The Mike Toole Show
Food Wars for Thought

by Mike Toole,

I've spent the last couple of weeks commuting back and forth to the library, in pursuit of a particular manga series. You may remember, from my Monster Girl Hoedown column, that I'm quite fond of leveraging the library's large catalog to track down and enjoy manga that I like, but just don't care to buy. We live in a time when there's such an incredible volume of manga and anime in English that there's nowhere near enough time to keep up; you gotta be selective. On the same note, it's not really necessary to buy every single thing you enjoy, thanks to places like the library. So you gotta be even more selective.

What I was waiting patiently for, in the stacks, was for the next volume of Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma to arrive. Over the past several months, I've steadily chewed (ha! no pun intended) my way through several books, only stalling out once when volume 4 just wouldn't come back into stock. (I ended up buying a digital copy.) With last month's volume 11, I was finally all caught up on the English-language release and ready to keep on reading the series in the pages of Shonen Jump. See, my goal in pursuing the series wasn't just to read and enjoy it, but to be able to be a reader of it in real time, which is still a challenging thing to do, especially with a series that's been proceeding at a fast pace for several years now.

The reason I'd gravitated towards Food Wars, aside from the lure of getting truly current on a cool series, is because of JC Staff's TV adaptation, which manages to port most of the comic's best attributes. In it we meet Soma, a high-schooler who moonlights as the short order cook for his roguishly charming dad's family restaurant. Soma faces the challenge of his young life when dad reveals that he's hitting the road for a new job, so he's enrolled his son in the Totsuki Culinary Academy, which is basically Hogwarts for aspiring chefs. Just like that, the restaurant is shuttered (only for now), Soma is uprooted, and he finds himself rubbing shoulders with aspiring Michelin chefs and restaurant execs from wealthy and well-connected families from all over Japan.

Soma does the best possible thing he can in his situation: he takes the microphone, addressing the entire student body, and declares that he fully intends to defeat every last one of these trust fund babies in the culinary arena. After all, they've only spent their time studying in student kitchens; he's been spending his days having to take care of real, actual customers. At Totsuki Academy, one single major mistake equals expulsion, so it's gonna be a deathmarch. The final complication is the school's institutional fondness for the “shokugeki” – a one-on-one challenge between chefs. If you've seen The Iron Chef on TV, you get the idea.

Food Wars has two qualities that really makes it stand out. The first is the characters—like every great shonen series, it's anchored by a likeable savant in Soma, who uses his weirdly deep knowledge of simple dishes to undermine his better-heeled and better-trained rivals. Soma naturally issues bold challenges to these rivals, in the process converting many of them to allies, from meat specialist Mito to Italian chef Takumi, who fancies himself Soma's greatest foe. (Soma likes him, and is wholly unaware of this tension.) Soma's biggest adversary is Erina Nakiri, who possesses the most acute, accurate taste buds on the planet. Elegant and surrounded by allies in the school's administration, she can't stand Soma's casual, almost insolent excellence. And thus, the cooking battles commence!

The second quality is just how hilariously over-the-top and downright lewd it is. Food Wars isn't dirty to the extent that stuff like High School DxD is, but the way the characters' clothes explode off of their bodies when they taste great food (this is normal, and happens to me all the time when I'm eating something tasty) is eye-popping and leaves little to the imagination. I realize that Shonen Jump isn't exactly shy about this level of fanservice (remember, the exquisitely bawdy To-Love-Ru started in Shonen Jump, before hopping over to Jump Square!), but it's surprising just how far the series goes to depict its characters being overwhelmed by the flavors of everything from ratatouille to beef bowls. Don't worry, though – the fanservice is all equal-opportunity, with illustrator Shun Saeki equally adept at showing off male and female forms.

The genius of Food Wars lies in the way it expertly hangs between two genres: that of shonen fighting, where tough and gutsy heroes and villains train and square off in heated combat, and that of what's known in Japan as “gourmet manga,” manga all about the joys of excellent food and drink. Even as we watch the hot-blooded hero Soma square off against his cooking rivals, we're treated to lavish illustrations of his delectable dishes, complete with step-by-step recipes assembled by collaborator Yuki Morisaki. Soma might be trying to best his rivals in a brutal cooking school where only 10% of the student body make it to graduation, but as the series progresses, we learn something else: he's really trying to surpass his father. Soma prevails in the cooking arena almost every time, but he just can't take his own dad.

That struck me as interesting, because the complicated father-son relationship is also a key part of the series that launched the genre of culinary manga into the stratosphere, Oishinbo. Manga involving food and drink has been a staple as far back as Shotaro Ishimori's gag strip Tonkatsu-chan, but Oishinbo had a particular magic to it that made it one of Japan's most popular and long-running series to date. It's a series that really exemplifies Japan's surging bubble economy of the 1980s—protagonist Shiro Yamaoka, reporting for the Tozai News, jets from city to city, reporting on the country's best and most exciting dishes, all in the service of assembling the Ultimate Menu, a feature meant to become a cornerstone of the paper's culture section. He works for a huge media company, he witnesses massive construction and economic projects take flight, and he breaks bread with a huge number of colorful executives and canny politicians.

