The Niggling Subversion of Oishinbo - À la Carte
A professor of mine once expounded a theory that he'd developed, according to which the Japanese people figured out long ago that concerning oneself with the doings of the power elite or other larger issues pays insufficient dividends and thus they've instead turned their focus inward, concentrating on—one might say obsessing over—and perfecting all of the little quotidian aspects of life that Americans largely take for granted. Like most broad assertions of this nature, the idea has its limitations, but it goes a long way in reconciling for American minds such things as elaborate tea ceremonies or the bewildering attention to detail displayed by even a mediocre cosplayer. It's also useful for understanding a culture that can produce and sustain Oishinbo, a 25-plus year, continually running weekly manga about food and culinary culture.
Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki's culinary comic ends its brief foray on the American scene with Izakaya: Pub Food, the seventh volume in Viz Media's À la Carte edition. Regular readers will recall my lament over the unfortunate editorial arrangement of Oishinbo for the American market, in which chronology and continuity are disrupted in favor of volumes which anthologize stories based on type of cuisine. But despite this comparatively minor complaint, Oishinbo ultimately proves upon multiple readings to be one of the more culturally enlightening and intellectually interesting comics to show up in the last year, though perhaps not always in the ways one might expect.
The basic structure of Oishinbo is quite simple: reporters Yamaoka Shiro and Kurita Yuko are currently engaged in preparing the Ultimate Menu, a celebration of the pinnacle of Japanese culinary culture commissioned by their employer, the Tozai News. The paper's chief rival, the Teito Times, has commissioned Yamaoka's estranged father, the celebrated ceramicist and imperious proprietor of the Gourmet Club Kaibara Yuzan, to develop the competing Supreme Menu. Virtually every story consists of the same basic elements: the appearance of a particular culinary or moral question leads to a competition between the Tozai News and Teito Times teams to create a superior dish, which addresses or reconciles the issue at hand.
The immediate appeal of this model stems from the wealth of culinary detail that is dispensed in the course of each story. The series' most obviously successful volumes—particularly the first, Japanese Cuisine, and the third, Fish, Sushi & Sashimi—afford a considerable education in the bewildering range of ingredients and techniques employed by traditional Japanese chefs. More importantly, virtually all of the series' extended culinary disquisitions manage to avoid slipping into the sort of pompous pedantry that generally makes discussions of food and wine such a grand bore. Kariya manages this in part by frequently setting Yamaoka's knowledge of Japanese culinary culture in direct opposition to such pedantry, employing such displays as the catalysts for many of the series' competitions.
Let's be real, though, there are only so many circumstances under which the daily lives of a couple of food reporters would plausibly lead them into an Iron Chef-style cooking competition. Just as often as not, the particulars of any given story defy believability, such as the Tozai News employee who decides to resign his position rather than accept a major promotion which would relocate him to Paris because he hates French food—this hatred stemming from a hangover caused by drinking cheap, knock-off Champagne—or the famed literary critic and liquor connoisseur who blames the lack of a great Japanese literary tradition—where, of course, there is no such lack—on the fact that there is no great Japanese distilled spirit. This isn't really a drawback, however, because Oishinbo is ultimately a deeply problematic comic, whose real charm stems from a splendid array of contradiction, socio-political anachronism and the absurdly implausible.
Let's return to our literary critic, Furuyoshi Shinichi, for a moment. This story, which appears in what is perhaps the series' most problematic volume, Sake, is resolved when Yamaoka and Kurita take the drunken Furuyoshi to Okinawa so that he can sample Kusu, which is made by aging a traditional Japanese spirit called Awamori. Furuyoshi insists that Awamori is a rough, unrefined spirit that could never compete with the great spirits of the Western world. Of course when the group begins to sample the variously aged stores of Kusu, Furuyoshi is suitably impressed, even stopping the tasting after sampling the 40 year-old Kusu so that he can return after sobering up a bit to sample the rest. The ending of the story is what is most bizarre, however, as the page below demonstrates. After discovering the wonders of this traditional Japanese spirit, Furuyoshi apparently gives up on literature altogether, opting to devote his life to getting soused on Kusu. Really?
This sort of posing of Westernization as a negative value is common to many of the stories in Oishinbo and at first glance it seems a fairly non-controversial stance. But upon further consideration in the context of other details from the series, this fairly ordinary celebration of Japanese culinary culture against the encroachment of Western influence provides just the first window into the larger political stance assumed by the series, many aspects of which might come as a surprise to broad sections of Oishinbo's American audience.
