In a break from tradition, such as it is, I'm not going to talk about three series this week. Instead, I'm just going to focus on one that's been nagging at the back of my head for a little while now. "Oishinbo vol. 1: Japanese Cuisine," written by Tetsu Kariay and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, is one of the newest additions to Viz's "Signature" manga line, home to excellent series such as "Golgo 13," "Monster," "Vagabond," "Solanin," and more. As that small list indicates, the line isn't hurting for quality and even the series that fall into the "not quite as good" area, including "The Drifting Classroom," "Tekkonkinkreet," and "Uzumaki," still have some redeeming qualities and could at least be categorized as "interesting failures." So which one will "Oishinbo" be? If the first volume is any indication, then it's going to be the latter rather than the former.
First, some background: "Oishinbo" is one of a handful of mangas to run for over 100 volumes (others include "Jojo's Bizzare Adventure" and the aforementioned "Golgo 13"). It should go without saying that we're not getting all of them, so the version we are getting is an "A la Carte" sampler of some of the highlights of the series divided by menu. The thrust of the series is that as part of the Tozai News' 100th anniversary, its publishers have commissioned a project called the "Ultimate Menu" which will showcase the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine. The person they've assigned to head up the project is Yamaoka Shiro, your standard good-for-nothing layabout who nevertheless possesses the required taste and knowledge of food in order to make the project succeed. Each episode (so far) is a stand alone tale about Yamaoka and his crew exploring a different aspect of cooking relating to Japanese cuisine (in this volume) while overcoming some challenge. Be it teaching an American how to serve chilled sashimi, providing a visiting senator a better meal than a rival newspaper can offer, or proving the merits of Japanese cuisine to an arrogant food critic, the series finds some new angle in each story to introduce a new aspect of culinary thought.
Now while I don't have any interest in cooking in real life, it's still interesting to see the various cooking-related questions being set up and answered in each chapter. Seeing how smoking can affect a meal, how the salinity of seawater can affect how a fish tastes, and what the real merits of Japanese cooking are make for fairly effective ways of holding the reader's attention. Also, artist Akira Hanasaki gets the most important part of the book right: he makes the food look good enough to eat. Everything from the sushi, to the seabream looks good enough to eat, and even though I've never had most of the food they discuss in the book, I'd be willing to give it all a shot after reading about it (except for the natto).
Where "Oishinbo" falters is in the execution. Even if the questions and setups are intriguing, the ways in which they're resolved are about as dull as dishwater. Just about every story's resolution revolves around Yamaoka using his superior culinary knowledge to find the right way to cook something or to explain the merits or faults of someone else's cooking. The ones that don't, involve Yamaoka getting schooled by his way-beyond-arrogant-even-for-a-bad-guy father, Kaibara, in how things should've been done. Kaibara only has one dimension as a character, and that dimension is "violently unlikeable," so it's not a credit to this volume that half of the stories revolve around some kind of conflict to him.
But saying that there's "conflict" in this series implies excitement and drama... which are sadly lacking here. If you're of the opinion that cooking is an inherently dull activity, then this volume won't change your mind. All the stories here are presented in the calmest, most relaxing ways imaginable, usually lots of walking through rurual or traditional areas, and urban areas that seem drained of all life and energy. What's more is that while artist Hanasaki makes the food look good, his storytelling abilities begin and end at "competent." His storytelling is very easy to understand, he draws some nice outside areas, but everything is presented "as is," with no effort to add any kind of emotion to a scene. Finally, while some may like his cartoonish characters, I find their look to be more generic than anything else.
The further I got into this volume, the more one thought started to echo in my head: this is the anti-"Iron Wok Jan." While I've talked about Shinji Saijyo's manga masterpiece on the anime podcast, let me reiterate that I love his go-for-broke storytelling, and "Dr. House as Chinese Cuisine Chef" protagonist Jan. Granted, the extreme nature of Jan's characterization may be off-putting to some, Saijyo at least knows how to make it palatable in the context of his series by putting him up against chefs who are even more arrogant and devious than he is. (That said, Kaibara would never have cut it as a villain in "Jan," all of the bad guys there had at least two dimensions to them.) What I'm saying is that "Oishinbo" is the opposite of "Jan" in every way: loud, brash conflicts vs. low-key, quiet ones, an energetic and maniacal hero vs. a quiet, cynical one, and storyarcs that stretch over volumes vs. done-in-one stories. Now I can see how this easygoing sensibility has made it very appealing in Japan, but by going against everything that I liked about the other cooking-related series I've read, this one can't help but suffer in comparison. Of course, if you hated "Jan," then you'll probably be more receptive to "Oishinbo's" modest charms.
Its not in my nature to give up on a series after only one volume (unless it's a special brand of crap like "Arm of Kanon" or "Chunchu: The Genocide Fiend"), so I'll be sticking with the series to see if it gets better. To be honest, I might wind up picking up all of the "A la Carte" editions Viz will be releasing only because it'll encourage them to bring out more different, interesting manga for their Signature line. Two such titles, "Pluto" and "20th Century Boys" both by mangaka Naoki Urasawa, I received in the mail today. Just because I'm doing that doesn't mean any of you need to. Better to go spend your money on something you like rather than as a future investment in better titles from a company.
