Iron Wok Jan! Volume 1
This cooking manga by Shinji Saijyo is gloriously and gleefully over-the-top, with similarities to the popular Iron Chef TV series. Jan Akiyama is a talented young chef who unfortunately knows just how skilled he is. Trained by his grandfather, a legendary “master of Chinese cuisine”, his ego is his biggest battle to overcome in understanding just what cooking is all about. He thinks it’s all a competition, demanding he always be the best. Winning is all that matters to him, so much so that he forces battles even in everyday situations. It’s not enough for him to win; others must lose, often in a humiliating way.
He ends up working at Gobancho, Tokyo’s finest Chinese restaurant. The owner’s granddaughter, Kiriko, is also a very talented chef who’s internalized the reputation of the family business. She represents the importance of a good heart in great cooking, which brings her into direct conflict with Jan.
Iron Wok Jan! Volume 1 begins with Kiriko showing her speed and elegance in making fried rice. It’s treated almost as a sporting event, with her demonstration gathering a crowd of kitchen workers to ooh and ahh over her proficiency. The classic style of competition manga features a unique and dedicated lone individual winning through many battles to demonstrate his mastery. This theme is usually applied to some kind of fighting or martial arts, but here, it’s all about food.
Late one night, after the kitchen has closed, Jan storms into the restaurant, carrying his bedroll and pans on his back, demanding food. Kiriko demonstrates her dedication by making her best for him even given his bad behavior. He responds to her efforts by complaining about three grains of rice stuck together. He takes over the kitchen, convincing everyone he’s drunk or insane, but the wise head chef allows him to proceed. Jan is the new chef in training, but his way of introducing himself doesn’t endear himself to anyone, especially when he tops off the evening by announcing his superiority and denigrating the restaurant. It’s worse because he really can out-cook and outsmart most all of them.
The discussion of food preparation is a unique contribution to American comics. Reading about how Jan has accomplished things — dishes, techniques, combinations — no one else could is fascinating and borders on unbelievable. Even when the food is something completely unfamiliar, or even gross, the meals illustrate Japanese virtues. Much is made of simple dishes requiring the most talent. The food is judged on presentation, harmony, texture, and history, as well as taste.
To continue the dramatic feel, the characters are drawn as caricatures. The near-demonic Jan portrayed on the cover indicates the depth of his desire to achieve mastery. He’s always drawn with freakishly piercing eyes, and he often has a wide open shouting mouth with pointed fangs. Kiriko is also exaggerated, with huge breasts, bigger than her head, straining against her chef’s outfit. It’s an impossible look for a teenage girl, but it continually reminds the reader of the gender difference between her and the other cooks. Similarly, the restaurant owner is troll-like, with Marty Feldman-style bulging eyes, while Takao, another trainee, provides naive and goofy comic relief.