Kariya's rants about Japanese culture are still interesting. The writing still needs tightening up.
Writer/Artist: Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki
Translation: Tetsuichiro Miyaki
Adaptation: Tetsuichiro Miyaki
What They Say
As part of the celebrations for its 100th anniversary, the publishers of the Tozai News have decided to commission the creation of the 'Ultimate Menu," a model meal embodying the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine. This all-important task has been entrusted to journalist Shiro Yamaoka, an inveterate cynic who possesses no initiative, but does have an incredibly refined palate and an encyclopedic knowledge of food.Each volume of Oishinbo follows Yamaoka and his colleagues through another adventure on their quest for the Ultimate Menu. Now, the best stories from the hundred-plus volume series have been selected and compiled into A la Carte editions, arranged by subject.
In this volume, the focus shifts from food to drink--specifically, to sake. For centuries different types of sake have played the same roles in Japan as wine and beer have in the West, from inexpensive everyday drink to refined single-batch rarities. Above all, sake has been enjoyed as an accompaniment to a meal, and after a revelatory moment at a local pub, Yamaoka decides that drink pairings must be an integral part of the Ultimate Menu. So which foods go best with which drinks? Sit down, pour yourself a glass, and read on!
Unlike the first volume of Oishinbo, which covered a mix of topics revolving around Japanese food, the six stories in Volume 2 deal just with alcohol (and mostly with sake). Again, each of the six "flights" are less narrative-driven stories than lessons in disguise; the plot is basically there to provide a flimsy setup for Yamaoka to educate other characters about the quality of sake and Japanese liquor, selecting a proper drink to go with certain dishes, and recognizing quality champagne. The closing chapter "A New Start", is the only one that doesn't go directly into the proper way to serve alcohol: instead, Yamaoka uses food and drink to convince (read: taunt) an unemployed alcoholic to return to work.
The most interesting story in this volume is the six-part "The Power of Sake" that makes up about half of the book's length. Where the one-chapter stories cover pretty simple (but still informative) lessons, "Power" discusses how post-World War II conditions in the sake brewing industry have virtually destroyed the domestic market for high-quality sake. He makes a compelling case that arcane tax statutes, shopkeeper ignorance, and ineffective industry regulations have contributed to a market where almost 95% of the sake sold is a substandard product filled with additives or made from rice byproducts. A big part of what makes this discussion so interesting is that Kariya obviously has a lot of knowledge and love for Japan's sake brewing tradition; but his zeal also sometimes comes off as snobbery aimed at the ignorant Japanese consumer, especially since his characters repeatedly argue that the French would never put up with such shady practices in their wine industry.
The loopy storytelling is also a big problem in this volume; "Power" is the worst offender, escalating from a straightforward discussion about dish/sake pairings to Yamaoka taking on bank officials and his father as part of a moral crusade to save the entire sake industry. (Just in case you think I'm exaggerating to poke fun at Kariya, Yamaoka's exact words are "[t]he future of sake itself is at stake here. We have to win in order to keep sake from being destroyed.") Even the simpler one-chapter storylines tend to stick to the contrived formula of Yamaoka demolishing life-long culinary prejudices through elaborate taste tests.
Despite the limitations of Oishinbo's formula, I'd say it's still worth a read; I'm just more lukewarm about this volume than the last.