Manga, like most western graphic storytelling forms, must overcome a preponderance of prejudices and stereotypes among American readers. In spite of (some might say because of) manga's success in American bookstores, the form is viewed as the exclusive territory of titles such as Naruto, Dragonball and OnePiece - male power fantasies with quirky (sometimes outright hallucinogenic) storytelling, frequent battles, and more speed lines than could ever be counted.
What a delight it is, then, when a manga publishing house as prominent as Viz Media decides to print something more than a little outside the norm, a title that seeks to educate more than titillate. That title is Oishinbo, and while it is new to America as of 2009, it has been published in Japan for over 25 years. There are literally hundreds of volumes and thousands upon thousands of pages in the Japanese Oishinbo catalogue, which no doubt created troubles for any company seeking to publish this work in America. Rather than meticulously translating, editing and reprinting each page from the very start of the Japanese series, Viz has opted for what they term the "A la Carte" approach - volumes compiled and heavily edited around a particular theme. Sometimes this approach works well, and other times it leaves a reader scratching his head. That is the price, I suppose, for attempting something ambitious and unique in the American manga market.
So, what is Oishinbo about? It's about food - specifically, Japanese cuisine - and the obsessions and aesthetics that drive Japan's culinary masters. But before you start thinking of this as nothing more than a heavily illustrated cookbook, you should also know that Oishinbo is about a young man and his relationship with his father, about the anger of youth and the cynicism of the aged, and about the quest for perfection. Don't expect any "Good Guys vs. Bad Guys" simplistic motifs. As is the case in real life, none of the characters in Oishinbo fits a neatly-designed cubicle.
The protagonist of the story, Yamaoka Shiro, is grumpy, pretentious, off-putting and occasionally brilliant. His background in the culinary arts, and his refined palate, have earned him the quest for the "Ultimate Menu," a lengthy newspaper assignment to assemble and create the most magnificent Japanese meal ever imagined. Shiro's antagonist is his father, Kaibara Yuzan. Yuzan is explosive, verbally abusive, passionate, and, like his son, utterly brilliant. There is much to like and to dislike about each of these men, and while the culinary lessons are intriguing, the human story of a rift between father and son is what lifts this work above its genre.
If it sounds as though I am gushing about Oishinbo, it's because I am. It's original, it's challenging, it's sublime - but it is not without its flaws. The main problem with this first volume lies primarily with Viz's decision to heavily edit this large work into discreet, bite-sized (no pun intended) chunks. While this first volume does a relatively good job of introducing some of the basics of Japanese cuisine (necessary knife skills, expected etiquette, and the tea ceremony, among others), it does so at the expense of character and conflict development. In culinary terms, Oishinbo: Japanese Cuisine is a pleasant and a somewhat unexpected appetizer, but if subsequent volumes follow the same pattern we will all be starving for a main course rather quickly.
Cross-posted at PastePotPete.