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.