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.

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