Of course, much of this reflects some of the ways in which Japanese society differs from the West. A prime example is the position of women. Though Yamaoka and Kurita work as a team—and eventually marry and make babies—Kurita clearly plays a supporting role to the far more knowledgeable and talented Yamaoka. The culinary ideas almost always come from Yamaoka's vast experience and though Kurita consistently demonstrates a refined palate, she is more often presented as some sort of well-mannered side-kick whose job is to provide quiet, acquiescent support to Yamaoka and only rarely does she originate the ideas for the Ultimate Menu.
This respect for a traditional patriarchal hierarchy gets really interesting in the dynamics of the relationship between Yamaoka and Kaibara Yuzan and the results of their competitions. Kaibara is presented as a domineering, autocratic figure. Membership in his exclusive dining establishment, The Gourmet Club, is by invitation only and can only be obtained by those who demonstrate a superior sense of taste. Further, a member can be permanently ejected from the club as a result of a single serious dining faux pas. As we learn early in the series, Yamaoka blames Kaibara for the death of his mother, who toiled thanklessly to satisfy his domineering culinary demands. After her death, the teenaged Yamaoka destroyed every piece of his father's ludicrously valuable pottery in the house and struck out on his own.
Thus there is more at stake in each of the competitions than culinary bragging rights. Though Yamaoka is something of a stubborn figure, he is ultimately sympathetic and likeable. He has a remarkable degree of knowledge about Japanese cooking methods and ingredients and always puts considerable thought and effort into the competitions. Kaibara, on the other hand, comes off as pig-headed and chauvinistic, referring to Yamaoka and any others who happen to associate with him as "pigs and dogs with no sense of taste." He repeatedly makes it clear that his aim in assisting with the Supreme Menu is not simply to demonstrate his vast knowledge of food and share the heritage of Japanese culinary culture, rather he is intent upon humiliating Yamaoka and ultimately destroying his career. And yet, time after time and with only a handful of exceptions, Kaibara and the Supreme Menu team triumph in the competitions and they do so in a way which is personally humiliating to Yamaoka.
It would be dishonest, however, to suggest that Oishinbo is simply a reactionary celebration of Imperial ideals. Numerous stories, such as the story about the Chinese noodle shop in Ramen & Gyoza expressly expose and combat such antiquated notions as the pervasive attitude of Japanese superiority over the Chinese. Yet what Oishinbo does is nigglingly subvert some of the ways in which Western attitudes in general and, more specifically, the attitudes of the series' American audience differ from the Japanese.
This is especially true of the series' attitude toward animals as culinary ingredients. In several stories, the series openly adopts a position toward culinary wildlife that its American readers might find objectionable or downright offensive. For example, in "Live Fish," from Fish, Sushi & Sashimi, a character pulls a live white trevally from a tank and uses it to prepare a dish called Ikezukuri—literally "prepared alive"—which the volume's notes helpfully define as "a method of serving fish or other sea creatures where the sashimi is cut from a living fish. The meat is then returned to the still living animal and served immediately to the customer to demonstrate its freshness." What the definition here doesn't mention, but the video embedded above does, is that the live-ness of the fish is demonstrated by the fact that it is still moving on the plate. It is of secondary importance that Yamaoka ultimately demonstrates how preparing sashimi Ikezukuri-style does not necessarily result in the freshest-tasting fish. What matters here is that methods such as this, or the dish in which live squid are simmered in soy sauce are presented as a matter of course, without the sort of squeamish sentimentality that Westerners often evince in relation to culinary wildlife.
Probably my favorite instance of this subversion of Western attitudes toward culinary wildlife appears in "Companions of Rice," from The Joy of Rice. As the panel above shows, at the beginning of this story, Kurita thanks the Deputy Prime Minister for his help with an issue concerning whaling. As an American reader encountering such a representation of a journalist thanking a major politician for his help on a whaling issue, my assumption is that the assistance would have been in opposition to whaling. But as the panels following this exchange demonstrate, the situation is quite the opposite and in the view of the Yamaoka—and presumably the series' creators—the ban on commercial whaling impedes upon the expression of Japanese culinary culture.
Now, I'm not going to attempt to adjudicate this issue. My point in highlighting this aspect of Oishinbo is that it is precisely these sorts of moments that allow the series to transcend its position as culinary curiosity into something that legitimately wrestles with issues of moral contingency. Indeed, repeated readings of the volumes in the series awaken the moral complexities that the creators subtly express. As a sort of coda, I'm including a few videos from some anti-whaling expeditions in which my good friend's uncle—who, curiously enough, is of Japanese descent—took part against the Japanese "research" whaling fleet. Of particular interest, about 1:20 into the third video, note how a member of the anti-whaling organization mocks the pronunciation of a member of the Japanese whaling fleet in an archetypically racist fashion. I suppose we all have our moral failings.