Oishinbo, A la Carte: The Joy of Rice

Oishinbo, A la Carte: The Joy of RiceAuthor: Tetsu Kariya
Illustrator: Akira Hanasaki

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421521442
Released: November 2009
Original release: 2005
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

At well over one hundred volumes, Oishinbo is one of the most successful and long-running food manga in Japan, winning the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1987. Written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, Oishinbo first began serialization in 1983 and is still ongoing although currently the manga is on indefinite hiatus following a controversy of its depiction of the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster. Between 2009 and 2010, Viz Media released seven volumes of Oishinbo, A la Carte under its Signature imprint, becoming the first food manga that I ever read. Oishinbo, A la Carte is a series of thematic anthologies collecting chapters from throughout the main Oishinbo manga. Oishinbo, a la Carte: The Joy of Rice was the sixth collection to be released in English in 2009. However, The Joy of Rice was actually the thirteenth volume of Oishinbo, A la Carte to be published in Japan in 2005.

The Joy of Rice collects eight stories and one essay in which rice, an important staple of Japanese diet and cuisine, is featured. In “A Remarkable Mediocrity,” the wrath of a wealthy businessman and gourmand who made his fortune dealing in rice is able to be appeased by the simplest of dishes. “Brown Rice Versus White Rice” examines how people can be mislead even when they make an effort to eat healthily. The structure of rice and how proper storage can make a difference when it comes to cooking it are the focus of “Live Rice.” Yamaoka, Oishinbo‘s protagonist, makes a case against the importation of foreign rice into Japan in “Companions of Rice.” In “The Matsutake Rice of the Sea,” a wager between friends over a rice dish becomes more important than they realize. Kariya opines about the eating manners of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans in his essay “The Most Delicious Way to Eat Rice.” A debate on the proper way to eat rice is central to “No Mixing” as well. Rice takes a supporting role in “The Season for Oysters,” but once again takes the spotlight in the three-part “Rice Ball Match.”

Oishinbo, A la Carte: The Joy of Rice, page 215Because Oishinbo, A la Carte compiles various stories together by theme rather than by chronology, the series can feel somewhat disjointed. Having read nearly all of the Oishinbo, A la Carte collections available in English, for the most part I’ve gotten used to and even expect this, but it seemed to be particularly glaring in The Joy of Rice. From story to story it’s often difficult to anticipate the status of the characters’ relationships with one another and those relationships are often very important to understand. For example, “A Remarkable Mediocrity” is one of the earliest episodes to be found in Oishinbo proper—it’s a little awkward to have the chapter that originally introduced several of the established recurring characters appear so late in A la Carte. Admittedly, the point of Oishinbo, Al la Carte is to highlight specific foods or themes; only a basic understanding of the underlying premise of Oishinbo and of its characters is absolutely necessary. The translation notes help greatly, but it can still make for an odd reading experience.

The Joy of Rice examines the place of rice within Japanese culture and cuisine, addressing both social and scientific aspects of the grain. Like the other volumes in Oishinbo, A la Carte, The Joy of Rice places a huge emphasis on organically and locally produced food, railing against pesticides, herbicides, and the use of antibiotics in agriculture. The series is not at all subtle about the stance it takes, and Yamaoka can frankly be a jerk about it at times. Initially I was hoping that The Joy of Rice would explore the different varieties of rice found and used in Japan, but the volume instead focuses on the significance of rice in the lives of the country’s people—the nostalgia and memories associated with it and the pure enjoyment and complete satisfaction that it can bring—which was ultimately very gratifying. However, my favorite story in The Joy of Rice, “Rice Ball Match,” uses rice to delve into Japanese culinary culture and history as a whole, which was an excellent way to round out the volume, bringing all of the manga’s themes together in one place.

