Food Manga: Where Culture, Conflict And Cooking All Collide : The Salt In Japan, a country rich with visual storytelling, food has skyrocketed as a genre of manga — and the stories often depict a struggle for self-improvement.

Food Manga: Where Culture, Conflict And Cooking All Collide

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And I'm Steve Inskeep with one sure way to learn something about an overseas culture - learn about its food. This installment of Hidden Kitchens takes us to Japan. In particular, it takes us to comic books known as manga. They're everywhere in Japanese life and often adapted for the screen. And some of the stories obsess over food. So the Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, bring us a report they call "War And Food And Manga."

DEB AOKI: Manga is a cradle-to-grave phenomenon. It's a visual storytelling medium that people enjoy from the day they first start seeing pictures to the day they die.

MILES THOMAS: Practically every interest has a manga dedicated to it - shooting pool, swimming, high school basketball, gambling, sex.

NANCY STALKER: Food manga, gurume manga, gourmet manga is one of the major genres within manga that's just been growing exponentially.

AOKI: There's "Food Wars."

STALKER: "Detective Glutton."

THOMAS: "Cooking Master Boy."

STALKER: "Soldier Of Food," "Criminal Grub."

AOKI: "Kitchen Princess."

STALKER: "Antique Bakery," "Nobunaga No Chef."


STALKER: "A Chef Of Nobunaga."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Japanese).

STALKER: The young chef at a contemporary high-end hotel wakes up in the late 15th century in a battlefield during Japan's century of civil war. He becomes the chef of a very notorious warlord Oda Nobunaga. He uses his culinary skills to lure enemy combatants off the battlefield with the smell of grilled meat. My name's Nancy Stalker, professor of Japanese history and culture at the University of Texas at Austin.

BRIAN ZHONG: There always has to be conflict in mangas, especially food magna. There has to be some sort of battle. My name is Brian Zhong, and I'm a member of AnimeFX at San Francisco State University. There's never any real peace in manga. If there is peace, it's very short, one or two chapters. War produces content.


THOMAS: One of the most popular anime in America last year was "Food Wars." My name is Miles Thomas, anime marketing at Crunchy Roll.

AOKI: "Food Wars" is the best. "Shokugeki No Soma" - cooking wars. My name is Debra Aoki. I write about manga for Anime News Network. I'm also a cartoonist. "Shokugeki No Soma" is in the best-selling manga magazine in the world, Shonen Jump - super popular. All boys read it. The hero of it is this boy named Soma.


YOSHITSUGU MATSUOKA: (As Soma Yukihira, speaking Japanese).

AOKI: He's, like, your classic shonen manga hero. He's got the spiky hair - it's red - and 16 years old, a little full of himself. He's been working at his family restaurant for years.

THOMAS: His dad sends the kid to a food boarding school where battle is the context. Who's going to win this battle between this spinach dish and this sauteed scallion dish?

AOKI: When Soma cooks something that's really delicious, people just put it in their mouth, and they're just so overcome with ecstasy that their clothes explode off. The artist originally was known for doing soft-core comics. So you see these girls - like, they're eating something. It's like, oh, I can't stand it. It's so good. Boom - and then their clothes explode off.

LEYLA AKER: The modern manga industry came into being after World War II, with Osamu Tezuka, who created "Astro Boy." He was influenced by Walt Disney. That American content was brought over by the occupation. My name is Leyla Aker at Viz Media. We specialize in Japanese graphic novels and anime. During the American occupation of Japan, a large portion of the Japanese population subsisted on handouts given by the American forces.

STALKER: There were severe shortages of food during the occupation - eating bark from trees and replacing sawdust for flour in recipes. Many Japanese died of starvation.

AKER: In the manga called "Yakitate!! Ja-pan," a young boy, Kazuma, his family grows rice. His grandfather insists every morning that they eat a traditional Japanese breakfast - miso soup, rice, natto. And Kazuma and his sister, they want to eat bread.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Japanese).

AKER: And their grandfather, who lived through the occupation and the war, was like, are you crazy? Why would you eat bread for breakfast? The stuff is gross. And it's this picture of General MacArthur holding a roll and saying, eat this.

THOMAS: There's this anime called "Grave Of The Fireflies" about these two orphans during World War II who are starving and hungry. They steal food, trying their hardest to survive. And there's these candies that this girl really like in a metal tin. They're this girl's entire world.

TIFFANY CHEN: It really makes you think about the darker side of food, when people don't have enough of it to survive. My name's Tiffany Chen at Crunchy Roll, a streaming service for anime. For a long time, World War II was just a history that you studied in class but never really felt connected with it. A lot of younger people don't actually even know about the atomic bomb. After watching this film, it was a pretty sobering moment.

STALKER: Food has always been tied up in Japan's national identity. Traditionally, the eating of the four-legged creatures was proscribed by Buddhist belief. The Japanese military began to introduce beef in order to compete with Western soldiers. The emperor first publicly ate meat in 1872. Eating beef was seen as something that would help build the national physique and make the Japanese more like Westerners.


AOKI: "Oishinbo" and "Cooking Papa," they're both really popular manga for adult men. In "Oishinbo," the main character is this scrappy reporter. His father is, like, this really snooty gourmet who sets up this ritzy gourmet club for only rich people. They have dueling palate battles. It's written by Tetsu Kariya, who is very opinionated about what real food is, creating all this drama about food issues - around growing it, around cooking it, about what it means to eat expensive food and cheap food and what is good food. Food manga like "Oishinbo" and "Food Wars," in some ways it's a war within theirself, fighting to be the best - the way of the sword, the way of the chef.

INSKEEP: "War And Food And Manga" was produced by the Kitchen Sisters with Brandi Howell and mixed by Jim McKee. Hear more Kitchen Sisters stories on their podcast, "Fugitive Waves."

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