Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

February 22, 2008

Oishinbo or "Taste Quest" (Food Manga)

In a previous post I wrote about the food-addiction of the Japanese. With the culinary passion here running as high as it does, it is not surprising that also among manga comics there is a category of "gourmet manga." Here is my take on the most famous one: Oishinbo.

Oishinbo (usually translated as "The Gourmet" or "Taste Quest"), serialized since 1983 in Big Comic Spirits, is about the search for the ultimate menu. Writer is Kariya Tetsu, and the manga is drawn by Hanasaki Akira. The comic has not run continuously since it started, as the creators regularly take time off to do food research. In 1987 they won the Shogakkan Manga prize.

The Oishinbo series is published in book form by Shogakkan and has enormous print runs: individual titles often break the one million barrier and the whole series has crashed the hundred million gates... a whole lot of paper and a cash cow for the authors and publisher. Of course the manga has spawned all possible kinds of off-spring: anime-films (1988-92, 136 episodes), a live-action film (with Mikuni Rentaro as the stern father, 1996), TV drama, TV shows, recipe collections and games.

Two reporters of the Tozai Newspaper, young dog Yamaoka Shiro and female sidekick Kurita Yuko, go in search of the “Ultimate Menu” for the celebration of their newspaper's hundredth anniversary. But at the same time, the rival Teito Newspaper has entrusted a plan for a “Supreme Menu” to the older, experienced Kaibara Yuzan of the Gourmet Club. Yamaoka Shiro is in fact the cast-out son of Kaibara Yuzan (he has received his mother's name). So the stage is set for a dramatic struggle between the son's “Ultimate Menu” and the father's “Supreme Menu.”

Yamaoka is wild and sometimes arrogant, but possesses an extensive knowledge of haute-cuisine and the necessary developed palate. Kurita fully shares his culinary obsession. There is a degree of attraction between them, and later in the story they marry, but it is not their relationship that is central to the manga. That is rather the drama between Yamaoka and his father, a stern figure who is also calligrapher and ceramic artist and who seems modeled on the 20th c. potter/gourmet Kitaoji Rosanjin.

In the whole series, much care is given to the depiction of food, of the widest variety, both from Japan and other cultures. In fact, every imaginable type of food availabe in Japan is present, from sashimi and sushi to exquisite French, from sake to wine, from American sandwiches to curry rice...

Of course, this would not be a Japanese manga if the obsession with ultimate quality was not very prominent again: the best way to make a certain dish, how to tweak a recipe to perfection, how to find the ultimate sharp knife to cut blowfish, the most superb use of a dripping glass to make coffee... etc. etc.

In short, the Oishinbo series is fun to read, and on top of that not only a perfect introduction to Japanese cuisine, but to Japanese culture in general.