Hugh Likes Anime: Food Wars

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Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma
Studio: J. C. Staff
Streamed via Crunchyroll
When I was a teen, I was really into Iron Chef, a competitive Japanese cooking show which might be viewed as the forefather of most of the Food Network’s current lineup.  “Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma” is another descendant.  An anime based on manga by Yuto Tsukuda and Shun Saeki, it follows the adventures of teenaged hero Yukihira Soma through Japan’s most prestigious and rigorous cooking school.  Soma is the son of a competitive and mysterious diner owner, and he’s been cooking since he was a child.  At first, he looks down the other students, who’ve ‘never served a customer before,’ but as the series goes along, he learns a lot about cooking through competing with them.
Shokugeki no Soma falls in line with many of the tropes associated with anime aimed at teenage boys.  There are lots of nonsensical rivalries, training, and challenges to overcome while forthrightly contemplating philosophical points.  And also plenty of fan service.  These are certainly the first chef’s jackets that I’ve ever seen with cleavage.  But even the fan service has its own goofy charm.  The series is constantly searching for new ways to express culinary language visually.  These range from a group of people eating a pork-roast so good their clothes explode to a panel of judges piloting a lobster rocket into space.
The first season of Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma is currently streaming online at Crunchyroll, and is coming to DVD.  While the show ends at a bit of a cliffhanger, and a second season has yet to be announced, this is an excellent series for foodies and anime fans alike.  I’d like to give a hat tip to Jason Banks of the Talk Nerdy To Me podcast for the recommendation.
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Hugh Likes Comics: Wayward

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Wayward Vol. 1: String Theory
Written by Jim Zub
Drawn by Steve Cummings
Published by Image Comics
Rori Lane isn’t your typical teenager.  The daughter of an Irish engineer and a Japanese seamstress, she moves to Japan to live with her mom after her dad ‘didn’t work out.’  Before she can settle in, she begins to have visions of glowing red thread, and is soon drawn in to the dangerous hidden world of the Yokai, or Japanese monsters.  But she isn’t on her own.  She makes friends with other mythological denizens: An energetic cat girl, a classmate laboring under a curse, and a mysterious homeless boy with untapped powers.
Cummings’s art is gorgeous, and dispenses with pop-culture cuteness.  The Yokai in this book are by turns tough, terrifying, and absolutely disgusting.  There are no fuzzy-wuzzy kitsune mascots, and the kappa have a taste for human flesh, not cucumbers.  The gore is a little brutal at times, but the grown-up monster designs do a great job of just how deep and dark the well they they’ve stumbled into is.
The detail in the art is quite appealing as well.  Having worked as a English as a Second Language teacher in Japan, I noticed lots of little details in the background art that made the Tokyo of the book come alive.
“Wayward” is one of those odd little books that is too adult for YA based on the fact that the teenaged characters act a little too realistically.  Rori is foul-mouthed and psychologically damaged in ways that would make Katness Everdeen crap her pants.  Her mother is loving, but busy and at times distant.  Rori’s real teenage problems fitting in to a new environment are a nice parallel to her supernatural adventures.  While too much for youngsters, this is an excellent, but serious fantasy adventure for older teens.  Parental discretion advised, of course.

