Oshinbo – Eat your Manga.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald Good Living section September 2009.

Did you know that the biggest selling food writer in Japan has lived in Sydney for the past twenty years?

When he finished university Tetsuya Totsuka planned to be a nuclear physicist. Today he is one of the most respected writers of food manga in Japan. And with the release of collected editions of the series, ‘Oishinbo, a la carte’ translated into English, I suggested his impact is certain to be much wider.

Oishinbo is a portmanteau word that Kariya coined; ‘bo’ is a man and ‘Oishin’ a gourmet/gourmand.

Talking in his music room, with a view through the trees to Middle Harbour and surrounded by a library of much loved jazz and classical records, CDs and DVD’s, he laughs. “When the English editions came out my Sydney friends said ‘Oh, so that’s what you do!’. For the first time in all these years they understood that while it looked like a comic, the subject matter was educational and serious.”

His Japanese friends know him by his nom de plume of Tetsu Kariya, (even his wife calls him Kariya). Oishinbo started in 1984 as a weekly twenty-two page comic strip, it now appears in two paperback editions a year, and has done so for over twenty years, selling over a million copies and over one hundred editions. Shooting starts soon on a TV adaptation, (there was one less than successful series in 1988), this time with a top cast of Japanese actors that Kariya feels will give it much more of a mainstream audience. With its reputation now as a ‘classic’, you can see Oishinbo’s impact on Japanese food culture – in the Iron Chef TV series, and a number of other manga titles.

It’s his wife who Kariya credits for pushing him to write about food. “I asked her one day while I was working as a copywriter (at the Dentsu Agency), ‘How come we never have any money?’ and her reply was ‘Because you eat and drink it all’. I knew that if I was going to make any use of my reputation as an opinionated gourmet I might as well be writing about food!”

He had written one very popular, violent, socially edgy and dramatic manga story and despite the acclaim knew he didn’t want to continue writing in that genre. When a friend who was publishing a weekly called Big Comic Spirits kept pestering him to contribute, he said “It’s this story about food or forget it.” The timing was right for the Japanese market with a growing interest in food and the title became a hit across wide age groups.

“Our children were our reason for moving to Australia”, Kariya explained. “I didn’t want them to be subjected to the intensely competitive Japanese school system”. He points with pride to the photographs of three attractive young adults gowned for graduation that line the mantelpiece. They share space with pictures of Kariya catching fish, (he’s a keen angler), and the Oishinbo series has featured a number of Australian stories over the years, even to covering Bush Food. Kakadu is one of Kariya’s favourite places.

Once you’ve learnt to navigate the flow on the pages, the hardest step is to go beyond the graphic conventions of manga. When someone is surprised,  he’s drawn falling backward off his chair, when the newspaper boss gets angry he beats up his staff physically, leaving blood and bruises. Don’t let this distract you from the serious and intriguing storylines. Along with understanding Japanese cuisine, Kariya is a crusader using Oishinbo as a platform for protecting regional produce and diversity, reducing pesticide use and restoring the ecology. The “Sake” edition for example, is a strong attack on the way the big manufacturers water down and adulterate sake and of the government rules that allow them to do it. It then becomes an endorsement of the small specialist regional sake brewers, and like all the titles in this series, will change how you buy, order and cook Japanese food and drink.

Whenever I wrote for the SMH, the brief was to always have somewhere in Sydney where you could sample the food, visit etc. This time it was an event in Adelaide, which then editor Sue Bennett, accepted grudgingly.

Fresh Manga|
The 2009 Adelaide Festival features an event with chefs Cheong Liew and Simon Bryant called Food Manga. It was a three course banquet of OzAsian food with an introduction by Annette Shun Wah (author of the history of Chinese food in Australia “Banquet – Ten Courses to Harmony”, written with Greg Aitkin). Also at the Festival is the Animania program that ran in Sydney as part of the recent Sydney International Animation Festival, it features a number of the manga to anime crossovers.

Eat your Manga

These Japanese weekly comic books are a publishing phenomena. The originals are often phonebook size and printed cheaply. Many are weekly, and the best or the more the popular ones are often collected into the small paperbacks called tankōbon you’ll see in the Asian and comic bookshops here. If you’re a really successful title like Oishinbo they then get released in slip cover boxed editions for collectors.

Pronounced ‘MahNnnGah’ in Japanese, (rather than our usual stab at it as ‘Man-Gah’) the word translates as ‘humorous pictures’. The content of these comic books is often anything but the ‘funny pages’ – action adventure, sci-fi, romance, pornography and violence are all popular and read across most of Japanese society. Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong all have their own variants.

Is this serious stuff, or throw away entertainment? Just like western comic strips it has taken a long time for the art behind the artwork and stories in Manga, to be recognised in a mainstream way. The flow of stories told in images and the distinctive graphic qualities have long influenced both Western and Asian fine artists and especially our film makers and animators. The rise of the Western comic book novella and the subsequent Hollywood movies (Frank Miller’s Dark Knight is a recent example) show that influence.

Then there’s the ‘Anime’, Japanese animated cartoon TV series and made for movie theatre stories, that often start as manga or cross there if they’re a hit. Two food related series that you might find on sale in your video store are Antique Bakery “four gorgeous and occasionally heterosexual men who run a patisserie. (This is a good example of Yaoi – manga which features romance and/or sex between men, a big hit with teenage girl readers.) And Ja-Pan about young baker who wants to create a unique style of bread for Japan.

Draw card

When Oishinbo featured Australian stories Kariya hardly expected the same effect as when he named a Japanese restaurant or chef in a story. In Melbourne and Sydney the restaurants he mentioned had an influx (“often hundreds”) of Japanese tourists, all of them demanding the dishes the manga mentioned on the ‘Supreme Menu’.

Conveniently

The small convenience stores that are now such a big part of the food buying habits of Japanese metropolitan life, also sell books and manga along with fast food, exotic carbonated drinks and household insurance.  The Oishinbo series are there in their regular editions but share shelf space alongside special store branded versions (with coloured advertising). Kariya suggested it’s a bit like McDonalds selling the SMH Good Food Guide, but it’s an example of the wide influence of the Oishinbo title.


There is a lot more interview material that didn’t make this article, and more that you need to know about Tetsuya, especially his activism, his pacifism and stance on denouncing Japanese war atrocities which made him a target of death threats and violence at home. He is notable for his activism against US imports of rice into Japan, being pro-organic food and whale meat (which he likes). Other than a complete re-write, I’ve started with this corrected reprint.

We first met at a truffle hunt, arranged when I was doing the the Canberra Truffle Festival, something we put on for the Japanese ambassador. Takaaki Kojima, Ambassador of Japan and Mme Tomoko Kojima responded with an invitation to a special lunch that Jan and I attended at the Japanese embassy, a pdf version of the menu is here.

You can buy the English versions of Oshinbo online from VIZ

 

And an anime (animation) with the origin of the Ultimate Menu.
Turn on YouTube AutoTranslate for a bizarre translation into English,
but good enough to understand the plot. There seem to be a lot of episodes of this series.