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Vegetables

Oishinbo, A la Carte: VegetablesAuthor: Tetsu Kariya
Illustrator: Akira Hanasaki

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421521435
Released: September 2009
Original release: 2006
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

When it comes to food manga, the long-running and sometimes controversial Oishinbo is one of the most successful series in Japan. Written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, the popular Oishinbo is well over a hundred volumes long and earned its creators a Shogakukan Manga Award in 1987. I don’t expect Oishinbo to ever be released in English in its entirety, but Viz Media did license seven volumes of Oishinbo, A la Carte–thematic collections of stories selected from throughout the series. Oishinbo, A la Carte: Vegetables is technically the nineteenth A la Carte volume, published in Japan in 2006, but in 2009 it became the fifth collection to be released in English under Viz Media’s Signature imprint. If I recall correctly, Oishinbo, A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine was the very first food manga that I ever read. Since then, I have enjoyed slowly making my way through the other A la Carte collections available in English, and so was looking forward to a serving of Vegetables.

While Vegetables collects Oishinbo stories from different points the series, it also includes some of the earliest arcs. One of the primary, ongoing plotlines of the manga is the competition between Yamaoka, a newspaper journalist heading the “Ultimate Menu” project, and his estranged father Kaibara, who is developing the “Supreme Menu” for a rival paper. The three-part “Vegetable Showdown!” that opens the volume is only their second official battle for culinary dominance. Appropriately for a volume about vegetables (since getting kids to eat them is apparently a worldwide struggle), many of the stories feature children discovering that produce like eggplants, bean sprouts, and carrots might not be so bad after all. At least when they’re prepared well. Adults preconceived notions are challenged in the manga as well, not just about how vegetables are prepared and taste but also about how they are grown and produced. The stories in Vegetables often follow produce from the field to the table.

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Vegetables, page 90Oishinbo frequently delves into the politics of food and the series’ characters (and I would assume by extension its creators) have very strong opinions about the matter. Vegetables joins the previous two A la Carte collections in English–Fish, Sushi & Sashimi and Ramen & Gyōza–in particularly stressing the importance of quality ingredients and in arguing very strongly for food that has been safely, responsibly, sustainably, and often locally produced. So far, however, Vegetables seems to be the volume that is most blatant in its activism, villainizing the use of herbicides and pesticides. Opposing viewpoints are briefly entertained, but it is very clear which side of the debate Oishinbo supports. The environmentalist message in Vegetables can be very heavy-handed. Organic produce is often ideal for a number of the reason explained in Vegetables, but the reality is perhaps much more complicated and nuanced than the manga might lead readers to believe.

Overall, I think that Vegetables may actually be one of the weaker A la Carte volumes to have been released in English, but I still enjoyed it. Oishinbo is a series that is educational as well as entertaining and Vegetables is no exception. Although not particularly subtle about its politics, the manga is informative, the individual stories exploring different aspects of produce from how they are grown to what a chef should keep in mind when preparing them. When it comes to vegetables, Oishinbo would seem to argue for simplicity. Produce grown in ideal conditions and in their native environments require very little to enhance their natural goodness and flavor. A dish may be refined, but if the ingredients are of high quality to begin with it does not need to be overly complex. Sometimes only a bit of salt is all that is called for. Food is a major source of the drama in Oishinbo and is often what drives the manga’s plot. And even when it’s not, food–and in this particular volume vegetables–always plays a significant supporting role.

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Fish, Sushi & Sashimi

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Fish, Sushi & SashimiAuthor: Tetsu Kariya
Illustrator: Akira Hanasaki

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421521428
Released: July 2009
Original release: 2005
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

With over one hundred volumes, it is very unlikely that the award-winning food manga Oishinbo will ever be licensed in its entirety in English, especially considering that the series is still ongoing at this point. However, seven volumes of Oishinbo, A la Carte have been released by Viz Media under its Signature imprint. These volumes are thematic collections which select stories from throughout the series proper. Fish, Sushi & Sashimi was the fourth Oishinbo, A la Carte collection to be published by Viz and was released in 2009. However, in Japan Fish, Sushi & Sashimi was actually the fifth volume in the series and was published in 2005. As a lover of both food and manga, it probably shouldn’t be too surprising that I enjoy Oishinbo immensely. And I’m not the only one. The series, written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, has been in serialization since 1983 and in 1987 the creators received a Shogakukan Manga Award for their work.