Hugh Likes Comics: Usagi Yojimbo

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Usagi Yojimbo Omnibus Volume 1
Script and Art by Stan Sakai
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Usagi Yojimbo is kind of a difficult comic to classify in terms of age appropriateness.  As a samurai pulp, it is certainly the most accessible to a western audience of the comics I’ve discussed so far.  It lacks the gore and explicit content of “Lone Wolf and Cub,” and its setting is simpler than “Rurouni Kenshin’s” historical period.  At first glance, the cartoonish talking animal characters make it seem perfect for younger kids.  The first story in this collection even features a guest appearance by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  But there is something nonetheless unflinching in Sakai’s tales of the long-eared wandering swordsman that resonates with the stark realities of Japan’s Shogunate period.
Although this collection is labeled as “volume one,” this collection actually contains parts  eight through ten of the series, which is the point where Dark Horse began to publish the collected volumes.  Although a great deal of backstory is referenced at times, Sakai is very good at bringing the reader up to speed quickly, and I never felt lost.
Following Miyamoto Usagi as he wanders the countryside, the stories in his collection are picaresque adventures that flow organically, and build slowly upon one another.  They don’t reach a climax in this volume, but I am quite curious about where Usagi ends up.  These stories are by turns exciting, heartwarming, and sad, and they are filled with a sense of wonder and reverence for Japanese culture and traditions.  Even though he is of the Samurai class, Usagi’s humility and genuine desire to connect with other people allow him to enter a variety of stories, from a widow struggling to avenge her husband’s death on the gambler responsible to an exploration of traditional seaweed farming.
The varied nature of the stories is delightful, but parents might want to read through first, or read with their children to be able to answer some of the difficult issues sometimes raised by this comic.  One of the most moving, but also difficult to read stories in this collection is entitled “Noodles.”  The story of a mute soba seller and his performer/pickpocket companion, it deals with some very heavy subjects, including justice, or the lack thereof, the rights of the disabled, and capital punishment.  While the conclusion to that story is satisfying, it is the darkest point in the book, and it was hard for me to get through as an adult.
Sakai’s art is superlative.  His style is at once a blend of  Carl Barks and Goseki Kojima and something entirely his own, and it is breathtaking.  His attention to detail, and his deft depiction of samurai fighting that doesn’t dip into gory self-indulgence is wonderful, and keeps  the stories moving while lending them a timeless atmosphere.
Usagi Yojimbo is an excellent comic for readers new to the genre, or for anyone with an interest in Japanese culture.  You can find the first volume on Amazon, or at your local comics shop.

Hugh Likes Comics: Dragon Ball

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Hugh Likes Comics:  Dragon Ball
Written and Drawn by Akira Toriyama
Published by Viz/Shonen Jump

Although it is a big part of my own path through comics, I haven’t talked about manga in this space.  Manga, broadly speaking, refers to Japanese comics, or occasionally comics drawn in a Japanese style.  These comics have a visual language all their own, enjoy vast popularity the world over, and one of the best loved of these is “Dragon Ball.”
Spanning over forty volumes, spawning four long-running animated TV shows, a vast collection of movies, and enough merchandize to sink a container ship, Akira Toriyama’s “Dragon Ball” is a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.  Originally a goofy, cartoonish Sci-Fi retelling of the Monkey King legend, this is the story of Son Goku, an incredibly strong, perfectly innocent child as he travels with teenage prodigy Bulma to gather the Dragon Balls, seven mystical stones which, when brought together, will grant any one wish.  Along the way, he becomes the greatest martial artist in the universe, and saves the world a few times, to boot.
With its beyond epic length, the thing I find really interesting about Dragon Ball is that it so completely documents the evolution of Toriyama as an artist.  His style is very round and iconic, and at the beginning of the comic, much more rooted in sophomoric humor.  It certainly isn’t what you’d expect from the martial-arts action story it becomes.  While Toriyama never completely lets go of his comedic side, the series becomes more and more of an action comic as the tale unfolds, until we reach halfway through and it becomes “Dragon Ball Z.”
With its focus on space adventure and over the top martial arts, DBZ is what got translated first.  It appeared in incomplete forms on American and Canadian TV in the 90’s.  And I fell in love with it.  But now I think I prefer the original stories about Goku’s childhood.  The adventures are more fun, more playful, and less reliant on gimmicks and ‘power levels’ to keep the tension high.  “Dragon Ball,” by contrast, remains delightful and ridiculous throughout, including a cameo crossover with his earlier work “Dr. Slump,” in which just about every character tries to squeeze into a panel for a fourth-wall breaking cameo.
“Dragon Ball” comic is particularly a comic of its time and place, but like its protagonist, it mixes goofball humor, iconic visual style, and thrilling action in perfect amounts with a perfect garnish of child-like whimsy.  Go pick up a copy, and be a kid again for a few hours.

Dragon Ball on Amazon.com (Affiliate Link)

Dragon Ball on Comixology.com