When I heard that a fansub of a TV special based on Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki’s Oishinbo is out — finished for years but only released just now (the project broke up the fansub group for reasons I’ll describe later) — my obscure-o-sensors just about went haywire. Too curious for my own good, I grabbed this special immediately.
I was as surprised by the contents of Japan-US Rice War (a terribly promising title) as its subbers must have been. Was this really the Oishinbo I’d been hearing about, the one recommended by reputable people? And how the hell did Japan make it through a hundred volumes of this? Short of perhaps Odin, this movie was one of the dullest cartoons I’ve ever watched. I was so confused by how bad this movie was that I went out and bought two books of the Viz release, titles that had resided on my shopping list for some time now. This couldn’t be right.
It wasn’t. The tale of a reporter’s never-ending quest to create Japan’s greatest menu, Oishinbo is a damn fine comic where every problem is solved by fine dining in about 32 pages. This movie, on the other hand, is a Very Special Episode of Oishinbo, with all the baggage that designation implies.
As they explore cuisine, every few stories Kariya and Hanasaki will directly state their agenda to the audience: buy organic, buy domestic, keep Nippon glorious and to hell with MSG. In one book, upon tasting a noodle dish at some unfortunate restaurant, our hero makes a scene by naming every chemical on his tongue and leaves the restaurant outraged. Since this always has to do directly with the food — in Oishinbo, the food is always the story — it’s not preachy or overbearing, just a foodie doing what he does. The movie, on the other hand, is a 90-minute sermon on Oishinbo‘s pet causes, an incredible bore that almost entirely leaves out the joy of eating. Though it’s unlikely that your first exposure to Oishinbo will be through this obscure special, if it is, please ignore it.
The movie opens with a cooking contest between our hero Shiro Yamaoka’s Ultimate Menu and his father and rival Yuzan Kaibara’s Supreme Menu: the backstory (the movie assumes that the viewer is quite familiar with Oishinbo) is that these guys are hired by rival newspapers to create the greatest menu ever conceived. However, Oishinbo is a never-ending comic (remember, 100 volumes!) and the setup is really just a cover for Yamaoka to find himself in a new culinary conundrum every week. For ten minutes, the movie delivers what Oishinbo is best at: extended tasting scenes where everything about the dish — the ingredients, the exacting preparations, the subtle tastes — is lovingly detailed. Sadly, this doesn’t last. The cooking battle involves rice, and as he explains the meal he’s prepared, Kaibara goes into a long explanation of the danger Japanese rice faces from cheap foreign imports, and furthermore, how cheap American rice, along with hamburgers and fried chicken, will eventually destroy the Japanese palate. This kicks off a political discussion that lasts the entire movie.
That’s right, this entire movie is actually about tariffs on rice, making this and Gasaraki the only two titles I can think of in the esteemed “rice anime” sub-genre. In the words of the fansubber, “the entire staff was bored stiff with it.” The sad thing is that the volumes of Oishinbo I have here are fun. Light in tone and easy to read, they’re deeply informative but never didactic. Even when a story stretches out to three or four chapters, Kariya and Hanasaki have the good sense never to outright abandon their subject. The pleasure of eating fine food is at the heart of Oishinbo, but the movie leaves food as an afterthought, placing soapboxing at top of the to-do list. Of course, I imagine that the special is very likely an adaptation one of Oishinbo‘s longer stories: this makes me grateful for the “best-of” format of the Viz release, because I’ve yet to read an Oishinbo story this bad. I couldn’t get through this movie in one sitting, pressing on only out of a desire to get this review done, and at least produce something of value out of this unbelievably dull slog. People should at least be warned.
Every character introduced in the movie is explicitly designed with a specific role in the debate: the pushy American senator who wants to eliminate the tariff and get California rice into Japan, the Japanese activist who’s staunchly against this and the symbolic Japanese/American romance that Yamaoka must save by patching up the rice issue. Ultimately, neither America nor Japan is wrong (though Japan is still Number One) and the real villain turns out to be — say it with me — the use of agricultural chemicals and the factory farming system. Yamaoka, who, like the audience, is asleep for most of the movie’s running time, unloads on every major character in a furious ten-minute rant involving limbless monkeys. At this point, everybody agrees to compromise, and Yamaoka goes back to sleep. Watch this movie and you’ll envy the drowsy bastard.
So, buy Viz’s release of Oishinbo instead. It’s a good read and, from what I hear about its sales, it needs your help. Just stay the hell away from this special.