Publisher’s description: In a savage world ruled by the pursuit of the most delicious foods, it’s either eat or be eaten!
While searching for the tastiest foods imaginable, Gourmet Hunter Toriko and his bottomless stomach travel around the world facing every beast in his way. When Toriko is hired to capture the rare and delicious Puffer Whale, he’s going to require some help. In order to remove the Puffer Whale’s poison Toriko will need to track down his old friend and fellow gourmet hunter, Coco, but will this team be enough to beat the other dangerous hunters to the prized ingredient?
There’s two kinds of shows, for the most part, on the basic cable Food Network. From the beginning, it’s been a channel dominated by the cooking show as invented by Julia Childs: engaging, knowledgeable host makes cooking and recipes both fascinating and accessible at the same time. Then there’s the contest shows, in which various skilled chefs compete against themselves and each other to produce the most delicious, conceptually stunning food possible. Whether cozy or over-the-top (Sarah Moulton vs. Guy Fieri), crazy or deadly serious (Outrageous Food vs Iron Chef), they’re all on a spectrum of the same two basic concepts.
This same division exists in cooking manga. Kitchen Princess is about a young, plucky gal whose intuitive approach to cooking and incredible charm make for an inviting, warm, and exciting cooking-based manga. Iron Wok Jan’s diabolical anti-hero takes on all possible cooking opponents with maniacal culinary concoctions—bizarre, yes, but grounded in real cuisine (particularly Chinese).
So, then, how to categorize Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro’s Toriko? It reads like a cooking manga from Buronson and Tetsuo Hara, the creative team behind the classic Fist of the North Star—all visual macho and powerful secret techniques—by way of Akira Toriyama. (Actually, Shimabukuro’s art laid bare for me a connection I’d missed before: I’d always seen Rumiko Takahashi in Toriyama’s early Dragonball art, and DBZ’s evolution of style as just a sui generous extension of the power inherent in the narrative. But in Toriko, where Shimabukuro borrows from the visual stylings and lexicon of so many that have come before, I see the link between Toriyama’s early Takahashi touches and his later nods to Tetsuo Hara.) The world of Toriko is not designated post-apocalyptic, but it bears all the signposts of that nature: brutal creatures, oddball social structures, and individuals whose raw power and cunning allows them to roam the landscape abusing or taming it as they choose.
And this is where the cooking comes in. The title character is a Gourmet Hunter, a class of select individuals with enough strength and discernible palate to subdue the monstrous bestiary of a landscape and marshal its culinary possibilities. Put another way, every mean-ass creature out there is delicious if you know how to properly hunt, kill, prep and cook it, and everybody around loves their extreme cuisine—such that they will pay top dollar for the most dangerous, possibly-poisonous, intensely flavorful foods. The Gourmet Hunters, then, are the badasses who can pull off this mean feat.Which brings me back to the cooking show—what is this even comparable to?
If you’ve ever seen any show starring Anthony Bourdain, you have an inkling of Toriko’s approach to food and cooking manga. The website for his Travel Channel show No Reservations, states its purpose is to:
“…explore every corner of the globe… [to] encounter the weird, wild and downright outrageous personalities and places that help define the international cultural landscape. Whether it’s eating the raw eyeball off a bloody seal carcass on a kitchen floor, flying through the treetops of Vancouver on a zip-line, or hunting for lizards in the desert of Saudi Arabia, Bourdain refuses to yield to middle age or tar-stained lungs when adventure comes calling.
“However, it’s the foreign food that best captures our host’s attention. In the world of a cook, an understanding and appreciation of how others eat is akin to discovering secret societies and cryptic subcultures. Cooks have special access. As always, the food is only the first glimpse of a wider view of how people live their lives in faraway lands and unfamiliar territories.”
This is cooking as high-octane, testosterone-fueled adventure, cooking as quest for the extreme. So, too, is Toriko. Whether embodied by the title character, or by Coco, his boon companion, designing the perfect meal isn’t so much the job of a master caterer but the ultimate test of a man’s (and I use that term purposefully–there’s not a single female Gourmet Hunter even mentioned in this volume) ability to overcome all dangers, both human and natural, to subdue creation, to bend the very fabric of the world to their wants and desires. Yes, my description is over-the-top, and in a certain sense, suits Shimabukuro’s hyper-masculine approach. Seen as cooking manga, Toriko is crazy, muscular, hairy and weird.
However, in truth, it is much like those three-sided buildings with the thirty-degree corner. When you see it from one angle, it looks bizarre and architecturally impossible. Seen from another angle, you realize there’s nothing strange about it—you were just making the wrong assumptions. This is not a cooking manga, really. It revels in the same language and understanding of the world as the Bourdain show: whether we inhabit a freakish landscape of alien cuisine (Bourdain eats raw eyeballs off bloody seal carcasses, Toriko slayes a multi-headed poisonous monster the size of a large elephant and keeps the meat to savor later) or negotiate unknown and cultish social groups (Bourdain discovers secret societies and cryptic subcultures through eating, Toriko’s friend Coco reads men’s minds and foretells the future through the foods they’ve eaten). In other words, it’s straight up adventure shonen manga of the last decade, comparable storywise in shape and form to the likes of Weekly Shonen Jump or Weekly Shonen Magazine features (it originally appeared in WSJ, but reminds me also of Fairy Tails, which is a WSM feature).
Of course, it may seem at this point as if I’ve stated something completely obvious from the cover design alone. Put another way, did I just come full circle to a point of “no duh?” Maybe. I work through all of this to lay out some of what makes Toriko compelling. On the surface, it’s strange and wonderful, seemingly robust with fresh concepts, grounded by the core notion of a cooking manga in which the very act of acquiring the ingredients for a fantastic meal pits you against all the horrors of a monstrous world. But then, after a bit, you peel back the layers and it seems very formulaic, from the stories to the art. And maybe that’s unfair—Toriko is not so much formulaic as it is completely bound by the conventions, both artistic and narrative, as established by the last twenty years of shonen manga. Finally, I circle back around, because I find that, just because I can see where Toriko’s coming from, and just because I can guess where it’s going, doesn’t mean it’s not compelling.
Yet undeniably, despite all my wrangling over Toriko’s structural and genre charms, there is the straight up fact that there are almost no female characters here. Again, I ask myself, is that just a distillation of everything shonen? Or is it, in the end, a clear failure on Shimabukuro’s part? I mean, this violent, brutal land of Toriko is expressly apocalyptic if there’s no women at all, not even cardboard clichés dotting the world in which they operate. I counted 4 panels with women in them, consisting of one scene where they appear, like a secretion of the landscape, out of nowhere to fawn over Coco. It’s like they’re not even so much cliches of women but signposts of the world-wearying awesomeness that haunts Coco.
In the end, I find that, despite its charms, Toriko doesn’t hold up to more than a fast, disposable read. There’s no “there” there; at least, not one that cannot be found, done better, elsewhere.