Oishinbo is something of a cultural oddity here in the United States. It follows a sultry, gourmet journalist Shiro Yamaoka and his girlfriend/wife Kurita Yuko in their quest to create the Ultimate Menu, which has been commissioned for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Tozai News. Shiro is a slacker cynic, but has an incredibly refined palate, and so along the way to the completion of this menu McGuffin, Yamaoka teaches his friends and colleagues the finer points of just about every type of food.
Shiro isn’t all-knowing – his knowledge and attitude kept in check by his father, a potter virtuoso and elite gastronome. The two constantly fight, and occasionally the old man gets a few past his son. This tension keeps the story engaging, and this tension makes Oishinbo a great comic instead of it being more of a illustrated Japanese food encyclopedia.
The artistry of the book comes in two forms – the depictions of the food and background, and the depiction of the characters. The characters have been drawn simply, without much thought to shading and more complex lines. In fact, it looks as though each character could be drawn in a minute or less. This isn’t to say that the art is poor – just simple. The simplicity allows Akira Hanasaki to bring attention to the gorgeous food portrayal. Each bowl of ice-chilled sashami, each grain of rice, each fish, is drawn with immaculate care. It makes the food jump off the plate.
There are a few issues I have with Oishinbo. The version that we have here in the USA is, of course, not the beginning of the series. It is an a la carte selection of the best chapters of the 100+ volume seinen manga. When you select different chapters out of a long running manga, you cut out chunks of time – in each chapter, we see the characters at different stages of life. There is no continuity. Furthermore, Kurita and Shiro, over time, it appears, go through a courtship and marriage. We lose all sight of this important part of the story because in one chapter, they’re just acquaintances from work, in another, they are married, and in a later chapter, they are courting.
Additionally, Oishinbo loves to toot the Japanese horn. At least in this first volume, foreigners are generally considered ignorant, clutzy, and foolish, while everyone praises the Japanese style of cooking. It ends up being rather nationalistic, which, in its own way, is fine, because it’s about Japanese cooking, but the portrayal of different view-points is remarkably narrow. The writing can also be a bit preachy at times, and it flirts with the line between educational and snobby. Still, there is a lot to learn between each cover of Oishinbo.
Overall, there is a lot to love about Oishinbo. The engaging characters, the beautiful food, and most importantly, the ability to learn about Japanese cuisine, make it a great read.
Great. Now I’m hungry for sashimi.