Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Let's wrap this one up with one of the longest running food manga in Japan, and it's still kind of a wonder that it ever got published here, even in this form.

OISHINBO (The Gourmet), written by Tetsu Kariya and art by Akira Hanasaki.  First published in 1983, and first published in North America in 2009.


Yamaoka Shiro is a cynical reporter with the Tozai News. For their 100th anniversary, they task him and his fellow reporters to create a series of articles about "The Ultimate Menu," a celebration of the finest things that Japanese cuisine has to offer.  During their assignments, they keep running into Yamaoka's father, the legendary (and deeply demanding) Kaibara Yuzan.  He's a renowned artist and gourmet, but he's so demanding about the quality of his food and the presenation thereof that he basically drove his wife to her grave, and Yamaoka has resented him ever since.  Nonetheless, Shiro has absorbed a lot of information about Japanese cuisine from having to cook for his father, and he's more than willing to share it with others so they can understand the simple beauty of Japanese food.


Oishinbo is very much a celebration of Japanese food (and by extension Japan itself), but it's a very dry, disjointed one.  There is a plot line going on underneath it all, but unless you're willing to embrace this manga's spirit of "JAPAN,  FUCK YEAH!,' then you may be in for a very sedate time.

Mind you, the disjointed quality is not the fault of the writer.  Oishinbo has been running continuously since 1983, and Viz wasn't crazy enough to publish it all.  Instead they threw together a bunch of chapters much as they did with their release of Golgo 13.  That's why this series was subtitled "A La Carte" - like an a la carte menu, they picked and chose what they pleased.  Each volume is themed around a single subject, and this first one is specifically about Japanese food. That means that there are a lot of chapters about sushi and sashimi.  It's not entirely about food, though.  There are chapters about things like traditional chopstick making or tea ceremonies.  If there is a common theme, it's the celebration of old-fashioned, artisanal ingredients and techniques and how they bring out the best and most subtle qualities of their dishes while being something unique to Japan.  It's an attitude that shows up a lot in more esoteric manga like this, but it's something that very rarely makes it to our shores. 

As I said, there is a plot to follow here.  Some chapters are kicked off by friends and associates of Yamaoka having parties.  Others are kicked off by backwards yokels who must be taught to appreciate Japanese cuisine.  Most of them, though, are kicked off by the neverending culinary pissing contest between Yamaoka and his father, and it get repetitive FAST.  It certainly doesn't help that Yamaoka's father really is a massive dick.  He's obsessive and anal about every step of his meals, something which makes him an utter tyrant to everyone he encounters.  The story doesn't hesitate that Yamaoka is (in some ways) very much like his father.  It's just that Yamaoka has more social grace and he wins over people through conviction than outright bullying.  Interesting, the story doesn't always side with Yamaoka on all matters.  Sometimes Kuzan wins their little contests, sometimes Yamaoka does, and sometimes it's a draw, but both are too stubborn to admit defeat and Kuzan is too much of an asshole to complement his son when he does well.  As for Yamaoka himself, he's clearly got his fair share of daddy issues and craves his father's approval, even as he states that he wants nothing from that man. 

Still, it's probably for the best that he knows so much about food because he's kind of a crappy reporter otherwise.  He avoids assignments, he spends work time betting on horses, and being rather prickly even when his father isn't around.  It's too bad then that Yamaoka and his dad are the only characters with any...well, character.  Maybe the supporting cast's character building moments were amongst those chapters that got edited out.  Otherwise, they seem to just be there to echo just how good the food is and how awesome Yamaoka is.  If you have knowledge or interest in world cuisine, Oishinbo might just teach you something.  Otherwise it's kind of dull and repetitive.


