Oishinbo, A la Carte: Ramen & Gyōza

Author: Tetsu Kariya
Illustrator: Akira Hanasaki

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421521411
Released: May 2009
Original release: 2005
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

Oishinbo, written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, is an incredibly successful and well-loved manga series in Japan. The manga began serialization in 1983 and is still ongoing; more than one hundred volumes have been published so far. In 1987 the series won a Shogakukan Manga Award. Oishinbo, A la Carte, the only version of the manga that has been licensed in English, selects stories from throughout the original series to create thematic collections that focus on a particular food or cuisine. Oishinbo, A la Carte: Ramen & Gyōza was the second of these collections to have been published in Japan and was the third volume to be released in English by Viz Media, following Japanese Cuisine and Sake. As a bit of a foodie myself, I have really been enjoying the Oishinbo, A la Carte collections. I was particularly interested in Ramen & Gyōza because those foods, although Chinese in origin, were my introduction to Japanese cuisine. I’m finally getting around to reading the volume thanks to the Oishinbo Manga Moveable Feast.

The basic premise of Oishinbo is fairly simple: Yamaoka Shirō has been charged by Tōzai News to create the “Ultimate Menu” of Japanese cuisine. In response, their rival newspaper Teito Times has hired Kaibara Yūzan, who happens to be Yamaoka’s estranged father, to develop the “Supreme Menu.” The father-son relationship between the two men was already strained; the menu projects give them yet another reason to come into conflict. They can’t help but challenge each other, Yamaoka constantly trying to show his father up and Kaibara constantly trying to put his son into his place. I find the six stories collected in Ramen & Gyōza particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. Although ramen and gyōza have been incorporated into Japanese cuisine, they were originally developed from Chinese cooking traditions. Additionally, both ramen and gyōza are everyday comfort foods and are therefore frequently considered to be low-class. It amuses me greatly that Yamaoka and Kaibara, who are so concerned with finding the pinnacle of Japanese food culture, can get into fights even over dishes that they had both at one point written off as not worth their time.

It should be fairly obvious that Ramen & Gyōza is about ramen and gyōza, but there was another theme that I particularly noticed in this volume of Oishinbo, A la Carte. Importance is placed on the quality of the ingredients used in a dish, although it is not the only factor needed for it to be successful. Yamaoka and the other characters, especially his father, emphasize the need for a safe and sustainable food culture, free of chemicals and ideally locally produced. This is certainly a notion that I personally support, but Kariya has never been subtle with his characters’ opinions in Oishinbo. In some cases their apparent activism can be somewhat distracting from the story while at other times it is expertly incorporated into the narrative itself. Of course, the fact that the characters get so worked up over food is one of the reasons that Oishinbo is so entertaining. Take away their ranting and raving and suddenly the series would be much less engaging.

Because Oishinbo, A la Carte: Ramen & Gyōza only collects selected stories from the original Oishinbo manga, it is difficult for readers to get a good sense of the overarching plot and chronology of the series. However, the six stories in Ramen & Gyōza make good selections because they stand on their own rather well. Any important plot points that aren’t immediately obvious are explained in the translation notes. Ramen & Gyōza is actually mostly about ramen and other Chinese-style noodles. I was a little disappointed that gyōza was only featured in one of the stories, but at least it was the longest one. Perhaps because ramen and gyōza are so common and familiar, the manga didn’t go too in depth into the particulars of the specific foods but focused more on people’s interactions with them instead. For some reason I didn’t find Ramen & Gyōza to be quite as compelling as the previous two volumes of Oishinbo, A la Carte, but I still enjoyed myself immensely and look forward to reading more.

