Say It With Manga, Extreme Cuisine Edition
Admittedly, I’m not much of a gourmand. I like to not be hungry, and I like eating delicious food, and that’s the extent of my interest in consumables. There are several legitimate “foodie” manga series, believe it or not, including Drops of God (which covers wine extensively), Oishinbo (which is about high end Japanese cuisine), and Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! (a kind of charming Tokyo restaurant guide in manga form by the ever-popular Fumi Yoshinaga). These have somewhat limited appeal if you have no interest in food, and when I read a manga, I like to be entertained. And as I’ve mentioned before, I am very entertained by series that go to any sort of extreme. So today, we’ll be looking at extreme food manga. Check out the others I mentioned here if you are looking for a more grounded, nonfiction-type experience. But the three below are a lot of fun.
And next week, I promise I’ll go back to taking about manga that people might actually want to read.
Iron Wok Jan – Shinji Saijyo (27 volumes)
This series takes everything boring about manga aimed at boys and makes it more extreme. This isn’t as successful as it sounds, but it does make for a crazy series that is totally worth reading. The titular Jan is a sneering braggart so awful that you can’t help but hate him, and the series is mostly about him being quite literally better than everybody else and lording it over them. He doesn’t have any moments of clarity or character development. He’s just the best, and likes talking about it. Rather than having fights with power escalation, the medium of battle here is Chinese cooking, and the whole series is set up as Iron Chef tournaments. Jan’s opponents don’t see the error of their ways, or how much better Jan is than them, and bow to his prowess as a chef. Jan usually leaves them paralyzed and humiliated at the end of the tournaments, and the clearly inferior opponents just go on hating him. Even the judges hate Jan, but Jan’s so good that they can’t help but vote for him out of honesty. But Jan isn’t the only thing this series has going for it. Jan’s opponents can be just as evil, including one guy that can kill people and control them through a sophisticated chemical reaction in his food, and one that plans on taking over the world through his network of restaurants. The battles themselves live up to all this hype, and are like train wrecks. About halfway through the series, I was disappointed when it didn’t do anything but the Iron Chef thing, but it’s hard to begrudge it that when frequently the rounds involve holding woks over broken gas lines that are jetting columns of flames into the air, serving judges their own dogs and/or meat that’s been softened with maggots (and winning!), or trying to find the least traumatic way of killing an ostrich for the tenderest meat, which might involve singing it to sleep and breaking its neck or even gassing it to death. The cuisine itself can also be very extreme, things like exotic meat or bird’s nest soup, or flavoring taken from the glands of birds that are difficult to fetch and are the rarest ingredient in the world, et cetera. Basically, I hate cooking, and I loved every page of this series, despite its repetitive nature. It is one of the most extreme and hilarious manga I’ve read. The publishing company loved it so much that it weathered a change of ownership and a mountain of translators, but they got every volume out before closing their doors for good. It’s old and out of print, but many volumes can still be had new since it was never that popular.
Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture – Masayuki Ishikawa (2 volumes in English)
This is a strange, meandering story set in an agricultural university that deals a lot with the scientific side of food prep. I resisted reading it for quite some time, because the nuts and bolts made it sound wordy and a bit much with its scientific explanations, but it is charming and fascinating despite that. It follows many different characters, but the main character has the out-of-place ability to see micro-organisms, which are depicted as tiny cartoon faces doing whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing. Otherwise, the series is very realistic and down-to-earth. The chapters are mostly unconnected short stories. One is about an e.coli outbreak, one’s about homemade beer fermentation getting contaminated by a particularly nasty strand of bacteria, and all sorts of explanations about how micro-organisms help our food. The main character is the son of a brewer, so we hear a lot about fermentation, and his best friend’s family business is one that involves fungus and molds related to food prep. The opening story in the first volume features a police investigation surrounding what appears to be a human body buried in the ground. The police excavate the corpse, only to find it’s a large seal that someone has buried there. One of the professors shows up, cuts the seal open to reveal that it’s stuffed full of small birds, then pulls one out and removes the tailfeathers to suck its innards out through its anus. He explains that this is an Inuit delicacy. I was pretty much sold on that extreme bit of storytelling alone. Unfortunately, only two volumes were released before Del Rey manga scaled back their releases and reverted most of their titles to Kodansha USA, and Moyasimon wasn’t one of the series that made the transition. The two English volumes are rather collectible, but it may be something to keep an eye out for anyway.
Toriko – Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro (23+ volumes)
The setting for this story is a fictional land where life revolves around cuisine, and high quality food is prized above all else. The good ingredients are out there, but they are extremely difficult to get, so one must hire a very skilled hunter to retrieve them. Toriko is one such hunter, a big burly man who takes on this savage world with a very particular joie de vivre. It’s not just animals that are difficult to get, but even plants can kill you, or just plain be impossible to harvest. There is an ongoing plot about how Toriko is trying to collect ingredients to make the “ultimate menu,” but that’s secondary to his adventures, which are the main draw. That everything in this series is completely fictional is key, because the charm comes with the absurd animals and plants that Shimabukuro comes up with. They’re different for every mission, and no mission lasts more than a volume and a half, so everything stays fresh. Some of the things in here are about as imaginative as what you’d find in One Piece (which is to say, very high quality), and I admire stories like this that throw a thousand good ideas out there for no reason at all. An example of a Toriko mission goes as follows: Toriko gets dropped in a remote island where the plants grow so fast that they need to schedule their drop-off and pick-up to the minute, lest the helicopter become engulfed in vegetation. He’s a particularly large ear of corn, several times the size of a person, that grows on top of massive trees. Toriko and his dog briefly have a fight with a tree, a fight so manly that it touches both of them deeply. The corn they are looking for grows atop these brawling trees, and is so tough that nothing Toriko has will remove it from the cob. He finds a way, and goes over to a volcano to cook it. The appeal of this ingredient is that you can pop it into meal-size popcorn, but the fire has to be volcano-hot to do it. While he’s at the volcano, an enemy randomly shows up and gets beaten up. And this is a story that only lasts a few chapters. Again, it’s very over-the-top and more for people looking for extreme brawling and silliness, but it’s a good read, and is currently being released by Viz.