BINGE-READ MANGA: Food Wars

Welcome to BINGE-READ MANGA, a new monthly feature where I look at a manga series that's been running for a while and has a good back catalogue built up. Just as Netflix exists well for cramming seasons of TV into a sitting, so too do these manga exist for tearing through six or seven volumes back-to-back.

To start us off, we're headed deep into the culinary craziness territory of Yuto Tsukada and Shun Saeki's Food Wars.

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THE STORY AND CHARACTERS


The way I've pitched this to the uninitiated is it's Harry Potter by way of Iron Chef - you know, that really awesome old Japanese cooking show where a flamboyant man who owns a Kitchen Stadium gets chefs from around the world to compete with his own masters of specialty cooking, which had a really, really goofy (and excellent) English dub? Yeah, that Iron Chef. That's the tone Food Wars sets right from the off.

Culinary prodigy Soma Yukihira helps run a self-titled family restaurant with his father, Joichiro. A revitalisation of his former famous cooking career leads Joichiro to leave the restaurant, sending Soma to learn better cooking skills at the prestigious Totsuki Institute. Upon arriving at the Institute, Soma learns that the people there take cooking seriously to an absurd degree; the Institute is presided over by an absurdly powerful student council of ten cooking masters who might as well be big black slabs with red numbers of the front (that's an Evangelion joke, by the way). Soma vows to do his best and show the snooty, upper-class culinary masters that his own grounded, down-to-earth training can still compete with the best of them.

The series mostly follows Soma and the friends he makes at Totsuki, including Megumi - a shrinking violet who quickly learns how to assert herself - and Isshiki - an always-naked carefree member of the student council and one of Soma's dorm-mates. They all cook under the prideful eye of Erina Nakiri, granddaughter of the Institute's Dean and a young woman blessed with a pallet so discerning that her first words were a critique of her mother's breast milk.

While Food Wars is definitely good when it comes to plot and pacing, its true strength lies in the characters. Especially once the premise is established, the characters and their respective developments take centre stage and become more interesting than the narrative thread running through them all. At times it's even questionable as to whether Soma's the main protagonist; so many of the others are fleshed out and expanded on that it becomes more of an ensemble piece than a hero's journey. Even as an ensemble story, Soma's personal narrative still works well in amongst the other tangling character arcs vying for dominance. Food Wars is very much a bildungsroman - a coming-of-age story - at heart, a factor that bleeds into many other characters' arcs as well.

As much as it contains the odd serious moment, Food Wars is a largely absurd and comedic manga. The characters take cooking battles as seriously as a duel with pistols at dawn, and strange metaphors for the taste of food - such as tasting like "being hit over the head with a jukebox" - give a constant impression of a narrative outside the realistic sphere. That's probably par for the course with a shonen like this, but at times it can be a little too ridiculous.


If I have one concern about the story - in fact, the reason I list it as a binge-read - is the constant use of end-of-volume cliffhangers. There were a couple of moments (including and especially the end of Volume 4) where I would've groaned at the thought of not having the next volume immediately to hand. While it's not as bad as Attack on Titan or Fullmetal Alchemist in the cliffhanger game, there are still moments where Food Wars yanks the chain by leaving a character's fate or a cooking battle up in the air. So really, if you're keen on checking it out, maybe grab a bunch of volumes instead of one or two; you'll thank me for it later.

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THE ART AND VISUALS


Food Wars is food porn; every illustration of a dish by artist Shun Saeki is beautifully and lovingly drawn, and even in black-and-white the meals look good enough to eat (also helpful is the recipes included of dishes cooked by the characters in each volume). The shift in art styles when characters eat great food works well, though there are a few NSFW panels when characters try food that's so good, they imagine their clothes flying off. Very funny, but you probably don't want your boss to glance it over your shoulder.

There's a distinct shift between the realistic sections, used for character interaction and plot movement, and the exaggerated, over-the-top style used in the cooking battles. Seriously, those battles look almost like epic Dragonball Z fights with the amount of auras, insane food flips and lightning bolts on display. When Soma whips his bandanna off his wrist and ties it to his forehead in heroic style, you know you're about to see some epic culinary clashing.

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DOES IT HAVE AN ANIME?


Sure does. It's currently available for streaming here. I've only seen a few episodes, but it seems like a largely recitative version of the manga. Great stuff, and nice to see it in colour; reading the manga, I keep forgetting Soma's actually a redhead.

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HOW MANY VOLUMES ARE OUT?


In Japan, they're up to 14, but over here we currently have 7 of the English version. They're coming out around every two months at the moment, so that's a fairly decent rate.

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WHY IT'S BINGEWORTHY


As I said, there are volumes reliant on cliffhanger endings, so you'll want to read a few in a row for that alone. But even in the volumes without them, it's still a story I kept wanting more of each time I finished a chapter. The characters expand and become so engrossing that even some of the actual plot doesn't matter as much to me. There's a distinct sense of family growing between the protagonists (and even a few of the antagonists), even amongst all the shadowy dealings of the student council and the impending massive cook-offs the characters have to constantly prepare for.

It's not perfect - again, it can get a little too silly at times - but it's a damn good read. If you're someone like me who liked the balls-out craziness of Iron Chef, this is basically a lot of that in manga form. I'd say that's a recipe worth checking out.

- Chris



Food Wars Volumes 1-7 are available in English now wherever Manga is sold.
Volume 8 is available in November 2015.

Review copies of Volumes 1 and 2 supplied to Geek of Oz by Madman Entertainment.

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