Fullmetal Alchemist, Omnibus 1

Creator: Hiromu Arakawa
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421540184
Released: June 2011
Original release: 2002
Awards: Seiun Award, Shogakukan Manga Award

My introduction to Fullmetal Alchemist was through the first anime series. The franchise is so popular that it has spawned a second anime series, films, light novels, drama CDs, and video games, among other merchandise, but it all began with Hiromu Arakawa’s manga series. Somehow, I am only now getting around to reading the Fullmetal Alchemist manga. Fullmetal Alchemist began serialization in Monthly Shōnen Gangan in 2001 and would later win the Shogakukan Manga Award for shōnen in 2004. The first three volumes of the series (out of twenty-seven) were originally released in Japan in 2002. Viz Media initially published the individual volumes in 2005 before releasing a “3-in-1” omnibus edition in 2011. I really enjoyed the first anime series (I haven’t seen the second one yet, though I do plan to); I saw the omnibus as a perfect way to finally give the original manga a try. And as much as I love the anime, I think the manga might be even better.

In alchemy, one of the most important rules that must be followed is the law of equivalent exchange—in order to gain something, something of equal value must be given. Even working within this constraint the science of alchemy is capable of amazing things, but it is still not able to solve all of humanity’s problems. Edward and Alphonse Elric learn this difficult lesson the hard way when their attempt to bring their dead mother back to life goes horribly wrong. Human alchemy is forbidden and the two brothers have paid the price. Al has lost his body and Ed lost one of his legs, further sacrificing an arm to save his brother’s soul. Now, in an effort to return their bodies back to normal, the brothers are searching for the philosopher’s stone. Ed even became the youngest state alchemist to have ever been certified in order to pursue the stone. It’s a military position of prestige, but more importantly it’s a position with research money and access to restricted resources.

I don’t know how far ahead Arakawa had the story planned when beginning Fullmetal Alchemist, but the world it takes place in is solid form the very start. Her artwork is strong and clear and is fairly straightforward with excellent page layouts that ease the flow of the story and help to emphasize emotional climaxes. Occasionally the fight scenes could have used an extra panel or two to clarify the action a bit more. While Arakawa’s artwork isn’t overly detailed, the world and characters of Fullmetal Alchemist are marvelously complicated and complex. There is a palpable tension between alchemy and religion and no easy answers are given. Science can be used for good or for ill; the alchemists have to make personal and moral choices and compromises and then deal with the consequences of those decisions. Science is capable of wondrous things, and it is also capable of terrible things. The fact that most alchemical research is funded by the military only complicates matters further.

The story of Fullmetal Alchemist is actually fairly dark, dealing with serious matters of life, death, sin, war, and responsibility. However, Arakawa includes enough humor that it never becomes overwhelmingly depressing. And even though the Elric brothers have a tragic past they don’t wallow in self-pity. Instead, while always being very conscious of their circumstances, they are determined to reach their goals, pushing forward one step at a time, showing tremendous strength of character. But while they are mature for their ages and have been through a lot together, they are still young. Most of the other characters in Fullmetal Alchemist are also dealing with difficult situations although some of them certainly handle it better than others. Fullmetal Alchemist is a fantastic series and an engrossing read. From these first three volumes alone I know that I want to see the story through to its end.

Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Volume 3

Creator: Fumi Yoshinaga
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421527499
Released: April 2010
Original release: 2007
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Sense of Gender Award, Shogakukan Manga Award, Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize

Because Fumi Yoshinaga is such a skilled creator, it’s difficult for me to choose a favorite among her works but one of her most recent series, Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is definitely one of the major contenders. It is also her most awarded series so far, having won a Sense of Gender Award, a Japan Media Arts Award, an Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, and most recently a 2010 Shogakukan Manga Award, in addition to being nominated for many other honors. Ōoku is currently up to seven volumes in Japan; the most recent volume to be published in English being the sixth. The third volume of Ōoku was published in Japan in 2007 and was released in English under Viz Media’s Signature line in 2010. Because Ōoku is one of my favorite manga series, and not just one of my favorite Yoshinaga works, I do intend to review each volume. The fact that August 2011’s Manga Moveable Feast features Fumi Yoshinaga doesn’t hurt either.

