~written by Tetsu Kariya
~illustrated by Akira Hanasaki
1987 Shogakukan Manga Award Winner
2010 Eisner Award Nominee
Oishinbo, A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine, written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, was the first Oishinbo collection to be released by Viz Media's Signature line in 2009. Oishinbo, which began publication in 1983 in Japan, is a long running manga that is currently up to one hundred four volumes and is still going. In 1987, the series won the Shogakukan Manga Award for General Manga and it has remained very popular throughout its publication. The Oishinbo, A la Carte collections are basically thematic "best of" compilations. While Japanese Cuisine was the first volume to be made available in English, technically it is the twentieth volume in the A la Carte series and was originally published in 2006. Between 2009 and 2010, Viz released seven of the A la Carte collections and the series received a nomination for the 2010 Eisner Award for Best U.S. Edition of International Material--Asia. I believe it was this nomination that first brought Oishinbo to my attention and when I learned it was about food there was no way I was going to pass up on the manga.
Japanese Cuisine collects ten stories exploring elements of Japanese food culture as well as brief commentary on the subject from the author Tetsu Kariya. The compilation focuses on elements of Japanese cuisine that make it distinct from others, extending beyond just the food itself to the entire dining experience and skills used in and needed for preparation. Japanese Cuisine features knife techniques, different styles and types of sashimi, rice, and tea, the importance of the food's presentation, proper etiquette, and the use of chopsticks among many other things. This variety makes for a good introduction to Japanese food culture and Oishinbo itself. And while fish is a prominent component in many of the stories--understandable since it is also a fairly prominent component in Japanese cuisine--the collection never really feels repetitive. The Viz edition of the manga also includes recipes and practical applications of the subjects covered.
Because Japanese Cuisine is a thematic compilation with stories taken from throughout the Oishinbo series, it is sometimes difficult to get a good feel for the overarching plot of the story and the book can feel a bit disjointed at times. However, each chapter or "course" selected fairs pretty well as short, mostly self-contained vignette. The editor's notes are also very useful in helping to keep the reader oriented and provide further enlightenment on the subjects addressed. In fact, the manga as a whole is both very informative and engaging. The creators' enthusiasm for food is obvious through the characters' own passion and the attention and care given to the portrayal of the various dishes. The amount of detail included in the food's illustration is one of the highlights of Akira Hanasaki's artwork. While I frequently find the character designs appealing, it's really the food that stands out--appropriate and certainly important for a manga about cuisine.
I'm not sure that Oishinbo would initially appeal to readers who aren't already interested in food or Japanese culture but it does make the subjects very approachable and for a foodie like me it's simply fantastic. In addition to all of the food talk there's plenty of drama (oh, the drama!) and it is amusing and thrilling to see people get so worked up and emotional about the things they are passionate. Granted, Shirō (the main protagonist) does come across as a bit of an ass much of the time, but he's nothing compared to his father who may be brilliant but who is a complete bastard. While Oishinbo is primarily a food manga, it is also about the intense relationships that the characters have with food and with each other. I really enjoyed Japanese Cuisine and learned quite a bit reading it in addition to being entertained by the story. I look forward to picking up the next volume, Sake, very much.