Because Oishinbo, A la Carte is a selection of stories from Oishinbo, the overarching story of the original series is obscured. Instead of the ongoing plot, the focus of Oishinbo, A la Carte is very much on the food itself. Fish, Sushi & Sashimi collects eight different stories centered around fish. Sushi rolls are probably one of the first things that come to many people’s minds when considering Japanese fish dishes, but not a single one will be found in Fish, Sushi & Sashimi. Generally, the fare tends to be simpler and fish the primary ingredient. The fish specifically featured in Fish, Sushi & Sashimi include white trevally, chub mackerel, sweetfish, tiger blowfish, freshwater goby, flounder, salmon, and shinko, many of which are considered to be some of the best and most desirable or delectable fish in Japan. There is also a wide variety of preparations shown, everything from raw sashimi to fried tempura.

When dealing with fish as a source of food, freshness is key. This is true for most seafood, too, and is something that most people probably know. However, Fish, Sushi & Sashimi shows that there is much more involved in the freshness of fish than just how long it has been since it has been caught. Fish are very sensitive to changes in the environment in which they live. Simply put, quality fish come from quality waters. The healthier and less polluted those waters, the better the fish. Additionally, the same fish can taste significantly different due to seasonal changes, where it is caught (and how far it has traveled afterwards), or when in its life-cycle it is eaten. As is often the case in the Oishinbo, A la Carte stories that I have so far read, Fish, Sushi & Sashimi emphasizes the importance of locally sourced and sustainable foods, which is particularly true of fish.

One of the highlights of Oishinbo, A la Carte is Hanasaki’s artwork. The people tend to be stylized but the food is always realistically drawn. The catching and cleaning of the fish, the steps in the various dishes’ preparations, and the skilled knife-work employed are all important to Fish, Sushi & Sashimi. Because Fish, Sushi & Sashimi focuses on aquatic life both in and out of its natural environments, Hanasaki also has the opportunity to beautifully illustrate Japan’s oceans, rivers, and other waterways. Another thing that particularly struck me about this volume of Oishinbo, A la Carte was how many young people were included in the stories. Family drama has always been a part of Oishinbo with the intense father-son rivalry between Kaibara Yūzan and Yamaoka Shirō. It’s extremely entertaining to watch them battle it out over and with food, but it’s also nice to see some more wholesome family relationships in the series, too.

Hikaru no Go, Volume 1: Descent of the Go Master

Author: Yumi Hotta
Illustrator: Takeshi Obata

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781591162223
Released: May 2004
Original release: 1998
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award, Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize

Hikaru no Go, written by Yumi Hotta and illustrated by Takeshi Obata (who is also the artist for the very popular manga series Death Note), is one of the first manga series that I made a point to collect in its entirety. I had first borrowed Hikaru no Go from my local library, but less than half of the series was available there. But I was so impressed by what I had read, I went and bought myself a complete set of Hikaru no Go, all twenty-three volumes. I was pleased when Hikaru no Go was selected for the December 2012 Manga Moveable Feast because it is a series that I’m quite fond of. I’m not the only one, either. Hikaru no Go received a Shogakukan Manga Award in 2000 and was later awarded an Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize in 2003. Hikaru no Go, Volume 1: Descent of the Go Master was originally released in Japan in 1998. Viz Media first serialized the manga in issues thirteen through sixteen of Shonen Jump before publishing the collected volume in 2004.

While scavenging through his grandfather’s attic, Hikaru Shindo comes across an old go board which he hopes he can sell for some extra cash. Instead, he finds that he must share his consciousness with the ghost attached to the board, Fujiwara-no-Sai, a go master from the Heian period. Although Sai died long ago, his spirit lingers on due to his great love for the game. Even in death he strives to play the Divine Move. But for some reason, he’s stuck with Hikaru, a sixth-grader with absolutely no interest in go. But Hikaru isn’t a bad kid. With the right kind of encouragement—namely Sai agreeing to help him out with his history classwork—Hikaru is happy to allow Sai the opportunity to observe and even play a few games of go. And Hikaru can’t help but be impressed by the intensity of the players he sees, some who are even younger than he is. A spark has been lit in Hikaru. He started paying attention to go for Sai’s sake, but now a small part of him wants to play for his own.

