Sunday, August 23, 2009

Oishinbo: I smell something fishy

That's a dumb title.

Oishinbo A la Carte: Fish, Sushi, & Sashimi
Written by Tetsu Kariya
Art by Akira Hanasaki


This volume of the popular foodie manga features less of the edible nationalistic fervor that was found in the sake volume, and more of another aspect found in so much Japanese fiction: the father/son conflict. Yes, that's a prevalent theme, and aside from the main subject of the manga (food, natch), the series almost seems built around it, regularly pitting protagonist Shiro Yamaoka against his jerk of a father, Kaibara Yuzan. It can be pretty amusing to see the two of them face off over culinary knowledge and matters of gourmet honor, and luckily, this volume is full of that sort of thing. Ah, resentment-fueled family conflict; is there anything more amusing?

Not every story here pits Shiro against his dad; we get to see him perform his usual schtick of insulting somebody about their cooking and then having to demonstrate his superior knowledge in order to save his employers from losing face. The devil is in the details though, and it's pretty fun to see the way writer Tetsu Kariya comes up with new variations on this theme. One story sees a rich businessman showing off his fish-preparing skills only to get a put-down from a truth-speaking little kid. Shiro backs him up though, showing how the freshness of a fish has to do with more than just how long it's been since it was killed. Other stories see him save an orphanage from being repossessed through the use of a fried fish head, convince a cook to get over his ugliness and help out his mentor, and use flounder to show a youngster that it's okay to go to his second-choice college. And we get to see plenty of hilariously outsized reactions to delicious food:



And just as many detailed depictions of the dishes themselves and the ingredients and techniques that go into making them:


But for the best stories, the father/son stuff is where it's at, and where this volume really delivers. One story sees mean old Yuzan putting down Shiro's taste and mocking his statement that a low-class fish like a chub mackerel could be the best sashimi he's ever tasted. So of course Shiro has to show him, going on a fishing trip to catch just the right mackerel and prove its worthiness. Amusingly, Yuzan can't admit he was wrong, and finds something else to criticize instead:


But Shiro doesn't always get the best of his father; in fact, he loses more challenges here than he wins. One story sees the two of them competing to make the best sweetfish tempura for a mutual acquaintance, and Yuzan's experience comes out ahead. While Shiro does the legwork to get the absolute best ingredients, Yuzan aims to tweak the man's nostalgia, serving him fish from his hometown and evoking childhood memories. And a later story raises the stakes, with the men competing in a salmon challenge that pits their respective menus (Ultimate and Supreme, formed for competing newspapers) against each other. Shiro's raw salmon dish leads to a lengthy discussion about the dangers of parasites, and even though it was delicious and proven safe, the risk is too great, leading to a loss against Yuzan's presentation of skin and belly fat (which sounds gross, but the tasters seemed to like it). It ends up being a fascinating discussion of the pursuits of gourmet dining:


And a final story delves even further into the reasons for Yamaoka's project, and by extension the series itself. He loses confidence in the purpose of putting together the Ultimate Menu after witnessing an old man who seems to gain the strength to stay alive after eating a certain type of delicious sushi each year. This reverence and gratitude towards food seems to be the opposite of what Shiro and company are doing; he feels that they are just showing off. And he feels so strongly about it, he's willing to cancel his wedding banquet (which was to be a showcase for the Ultimate Menu), in effect calling off the marriage. Drama! With this sort of dilemma, his fiancee, Yuko Kurita, has no choice but to consult Yuzan for advice on how to convince Shiro otherwise (she has to use leverage to get any help from him though), leading to another interesting discussion of culinary philosophy and showing him how the work of cooks is something worthy of being saved for posterity.

It's some really interesting, informative stuff, full of personality and goofy characters, but not coming off as a frivolous lark. The themed volumes are a perfect way to release this series, giving a glance at the long history of the ongoing story and letting us watch as the themes develop and mature. It's easy to see why the series is so popular and continues to come out after so many years. Hopefully we'll get many more volumes to come on this side of the Pacific.