and even a step-by-step of when to drizzle the sauce and what order to eat the dishes in! Sometimes you don't want to cook, you just want food. Cut to the main event. Ero manga isn't always about lengthy seductions either.
In Japan they also call it gourmet manga, but this term doesn't seem quite accurate either, since some of this manga isn't very "gourmet." Sure, there's manga like Oishinbo where they focus on healthy, organic food, fresh fish and local vegetables; and there's manga like Iron Wok Jan! where the big surprise meal always involves some expensive exotic dish like ostrich or crocodile or bird's nests. But there's also a whole subgenre of manga about cheap food, everyday food that people can get anywhere: bento boxes and standing-room ramen and yakitori and pot stickers. These are meals for an economic recession. They're not all as lowdown as The Poor Man's Dining Table, where the main character makes dishes like croquettes and pork with cabbage out of whatever he has lying around in the fridge, but the focus is on frugality and familiarity, on comfort food rather than exotic taste sensations.
Since frugality is a problem of the manga industry as well as the economy in general, it's perhaps no surprise that some of the most interesting food manga translated lately has been digitally on sites like jmanga.com. With digital manga, publishers don't have to pay for printing, so they can afford to take a risk and release more obscure stuff. Sure, JManga's interface isn't perfect, and other publishers like VIZ, VIZ SuBLime and the Digital Manga Guild have also done a lot of digital releases, but for me, my late-night manga guilty pleasure is food, not bishonen, so these are the manga that hit my sweet spot. (Or savory spot, technically.)
Kodoku no Gourmet ("The Solitary Gourmet") by Masayuki Kusumi and Jiro Taniguchi, is the tale of a solitary businessman's journeys around Japan discovering unexpected restaurants. This is the description from jmanga.com:
Goro Inogashira eats and indulges at restaurants or ramen shops found on any street corners. He has become a liberal foodie removed from social obligations for a fleeting moment to satisfy his hunger. Solitary Gourmet… That's the solitary process of eating without interruption or worry that gives the most comfort to people equally.
Luckily, the translation gets better. The hero is a workaholic thirtysomething guy who dresses in suits and runs an import-export business out of his apartment. ("Just like marriage, having my own shop would add more responsibility and become a burden. A man wants to stay free.") He's always on the train, rushing from one meeting to another, and each chapter is about a different meal he eats on the road: "Stir-Fried Pork and Rice in Sanya, Taito-ku, Tokyo"; "Yaki Manju in Takasaki, Gunma", "Hamburger Steak Lunch in Oyama-cho."
But (appropriately to the art style of setting-obsessed, super-detailed Taniguchi), each meal is also about a PLACE. Whenever our hero walks in the door of a new restaurant (sometimes skeptically, like when he goes to the health food place), he wonders about the people who go there, about their little stories and lives. Who are those people already boozing it up at the restaurant that opens at ten in the morning? ("What kind of work do these people do? Maybe they're taxi drivers or security guards…in any case, they must have just ended their night shifts.") Who's out drinking and partying late at night at the restaurant in Kansai? What do people eat in Akihabara, the electronics district? Wherever he goes, he's always an outsider, overhearing bits of other people's conversations, being friendly but not making friends. Gradually, we discover bits of the main character's past life: an ex-girlfriend, a relationship that fell apart. But you don't feel too sad for him. He's not really lonely. He's just introspective, and food is a chance for him to relax and think.
Kodoku no Gourmet is an interesting manga that's basically about capturing real life as closely as possible; it's a bit like Jiro Taniguchi's The Walking Man, only with food. If I had to compare it to something else, it's like Fumi Yoshinaga's Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! if that manga starred Philip Marlowe. If you haven't read it, Not Love (etc.) is a restaurant review manga, in which Fumi Yoshinaga (in the manga she calls herself "Y___naga") goes to a different Tokyo restaurant each chapter and talks about the food. Like in her previous pastry-packed manga Antique Bakery, and her also food-focused Kinō Nani Tabeta?, Yoshinaga outweighs her relatively bland drawings of the food with her sumptuous descriptions ("Konbujime is delicious! The light taste of the whiting mixed with the luscious flavor of the konbu…" "Mmm! The amount of vinegar on the fish is just right, and the sushi rice falls apart right after it enters your mouth!"). Unlike the quiet Kodoku no Gourmet, there's also a lot of character interaction and conversation mixed in with the dining, including some scenes which make me feel funny inside, like the ones in which Yoshinaga's self-insertion character is talking about sex and relationships and how she's looking for a date and how firm her breasts are. (Yoshinaga autobio fanservice? You're the best to your fans, Yoshinaga. THE BEST.)
One of the many differences between Kodoku no Gourmet and Not Love (aside from art, writing style, protagonist, mood, and basically everything) is that Not Love is about real restaurants. Kodoku no Gourmet seems to be about made-up, composite places that are typical to certain neighborhoods, and sometimes the hero actually doesn't like the food or the service, but in Not Love the restaurants always get a positive review. The same mixture of manga and crosspromotion is at work in Ekiben Hitoritabi ("A Solitary Journey of Train Station Bento Boxes"), by Jun Hayase and Kan Sakurai, a manga about a guy who travels around Japan on the railroad doing nothing but looking at the scenery, spouting facts about Japanese railway history and eating bento box meals. That's right: a manga for Japanese railway otaku, about special foods that are ONLY available at specific railway stations in Japan. I know trains are popular in Japan, but this is for the diehard train otaku. If I had to hide a secret message inside a Japanese bookstore and I wanted to put it somewhere I didn't think anyone would ever look, I'd probably put it inside this manga. And yet, I'd be totally wrong: in Japan, it's up to 15 volumes.