The Redface Pox continues to spread across Japan and more and more men are dying of the disease. Even the shogunate isn’t immune, but the death of Japan’s military leader has been kept a closely guarded secret. His daughter Chie is the only person remaining who can carry on the Tokugawa bloodline. Lady Kasuga is determined that Chie will bear a male heir and will stop at nothing to ensure that that happens. Chie and her chosen suitor Arikoto, who was initially brought to the Inner Chambers against his will, have managed to find some happiness together in these troubled times. However, their happiness is short lived when Chie fails to conceive. Although Kasuga’s power over them and the rest of the Inner Chambers is beginning to slip, she forces them to consider the fate of peace in Japan against their own happiness and desires.

The third volume of Ōoku begins about a year after the end of the second volume and continues the story for several more years. Some of the most noticeable things in the third volume are the changes and developments in the characters themselves, the Inner Chambers, and Japanese society. Lady Chie, who once was prone to violent outbursts, has matured greatly, much thanks to the presence of Arikoto. She has also shown herself to be quite keen and more than capable to act as the leader of state, much to the surprise of some of the senior ministers. Arikoto’s presence has also begun to change the nature of the Inner Chambers as he brings in aristocratic influences and is accepted by the other men there. Arikoto, as always, retains his dignity even in the face of tragedy; only Lady Chie and his attendant Gyokuei are privy to what he hides from others. And speaking of Gyokuei, he also has grown from a boy into a young man.

The characters are not the only things to change in the third volume of Ōoku; the society in which they live is also slowly developing into the Japan seen in the first volume of the series. While women, especially those in the upper classes, are still subject to their expected gender roles, the social system keeping them there is beginning to break down. Out of necessity, they will have to take on the work and leadership positions once reserved only for men, but at this point in the story it is still considered a temporary measure. One of the most interesting things for me, as someone with a particular interest in the Tokugawa period, is that with all of the changes Yoshinaga has made to history in Ōoku, some things remains the same, such as Japan’s seclusion policies, but for drastically different reasons. Ōoku fascinates and engages me on multiple levels which is one of the reasons I like the series so well.

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Sake

Author: Tetsu Kariya
Illustrator: Akira Hanasaki

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421521404
Released: March 2009
Original release: 2007
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Sake, written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, is the second volume of the Oishinbo, A la Carte collections to be released in English by Viz Media’s Signature line in 2009. Originally, Sake was the twenty-sixth volume in the series when published in Japan in 2007. Oishinbo is a very popular and successful manga in Japan. It began serialization in 1983 and is still ongoing even after more than a hundred volumes. in 1987, the series won a Shogakukan Manga Award. The Oishinbo, A la Carte collections are thematic compilations of story arcs taken from throughout the regular series. I had previously read Japanese Cuisine, the first volume of Oishinbo, A la Carte to be released by Viz, and thoroughly enjoyed it. So, I was looking forward to reading Sake as well, especially since it was a subject I wasn’t particularly familiar with.

In the West, “sake” is generally used to mean Japanese rice wine, or nihonshu. However, in Japanes “sake” tends to refer to all drinking alcohol in general. Appropriately enough, while the main focus of Sake is sake, the volume also explores wine and champagne, shōchū, awamori and kūsū, and briefly mentions beer, cognac, bourbon, whiskey, vodka, and brandy. I was somewhat surprised so little time was spent on whiskey since Japan has recently gained some notoriety in that realm. Instead, Sake examines and celebrates the authentic and traditional Japanese alcohols and delves into the good and the bad of the sake industry. Many of the drinks and breweries mentioned in Sake actually exist.

I found Sake to be a little less interesting art-wise than Japanese Cuisine, mainly because it is more difficult to visually convey the differences between liquids than it is for foods. However, Hanasaki still does a lovely job and the bottles of alcohol in particular are beautifully rendered. For the most part, Hanasaki’s style is very simple until the real stars of the show, the food and drink, appear and are captured in photorealistic detail. One of the things I found especially interesting in Sake is how closely Kariya equates sake with Japanese culture. There is a certain amount of intense pride and confidence in sake and in Japan exhibited. The failings of the sake industry are also seen as a failure to treasure what makes Japan, Japan. Throughout Sake, Kariya’s characters express concerns about the over-Westernization of Japan and mourn the resulting loss of respect for Japanese food and drink cultures. But at the same time, they show that Japan still has a lot that is unique to offer the world.

