Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma
Soma Yukihira's dad runs a small restaurant with delicious takes on traditional Japanese food. Soma hopes to someday out-cook his father, and he plans to start practicing in the family kitchens as soon as he graduates from middle school. Unbeknownst to him, however, his father has a different course mapped out – he will go to the prestigious Totsuki Saryo Culinary Institute and learn to be a top-class chef. But the school has a fearsome reputation, a (deliberately) low retention rate, and is full of snobs! Will underdog Soma prevail? And is he even aware that he's been cast as the underdog in this story?
Everyone who's tried their hand at cooking has one of those failed recipes. (We will not speak of the Knife Cookie Incident of 1992.) For Soma Yukihira, squid legs and peanut butter are just one experiment gone awry in his quest to find new ways to combine the flavors available to him...and to be honest, this one is so gross that it's kind of a reverse success. But don't let this disgusting combination fool you – the son of a renowned chef, Soma is actually an extremely talented cook, able to make the best of bad ingredients, make the most ordinary dish extraordinary, and create culinary masterpieces on the fly. He isn't nearly as good as his father, however, so he plans to spend the years when other kids are in high school cooking in the family restaurant in order to one day surpass his pop. His dad has other plans, though, and after an incident with a nasty real estate developer – think the shounen version of Inari in Princess Jellyfish – he decides to take off for three years and enroll Soma in the be and end all of Japanese culinary institutes: Totsuki Saryo. Soma's not sure he wants to go, but if it means becoming a better chef than his dad, he's willing to give it a try. The problem? Totsuki Saryo is snobby to the point of annoyance and as the son of a small local Japanese restaurant – a Mom and Pop Diner would probably be the easiest comparison to make – Soma gets zero respect from the other students even before he opens his mouth to insult them all. In a way, at its heart this is a very basic take on the rich/poor story: through Soma's more ordinary experiences and commonsense know-how, the school/cooking royalty gets to understand that commoners' lives aren't as worthy of their scorn as they assumed.
At least that's how things are looking at the end of this first volume, which certainly makes it easy for us to cheer on Soma as the hero. With a single exception, the students and staff at Totsuki Saryo are incredibly awful and terribly annoying. Assumed series heroine Erina is the worst. Said to have a “divine tongue,” at sixteen Erina is the heir presumptive of the academy and a staff member as well as a student. This has all gone to her head in the worst way, making her intolerant, vicious, and generally unpleasant. Her sense of self-worth is so great that she cannot allow Soma even the slightest victory, attempting to get rid of him because he made her feel foolish rather than showing some professionalism and recognizing that there may be worth in things she is unfamiliar with. This is demonstrated not just by her actions, but by those of others around her: her grandfather and one of the instructors are both foils to her nastiness through their treatment of Soma. Granted, she is sixteen and this is not meant to be taken quite as seriously as I am treating it; on the other hand, Erina is so obnoxious that it becomes easy to overreact to her as a character.
The basic story, however, is interesting, and certainly shouldn't be read on an empty stomach. If you are inclined towards cooking, some of Soma's tricks and recipes could be very inspiring, and the recipe for his eggs over rice dish is provided and looks fairly doable. The narrative affectation that may not sit well with some readers is the way that characters are shown reacting to food: a good dish essentially produces an orgasm. This is shown with non-explicit nudity (ie no nipples or groin detail) and lots of liquid sound and visual effects. While it is somewhat odd, the real issue is that when Soma makes something that is exquisitely disgusting, like the squid and peanut butter, the characters feel like they are being molested, with the accompanying visual. (Generally this involves tentacles.) While it is played for laughs, it perhaps should not be, and it adds an uncomfortable edge that the story really does not need. Shun Saeki draws attractively full-figured women – we don't need to see them being molested by squid tentacles in order to appreciate either the plot or his artwork. Luckily, he draws delicious-looking food, which does enhance the volume.
Food Wars: Shokugeki no Sōma is off to a somewhat uneven start, balancing scrumptious dishes with an obnoxious heroine and some unfortunate choices of fanservice. (While the orgasm scenes are equal opportunity, the molestation scenes are strictly female.) The story and hero are good enough to merit a second volume, and for those who prefer their food manga with less testosterone than Toriko or a faster-moving plot than What Did You Eat Yesterday? or Takasugi-san's Obento, this is a good place to look. It should be worth it to watch Soma take Erina down a peg or two, and if we learn how to make a new recipe along the way, it will only add to the enjoyment.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Tasty food, a hero we can get behind. Pacing balances challenges with Soma being himself. Attractive art.
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