Pop Culture Gadabout
Thursday, December 03, 2009
      ( 12/03/2009 05:58:00 AM ) Bill S.  

RICE BALLS A popular foodee manga, with over a hundred volumes in its native Japan, Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki’s Oishinbo tells the story of Yamaoka Shiro, a slacker journalist who’s been handed the assignment of creating the “Ultimate Menu” -- one which exemplifies Japanese cuisine in all its facets. Originally created in 1983, the series has been serialized in Big Comic Spirits ever since. To keep American readers from being too daunted by 25-plus years of continuity, Viz Signature has begun printing “a la carte” collections of Oishinbo, selecting highlights from the series and clumping ém together by topic. The most recent volume in the series is The Joy of Rice, which examines all aspects of this stable of the Japanese diet.

Thus, our reporter hero gets involves in a debate over the merits of brown vs. white rice with a burly woman’s judo camp leader; helps a would-be bride learn the proper technique for storing and cooking rice; oversees a contest on the best “companion of rice” and gets involved in a rice ball competition against a rival paper which is promoting a “Supreme Meal” as a counter to Yamaoka’s “Ultimate Menu.”

Along the way, we’re treated to discourses on the way that antibiotics can sneak into “organically” farmed rice, on the role rice plays in Japan’s economy and the cultural importance of maintaining a distinctive national cuisine. This didactic material is incorporated into Oishinbo much more smoothly than you might expect -- in large part thanks to our hero’s know-it-all persona. The young gourmet has a knack for pissing off both his bosses and the powerful would-be epicures he meets as a part of his never-ending assignment. While he may not be as arrogantly obnoxious as the hero of Iron Wok Jan!, he definitely has his comic moments.

As an added complication, the man overseeing the rival paper’s “Supreme Meal” is our hero’s estranged father Kaibana. The old man shows up in the book’s concluding three-part rice ball match, but in this volume at least the dysfunctional family dynamics are downplayed.

Because the stories in the “a la carte” set are cherry picked from the series’ full run, the editors occasionally need to insert footnotes to explain any continuity issues. Fellow Tozai News reporter Kurita Yuko, for instance, later marries our hero, but in all of the tales included in Rice, this hasn’t occurred yet. In one story, though, a discussion of the best season to eat oysters relates to the duo’s planned wedding date. It’s an amusing piece that again shows the effect the environment can have on food flavor, even if it’s the one story which strays from the book’s overarching rice motif.

The art by Akira Hanasaki is cartoony (there’s a character in the series, Tomii Tomio, who at times looks like something Peter Bagge might drawn in his frantic mode), except when it comes to renderings of each dish. This approach is suited to the series’ rollicking tone -- many of the stories end with a joke at our smarty-pants hero’s expense – if a bit anatomically inconsistent in places. And if some of the stories’ punchlines seem more tacked on than integral to the storyline, it may be a reflection of Joy of Rice’s “a la carte” format. It doesn’t seriously detract from the tasty pleasures of this funny and informative foodee manga.

But do they ever actually put together that "Ultimate Menu"?
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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