Manga, the Japanese word for graphic novels, covers all manner of topics and genres. It would be hard not to find a title that would pique your interest after digging through some titles and doing some research. Browsing through the shelves of manga in Kinokuniya, the Japanese bookstore in Uwajimaya, I came across two titles that immediately grabbed my interest: What Did You Eat Yesterday? and Oishinbo.
What Did You Eat Yesterday?
Having studied Japanese for two years in college, oishinbo reminded me of the word oishii in Japanese, meaning delicious, which was what caused me to take it off the shelf for further investigation. Turns out it is a portmanteau of the words oishii and kuishinbo, meaning someone who likes to eat. As for the second title, need I say more? What Did You Eat Yesterday? sounds like a simple invitation to a conversation any foodie, cook or person with the slightest interest in food would want to dive into. Being a bit of a food and cooking addict, I was hooked from the titles alone.
What Did You Eat Yesterday? is a slice-of-life manga from Fumi Yoshinaga that revolves around the life of Shiro Kakei, a successful and handsome 40-something lawyer who looks extremely young for his age. His colleagues at his law firm makes typical assumptions about his life, never guessing that Shiro is actually gay and living with his hairstylist boyfriend Kenji Yabuki.
From the outset, it is easy to distinguish the differences between the two. Unlike his boyfriend, Shiro is extremely self-conscious about coming off as being gay in Japan’s conservative society and is careful about how he presents himself, a stark contrast to Kenji’s situation where his occupation allows him to be more open about his sexuality to his boss and coworkers. Kenji is more carefree, emotional, gregarious, thoughtful and even more prone to jealousy, while Shiro is more cool-headed, private, reticent, strict, frugal and rational.
Knowing this about Shiro, it may come as a surprise that he likes to cook. In fact, this is where the heart of the manga comes from. Each story chapter has a section where readers are given a chance to see Shiro in his element as he cooks and prepares a meal for Kenji.
This is the genius behind What Did You Eat Yesterday? It seamlessly adds a recipe into the story as Shiro thinks about the appropriate amount of ingredients and what he needs to do to cook them, essentially turning the series into a cookbook manga. This is the perfect combination of elements for graphic novel readers who are interested in anything pertaining to cooking, particularly Japanese home cooking.
Although an extremely private individual, Shiro finds opportunities to open himself up and make connections with others through his interest in food. For instance, there is Kayoko, the housewife he met at a market when they both happened to agonize over whether they should buy a large watermelon that was on sale.
Through this chance meeting, they established an agreement to go halfsies on food being sold at a discount in large quantities, whereby Shiro became “acquainted” with her family as he ended up revealing the biggest secret of his life, a story that will make you chuckle, if not laugh out loud. Through Kayoko, Shiro not only has a cooking buddy he could swap recipes and food with, but also someone he could talk to without fearing judgment.
One of the most interesting relationships explored in the manga is the one he has with his parents. Although he came out to them at a young age, his parents’ faux acceptance of his sexuality makes him feel awkward around them. He dreads receiving phone calls from his mother and avoids visiting his parents.
One could argue that part of this dread derives from a sense of guilt: As a gay man and an only child, he cannot give his parents future offspring to carry on the family name, but as a 40-something-year-old son, he is also trying to come to terms with filial piety after avoiding his parents for most of his adult life, as his father’s health deteriorates and they require financial assistance from him
Overall, this is a great ongoing manga series to read if you are interested in food, cookbooks and LGBTQ stories (especially of that pertaining in another country).
Oishinbo is a long-running graphic novel written by Tetsu Kariya and drawn by Akira Hanasaki. It started running in 1983 but has been on hiatus since 2014. There is a total of 111 published volumes, making it the tenth longest and seventh best-selling manga series in Japanese history.
For the English editions, manga juggernaut publishing company VIZ Media released “a la carte” versions that combined the stories into themes such as “Ramen & Gyoza,” “Fish, Sushi & Sashimi” and “Izakaya – Pub Food.” There are seven volumes in all. For a first-time reader, this may be a little confusing in the beginning, as it was for me as I got used to the characters and the setting, but I got absorbed into the stories in no time at all.
Meet the protagonist, Shirou Yamaoka. He is a lazy journalist working in the culture department of “Touzai News.” The only thing that makes him indispensable is that he is a food expert, thanks to his distinguished upbringing from his estranged father Kaibara Yuuzan, who is a famous artist and food expert.
Although Yamaoka had been trained in his father’s elite Gourmet Club, a members-only restaurant that allows only elite clientele, the two are on bad terms, and their rivalry gets worse after Yamaoka was assigned to be the head of the newspaper’s Ultimate Menu project in celebration of its 100th-year anniversary. Not to be outdone, his father joins “Teito Times,” a rival paper, and becomes the head of a similar project called the Supreme Menu. These two often butt heads as they try to come up with the best menu once they settle on a food theme.
Although it is interesting to see what these two come up with during the competitions, the series has other stories that dig deeper into Yamaoka’s personality, and it is through these stories that we understand why the female protagonist Yuuko Kurita, a strong and opinionated woman in her own right who is partnered with him in the Ultimate Menu project, falls in love with him and later decides to marry him.
Through these stories, the reader learns that Yamaoka has a strong sense of morality and justice and will risk his own career and livelihood to fight against something he considers to be unfair. He is also compassionate and will try to help out people he sympathizes for…or is guilted into helping from his better half.
For food lovers, this is also a great place to learn about all types of Japanese food with detailed pictures drawn of the food itself. It is literally food porn and will have readers salivating and craving for the food. It’ll be a wonder if they don’t find themselves dashing to the nearest Japanese restaurant. It also dispenses wisdom about how to eat sustainably and responsibly while protecting the environment.
Readers will find themselves rooting for Yamaoka and his team in the culture department with every adventure they read about, and they will be begging for more after they finish each volume, dreading the moment they reach the last one.