Hikaru no Go has a great, engaging story, but it’s Obata’s artwork that really brings everything together. At it’s very core, Hikaru no Go is a manga about a boardgame. Now, I personally love games, but I still wouldn’t necessarily think that they would make a compelling subject for a manga series. Hikaru no Go shows that they can. Obata’s artwork captures the excitement and drama surrounding go and its players with effective and cinematic panels and page layouts. The character designs are memorable and distinctive without resorting to caricature; even the individuals in groups and crowds each have their own look. Obata also adds some nice touches to Hikaru’s design, often incorporating the number five (pronounced “go” in Japanese) into his clothing choices. And I love Sai’s design, too. He can go from elegant to adorable at a moments notice.

One of the greatest things about Hikaru no Go is that it requires absolutely not prior knowledge of go to enjoy the series. To be completely honest, almost everything I do know about go I initially learned from reading Hikaru no Go. The series even inspired me to give the game a try. Hikaru himself is a complete beginner at the start of the manga. But Hikaru no Go also reveals the “tenacious perseverance and hard work” that is required of players who are serious and passionate about go. The series is even supervised by Yukari Umezawa, a professional go player holding the rank of go-dan at the time of the publication of Descent of the Go Master. As Hikaru learns more about the game, so do the readers, but the technicalities and rules of go never overshadow the story and characters of Hikaru no Go. The series really is a lot of fun; even having read it before I still enjoy it immensely.

Sand Chronicles, Volume 1

Creator: Hinako Ashihara
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421514772
Released: January 2008
Original release: 2003
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

Sand Chronicles, Volume 1 by Hinako Ashihara was originally published in Japan in 2003. The English-language edition of the manga was initially published by Viz Media’s Shojo Beat magazine (issues twenty-six through twenty-nine) before being released as a collected volume in 2008. When September 2012’s Manga Moveable Feast focusing on Shojo Beat manga was announced, I immediately thought of the Shogakukan Manga Award-winning Sand Chronicles. One of the best contemporary shoujo series that I have ever read, Sand Chronicles is also one of my favorite shoujo manga period. The series is complete in ten volumes, although the main story finishes with the eighth. The final two volumes consist of epilogue-like side stories. While not absolutely critical for a satisfying conclusion, the “extra” stories round out the series and the characters nicely.

Twenty-six years old and about to be married, Ann Uekusa is preparing to move to America with her soon-to-be husband when memories from her adolescence come crashing back. After her parents divorced when she was twelve, Ann and her mother moved from Tokyo to the rural village of Shimane. Living with her grandparents in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business will take some getting used to, but Ann quickly makes friends with the other kids her age. After a rough beginning, she hits it off particularly well with Daigo Kitamura and even manages to befriend the more reserved Fuji Tsukishima and his younger sister Shika. Those friendships become even more important to Ann when tragedy strikes her family. The events that occur during the winter of Ann’s twelfth year will have profound effects on her for the rest of her life.

I am quite fond of Ashihara’s artwork in Sand Chronicles and find it to be very effective. There are two things she does particularly well in the manga. Her backgrounds, settings, and natural landscapes are beautiful and detailed, giving Shimane and the surrounding area a real sense of place. Ashihara captures the changes of seasons well, too, easily shifting from the snowy mountainsides in the winter to the summer storms in the woods. But perhaps most importantly, Ashihara’s art style allows her characters to be incredibly expressive. They show sadness and pain as well as laughter and joy. A glance or simple gaze can carry a significant amount of meaning even when the characters aren’t able to verbally express their feelings. This is particularly important in a series like Sand Chronicles in which the characters’ personal emotions and inner turmoil are just as important as their outward actions. Ashihara is able to convey and capture both the inner and outer aspects of the story and her characters through her artwork.

The overall tone I get from the first volume of Sand Chronicles is one of melancholy but not of overwhelming sadness. Sand Chronicles is a series that tugs at the heartstrings but at the same time I didn’t feel emotionally manipulated by it. This is one of the reasons that Sand Chronicles works so well for me. Some of the more climactic moments tend be a little melodramatic, but the emotions and feelings being expressed are honest and real. The characters, too, are well-developed and multi-faceted, even contradictory to some extent, lending to their authenticity and realism. They all have personal histories that explain their individual quirks and behaviors; they are who they are for a reason. Ann may exhibit strength, but she also shows signs of fragility, something that is true for many of the characters in Sand Chronicles. Their pasts inform their presents which in turn influence their futures, a theme that recurs throughout the volume and the series—something that Ashihara never forgets.