Kariya is not afraid to use his characters to tear into Japanese businesses, people, and governments over the poor state and practices of the sake industry. They have no patience whatsoever for “fake” by-the-book gourmets and do not hesitate to express their opinions. But it is their enthusiasm and passion about food and drink that makes Oishinbo so engaging, even when the manga occasionally becomes a sequence of talking heads. So far, I love the Oishinbo, A la Carte collections and find them to be both highly entertaining and educational. The only real problem that I’ve encountered is that I immediately want to go out and try all the food and drinks mentioned in a particular volume—something that isn’t really very feasible. Still, I’m looking forward to reading the next book, Oishinbo, A la Carte: Ramen and Gyoza, very much.

Cross Game, Volume 1

Creator: Mitsuru Adachi
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421537580
Released: October 2010
Original release: 2005-2006
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

For some reason, I have been very reluctant to read Mitsuru Adachi’s manga series Cross Game. I’m not sure if it’s because the series is a sports manga or what. I’ve heard plenty of good things about Adachi and about Cross Game in particular, even from readers who aren’t particularly fond of baseball. I even read a preview of the series in Otaku USA and enjoyed it, but for some reason still couldn’t bring myself to read more of the series. My hand was finally forced when Cross Game was selected for the May 2011 Manga Moveable Feast. Because of that, I picked up the first volume released by Viz Media in 2010—equivalent to the first three volumes published in Japan between 2005 and 2006. Adachi began the series in 2005 and the seventeenth and final collected volume was released in Japan in 2010. In 2009, Cross Game was honored with a Shogakukan Manga Award. There was also a fifty episode anime adaptation of the series produced between 2009 and 2010.

The Tsukishima family, who run the local batting cages and the Clover coffee shop, and the Kitamura family, who own the sporting goods store down the street, are good friends and their children have grown up together. Wakaba, the Tsukishima’s beloved second daughter (out of four) and Ko, the Kitamura’s only son, are particularly close and even share the same birthday. It seems like fate that the two of them should be together. The only person who’s unhappy with the two being nearly inseparable is the next youngest Tsukishima daughter, Aoba. She adores Wakaba and so holds a grudge against Ko. Although Aoba won’t admit it, except for the fact that she loves baseball and Ko isn’t even really interested in the game, she actually shares quite a lot in common with him.

While there are moments in Cross Game that are absolutely heartbreaking, the manga also has quite a bit of light-hearted humor to it as well, making the series more touching rather than depressing. Ocassionally, Adachi does have the tendency to either break the fourth wall or come very close to it. I did find this amusing, but it also threw me out of the story. However, I really enjoyed the small bits focusing on the Tsukishima’s pet cat Nomo; they made me smile every time. Adachi’s art style is fairly simple and straightforward. Every once in a while it feels like the panels are a bit disjointed, usually when Adachi sets up a dramatic reveal, but overall it is very easy to follow. One thing that he does that I particularly enjoyed and appreciated is how he captures the passage of time, often using the changes in season and in the neighborhood to visually transition from chapter to chapter. This also helps to establish a sense of place and makes the town feel as well-rounded and complete as the characters.

Although there is plenty of personal drama, conflicts, and lively baseball games, I mostly find Cross Game to be a rather quiet coming of age series. Out of this volume, I preferred the first part of the story which focuses a bit more on the relationships between characters than on the baseball. But even when baseball becomes more prominent in the manga, the character interactions remain crucial and convincing. There is something subtle and very skilled in how Adachi balances the two elements. That being said, I find it strange that I’m not more gung-ho about Cross Game; for some reason it just doesn’t immediately grab me. However, I did appreciate it more and more after repeated readings. I truly care about the characters Adachi has created, even if I don’t feel compelled to immediately rush out and read more of the manga. But, I’ve discovered that the longer I wait, the more I worry about the characters and wonder how they are doing.