Oishinbo A La Carte, Vol. 2 (Sake)

By Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialization ongoing in the magazine Big Comic Spirits. Released in North America by Viz.

It’s time for the Oishinbo Manga Moveable Feast, and though I had already reviewed the final volume a long time ago (see sidebar), I thought that I would take this time to revisit another volume, one which got a lot of buzz when it first came out over here. That would be the one devoted to sake, Japan’s national alcoholic beverage. And so we get several chapters, including one long multipart epic, devoted to what makes good sake – and why so much of it these days is bad.

Given that Oishinbo is about singing the praises of Japanese food, it’s not particularly surprising that much of it involves praise for Japan in general. One chapter here involves a businessman who has been ‘Westernized’ and has to be reminded of the joys of good old Japanese cooking and liquor. That said, it’s rather startling how much of this volume is just ripping into Japan’s sake trade over and over again. I’ve no idea if things are the same these days (these chapters were written 15-25 years ago), but much is made over the fact that popular sake in Japan tends to be watered down in order to increase profit, and have additives such as charcoal and MSG. It can get fairly depressing.

That said, of course, you knock them down in order to build them up. We also get much praise of the good old-fashioned small-time sake brewer, still using pure ingredients with no additives and storing it properly to bring out the best flavor. There’s actually a lot of comparison with French wine, in a way that reminded me of The Drops of God – it’s noted that France would never treat its wine the way Japan does its sake.

In these Viz compilations, characterization usually falls by the wayside – the danger of working with a 108+ volume series – but we still get a good sense of the main players, which is important for a series like this. You have to sympathize with Yamaoka and Yuka, and care about their lives, as otherwise you’re left with nothing but a manga that lectures you. (Which, admittedly, it can sometimes be anyway.) Yamaoka shows off his cleverness in the final chapter, which reminds us that sake is still an alcohol, and that there are some people who abuse that. And Yuka really shines in the multi-part story, managing to sweet-talk Yamaoka’s father, Yuzan (this is actually a running thing in the series, and Yuka is very, very good at it – note Yuzan’s retainers giggling). There’s no romance here, but if you want that go lean Japanese and then buy the original Vol. 47, which has the wedding.

At the end of the day, though, the way to judge Oishinbo is by its ability to make you want to search out more. After this volume, I wanted some sake – just as I wanted to visit an Izakaya after the final Viz volume. Oishinbo may be about a battle between father and son, or a growing romance between colleagues, but that’s just the spice. The real meat of the manga is its love of food and its burning passion for it being cooked and served properly. And it’s something yoou can’t really get in North American Comics, either, though I’d love Batman’s recipe for crumble apple pie.

Oishinbo – Izakaya: Pub Food

By Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialization ongoing in the magazine Big Comic Spirits. Released in North America by Viz.

Ah, the final volume of Oishinbo Viz has planned. It’s been a great ride. I’ve certainly learned a lot more about food. And this volume is filled with little gems that make this series what it is.

One thing it doesn’t have, however, is a battle between Yamaoka and his father, Yuzan. I have to admit I’m almost relieved, as seeing those two screaming at each other can be very trying. Still, the battles were always exciting, and notably, in the ones we saw over here, our heroes lost most of them. It was very telling that youth does NOT beat experience in this manga most of the time.

The original manga is 103 volumes and still running, so Viz decided to release some volumes from Shogakukan’s reprints in Japan, which collect them into volumes separated by theme. (This particular reprint is Volume 12 in Japan.) This means that we’ve been treated to scattershot characterization, as we move from Yamaoka and Kurita being new colleagues on their paper to love rivalries to their marriage to their children without actually seeing a proposal, wedding, or birth.

However, even if the focus is always the food, we do still care about the characters, and we get some lovely final chapters here. One part I particularly liked was in a chapter dealing with Yamaoka getting offered a big job managing the food division of a multinational – one that comes with the string of his having to marry Mariko, who is Yuko’s rival for most of the first 45 volumes.

He is rather startled by this, and even more startled when a crushed Yuko (who is out on a date with Yamaoka’s own rival) suggests it would be good for his career if he married Mariko. We then cut to a shot of Yamaoka, Yuko, and the rival all looking depressed and upset, but (of course) not saying anything. Luckily, Yamaoka uses sardines to show that he would not feel right being handed a major food division just like that.

Another chapter takes place just after Yuko has delivered twin babies. She and Yamaoka are discussing naming them, and decide to split the name choices between them. It’s a surprise to see Yamaoka take this so seriously – but then, Japan places far more emphasis on a good name being absolutely necessary for a child’s development than the West would. Naming a child is serious business. Naturally, there’s a brief fight, but after some nice deep-fried oysters the children are named and all is well.

As you can see from those previous two examples, no matter how much characterization there may be, it’s all about the food. This volume is devoted to food related to the ‘izakaya’, the pub-like establishments seen all over Japan. They generally have more filling food than most regular old bars in Japan, but the food tends to be simple and uncomplicated, the better to reward a drunk salaryman after a long day.

And in a nice callback to a previous volume, we end the series with sake, as a young actor is having difficulty getting the right expression when he drinks sake on the set and needs Yamaoka to show him what the true joy of sake at an izakaya is like.

I’m very pleased that this series was brought over here, and even though it’s finished the format is such that Viz could do future volumes if they so choose (hint: sales would help this along). There are 48 reprint “a la carte” volumes in Japan, so they aren’t exactly running out of material. In the meantime, these volumes are an excellent overview of one of the most popular manga in Japan.