Thursday, April 2, 2009

Oishinbo: The spirit of Japan can be found in drunkenness

Elsewhere: I've got a review of last week's all-drugging, all-tripping Dollhouse over at The Factual Opinion.

And: Arthur Magazine is serializing Farel Dalrymple's sequel to Pop Gun War (which I haven't read, but I would sure like to), so check that out.

Oishinbo A la Carte: Sake
Written by Tetsu Kariya
Art by Akira Hanasaki



There's a fairly complex story behind this long-running (very long-running, with over 100 volumes having been published since 1983) foodie manga, but the gist is this: Shiro Yamaoka is a young writer for a paper called the Tozai News, and he has been tasked with putting together an "Ultimate Menu", embodying the best in Japanese cuisine.  He works with his cute co-writer Yuko Kurita, whom he eventually marries, and struggles against his father, Yuzan Kaibara, a writer for a rival newspaper who is trying to put together a "Supreme Menu".  Apparently, there's a lot of soap-operatic plot twists involving scheming coworkers and such, but plot isn't really the focus of the series as we're getting it; rather than trying to translate the entirety of the lengthy series, Viz is bringing over the "A la Carte" volumes of the series, which collected similarly-themed stories in a series of volumes.  This is the second one released, with the unifying element being sake (the first one was the generic theme of "japanese cuisine").

The format works well, at least from the sample given here, since the aim of the series definitely seems to be to illuminate and educate (the detailed endnotes are essential here, offering information on Japanese culture and geography, and anything else in the text that needs explication), rather than get bogged down in plot details.  The first chapter works perfectly as an introduction to both the volume and the series in general, seeing Yamaoka get involved in a sort of contest with a superior at the newspaper who doesn't think the Ultimate Menu project justifies its expense.  The publisher's response to this is pretty amusing:



When Yamaoka finds out that this man thinks wine is preferable to sake, he offers a challenge, pitting wine against sake when matched with a meal.  It ends up being like a shonen manga battle, in which the combatants fight using knowledge.  Yamaoka, being the hero, inevitably triumphs, not only showing why the man's dislike of sake came from misinformation and an industry that has greatly lowered the quality of their product (more on that later), but also demonstrating how sake pairs with Japanese seafood dishes and even a French meal like escargot better than wine does.

And that's the other theme of the series: Japanese national pride.  The stories are designed to emphasize what makes Japanese food so great, and how they should be proud of their culture.  In the case of sake, writer Tetsu Kariya repeats over and over again that the Japanese people should be ashamed at the low quality of their drink, or rather the fact that the industry has allowed such poor product to dominate the market.  In the actual series, this theme might not have seemed so prevalent, but with these stories all grouped together, it's a point that gets hammered home again and again.

But that pride is what Kariya is striving to uphold.  Yamaoka gets very upset when other characters disparage sake, since they are attacking Japan itself when they do so.  The second chapter sees a literary critic condemn the very culture of Japan, because its national drink is so poor.  In an amusing bit of wordplay (amusing, that is, in the way he tries to apply the Japanese style of finding connections between words because they are written with similar characters; it doesn't work quite as well in English), he notes that the word "spirit" can mean both "liquor" and "soul".  And so, "[countries that have] given birth to wonderful literature [have] wonderful spirits".  Japan, having such a poor national drink, has no good literature.  Yamaoka takes this as an insult, and introduces him to an aged Okinawan liquor called Kusu:



Tasting the drink blows his mind, and this sets him back on course and gets him in the pro-Japan camp, of course.  That's what it's all about: teaching people that Japan is number one.

Not that it's all sake all the time though; a few chapters in the middle of the book delve into other country's drinks, with a story about a French wine called Beaujolais Nouveau that sees Yamaoka teach a few acquaintances not to follow trends, and why it's important to pair the right wine with the right food.  Then there's a story in which he shows a man who hates champagne that his fears are unfounded, describing the process by which it is made and introducing him to the best quality champagne, in a bit that is surprisingly reverent, given how pro-Japan the rest of the stories are:



But that's just the first half of the book.  The second half is taken up almost entirely by a six-part story called "The Power of Sake", which is like a tour of every awful thing that has happened to the drink over the last fifty years.  From the popularity of mass-manufactured, poor-quality versions of sake over the more authentic product of small breweries, to the widespread practice of diluting the pure drink by adding alcohol and sugar, to a pointless and worthless quality-ranking system, it's an exhausting catalogue of perfidy.  It all serves a story that sees Yamaoka trying to save a brewery from an evil businessman who has no respect for the tradition and art of sake; but it's not just one small business that's at risk, it's the entire sake industry, and Kariya manages to sell the high stakes of the conflict very well, making victory seem insurmountable.

It all makes for pretty good stories, at least in the way they convey a great deal of information in an entertaining manner.  No detail is spared, giving us pages of text-heavy word balloons that see Yamaoka or others explaining how sake is made and what makes it so great (or poor).  Akira Hanasaki's character art often leaves a bit to be desired (although it definitely shows development and improvement over the course of the volume, which I believe is arranged in chronological order), but it usually does its job, conveying Yamaoka's determination, Kurita's belief in him and his assertions, and the varied reactions to what he has to show people.  This can be pretty amusing, as when characters repeatedly revel in the taste of good sake with their tongues hanging out:



But the best art comes in the depictions of food, or the detailed panels that show various stages of the sake creation process:



And since one of the main aims here is to educate, that makes sense.  It really works to draw the attention to those sections as well.  Really, it makes for a good mix, with some light drama giving shape to various lessons in a way that grabs the attention and delivers its information entertainingly.  It's easy to see how the series has stayed so popular for so long.

At the end of the volume, we get one final chapter, a short tale in which Yamaoka and Kurita (who is now his wife) help an acquaintance's husband quit his alcoholic lifestyle and learn the dedication to be an artist like he always wanted.  Sake might be great stuff, but don't overdo it.  And that's probably true of this volume.  We've heard enough about the subject for now; let's move on to the next dish: ramen!