True to form, Oishinbo's art is more concerned with the food than with the characters.  The character designs are very old fashioned, even for their time, with their simple cartoony forms.  In comparison, the ingredients and dishes are drawn nearly photorealistically and lavished with just as much detail as the text does.  He also puts a lot of effort into the settings, as all the backgrounds are heavily detailed and frequently featured.  It's amazing that we get to see so much of them considering that the panels tend to be small and the characters talk a LOT.  Overall, it's artwork that would always be a hard sell to modern manga audiences.  It certainly works in context, but no one would go out of their way to call this art beautiful or timely.


There's an essay midway through the volume from the writer where he talks about precisely Japanese cuisine can be defined not just in a historical or linguistic sense, but in a geographic sense.  He brings a unique perspective as he's a Japanese man living (and cooking) in Australia, and it's some of the most interesting material in the entire book.  There are also a couple of recipes along with some very extensive translation notes. 


Your average manga reader wouldn't get much out of Oishinbo, but those older readers with an interest in cuisine will likely learn a lot and maybe even find a bit of inspiration.

This series was published by Viz.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 111 volumes available.  7 best-of collections were published and all are currently in print.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


It's weird that there's honestly so little shoujo out here about food.  There's plenty that feature plenty of sweets, but not so much about cooks themselves, save for this one.  Maybe the quality of this one is the reason there aren't others like it.

MIXED VEGETABLES (Mikkusu Bejitaburu), by Ayumi Komura.  First published in 2005 and first published in North America in 2008.


Hanayu Ashitaba is the daughter of a baker but her real dream is to become a sushi chef.  Her oh-so brilliant plan to escape her parents' expectations is to get together with Hayato Hyuga, the son of a sushi chef who also happens to be in her class at culinary school.  That way, when they inevitably marry, she will be able to pursue her dream without ever actually having to confront her own family about it.  What she doesn't know is that Hayato has a similar dilemma: he's a pro with a sashimi knife, but he really wants to bake.  Will these two ever come to an understanding, and will Hanayu ever get to impress Hayato with her mad cooking skills?


This cooking-themed romance is as lukewarm as microwaved leftovers. Mixed Vegetables is the sort of story that's driven less by the main relationship than it is by the heroine's determination to be as passive-aggressive as possible in all things.

Hanayu's conflict is frankly ridiculous.  She could solve her problem easily with just a single conversation and never have to bring marriage into it.  It's never stated nor implied that her parents would disapprove of her pursuing a path outside of the family bakery, so why is she so afraid of some unspecified wrath or lecture?  Instead, she pursues this convoluted scheme with a guy she barely knows and whom she admires more for his skills than as a person.  It's beyond passive-aggressive, it's cynical, and it's more likely to fail than not.  Of course, with this being a fluffy shoujo series, the two do eventually bond, but their connection is not a terribly deep or emotionally driven one.  It's more about Hanayu learning to appreciate Hayato for himself instead of just a step in her master plan.  It's a step in the right direction, but it will never be compelling because the both of them are so painfully plain.  None of them demonstrate much in the way of personality, and are instead mostly defined by their respective skills.  Thus it's really hard to get invested in their romance when there's nothing there between the two of them but a skill set and a ridiculous plan.  Mixed Vegetables is a failure all around.  Its premise, its characters, and its romance are too dull to ever take off, much less capture a reader's attentions.


First of all, look at that cover art.  More specifically, look at Hayato.  Maybe it's just me, but I'm pretty sure that he's supposed to have two arms.  I guess one could be tucked behind him and hidden by the kimono sleeve, but it's not clear if that's what intended or if it's a genuine error.  It certainly doesn't set a good precedent for the artwork within.  The character designs are totally average looking and rather stiffly drawn.  The backgrounds abuse sparkly screentones with abandon.  The artwork can't even make the food look good, something that most food-based manga gets right, as they're drawn just as blandly as the people making them.  Panels tend to be big, but that space tends to just be filled with talking heads.  It's all just so mediocre, so thoroughly flawed, that it barely registers even as you read it.


If you're looking for a culinary-themed romance, look elsewhere than in Mixed Vegetables.  It fails as a food manga, it fails as a shoujo romance.  There's so little personality in the story and art that it's easily ignored.

