The first time I entered an izakaya (Japanese pub) in Manila, I was quite surprised that they had a small bookshelf filled with manga. Back then, I was appalled that they didn’t have Prince of Tennis or Naruto but they did have a treasure trove of classic manga which, back then, I honestly didn’t care for. While I ignored many of the titles, I did notice volumes of comics that had food on the cover. What was strange was that when I went to another izakaya, there they were again. And again. And again. Even when I went to Japan, I saw that shops that kept this manga within reach and for a good while I thought that it must be some food manga bible.
And you know what, it probably is.
This title had tackled more than just cooking. It spoke of the best preparation, the finest ingredient, the humblest of meals, and the power of food. Oishinbo was more than just a passing read while waiting for your food in an izakaya. It was a food epic.
Oishinbo as an epic
What makes something epic? If I’m going with the basics, an epic is a story that contains a narrative that consists of a hero who struggles through some grand adventure or drama that spans for a long period of time. Wiki says that epics should majestic depictions of the hero’s world and struggles!
Oishinbo is a story of a food hero who continually struggles with flavors both small and grand in nature. This comic captures a good part of his adult life, and of course, depicts in detailed and majestic images the food highlighted in the chapter. It is an epicurean’s epic, probably the only one we’ll ever know.
When a title of a manga involves a mashup of two Japanese foodie words – oishii for delicious and kuishinbo for glutton, you know you’re bound for something tasty to read. Big Comic Spirits1 published Oishinbo by Tetsuya Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki in 1983. God knows if these two guys knew that they’ll be writing this manga for 29 years. What they were sure about is that they’ll never run out of stories about food.
The 1980s was prosperous time for Japan. The growth of Japan’s economic wealth encouraged their gastronomical curiosities and developed their gourmet scene. Various restaurants from French, American, Chinese and Indian were popping up in Japan and people wanted to have the taste for the finest. The most successful of salarymen would dine on foie gras or a kaiseki. Blue collared workers would turn to Korean horumon or Chinese fare. People were searching for the best food to eat and Oishinbo was the comic right at the heart of Japan’s Gourmet Boom.
Shiro Yamaoka is the protagonist of this delicious manga. He’s a slacker of a journalist but he has a palette that can distinguish the subtle differences of tomatoes and dashi. His partner is a girl who shares his sensitive tastes, Yuuko Kurita. After a winning a blind tasting of tofu and water, they both got assigned by Tozai News’ Arts and Culture department to find the Ultimate Cuisine for the newspaper’s centennial anniversary.
Each chapter of Oishinbo takes you into a culinary adventure — from the humblest of homes to the most extravagant restaurants. It features not only Japanese food but also famous international gastronomical hotspots like France, Italy, and India. Like Kurita and Yamaoka, the chapters teacher you ingredients, techniques, inspiration, and some more as you witness the meals their having. One would think that at one point, they’ll eventually run out of food to talk about. However, their 108 volume run in Japan is a litany of not just Japan’s but the world’s culinary treasures.
Beyond food, there’s an intricate on-going plot that is hardly exhausted in the ala carte editions — the stubborn pride of son and father. Consider this the ‘epic tragedy’ of this comic. The dimensions of Yamaoka and Kaibara’s relationship definitely deserve a longer entry however when neither one backs down in a food battle, you know that gastronomy’s achieving greater things. These two men take pride in their craft and their palate. Yamaoka may appear like an idiot in front of his father, but their relationship is a proof that there is no such thing as right or wrong, most especially in food.
And yes, this rivalry too goes on for 108 volumes in Japanese.
The manga follows a timeline that grew old with its characters. Unlike most stories where age feels irrelevant, Oishinbo treasures the aging of its characters and the how the changes in their lives affected the way they appreciated food. You can see how young Kurita started in the series and seems to have matured in other chapters. This series started with Kurita as a bright single office lady. Midway through the comic, Yamaoka marries her. Right now, they have kids and Kaibara and Yamaoka still ‘hate’ each other’s guts. They really never resolved this tension not that this tension was fully important in the manga. As the manga goes on you become less involved with the characters and more involved with the food. Reading the manga at length with the Japanese editions made me appreciate the characters a little more. However, at the end of the day, I really just wanted to know how the hell can you get matsutake from the sea.
The Politics of Food in Oishinbo
In Oishinbo, food is power. It can build friendships. It can make enemies. It can move our spirits and shape our relationships with people. It can even push people to think about international policies. It can even save a species. Oishinbo manga is a litany to the power of food and how a meal can be beyond sustenance.
Power comes with pride and Oishinbo highlights what a dish should be proud of. You can see how a chapter pays attention to the freshness of its ingredients or the meticulous preparation of the dish. It’s not just a matter of throwing everything to the pot because in Oishinbo, every ingredient has a story to tell.
Is there a difference between a freshly cut bamboo shoot against those bought in the market? Will any tea do for ochazuke? Is foie gras the most luxurious flavor on earth? Yamaoka and friends will definitely convince you that there’s another world of flavor we have to discover as long as we play with ingredients. If you’re brave enough to take their cue in Oishinbo, I’m quite sure you’ll be excited about eating again.
Do you have to read its entirety to appreciate Oishinbo? Not really. As supplementary material for many drifters lounging in izakaya, Big Comic published ala carte editions, a compilation of chapters based on a particular culinary theme. From rice to sake, these ala carte editions captured the best of Oishinbo. Fortunately, the English editions have translated the Japanese cuisine themed editions. There are Western cuisine themed editions as well so don’t think that this manga is all about Japanese food. What’s interesting in these ala carte editions is that Tetsuya Kariya manages to share his own story about the themes. While some might feel it’s just an old man prattling, in these essays you can definitely feel Kariya’s passion for food.
These editions are fun to read, it can be a bit confusing as characters come and go and the protagonist necks become wider. A lot of things do happen in between chapters thus if you’re looking for continuity, then by all means, grab all the 108 volumes.
This comic is such a phenomenal success in Japan that it had an anime, a drama, and some video games. But more importantly the comic was pivotal in developing this comic genre that we’re all celebrating this week. While there were other food manga before Oishinbo, it was this title that sparked the gluttonous yet delicious foodscape of Japan.
Throughout this week, I hope folks discover their inner oishinbo and enjoy the community’s servings of food and manga!
Brau, Lorie. “Oishinbo’s Adventure in Eating: Food, Communication, and Culture in Japanese Comics.” In Manga: An Anthropology of Global and Cultural Perspectives , edited by Toni Johnson-Woods, 77-92. New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
- The Japanese Magazine behind Urasawa’s Monster and 20th Century Boys [↩]