The premise: Daisuke, a big bear-like 35-year-old guy, receives a special present from his wife on their 10th wedding anniversary. The gift: a trip across Japan on a sleeper car, since his wife knows he loves trains! "It's a special break from me!" his wife says so cheerfully that I almost suspect she's sleeping with the milkman. But anyway, it's true: Daisuke loves trains. They make him think of his childhood. ("Riding a train other than a bullet train out of Tokyo gives me a special feeling as though I've gone back in time and become a child again.") As he gets on Tokyo's historic blue line (running since 1958), he thinks about the romantic history of the rails, and all the engineers and conductors who worked on the train, and he watches the sunset through the windows.
But then, it's time for something more important than nostalgia: food. Daisuke isn't just on this trip to sightsee, he's also going to eat all the many, many specialty bentos available in the different train stations along the way! (It's work-related; he and his wife run a bento shop.) I didn't know ekiben were a thing until I read this manga, but Ekiben Hitoritabi has taught me that Japanese train food, far from the wrinkled hot dogs and mouldering nachos that make me cry every time I ride Amtrak, is a gourmet delicacy like the food served to Louis XVI. Looking at pretty landscapes is just the foreplay to Daisuke's passionate eatmaking sessions with bento boxes which he buys from old station ladies and eats morning, noon and night. ("All right! The first ekiben of the day!") Each station has its own special bento: sea bream, oyster, shrimp, shark fin, even fugu (blowfish) and fried horsemeat with gobo root. Each chapter typically has 3-4 pages of nothing but Daisuke looking at the food. Daisuke eating the food, piece by piece. Daisuke talkinga bout how good everything tastes. And then, if the chapter is extra exciting, maybe he'll pop a beer and get drunk and fall asleep before moving on to his next adventure.
It's a novelty for the first chapter…maybe even the second chapter…but it's hard to get through an entire book's worth of Ekiben Hitoritabi. It's basically a travel guide with no continuing narrative, and it's so obviously aimed at thirtysomething men that it made me ashamed to be in its target audience. For instance, the only other character besides Daisuke is Nana, an attractive girl photographer who meets up with our hero and tags along with him for no reason on his quest for bento boxes. DUDE! You're MARRIED! But even a sordid tale of some guy tempted by infidelity would be more entertaining than this G-rated story, wherein Daisuke and Nana do nothing but eat food together, or sometimes, if they're feeling kinky, one of them eats food while the other one watches them and asks how it tastes ("Let's just say it's darn good!") The truth is that Daisuke in Ekiben Hitoritabi just comes across as a total lazy glutton. It's like if you were a work-for-hire artist doing a comic to promote Oreos and you created a character whose only trait was that they ate Oreos all the time. Kodoku no Gourmet at least has character development and some interesting observations of people and places, but Ekiben Hitoritabi just has product placement. Although I have to admit, the next time I go to Japan I'm definitely trying the train station bentos.
Sometimes you don't want food porn; you want food erotica. To make a really good food manga, you need a story. That brings us to Gokudō Meshi ("Gangster's Feast") by Shigeru Tsuchiyama. Recently adapted into a live-action film (titled "Sukiyaki" for international release), it's the story of eight criminals in a shared jail cell who have a special contest every year on New Year's Eve. The New Year's osechi (a special meal) is really great, see, and so the prisoners compete for the right to take one item from everyone else's osechi. They don't have access to cooking equipment, though, and they can't fight with fists or they'll get thrown in solitary confinement (this manga gives me the impression that Japanese prison is the safest place on Earth), so they fight with words. They compete to tell the most delicious food story: a story about something they ate that was so tasty, it'll make all the other prisoners' mouthes water.
If this brilliantly meta plot sounds familiar, it might be because it's basically a riff/rip-off of Doing Time, Kazuichi Hanawa's underground manga about life in the Big House. In Doing Time the prisoners are just ordinary guys whose life is so boring they have nothing to do but think about food all day. In contrast, Gokudō Meshi is more like a yakuza movie, where the convicts are all cool, or at least sympathetic: fallen souls trapped in the world of crime. For them, food is a link to their humanity, their home, their past: nikujaga the way mom used to make. Each food story sheds a little light on the criminal's past. Shunsuke, a formerly rich white-collar criminal who's just been sentenced to three years' hard labor, thinks he's certain to win the contest by describing expensive gourmet meals he used to eat; but he soon discovers that the only way to win the contest is by describing foods that everyone recognizes. After all, if you're talking about caviar or frog legs, people who haven't eaten it just think it sounds gross, but if you're talking about doteyaki or ramen…well, everyone's had the hankering for some doteyaki, right? (Insert usual disclaimer: at least everyone in Japan.)
This is probably the reason why "non-gourmet" food manga is a hit: it's manga about foods that readers know. Human beings have a great capacity for imagining food, but it's hard to imagine something you've never tasted before. (This is why Toriko never makes me hungry.) Whether you're writing a story, describing a place, or just recounting a conversation (perhaps Fumi Yoshinaga's next manga will be an adaptation of My Dinner with Andre), food is a great place to start. If a comedy can make readers laugh and a tragedy can make readers cry, a food manga ought to meet the standards of the storytellers in Gokudō Meshi: it ought to make you drool.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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