Japanese food is a mystery for many. We are perplexed by the vulgarity of eating raw fish but at the same time we wonder how croquettes (korokke) and curries (kare-) are part of their cuisine. Japan is where hamburgers are best as hamburgs and fast food fare involves a triangle-shaped rice. Their food will always be strange to the point that we consider it exotic. What is stranger is that this oddest of cuisines has a comic genre of their own.
I’m not talking about the occasional mention of a hot packed lunch on a roof top. Nor am I talking about those nervous Valentines where girls line up to buy chocolates for their loved ones. What I am talking about are the hundreds of titles with thousands of volumes dedicated in exploring new flavors, experimenting cooking techniques, and sharing delicious food with everyone.
Food manga is the love child of Japan’s rich gastronomy and exciting comic culture. Personally, I think it is one of the best comic genres in Japan. It only becomes the worst when I read a food manga when I’m hungry.
A Quick History
The earliest food manga is Mochizuki Michiya’s Totsugeki Ramen which came out in Shounen Jump No. 9 in 1970. According to Mochizuki, it was very experimental as no one had really tackled food and fighting together (and this manga fought in the Russo-Japanese war!) It’s a comic that used food as a revolutionary way for fighting. And while I haven’t read the comic myself, my impression from this interview was that it looked at how food became a supplement for many struggling people. After Totsugeki Ramen, Shounen Jump released another title, Hochounin Ajihei, in the 1973, this time capturing a young boy’s ascent in the cooking world. The series lasted until 1979 and I assume, like every other SJ hero, this young boy emerged victorious.
Hagio Moto’s Cake Cake Cake had a melodic approach to cooking and is considered a pivotal title for the genre because it introduced many elements that became essential in food manga. The comic is a story of a girl who fell in love with French sweets and in eating such sweets, I hear, she bursts into a song. Hagio was the first person to dedicate panels for people’s reactions upon eating food. These ‘reaction shots’ have become a standard in food. The absence of these reaction shots is like watching Nigella Lawson eat all these awesome food without saying how delicious they are. Hagio knew the importance of these thus we can now curse a lot of food manga for making us believe that what they’ve cooked up taste amazing. Beyond that, Hagio also drew the earliest ‘cooking battles’ in manga. Now, isn’t it amazing how she was also behind the development of this genre? While this may have been forgotten by the coming heavyweight that’s coming in the 80s, I think it’s nice to look back and appreciate her contribution to this genre. That woman is definitely one comic genius.
Ordering Food Manga
If you think that manga in itself has a diverse genre, then food manga is just as diverse as the medium. There’s food manga in shounen (like Toriko and Yakitate!! Japan), shoujo (Kitchen Princess and Hatsukoi Lunch Box), seinen (Cooking Papa and Oishinbo), josei (Antique Bakery and Oishii Kankei) and so on.
After the 1970s, there was a boom in food manga which was a response to Japan’s Gourmet Boom. Japan had lots of money in the 80s and beyond fancy suits and elegant dresses, Japan’s new rich wanted to have a finer taste in life. Thus, along with the birth of excellent restaurants and luxurious depachika1, the comic industry started to embrace food as well.
I’ve been fortunate to access a food manga library in our university and as I’ve learned from its “curator” there are four types of food manga, in general. These four types would be Ryouri Manga (Cooking Manga), Tabe Manga (Eating/ingredient manga), Gurume manga (Gourmet Manga), and Nomi manga (Drinking manga). These are very loose types but according to him, it’s useful when asking comic shop owners/staff for suggestions on what kind of manga you’re looking for.
Ryouri manga (料理漫画) is dedicated to cooking. These comics often discusses the process and purpose of cooking, and of course, how delicious the meal tastes. At times it will focus on ingredients and how best to prepare them. Most of the time, ryouri manga have recipes to their dishes so that people can have the chance to cook and eat the dishes. There are even some real chefs who share their personal stories and how they actually achieved their success. The best samples of this genre are Cooking Papa, Yakitate!! Japan and Addicted to Curry.
Tabe manga (食べ漫画) has two aspects to it. For one, tabe can mean tabemono. Tabemono means food in general, (and you’re like whut? isn’t everything food manga?) but it also means comics that dedicate itself to ingredients or the meal itself and how they have the power to move us. “U” is a comic about nothing but the author’s experience and memories in eating uni. Shinya Shokudo examines the favorite dishes of its diners and looks at how this has changed them. Gin no Saji (Silver Spoon) and Moyashimon fall under this genre as well, however, they’re part of this emerging genre referred to as noumanga (農漫画), comics that deal with produce and food production on a much smaller agricultural scale. The second dimension of tabe is taberu, to eat. These manga are more about the experience and memories that come with dining. It’s all about how the food moves us, like how it moved prisoners in Gokudo no Meshi.
Gourmet manga (グルメ漫画) is the manga for restaurant foodies! These comics either visit actual restaurants in Japan (like Ekiben Hitoritabi & Not Love but Delicious Foods) or they can simply share stories that revolve around restaurant life (like Oishii Kankei).
The last of the lot is nomimanga (飲み漫画) which is a comic about drinks and it seems to be trendy as of late. This type encompasses wine, tea, or coffee. I have yet to see one on just water. For people who enjoy drinks of all kinds, this genre can teach you which drinks match with particular food pairings or the history behind a drink. You can also have a glimpse of how particular drinks are made and the various politics involved in their creation. Drops of God and Bartender are some of the more popular titles under this type. But some manga not dedicated solely to drinks have also tackled a drink or two in their chapters.
Most food manga fall under at least two or three of these types. At times, a gourmet manga will talk about drinks. Sometimes, a cooking manga will talk about ingredients and go wax poetic over how it’s eaten. Regardless of what type they are, at their heart, they just wish for us to appreciate the food that we eat.
What’s interesting though is that there’s actually a manga that has all these types under its belt. Perhaps the reason why these subgenres have emerged is because there was this manga that actually showed its readers that there’s more to food than just sustenance. This title is no other than Oishinbo, a manga that has helped shape Japan’s palette. But we’ll leave that for later!
Cwiertka, Katarzyna J. Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power, and National Identity. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2006.
- Basements of deparment malls. This usually contains local food fare and special culinary knick knacks [↩]