Each volume of Viz's Oishinbo: A La Carte offers an in depth look at a particular staple of the Japanese diet. The third volume focuses on ramen & gyoza (or little dumplings, stuffed with a variety of fillings that are served as a side dish) and is a little more subdued than the second volume's look at sake (maybe the subject of alcohol just gets foodies more riled up. Or drunk people do).
Oishinbo follows a number of journalists on their quest to create the "ultimate [Japanese] menu" in celebration of the 100th anniversary of their newspaper, the Tozai News. The set-up of the comic is simply a bunch of journalists seeking out the best in Japanese cuisine, eating endless variations of the same dish looking for both innovation and adherence to Japanese culinary tradition at the same time. Which basically means as the reader we can only seethe in jealousy, wishing we could get paid to eat at the best Japanese restaurants and never seem to write a single damn column about it. However, it is surprisingly entertaining to read about people debating about food endlessly, as the characters can discuss, argue, and even come to blows over topics such as the origin of various dishes to the myriad possible outcomes for each one, making sure to attend to such variables as seasoning, cooking methods, quality of ingredients, and a million other things that end up informing what we actually put in our mouth on a daily basis.
Yamaoka Shiro heads the Ultimate Menu project, and while he is apparently lazy and cynical, he also knows food inside and out. Raised by the foodie tyrant, Kaibara Yuzan, who rules the so-called "Gourmet Club," Yamaoko's own father ends up electing himself into becoming his own son's antagonist, as the two battle over the appropriate form true Japanese cuisine should take. Kaibara expects perfection and has absolutely has no consideration for the human side of cooking (which is essentially a social enterprise). For reasons that escape me, in every volume Yamaoka and Kaibara end up competing in various contests, trying to assert their own personal vision of a particular Japanese dish. (I know they are set up as antagonists in the title, but neither are chefs which makes their constant food battles a little baffling to me). While the contests are amusing, Yamaoka hasn't really won one yet, which makes Kaibara's untouchable smugness that much more annoying. (Oh god, this man is an ass. He makes Yamaoka look that much more normal in comparison. According to the fourth volume sneak preview at the back of the book there is hope that we might get to see Yamaoka win one yet in the Viz editions).
Viz has very smartly excerpted story-lines from the long running Oishinbo (I believe the series is now 100 volumes long and counting) and given each volume a focus on a particular dish. Oishinbo can almost feel as though this comic is intended to be an "educational experience" for the non-Japanese reader. I think this would be a mistaken impression, since the journalists putting together the ultimate menu tend to stress how modern Japanese citizens have often lost their way when it comes to foods with nationalistic implications (sort of like apple pie and hamburgers for the U.S.). That gives me the very strong sense that Oishinbo was originally intended to inspire Japanese readers to better understand and appreciate dishes that have recognizable Japanese cultural identifications. Ramen -- originally a Chinese dish according to the comic -- is eventually claimed as Japanese as well, when Chinese representatives who are exposed to Japan's version of ramen declare that they are "deeply moved," since ramen, "a Chinese dish to start with, has now taken root as a Japanese dish." In other words, this comic is also about claiming Japanese food as a cultural asset to Japan and the formation of modern Japanese identity.
I don't think of Oishinbo as a traditional narrative comic, since the story isn't really the point. The pleasure of the book is being flooded with information about something that is entirely too easy to take for granted no matter what your culture of origin. Simply put, this is a comic that immerses itself the everyday act of eating, cooking, and experiencing food. The art is quite rough -- Yamaoka's character design is shockingly primitive -- but the food is always lovingly depicted and goes a long way to making up to the artists' shortcomings in his ability to represent a range of human figures and expressions.
Review Copy provided by Viz.