Kariya, Tetsuo and Akira Hanasaki. Oishinbo, A La Carte: Japanese Cuisine (v.1). Viz, 2009. ISBN: 9781421521398.
Kariya, Tetsuo and Akira Hanasaki. Oishinbo, A La Carte: Sake (v.2). Viz, 2009. ISBN: 9781421521404.
I knew I’d love this manga as soon as I heard about it, a long running series about food, not where food is just part of the setting but rather an integral part of each story. Oishinbo has been running in Japan since 1983 and totals over 100 volumes. Viz is here translating the “A La Carte” series, a repackaging of stories from across the title’s run into thematic volumes. That immediately tells you one thing: you don’t read this for the larger narrative arc or the character development.
Nor do you read this for the stories themselves. These stories, at least as far as the two volumes I’ve read, fit into three main templates: some kind of food related competition (either formal or informal), convincing someone 1) of the superiority of some Japanese food or 2) just getting them to like the food, and using food to overcome some problem. Sometimes, like in the multi-chapter story that forms the main part of the “Sake” volume, we get a combination of these templates. There’s little suspense: the latter plots always seem to end well, and only occasionally does the protagonist lose his competitions.
You don’t really read this for the art either, though, there are some stylistic elements to it which are worth paying attention to. I’ll get to that in a bit.
You read this for the theme: the food. This is an unusually entertaining educational comic. Kariya and Hanasaki pack a lot of information about food and culture into these stories, and Viz helps out with copious notes (14 pages for a 250 page book). You can learn about cooking technique, historical and cultural backgrounds to various foods, etiquette, and more.
Obviously this is not going to appeal to everyone, or most people, I guess. You have to add an interest in food (Japanese food, primarily) to a tolerance for over-emoting manga characters (they tend to shout a lot about their food). It’s all rather strange at that. Props to Viz for translating such an out of the ordinary series for manga in English. They’ve got six volumes on the slate so far through the end of the year (“Joy of Rice”, “Vegetables”, “Ramen and Gyoza”, “Fish, Sushi, and Sashimi”). According to this post at MangaCast, the “A La Carte” series runs 43 volumes in Japanese with Viz planning to publish seven (“Izakaya” being the one not listed at Viz’s site). I hope they do more, as I’d love to read the one on tofu (I bet they could get some good vegetarian/vegan cross-over appeal there).
As for the narrative set-up of Oishinbo. The stars are Yamaoka and Kurita, who work for a newspaper and have been assigned to work on “The Ultimate Menu” project, which as far these stories show, seems to mean they just go around, eat a lot, and talk to people about food. The character notes at the front let us know that the two eventually are married, and throughout these volumes, they are sometimes married, sometimes not. I can’t get any sense of continuity or chronology (the volumes give no indication of original publication date). Maybe that’s a major subplot in the normal volumes, but here any continuous subplot has been completely excised (though the endnotes fill in a few details). The only continuing plot point that matters is that Yamaoka’s father Kaibara, a notorious gourmet, is hired by a rival paper to work on the “Supereme Menu.” Actually… that plot point almost never comes up either. The real key is that Yamaoka and his father seem to really hate each other. Every time they meet — and meet they do, in most of the stories — they must glare at each other and look angry. There’s a lot of glaring to go around for these two, followed by attempts at one-upmanship.
There are supporting characters and settings aplenty, as well as numerous characters that seem to stop in once or twice. Lurking behind these thematically arranged volumes is the idea that characters recur and change, but we only get hints here. In a sense, it’s like watching a collection of 5 episodes from a 100 episode television series. Perhaps in the original manga there are whole chapters focused on the characters… perhaps not.
What matters is the food and the education, and Oishinbo shines in that respect, helped a lot by the art. Hanasaki mixes a number of shifts in representation into his work. The primary characters all have a classic manga look to them: caricatural and round with big eyes. The backgrounds have a more structured and geometric realism to them, again, a rather classic manga style. But the food, it is drawn in an almost photorealistic style, forcing the reader’s attention onto the real focus of the manga. Even wine and sake bottles are drawn with extremely detailed labels. Hanasaki also uses a photographic style for certain panels that show backgrounds or scenes important to the education aspect. When talking about sake production, panels show nearly photographic images of sake brewers at work. In a liquor store, discussing how sake and wine are stored, panels show the shelves of bottles in near photographic style.
These shifts in representational style divide the story elements, the fiction, from the reality. While the food exists inside the story (the characters are eating it, discussing it) the food also exists for the reader as reality (you could go eat this food too). Unfortunately, the more realistic images often suffer from poor reproductions, getting a bit muddy. Sometimes I think these is a matter of original color pages (that often start chapters in manga) being printed in grayscale, other times… I don’t know, perhaps the reproductions Viz had to use were poor. Or maybe they just didn’t put the effort in. It’s a small distraction though.
Overall, this is a fun and odd manga series. I’ll be reading more of it.