Oishinbo's laser-like focus on the fine points of Japanese eating is simultaneously a fascinating read and kind of off-putting.
Writer/Artist: Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki
Translation: Tetsuichiro Miyaki
Adaptation: Tetsuichiro Miyaki
What They Say
Follow journalist Yamaoka Shiro on a rich cullinary adventure as he hunts for the "ultimate menu".
To commemorate its 100th anniversary the heads of newspaper Tozai Shimbun come up with a plan to publish the ?Ultimate Menu?. The assignment is given to journalist Yamaoka Shiro, the protagonist of the series. With the help of a female coworker, Kurita Yuko, Yamaoka starts off on what can only be termed an epic saga to find the dishes hat will go into the ?Ultimate Menu?.The subject of volume 1 is Nishon ryori, or Japanese cuisine, featuring stories on subjects like how to prepare a proper dashi (broth that is one of the building blocks of Japanese cooking), or matcha (the powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony), or red snapper sashimi. The subjects of the later volumes are: 2) sake, 3) fish, 4) vegetables, 5) rice dishes, 6) udon, and 7) izakaya or ?pub? food.
To commemorate its 100th anniversary the heads of newspaper Tozai Shimbun come up with a plan to publish the ?Ultimate Menu?. The assignment is given to journalist Yamaoka Shiro, the protagonist of the series. With the help of a female coworker, Kurita Yuko, Yamaoka starts off on what can only be termed an epic saga to find the dishes hat will go into the ?Ultimate Menu?.
Viz seems to be putting out a lot of these oversized premium releases lately, which are all over the map when it comes to printing quality. Oishinbo looks better than some of their other efforts (e.g., Black Lagoon) but still suffers from muddy artwork in spots and yellowed paper throughout. The elegant glossy cover with French flaps is a nice touch, on the other hand, and I'm willing to cut Viz a little bit of slack considering that $13 buys not just a larger form factor but also 50% more content than a typical $10 paperback volume.
This volume includes a respectable set of extras. Besides the translator's notes described below, there's also a commentary essay from author Tetsu Kariya, a description of Oishinbo's back story and characters, and full color photo recipes for two of the dishes mentioned in the story.
To be blunt, Akira Hanasaki's character artwork is rough. The first chapter is really bad about this, seeing as Yamaoka seems to have one catch-all facial expression involving half a mouth that curves up or down slightly depending on his mood; the other chapters are improvements, but not always by a lot. (I'm still not sure if the main character in Chapter 2 is really supposed to be a Woody Allen lookalike or if that's just my imagination running wild.) He shows a lot more care drawing the food and serving tools -- not surprising, considering how much the writing focuses on the food, but I have to think he'd have been better off focusing some of that effort on the other 80% of the panels.
Miyaki's English translation preserves honorifics and (as far as I noticed) is free of typos. Explanations of these honorifics, among many other cultural points, are included in 14 pages of exhaustive translation notes.
Contents (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
The basic setup for Oishinbo goes something like this. The journalist Yamaoka Shiro has been assigned to create the "Ultimate Menu" for his employer Tozai News, who hopes to catalog the finest Japanese cuisine available. Despite Yamaoka's reputation as an expert in Japanese food, his father Kaibara Yuzan spends a lot of the manga vocally opposing Yamaoka's appointment to the job, seemingly on the grounds that Kaibara is an even greater (and more abrasive) food snob than his son. At various points throughout this volume, Yamaoka's coworkers tag along with him as he goes to restaurants across the country; their role seems to be to like whatever food is put in front of them, giving Yamaoka and Kaibara a chance to point out how everything almost they're served has been improperly prepared.
As it turns out, almost none of this actually matters: Oishinbo is among the least story-driven manga that I've ever read. The plot is almost completely irrelevant, save for being a flimsy excuse to discuss Japanese cooking; Yamaoka's coworkers are interchangeable straw men set up to represent the naïve consumer; and Yamaoka and Kaibara are little more than mouthpieces for author Tetsu Kariya to extol the virtues of his homeland's food. As a representative example of how far Kairya places the informational parts of Oishinbo over the narrative, just take a look at Kaibara's supposed relationship with his coworker Kurita Yuko. If Viz hadn't explicitly said in the introduction that the two had married partway through the manga's run, I wouldn't have even guessed that they had any kind of relationship outside of the office.
For Oishinbo's North American debut, Viz has compiled ten miscellaneous chapters from its 102-volume (!) Japanese run. About half of these chapters deal mostly or entirely with the proper preparation of a single dish, including katsuobushi simmered in kombu dashi (a fish soup served with kelp stock), sun-dried seabream, miso soup, various forms of sashimi, and gyokuro tea. Other chapters deal more with technique than specific dishes, such as knife handling, appreciation of subtle flavors, the meaning of tea ceremonies, chopstick etiquette and respecting for the chef's efforts.
In case anyone gets the wrong idea, I don't want it to sound like I'm bashing Oishinbo for not being story driven. Oishinbo is less about the story and more about delivering an extended lecture on appreciating fine Japanese cuisine, punctuated with occasional practical cooking tips like the correct way to cut sashimi without damaging the fish. The manga format has one very pragmatic advantage over a traditional prose essay, though, which is that wrapping the whole thing in a (minimal) story keeps it getting too dry. Even this inept cook of a reviewer, who cab barely cook rice and has no hope of ever preparing the dishes outlined in this volume, found a lot of the discussion engaging.
But Kariya's approach has its downsides, too: the "stories" in each chapter are just flimsy excuses to introduce a particular dish or technique to the reader, sometimes so flimsy that it's distracting just how contrived they are. (I defy the reader to not roll their eyes a little at the parade of anti-Japanese food critics whose minds can be changed by a single well-prepared meal, or the seeming willingness of every cook in Japan to compete on a moment's notice just to prove a point.) Presentation issues aside, Kariya's love of elegantly prepared meals can also border on zealotry: Yamaoka and Kaibara are quick to deride meals prepared with anything but the very finest ingredients and techniques that no mere mortal could hope to achieve. This level of perfectionism contributes a little dramatic value (competitions are typically won or lost on the extravagance of the ingredients) while adding a very discouraging undertone to many of the stories -- intentional or not, the moral of a lot of Oishinbo seems to be that you shouldn't even bother trying to prepare traditional Japanese dishes unless you've gone through years of training.
That said, if you approach Oishinbo as a lecture in Japanese culture rather than a coherent story or practical cooking advice, it's very entertaining on that level. With that caveat, I do recommend this volume of Oishinbo to readers who come in with proper expectations.