This series was published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 8 volumes available.  All 8 were published and is currently in print and available in e-book form through

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Let's change the pace a little with a semi-autobiographical one volume wonder about life, friendship and good Tokyo restaurant from one of my favorite mangaka.

NOT LOVE BUT DELICIOUS FOODS MAKE ME SO HAPPY! (Ai ga Nakutemo Kutte Yukemasu), by Fumi Yoshinaga. First published in 2005 and first published in North America in 2010.


Y-naga is a hard-working mangaka whose life is nothing but work and sleep punctuated only by meal times.  It's only at that time that she and her friends and associates are roused from the stupor of their everyday lives so they can experience some of the tastiest meal Tokyo can offer, and it's around these meals that their relationships change and flow.


Ah, once again it's time to talk about Yoshinaga writing about what she knows best!  No, not BL, it's her talking about food!  Not Love is simultaneously a slightly fictionalized portrait of herself and a love letter to her favorite meals and restaurants.  It's clear that Yoshinaga knows her stuff, as the characters will often launch into monologues about the ingredients and flavors of the dishes they consume.  It's also surprisingly thorough, as it's not a celebration of fine cuisine or Japanese cuisine, but of all sorts of restaurants and café.  Regardless, she lavishes it all with praise and detail, and it's clear that this book is a literal labor of love on her part.

As I said, it's not entirely about food.  It's clearly meant to be something of an autobiography, right down to the fact that the lead is a Y-naga who works as a mangaka.  Yoshinaga clearly harbors no illusions about her looks, as when she's on the job Y-naga is downright schlumpy with her bad skin, messy hair, and oversized glasses.  It's only when she gets to go out and eat that she transforms into a normal human being and gets to socialize with someone other than her long-suffering assistant S-hara.  He and Y-naga have a relationship that is complicated, to say the least.  They're not romantically involved, but they did make one of those "if we're still single at 35, let's get married"...albeit one that they don't strictly hold themselves to.  They work together, they argue over a lot of things, but when it comes to food they are a perfect match in taste.  She certainly doesn't seem to bear a grudge against all those around her who get to have relationships and social lives of their own.  After all, who could hold a grudge when there's a good meal before you to be enjoyed?

That does seem to be the running theme to this book.  No matter who your company is, no matter how the night turns out, no matter what your own worries might be, there's nothing that can improve your mood than a well-made meal with great ingredients.  It's a message that isn't as big and overaching as anything in Ooku or as emotionally complicated as some of the relationships in her BL works, but it's a very homey one and it's one that Yoshinaga clearly holds dear.  It's a celebration of her life and her passion and in that sense, and one that any Yoshinaga fan should read.


The artwork is certainly up to Yoshinaga's high (if sparse) standards.  The characters are all drawn in her usual style, with fine linework, beautifully rendered hair, and a lot of squared, handsome jawlines.  There's a lot more of her signature brand of super-deformed reaction shots than usual, most of it coming from her own expy.  Backgrounds are sparse and mundane, as per usual.  The only place where she does get details is with the food itself.  Each dish is drawn so well that it verges on photorealistic (or at least skillfully rotoscoped), and it helps to sell the reader on why all of these people would be going into raptures over these dishes.  Otherwise it tends to be a lot of talking heads talking about food and a lot of mundane adult stuff.  It's sparse, but it works with the story as a whole.


There's a color page up front, and after each chapter is a listing of the actual restaurant featured, including a map, directions, recommended dishes, even prices.  I'm sure this information was much more useful to Japanese readers than American ones, but it's a nice touch nonetheless. 


Not Love isn't the first work I would recommend to a Yoshinaga newbie, but for seasoned fans like myself it's an interesting and unusually personal work from one of the best mangaka working.

This book was published by Yen Press.  This book is currently in print.

Saturday, November 7, 2015


It's November, and what better way to celebrate the bounty of harvest than with a bounty of food-related manga, starting with one of the wackiest ones on the market!

