Like every volume of this series, this one draws from multiple stories across nearly three decades of the manga. Viz is looking at an ongoing manga with so much history they’ve given up any hope of reprinting it volume by volume here in the US. Instead, they’ve decided to collect various stories based on subject. This does two things: it at once intensifies the “foodie-ness” and dilutes the narrative flow. When a volume is entirely about certain aspects of Chinese cuisine and how these things affect everything from romance to international relations, you cannot help but see the world as entirely consumed with and by food.
On the other hand, when a volume leaps around through time, as this one does due to its having the double subjects of ramen and pot stickers, you lose any vital sense of the broader arcs of who the characters are and what their relationships are or where they are going. These are the obvious results of messing with the original format, but there’s subtle ways that this format skews the manga. But before I get to that, let’s talk about some of the straightforward stuff.
Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki have been creating Oishinbo stories continually for nearly thirty years. Have I said that enough already? But here’s the reason to reiterate it: Spread a character over thirty years and what do you usually get? Either lots and lots of sameness or too much change. One of the amazing things here is the consistency of character. Shiro Yamaoka is solidly himself, his through line from beginning story to end is consistent and strong from the first story to the last. The same can be said for the secondary, tertiary, even the incidental repeating characters—their ongoing personal stories are woven in and out of Oishinbo with a finesse rarely found in comics.
Actually, what it reminds me of the most is a comic strip. Think of an American comic like, say, Spider-Man, where Peter Parker is either nothing like the character so clearly defined by Lee and Ditko, or he has gone nowhere, developed not one whit since those early, vital stories that first made the character, and the series, worth reading. Or even a manga like DragonBall and all its children, where Goku and pals cycle endlessly through the same struggles—not that this isn’t exactly what we love DB for. But would you expect a dozen or so episodes of Goku facing off against Piccolo, pulled from across the hundreds of chapters of Dragonball to hold up strung together like that? But in certain permutations of the American comic strip, particularly in ones like Doonsbury, or For Better or Worse, or even alternative strips like Dykes to Watch out For or Ernie Pook’s Comeek, years and years, sometimes decades of stories allow for character development that slowly accrues in the background of the ongoing daily, weekly push of humorous narrative.
Similarly, Oishinbo never loses sight of its primary mission: the constantly entertaining culinary edification of the reader, and yet, like water finding its level, story seeps into the cracks between, behind, and around the explanation of how to make the best ramen ever. I still have problems with this structure, however. Two problems, both of which detract from the volume.
First, the conflict between Yamaoka and his father either is completely ridiculous in the amount of time and space it takes up in the series OR the two of them argued much more about ramen and gyoza than any other food. Somehow, I feel like neither is true, in which case this volume isn’t exactly representative, as the two of them battle in over half the stories within. And if it is representative, then this sampling affects the feel of that relationship—from volume to volume, the structure traps the father-son conflict in a vicious cycle of never escaping the past, always returning to ground zero. The other problem is the art. Hanasaki’s style changes pretty dramatically over the course of the series, and it’s distracting. The difference isn’t one that you would even necessarily notice drawn out over a generation of stories, but laid side by side, it wrenches you right out of the story.
Ultimately, I think this is a very fun, very interesting series for foodies. But, while the quality of the writing and the art are solid, there’s nothing about this series that raises it above the genre. If you love cooking manga, and I do, then you’ll really enjoy Oishinbo, but if you’re just looking for a quality manga on par with other works from Viz’s Signature line, I think Oishinbo falls short as a series. By all means, buy a volume or two, but you might find that, after one of these ala cartes, you’ve had your fill.