story by Tetsu Kariya; art by Akira Hanasaki
published by Viz; $12.99 US
A new volume of Oishinbo is an event at my house. I love tucking into the large, thick volume after making sure I’ve had a satisfying dinner — otherwise, I’d spend the whole time reading with my tummy rumbling.
I expected this fourth entry to cover the cuisine most identified with Japan in the Western world: sushi. The subjects of previous books, sake and ramen, are familiar to many readers, but they’re more likely to have experienced authentic Japanese seafood than noodles or alcohol. However, many of the dishes described here are much more exotic than simple raw fish!
The first chapter is set at the opening of a luxurious company guesthouse, where the CEO wants to demonstrate his skills by preparing live sushi, slicing up a living fish. Only a young boy is willing to point out the emperor’s lack of clothes, that the CEO’s showmanship doesn’t necessarily make for a tasty dish. Our hero Yamaoka, with his distaste for pushy authority, backs the child up by demonstrating that showy display doesn’t always provide freshness.
The second chapter once again faces Yamaoka up against his estranged father, as they argue about whether great sashimi can be made with low-class fish. Yamaoka is interested in the best taste and experience, regardless of perception, while Dad has a gourmet reputation to maintain. Usually, although Yamaoka does well, he’s shown up by his dad, just to keep him in his place, so it’s refreshing to see a different take on their rivalry here.
By the next story, the two men are directly competing again, this time to make tempura. (Oh, my mouth is watering.) Yamaoka thinks the best ingredients, prepared skillfully, will make for a winning dish, but the older man reminds him (and the reader) of the importance of emotional engagement with the eater. It’s a shame that Dad is so obnoxious about his knowledge, a trait that his son tends to share. They’re so similar that they easily know just how to annoy each other, guaranteeing that neither will listen.
But Yamaoka, although lazy, proud, and stubborn, has a good side, too, even if he sometimes has to be forcibly reminded of it, as in the Christmas story where he helps out at an orphanage, or when he works to reconcile a pupil with his own restaurant to his former master, or taking a teen unsure of his future on a fishing excursion.
There’s an additional kind of drama than father/son in the longest story in the book, a salmon contest. Yamaoka is jealous of the attention their boss pays to Kurita, his work partner and later wife. This story will likely cause the most consternation to a reader for a different reason, though: there’s a lengthy discussion of why the Japanese don’t eat salmon raw due to the risks of tapeworms or other parasites. For a sushi eater, this chapter is quite chilling, especially since salmon is a very common fish to get raw in the U.S.
The final story puts Yamaoka through a crisis of faith, as he questions the purpose of creating an Ultimate Menu to reflect the best in Japanese cuisine. It’s a great summary of the mission of this series — and gives an idea of why it’s been running for over 25 years in Japan.
Since many of the chapters are stand-alone stories, selected from across the history of the series, I find the volumes in this series to be substantial, lengthy reads. Characters are introduced briefly but with enough background to make them understandable; artistically, they range from detailed expression to caricature. Yamaoka is often drawn more simply than those around him, perhaps because the reader becomes most familiar with him. He’s beginning to resemble a cross between Elvis and a 50s J.D. punk, to my eyes.
The flourishes are saved for the dishes, with the fish, especially, drawn in detail. Panels concentrate on demonstrating technique — which in this book, often involves knives — dining table layout, and exaggerated expression as the cast gets worked up over whatever food quest they’re on. The storytelling is basic but sufficient, as the focus is on meals served and eaten. That makes it an easy read even for those not used to manga.
The larger size, typical of the Viz Signature line, makes it easier to hold the book while checking out the various endnotes explaining culture, technique, geography, and language. Two color pages at the front illustrate a recipe, Grilled Salmon Skin, that features in one of the book’s competitions. Given the topic, I expected a book full of dishes I could relate to, but this volume instead was the most exotic and unusual of the series so far.
Matthew Brady’s review has more art samples. A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.