Pop Culture Gadabout
Thursday, December 25, 2008
      ( 12/25/2008 07:15:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"JAN WILL BE JAN." "No hugging, no lessons learned." I thought of this Seinfeld writing credo as I belatedly finished the final episode of Shinji Saijyo's Iron Wok Jan! (DrMaster) recently. Twenty-seven volumes of our comic anti-hero obnoxiously lording it over his culinary inferiors - and the little bastard never grows or changes. When the final volume's main story concludes, he's just as rude and arrogant as he was when he entered the series. Possibly, more so.

For a time, Saijyo fools his readers into thinking that the series will be reaching some form of thematic resolution, but after comically cutting off the series' last big multi-volume Rising Chinese Chefs cooking competition before any clear winner can be declared, Saijyo further displays a Sopranos-like glee in thwarting his audience's expectations. From the series' first volume, Iron Wok Jan! has had an inter-generational family conflict at the heart of its storyline: exemplified in the series' extended bickering between Jan Akiyama with his survival-of-the-fittest take on cooking and the improbably breasted Kiriko Gobancho, who espouses a more touchy-feely approach to the culinary arts.

This conflict, we're shown, has its roots in the rivalry between the two characters' grandfathers, who themselves fought for supremacy of the Japanese cooking community. When, in the final volume, Kiriko's grandfather Kaiichrio challenges both young chefs to a final competition, there's a sense that this, at last, will bring the series to its proper conclusion. What first brought our title lead to the Gobancho Restaurant, after all, was a need to take on his grandfather's old cooking rival.

Except, before this ultimate competition can occur, Saijyo throws in a fairly predictable plot twist to keep it from coming to fruition. All that's left is for our boy and girl chefs to head for China and three years of further schooling. When they return, they're both as combative as ever, and Jan is his unapologetic asshole self. Carrying an armload of endangered species into the airport, he yells at the authorities who try to stop him: "Who care if they're endangered species! If they taste good, they're on my ingredients list!"

The final volume stints on most of its secondary characters (nouveau cuisine cook Celine Yang is barely given any lines, though hapless spear carrier Takao Okonogi has a few amusing moments in the book's final chapter), and shortchanges regular readers looking for cooking sequences, but it still retains its manic comic energy. Saijyo's over-the-top drawing style (lots of panels of Jan loudly crowing as he brags about his mad cooking skills, scenes of Kiriko matriarchally folding her arms under her breasts) is suited to a world where cooking competitions have outlandishly outsized stakes. In the final contest, for instance, Jan bets against a jealous restaurant critic: if our mouthy protagonist loses the contest, he'll intentionally crush his left arm, effectively ending his career as a wok chef. The critic Otani, who calls himself the Tongue of God, faces an even more extreme penalty if Jan wins. But since this contest never happens, both characters get to keep their body parts.

I'll miss Jan, but I can understand the manga artist's readiness to move on: there are only so many ways you can render wok cooking fights, after all, particularly when you have two story leads who are comically uncommitted to change. No big life lessons learned - but you know both Jan and Kiriko have returned to their native land ("Japanese really do smell like pickles," Kiriko notes) armed with even more mouthwatering tricks of their trade.


# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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