Happy To Serve: Should You Be Reading ‘Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma’?
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Have you ever watched an episode of Top Chef or Masterchef and been so blown away by what you see on screen that your stomach starts rumbling? Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma conjures that same feeling through nothing more than gorgeously detailed artwork and solid, informative writing that combines actual cooking education with some of the best traits of action manga storytelling.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Fifteen year-old Soma Yukihira has spent his life in the kitchen, working and cooking alongside his dad at their small family restaurant, Yukihira. Soma loves cooking --- so much so that he devotes all his energy and skill to making both incredibly delicious food like fried rice... and the most disgusting foods possible like peanut butter covered grilled squid tentacles.
After he prevents a greedy land developer from closing the restaurant down, Soma's dad Joichiro --- a famed chef in his own right --- decides to shutter the restaurant for three years so he can go on a cook's tour of the world. He sends Soma to the prestigious Totsuki Institute, Japan's number one culinary school, a training ground for world-class chefs and a brutally competitive place where, as the school's dean states, "only a handful of students claw their way to graduation!"
Undaunted, Soma declares he will surpass everyone else at the school, which inevitably makes him a lot of enemies. Alongside his eccentric roommates at the Polaris Dormitory, including the shy but sweet Megumi Tadokoro, Soma embarks on his goal to become the greatest chef in the world, But can he overcome both the harsh challenges of school and the wrath of queen bee Erina Nakiri?
WHO'S IT BY?
Food Wars is written by Yuto Tsukuda and drawn by Shun Saeki. Tsukuda was the winner of the 34th Jump Juniketsu Newcomers' Manga Award for the one-shot Kiba ni Naru, and previously wrote the short-lived Weekly Shonen Jump series Shonen Shikku. Saeki debuted with the 2011 Jump NEXT one-shot Your and Mine Romance Counseling. Food Wars is the first English-language release for both of them.
Famed chef Yuki Morisaki is a collaborator on the series and writes the recipes for the dishes that the characters make, which are printed with step-by-step instructions in each volume of the series. She also wrote Totsuki Academy Challenge Plate, an official tie-in cookbook for the series released in Japan in 2015.
WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL?
There's been plenty of action manga and anime based around food before --- think Fighting Foodons, or Toriko --- but Food Wars is different. For one thing, it's somewhat grounded in realism. These are real recipes being made and real cooking awards and terms tossed around (seriously, this series is a stealth crash course in fine dining and cooking terminology). For another, it uses familiar shonen characterizations --- the headstrong main guy, the shy, main girl --- to appeal to people who may not necessarily want to read about cooking.
A big part of the series' fun are the "shokugeki" of the title. The word's not directly translatable to English but in the context of Food Wars it means cooking battles. Pitting one skilled chef versus another for a panel of judges, these sequences are as tense and drama-filled as anything you see on Chopped.
With Tsukuda's concise plotting and strong character work and Saeki's meticulous, gorgeous art, this series really pops. However, there's a big element of early chapters that, depending on your attitude, will either seem goofy... or incredibly off-putting.
You may have heard the term "fanservice" at some point, but if you're not familiar, it basically means shots or drawings of characters either naked or wearing skimpy or skintight outfits (there are other uses of the word, but this is the most commonly used definition). This treatment is most often foisted on female characters for the benefit and titillation of the straight male audience. Food Wars sadly is no exception to this trope.
The insidious thing is that the series makes its fanservice somewhat plot-related. In order to convey the deliciousness of the food Soma and the others make, characters who eat it are depicted as basically having orgasms over the flavor and bursting out of their clothing in joy. When the food is bad, they describe it as if they're being molested.
Now, this does happen to male characters as well as female characters. But it happens to the women far more often --- to say nothing of standard manga tropes like, "Whoops I walked on [female character] in the bath," and other shots that leave little to the imagination.
This imagery is prevalent throughout the first two volumes of Food Wars and it's there for no other reason than for the male audience to drool over. It's really unnerving; Saeki draws gorgeous women, yes, but we don't need constant near-nudity to tell us that.
The fanservice is dialed down in volume three, but its prevalence in the early chapters creates a sour note for what is otherwise a very enjoyable shonen story. In spite of all that, this manga still works really well and is a lot of fun to read.
WHO SHOULD READ IT?
Anyone who loves cooking shows and anime like Naruto. Fans of Lucy Kinsley's cooking-related work. Fans of Fairy Tail, Haikyu!! and similar titles. But only if you can get past the excessive fanservice.
WHERE CAN I READ IT?
Food Wars is published weekly in Viz Media's Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. New issues drop Mondays for $0.99 on Viz and Comixology; subscriptions are also available. Book collections of the series are available digitally from Viz, Comixology and Kindle and in print from a variety of retailers and your local library.