YAKITATE!! JAPAN (Freshly Baked!! Ja-pan), by Takashi Hashiguchi.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2006.


Kazuma is a young boy with one thing on his mind: bread.  He was introduced to the wonders of Western-style bread by a local baker, and ever since Kazuma is determined to create the ultimate bread.  It will be a bread that embodies the people and taste of Japan itself, a Ja-Pan if you will. Kazuma leaves his country home to pursue his dream, but when he applies for a job at a big-name bakery in Tokyo he bites off more than he can chew.  There's only one opening and every candidate must prove themselves by creating a loaf of their own choosing.  Will Kazuma impress the judges?  Will he ever perfect his Ja-Pan?


Yakitate!! Japan is a very odd sort of manga.  It's not odd in style or structure - if anything, it's about as conventional as shonen can get - but its choice of subject matter is truly one-of-a-kind and it's completely serious about it from beginning to end.  It's not to everyone's taste, but if you're willing to give a try, then you'll be in for a wild ride.

We've all seen plenty of shonen stories about some kid who wants to be the very best like no one ever was, but this has be the first time the kid has wanted to be the best baker.  Like most shonen leads, Kazuma is determined but kind of dense and utterly obsessed with his given goal.  The rest of the cast is just as archetypical as he is.  There's a wacky family (complete with extra-wacky grandpa), a wiseass sidekick, a sweet and helpful girl, cartoonishly hard and rigid bosses, and so on.  No one is ever given much in way of characterization and most of it comes down to whether they're on Kazuma's side or against it. 

Kazuma makes a big deal out of how different forms of bread are representative of their countries as a whole, but I think that he's making a bit too much out of the whole notion.  Yes, bread varieties do have their place in a lot of national and regional cuisines, but few would pick them as representative of their native counties as a whole.  There's also a running gag where Kazuma's attempts at Ja-Pan end up being variations on known variety of bread like naan or croissants.  The only other thing they make a bigger deal out of is the fact that Kazuma has "The Hands of the Sun," which sounds awesome until they explain that this means that his hands are constantly warm.  Everyone considers this to be an advantage for him, even when he's working on breads that don't need heat for fermentation (like naan) or butter-heavy ones that need to stay cool until they reach the oven (like croissants).  It's like they wanted to give him a super-special shonen superpower but couldn't think of anything good that was relevant to baking.

It's weird.  I was always told that Yakitate!! Japan was silly on purposes and that it was meant to be something of a satire of shonen in general.  Unfortunately, I think those folks were just trying to justify their own affection for this series.  It's certainly silly, but it's very predictable and never once tries to satirize or put a lampshade on the many shonen tropes it wields or the ridiculous of the premise itself.  It's not a clever subversion, just your typical shonen dressed up with a lot of food puns and bread trivia.


While the story is straight, unfiltered shonen, the artwork avoids a lot of the excess of the genre.  The character designs are nothing extraordinary, but they're rounded, realistic, and pleasing to the eye.  Really, everything is rather subdued, from the panel size to the backgrounds.  The only times that things get visually wacky is when people taste Kazuma's bread.  Their bodies squash and stretch into over-the-top expressions of amazement and joy.  I guess Hashiguchi figured that the premise alone would be enough to amuse people as the artwork is almost sedate for shonen.  It looks fine, but I wonder if a little excess would have help sell the jokes a little better.


There's a short, odd extra which is simply meant to be CCTV footage of the token girl changing in the locker room.  This not only is weirdly intrusive (seriously, were they THAT desperate for some fanservice?), but it's completely and utterly pointless.


Yakitate!! Japan is the sort of manga that you have to take at face value as it's ostensibly as serious as possible about its very silly premise.  It's one of those love-it-or-leave-it stories that will either leave you craving more or just completely baffled.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in Japan with 26 volumes available.  All 26 were published and are currently in print and available in e-book form through