Monday, February 09, 2009

Viz's Otomen is as inconsequential as everybody's been saying. The schtick is that the protagonist is a boy with a 'feminine heart' - likes cute things, has the skill-set and hobbies of a yamato nadeshiko, reads shoujo manga, etc etc sexist blah; his father abandoned his family to work in a tranny bar, so the protagonist has been emotionally crippled by his damaged mother & is fixated on being 'manly', largely through being stoic & mastering every martial art out there. It's bloody 'orrible. The author has absolutely nothing of interest to say, and everything done in the comic has been done better in School Rumble, Ouran, Gatcha Gacha or a hundred other high-school romantic comedies. The protagonist is a walking ready-made pansy-hardass cliche, his love interest is a tomboy cipher, and the loki character - a teenaged male mangaka writing award-winning shoujo manga under a feminine pseudonym - is an undermotivated, impossible contrivance who comes off less realistic than if he had been a talking dog or a magical girl's mascot. It's not worth another volume, series dropped.

Oshinbo, on the other hand, was a joybomb surprise. I bought the first volume mostly out of cultural obligation - it seems like it would be a weaboo check-point rather than anything particularly exciting in and of its own merit. Boy, was that wrong. I'm about the polar opposite of a 'foodie', one of those gastronomic obsessives who constantly go on about their cooking habits. I eat out of cans & a microwave. Still, Oshinbo makes a rollicking good time out of that exact sort of niggling technical obsession with food, food preparation, and presentation.

It's a series about cultural status anxiety, and how that false consciousness which comes with status anxiety wars with the actual authentic practice and experience of a practical art like cooking. The details of the art in question is a matter of execution & technique rather than essence, which is the constant struggle between wanting to do something, and wanting to show off how you do it. The stories picked out for the American edition of Oshinbo - the ongoing comic in Japan has been on-going for decades, and the publisher decided to just print highlights instead of pretending to print the whole massive series - are focused on what the writer calls 'washoku' - a sort of denationalized Japanese cultural/culinary spirit. The two antagonists of the story - the punk Yamaoka and his curmudgeon father Kaihara - are respectively a journalist and an artist-artisan who compete in a series of face-offs over the composition of an "ultimate menu" of the Platonic ideal of the Japanese culinary art.

It's *fun*, kind of silly, and very, very open-hearted. It might just have been the editorial choices made in publishing an American edition, but half the stories in the first volume are about Western weaboo types showing up snotty or arrogant or mistaken Japanese about this or that aspect of the true art, about foreigners being more open to washoku, being more willing to learn.

Oshinbo's art is very simple, but tasteful. The emphasis is on the food, and on things rather than people, who by and large are relatively simple cartoons existing to express attitudes, comedy, and passions in an efficient manner. I found myself regretting somewhat the choice to present high-lights, but I can see why they thought they couldn't get away with publishing 102 volumes of food-snob comics in the current market.

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