In America, unfortunately, comic books are seen as junk culture for either children or social misfits, covering subjects that range only
between Superman and Bugs Bunny. In Japan, however, the situation is refeshingly different: their comics (manga) are read by
schoolkids, men, women, teenagers, and practically everyone else. Although the storylines often take familiar themes - fantasy,
science fiction, or outrageous humor - they also very often portray more down-to-earth subject matter. Some of these include tennis,
pachenko (Japanese pinball), romance... and even cooking.
Oishimbo is a comic created by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki that debuted in Weekly Big Comic Spirits beginning in 1983.
(Japanese comic series usually consist of huge, phonebook-like weekly anthologies of different strips organized for a particular
audience - one for younger boys, one for girls, one for teen males, etc. If a particular series is successful, it is spun off and
published in separate volumes.) Oishimbo means 'Taste Quest.'
The plot initially involved the 100th anniverary of a newspaper. Two reporters - lazy Shira and new guy Yuko - were tasked with finding the ultimate menu item that
could be used to properly celebrate the anniversary; there was the usual manga melodrama, but the plots centered around the ultimate search
for culinary heaven. The idea allowed the manga to explore a range of topics surrounding the subject
of food: its preparation; the optimal conditions under which it should be eaten; various exotic dishes and local specialities; etc.
The strip was carefully researched, and over its lifetime led readers on a course of gurume (gourmet) self-discovery.
The strip was a spectacular success. By 2004 it had spawned no less than 89 collected volumes, as well as a cookbook. In 1996 a feature film version was
produced, with the drama centered around the two reporters, as well as Rentaro Mikuni as Shira's estranged gourmet-chef father.
The film - unlike the original comic - ends with the dish finally being chosen: it turns out to be nothing more exotic than beans,
cooked using old-fashioned methods that any tradition-minded Japanese citizen would approve of (i.e., no fancy French food or other
corrupt Western dish).
Although probably the most successful example, Oishimbo wasn't the only comic strip or film to center around the enjoyment of food.
Kitchen no Ohimesama (Kitchen Princess) is another popular gourmet-oriented manga that has recently become available overseas; designed
to appeal to younger girls, it follows the popular school-drama format, its heroine trying a new challenging recipe (usually for sweets)
in each installment.
Another food-minded Japanese film that's become famous with American audiences is Tampopo, which concerns the efforts of a young
widow to make her small restaurant a success by perfecting her recipe for ramen noodles - not the cheap, sad dish purchased in bulk
by American college students, but the traditional dish enjoyed by millions of Japanese every day.