Coming back from work on Monday night, I got off at Nagai Station and found my bicycle (parked out behind the exit, where no one is supposed to park but everybody does). In the basket were some books, small paperbacks. Religious tracts? Porno? No, although I’ve been given both over the years (the Japanese versions of both are equally tedious). These were three books of manga, from different publishers, but all about food.
Manga usually first appear in serial form in huge, pulpy, weekly comic book collections, featuring eight or nine different stories by different artists. The bigger, more general ones, like Shonen Jump, feature the usual team sports stories for the boys (Slam Dunk!), plus stories about cool delinquents (Bleach!) or animé-related fantasy with lots of tie-ins (Yugio! One Piece! Dragon Ball-Z!). Others, like Nakayoshi, are exclusively for girls and feature profoundly saccharine school-girl heroines (Candy Candy! Sailor Moon!). Still others, more specialized and adult-oriented, feature yakuza stories, samurai epics, or any type of porn you could imagine – and several you probably couldn’t. Like Victorian novels, the stories can go on for years, and many artists have loyal followings. Occasionally, stories are compiled into paperback volumes, which collectors buy. There are also manga cafés, where you pay a nominal hourly sum to drink unlimited coffee or soft drinks and read these compilations at your leisure – a sort of private paying library – very convenient for manga-lovers with no shelf space.
Anyway, these three books were about cooking. Not the most exciting topic to draw cartoons about, you say? You don’t know the half of it. There is nothing a Japanese hobbyist won’t read about his favourite topic and nothing a manga artist won’t draw to get an audience, no matter how small. When I was new to Japan, a friend and I tried to imagine the most boring manga, featuring all the usual sportsman-as-samurai clichés, about a drawn-out, utter non-event. We settled on golf. We would draw pages and pages of men standing on the green, not moving for panels on end, thwacking the ball in slow motion for five panels, then eight or nine panels of the ball flying through the air, and the sweat on the golfer’s brow (Japanese always sweat at times like this because it’s so crucial) as it lands in the sand trap. His opponent smirks wickedly – end of episode 72. We laughed our heads off over several pints of draught (it was in the old Keystone in Nagai, c.1989). The whole thing would be designed to be so utterly underwhelming – excruciating details of pure inaction. Ah we were brilliant back then! So imagine my deflation two days later when I took a seat on the subway next to a sombre, plump salaryman who was reading… a golf manga. The artist had cleverly dealt with the problem of all those inert panels by including a sportscaster, who narrated. Boringly. Lines of Japanese script ran vertically down the sides of the panels as the golfers stood there. And gazed into the distance. And moved their thumb down a notch on the driver. Perhaps we should have tried a house-painting manga (Chapters 1-3 – Flat or Gloss for the living room: Keiko’s heart will break at the wrong choice, but Kazu can’t decide), although I’m sure someone has long since beat us to it.
I brought the food manga home. Tried reading one chapter/episode the other night. A taxi driver says bad things to his customer about the restaurant they’re driving to. Realizes that customer works there. Silent glances. Cabbie goes home to his pathetic bed-sit. Eats Cup Noodle, smokes in his futon. Flashes back to the quarrel he had with his wife at that same restaurant: she leaves him, taking their daughter. Present day: cabbie dresses and goes to the restaurant. Eats good food – the chef comes out from the kitchen: same guy to whom he criticized the place. “I’m the new owner. It’s better now.” He looks into the distance (to Mount Fuji, no doubt), proudly. For some reason this inspires the cab driver to go back to his wife, if she’ll have him. I’ve got to read it again with the kanji dictionary, but that’s the story in a nutshell. They all seem to be pretty much in the same vein (although one features three pages on how to peel and carve a bamboo shoot, which might come in handy some day…)
There are three volumes of this. Somewhat more interesting (and a lot weirder) than all the textbooks gathering dust on my shelf. I wonder who left them in the basket? A case of mistaken bicycality? Ah well, a good a way as any to start the summer holidays.