story by Tetsu Kariya; art by Akira Hanasaki
published by Viz; $12.99 US
It’s something of a paradox to me: I enjoy the Oishinbo volumes even more if I like the food less. With something like Sushi or Gyoza, I suspect I’m distracted by the food. Here, with Vegetables, I found myself surprised by how appetizing some of these dishes sounded … especially the ones that would be most difficult to recreate, since they used unusual (for the U.S.) ingredients or techniques.
Plus, there’s a bit more of a point of view here, with a political stance taken on farming techniques, as well as the first time I’ve felt sympathetic towards Yamaoka’s father, as his son reacts ungraciously to a favor.
The first (of 8) stories in this volume is the longest and brings the competition between Yamaoka and his father into sharpest relief. It’s a direct battle to prepare the best vegetable dish, and it starts in the fields. Pesticides and herbicides are called out for poisoning the food they’re used on, and cabbages and turnips grown organically will be used as the ingredients. Many of the characters, upon first tasting these naturally grown veggies, marvel at how much better they taste than the food they’re used to. Exploring the entire food chain also gives the battle more gravitas, more sense of fighting to create great art instead of just a father/son spat. (The pesticide question is returned to in a later chapter, with a debate between an environmentalist and a conservative who bullies those who disagree with him.)
The settings also help vary the art, giving us more to look at than people talking over dishes of food. The characters’ passion also displays itself visually through emotional reaction. Dad very often really does know better, having gained experience over his longer life. He knows how to focus on a key ingredient, shedding new light on its purity, instead of merely using it in a fancy dish. It’s a shame that he’s unable to educate his son — but showing him up only makes his resentful, unable to take in the lesson. That’s human nature, to find it hard to admit we can learn things from those we dislike.
Dad making snide remarks about “some idiots… just don’t seem to realize that” doesn’t help, of course. They’re both so much like each other in their pettiness and need to have others recognize their genius. Even when the father tries to be nice, making himself look bad to give his son another chance to remedy a mistake, neither one of them can be gracious about it. Dad snaps at the judges, and the son just gets madder at the unwanted help, especially after the father rubs in how he plans to win anyway. The end result, the two screaming at each other, makes for exaggerated drama and amusing art.
It’s that universal, basic conflict that kept this series running for decades, combined with the mouth-watering description of out-of-the-ordinary plates and dishes. The deep tension of the father/son relationship and the high art of assembling the best menu ever are both lightened by shorter chapter stories with simpler, heart-warming endings. The messages in some of the other stories are similarly reassuring: Yamaoka gets a winning concept from the home country cooking of a friend’s mother, reinforcing the sentimental value of family and homeland.
One of the chapters is particularly timely, as a young, high-rising entrepreneur finds himself bankrupt and rediscovers the joy of time with his family and simple food. In another, a kid learns to eat eggplant, which he previously disliked, when stir-fried in oil (a method that I imagine makes any vegetable better). Another picky child becomes a happy eater when given organic country food. A couple, torn apart by their successful careers, is reunited over asparagus.
I found the one about having bean sprouts for lunch to teach kids to stop bullying a bit of a reach, but its silliness lightens the mood. Funniest for me, though, was the one in which Yamaoka and his co-workers are asked to pick the best book about food. Yamaoka, typically contrary, refuses:
Food is meant to be eaten–not read. It’s only annoying to read about how other people are eating good stuff.
Yes, that’s the most frustrating thing about this series… too many beautiful illustrations of yummy-sounding dishes that I’ll never taste. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)