Since its 1983 debut as a weekly serial, Oishinbo has sold over 100 million paperback editions in Japan. Yet while Oishinbo is undeniably the granddaddy of food-themed manga I’ve discovered many fine examples of the genre. Below are synopses of my favorites.
Earlier this year, San Francisco-based Viz Communications began publishing English translations of Oishinbo, a long-running Japanese manga series about a food critic who gets his assignment after identifying Mt. Tanzawa mineral water in a taste test. Since its 1983 debut as a weekly serial, Oishinbo has sold over 100 million paperback editions in Japan. Yet while Oishinbo is undeniably the granddaddy of food-themed manga, during the years I lived in Japan (and since then, the hours I’ve spent hanging around San Francisco’s Japan Center bookstore), I’ve discovered many fine examples of the genre. Below are synopses of my favorites.
Train Station Bento-Box Single Traveler
Yuko and Dai run a bento-box lunch shop. For their tenth wedding anniversary, Yuko presents Dai with a train ticket so he can travel around Japan indulging his passion for bento-box lunches sold at stations. “It’ll be a nice vacation from me!” says Yuko, who stays home to mind the shop.
When his father’s sushi bar is attacked by an evil sushi chain, 16-year-old Shota makes nigiri to help out. A visiting sushi master recognizes the boy’s prodigious talent, however, taking him on as an apprentice. Shota hones his skills, first as an entry-level helper in the master’s Tokyo sushi bar, and later as a contestant in the All-Tokyo Rookie Sushi Chef Competition. Shota’s dream is to one day return home and save his father from the evil chain. (In a seven-book sequel series, Shota accomplishes his mission, reforms the evil chain, and gets hired as a consultant to guide the chain’s expansion into South Korea.)
Ramen Discovery Legend
Kohei Fujimoto is an junior executive at Daiyu Trading Company. By day, he wears a suit and acts like a normal salaryman, but at night, even though it’s against company policy to moonlight, he secretly runs a ramen stall in the park. His hope is to achieve dassara. The word is formed from the character 脱,datsu (“to separate from”), and sara—the beginning of salaryman. In other words, Fujimoto wants to leave salaried life so he can open his own ramen restaurant. First, though, he must do battle with Mr. Serizawa, a bald ramen shop owner who derides Fujimoto as “nothing more than a ramen-obsessed fool.” Fujimoto is often accompanied on adventures by Ms. Sakura, a secretary at Daiyu, who knows about his secret ramen life.
A middle manager at a large trading firm has to conceal the fact that he’s a better cook than his wife.
The daughter of a brewer, Natsuko dreams of making sake from a handful of rice grains left behind by her deceased older brother. Trouble is, the rice is a legendary strain that can’t be cultivated using pesticides. Natsuko has to convince her entire village to adopt organic pest-control methods, and she won’t have enough rice to make sake for several years. The son of a rival brewery falls in love with her, as does her own head of production.
A prequel series about Natsuko’s grandmother, who battles the traditional exclusion of women from sake making.
Mr. Osawa, a twenty-eight-year-old cook, gets a job at the Japanese embassy in Vietnam, where his deft kitchen skills help the ambassador overcome various diplomatic crises.
Professor Genmai’s Bento Box
A professor of agricultural studies at a Tokyo college, Professor Genmai lectures skeptical students about the joys of farming and fermentation. In a notable episode about constipation, he not only demonstrates exercises for maintaining regularity, but also devotes class time to a discussion about the size and shape of an ideal dump.
Third-Generation Tsukiji Fish Market Man
A human resources manager at a troubled bank, Mr. Akagi is ordered to lay off 100 employees. Feeling guilty, he lays off 99, then lays off himself. Later, he goes to work for his father-in-law at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market. Lacking seafood knowledge, he becomes the subject of gossip and ridicule.
Illustration by Laurenn McCubbin.