He's the creator of "Azumanga Daioh" and "Yotsuba&!," two series well worth your time.
That said, after we did the podcast, I came home and found some things out. Corrections/updates to the podcast follow after the break.
First off, Kiyohiko Azuma is really a guy. It's been generally assumed that because he draws really cute stuff and has a first name ending in the "-ko" suffix (usually reserved for girls) that "he" was really a "she." That's not the case, and we should've found this out before we did the podcast. So, my bad. *does the "my bad" dance*
The other thing is that Yen Press has only acquired the rights to volume six of "Yotsuba&!" Finding this out certainly diminishes some of the excitement that I had while recording the podcast, but there's some fun to be had in speculating why it's the only volume they've announced. I'm betting that either Azuma or Media Works (the company that publishes the series in Japan) is gunshy about licensing out the series again after the debacle that their relationship with ADV Manga turned into. So, they're only giving Yen rights to that one volume (plus the previous five, which I hear they're negotiating with what's left of ADV Manga for the rights to use their translations) to see how this shakes out.
Or, it could be that with what the economy the way it is, Yen is just putting out volume six to see if it'll still sell. I can't fault them for thinking like that, but I think they'll be pleasantly surprised once the volume is released. The series inspires a certain... "fervor" among a lot of anime and manga fans on the internet (there's a reason Yotsuba is one of the many mascots of 4chan) to the point where even if they've already read scanlations online, they'll pick up the print version because they love it that much.
Anyway, even if it does turn out to be just one volume, more "Yotsuba&!" is a good thing no matter which way you look at it. And if Yen Press does drop the ball... then I'll just go back to hoping that Dark Horse picks it up.
I don't plan things this way, but the stuff I picked up last week turned out to be three more volumes in series that I've been reading for a while. So while it goes without saying that none of these represent a good jumping on point for their series (well.. "Criminal" is a special case), I'll at least say that it would be well worth anyone's time to start reading them from the beginning. As for these particular volumes...
Berserk vol. 27
Guts learns the dangers and limits of the Berserker Armor firsthand, Sheirke bids a final farewell to her master, and our heroes' involvement in this part of the arc is wrapped up in the series traditionally bloodily entertaining fashion. (Though the stage is set for what's going to be a truly epic rematch between Guts and the Apostle everyone escapes from.) We're also treated to a glimpse at what's become of the capital of Midland, and what Griffith and his other Apostles have been up to in the meantime. This part has the whiff of filler about it, though a potentially interesting new wrinkle is introduced in the form of the King of Kushan. He's the only one of Griffith's Apostles who doesn't want to help his master rule the world -- as he's having too much fun ruling over half of it himself. I'm interested in seeing how this conflict will play out over the coming volumes, though the setup for the next stage of Guts' journey caps off this volume. All in all, another strong entry in the series.
Criminal vol. 4: Bad Night
If I covered up the "4" on the spine of the book and said that this was the first volume of a new crime series from writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips, it would be utterly believable once you started reading it. While the series stars Jacob, the ex-counterfeiter and current comic-strip artist from the "Lawless" arc, no prior knowledge of his exploits is necessary for enjoying this entry in the series. All you need to know is that it's about what happens when bad things happen to people of morally dubious character. And in the case of Jacob, he winds up getting forced back into counterfeiting when he comes between a petty thug and his girl. At stake is a huge payoff from the Chinese Triads to the FBI, but things quickly go from bad to worse once a cop with a vendetta against Jacob gets involved. As always, while you know things are going to go wrong for everyone involved, Brubaker always comes up with interesting ways for how that actually happens. Though the first three issues collected in this volume are exactly what, and as good as you'd expect from the series, it isn't until the final issue that you find out just how high Brubaker's ambitions were reaching here. I don't think it all works, but I'd still recommend this to anyone who likes a good crime story.
Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 21: War of the Symbiotes
Less a continuation in writer Brian Michael Bendis' ongoing saga of Peter Parker and company than an exercise in incorporating the "Ultimate Spider-Man" video game into regular continuity and getting Ultimate Venom back into play. I've only played a little of it, and while Bendis has said that it's part of the continuity of the series, it's never been really clear where exactly it sits in there. So, here's the story that "adapts and expands on the story of the game" (as said on the back cover) and it mostly reads like Bendis is getting everything in order so he can get back to telling the stories he wants to tell with this series. Fortunately his grasp of the characters is as rock solid as ever, and the interaction between Peter and Mary Jane, Aunt May, Eddie Brock, Nick Fury (who returns in a flashback and emphasizes what a mistake it was to have him shunted out of the Ultimate Universe), and the rest of the cast makes the grinding of the plot mechanics bearable. Not the best volume in the series, but still not bad.