Oishinbo's tension comes from Yamaoka's complicated relationship with his father, a fine artist and epicurean named Yuzan Kaibara. Yamaoka had been a rebellious kid who resented his father's perfectionism and the way dad treated his late mother, so he called the old man out right there on the floor of Kaibara's exclusive Gourmet Club. Having lost face, Kaibara responds the only way an obsessive-complusive artiste could: by publically disowning his son. The kid promptly takes up his mother's surname of Yamaoka, and as he takes the reins of the Ultimate Menu, his adversarial father just so happens to accept an assignment from the competing Teito Times: one to assemble a Supreme Menu that would be even better and more exciting than the Ultimate Menu! Thus, a great and fiery rivalry is born.

The thing is, the series still proceeds through long story arcs without Kaibara appearing. Yamaoka uses his culinary knowledge to mend political fences, help couples reconcile, and close business deals, all with the able assistance of his fellow reporter, Kurita. Later, he'll be faced with a common decision in Japanese society: should he marry a colleague out of convenience and practicality, or remain single and hold out? Even later, he'll end up getting married to Kurita, and they'll have kids, with their family life becoming an integral part of the comics' narrative. Overall, Oishinbo stands as a complete and utter counterpoint to a series like Food Wars, except for one thing: it still has the food battles!

Oishinbo's best stories are when Yamaoka and Kaibara come into conflict over their mutual pursuit of Japan's most exciting dishes. They strike an excellent contrast: Yamaoka, with his slicked back hair and slightly askew business suit, is remarkably forthright about how much he dislikes hard work, casual and impolitic in general, and responds to conflict by fleeing to his favorite hangout, Okaboshi's. He's still a genius when it comes to selecting and preparing food and drink, only surpassed by one man: Yuzan Kaibara, who cuts a much sterner figure in his regal kimono, being chauffeured from place to place by a scowling driver in a custom Rolls Royce. The older man can still barely contain his enthusiasm for his aesthetic pursuits; he's heralded everywhere he goes as a great artist and thinker, but is hilariously socially maladjusted and prone to public tantrums when his standards aren't met. Kaibara's so utterly stingy with his praise that when he metes some out, the other characters literally fall over in surprise.

Yamaoka and Kaibara aren't chefs themselves, they're just ravenous gourmands and well-traveled culinary experts – they know all of the best chefs and restaurants, and all about the best ways to prepare and present food. It's actually kind of weird when they take to the kitchen themselves, in competitions over the absolute, 100% best way to prepare staples like dashi and sashimi, because you get used to seeing them in their street clothes, haranguing each other from across a table during a social call. The men are only barely civil to each other, and that's where Oishinbo's comic relief comes from – their desperate, pathetic animus masks a transparent hunger for reconciliation and acceptance, one which amazingly still hasn't happened in the pages of the 111-manga series!

Oishinbo's best moments revolve around these two men trying to one-up each other; they're both really likeable characters. My favorite thing is the way that Yamaoka almost never, ever wins—his dad may be the kind of asshole who abruptly unleashes a truly epic tirade about how smokers don't have the right to become chefs, because the cigarettes blunt their senses of taste and smell, but for the most part, he's a hundred percent correct about everything. He wins their contests with ease, never missing the chance to rub his errant son's nose in his loss, not to mention carefully coach the kid on what he should've done. When Yamaoka wins out, it's even better, because then Kaibara just has to sit there and stew.

Another interesting thing about Oishinbo is its regular tackling of social issues. Writer Tetsu Kariya is serious about using his platform for commentary, not just funny stories about food, and he's touched on the ethics of whaling, the use of pesticides in farming, and broader issues of politics and race. He actually got in some trouble in 2014 when he had his errant hero, Yamaoka, travel to Fukushima after the big earthquake, and then this happened.

Symptoms like fatigue and excessive nosebleeds had been reported by some locals, so Kariya saw an opportunity to bring voice to these claims and mount an attack on the government and Tepco, the energy company in charge of the plant. In response, both Tepco and other locals complained to publisher Shogakukan that Kariya's claims were exaggerated and irresponsible, and the manga was put on hiatus. Kariya and his publisher assured the public that the hiatus had been planned before the controversy, but I have my doubts. Lately, Kariya, who's getting on in years and not in the best health, has been talking about finally bringing his father-son adversarial combo together and finishing the series. That's good for him, but at the same time, I kind of hope it never happens.

So what we've got in Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma and Oishinbo are two comics that could hardly be more different, but which employ the same settings, ideas, and narrative devices to entertain. The line of influence is clear, too-- Food Wars' chairman is clearly borrowed from Mr. Ajikko's chairman; both are stern, bearded men, though only one of them disrobes and flexes his muscles when his taste buds are tickled. Mr. Ajikko, another “food battle” manga/anime, also once featured a bad guy who just happened to be a pompous, loudmouthed artiste in a kimono. Wonder where they got that idea from…?

Despite Food Wars' obvious, exciting appeal, my biggest problem writing this column was the sheer readability of Oishinbo: it was hard to put the books down as I searched for the best key art to scan in and use! I particularly like Arthur Brown, a friendly American magazine editor who occasionally comes to Yamaoka and Kurita to ask for advice and practice his terrible Japanese. Just look at the way it's charmingly rendered in English!

I'm taking pleasure in being caught up with the English release of Food Wars, but am still at the table, hungry for more Oishinbo. Back in 2009, Viz very rapidly released seven “a la carte” volumes about various food types, but Japan has dozens more of these “greatest hits” collections. With manga's profile back on the rise, Viz, I'd like another serving. You can start with the book concerning proper table manners, because that's guaranteed to have an amazing Yuzan Kaibara tantrum!

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