By Wilma Jandoc
(Jason's note: The monthly Manga Movable Feast virtual gathering of manga bloggers usually celebrates series and artists. This month, though, the Feast, hosted by Khursten Santos over at Otaku Champloo, is hewing a bit closer to its name and celebrating ... food. Or, to be more specific, Oishinbo and other food manga. With that in mind, here's our contribution to this month's potluck.)
There's a fascination with delving into the nitty-gritty of everyday things and realizing that what you may take to be simple and uncomplicated often actually requires a lot of thought and work. It's especially intriguing with something that you particularly enjoy.
And so enters Oishinbo, a manga written by Tetsu Kariya and drawn by Akira Hanasaki that's been serialized in the pages of Big Comic Spirits since 1983. The story follows Shiro Yamaoka, a journalist with the Tozai Times and a serious foodie who's been tasked by his editor to come up with the "Ultimate Menu" as part of the newspaper's 100th anniversary. The meal is meant to embody the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine, so Yamaoka and his partner, Yuko Kurita, set out to discover the best of the best.
The books being released in the U.S. by Viz are actually only a small part of the entire Oishinbo series. There are more than 100 volumes in Japanese, so rather than taking a chance with a relatively niche subject and publishing as is, Viz has instead taken highlights from the overall story and compiled them into so-called "a la carte" editions on one topic. And the particular one that caught my eye was the Oishinbo: Ramen & Gyoza volume.
I do love ramen, and in fact I'll urge my ever-patient fiance to out-of-the-way places to try a shop that I've been told has good stuff. (And by the time I finished this review, my keyboard just barely managed to escape the destructive slobber of a stomach made ravenous for hot noodles topped with tender char siu and crunchy menma and garnished with green onions and ... I'm going to have to stop there. My keyboards have come much too close to destruction lately.) But with those ramen feastings consisting of either prepackaged instant noodles or steaming bowls brought to the table that are immediately devoured, I certainly have far more interest in the delectable finished product before me and have little thought left for the care that goes into the individual elements.
But that very enjoyment is also what leads me to appreciate the detail that "Ramen & Gyoza" goes into regarding the many factors -- including the science! -- that can influence the taste and texture of each ingredient and, therefore, the entire product as well. Despite the title, the book centers on ramen and has just one story on gyoza, although, like an Iron Chef episode, that story is just as dramatic and insightful as the others.
Because of the way Viz decided to publish the series, readers miss things like people's introductions and backgrounds, interactions and story progression. However, because the manga is episodic, brief descriptions of the characters and a synopsis of the overall story at the beginning are sufficient enough to grasp the plot. The only part that needs explanation -- which is given in the numerous notes at the back of the book -- is the sudden declaration of Yuko being out on maternity leave and the situation surrounding that.
Those notes also explain the intricacies of not only Japanese cuisine but the Japanese culture. So if you're not already familiar with many of the basic noodle dishes or common ingredients served in Japan or China, the terminology might cause your eyes to cross as you keep flipping back and forth to the end notes. Most of us in Hawaii have been immersed in Japanese culture one way or another from childhood without realizing it, so things like miso, nori and even the Obon festival are well-known here and need no explanation. Aside from that, the notes aren't required reading, but do give more background for those interested.
While such commentaries are becoming more widespread, what I really have to give props to Viz for is including numbers on the majority of its pages. Many other manga released in the U.S. lack this basic feature, which makes it very difficult to figure out what page the notes refer to.
One thing that remains obvious despite the omissions is Yamaoka's advocacy of pure, natural ingredients and farming methods to make healthier, better-tasting food. This focus on organic methods -- with all the assertions made by both Yamaoka and his father, Yuzan -- isn't annoyingly preachy and definitely opens your eyes to all the additives and shortcuts that go into making food these days that you don't realize, and that may not necessarily be great for your health.
The characters are likable enough, and there's enough conflict among all involved as well as non-food plot to keep things interesting. Yamaoka's humorous stubbornness is clear throughout, and we see the hint of the romance starting between him and Yuko. Still, the main draw of Oishinbo is the depth at which they explore food and the discerning palates of Yamaoka and his cohorts. The series isn't geared toward gourmets so it's easy to follow along and doesn't make you feel like a food fool. Oishinbo is a manga that is ultimately thoroughly enjoyable.