Oishinbo was a title that came up during the Drinkin’ Buddies interview with Ninja Consultants Erin and Noah, and I have to say I am ever grateful that it did. As cautious as I am about taking facts from illustrated fiction, some of what I know about sake (having casually and randomly wagered consumption on labels alone) coincides with content in the manga. So at the very least, the Sake volume provides a good springboard for further investigation into and experimentation with the exotic realm of Japanese alcoholic beverages.
Written by Tetsu Kariya and with art by Akira Hanasaki, Oishinbo: Sake is a collection of tales which focus on the appreciation of, you guessed it ... alcohol. While sake features prominently, especially in the six-part, aptly named The Power of Sake, other tasty and inebriating beverages – champagne, red and white wines, kusu (aged awamori), shochu, and more – get their fair share of the spotlight as well.
Each story revolves around Yamaoka Shiro, a reporter for Tozai News, tasked with building the “Ultimate Menu,” a selection of food and drink that epitomizes Japanese cuisine, in celebration of the paper’s centennial. Each chapter stands on its own, except for the aforementioned six-parter whose collective chapters stand on their own together, and features Yamaoka questing to right some aspect of ignorance pertaining to Japanese food culture via his encyclopedic knowledge as well as some help from his mentors and friends.
Stories concerning the exploration of food pairings, garnering love for certain drinks by distinguishing the cream of their respective crops from half-hearted imitations, and helping solve others’ problems via the procurement of outrageously good alcohol brings me back to Drops of God, which obviously took notes from this manga. Likewise, inspiration must’ve been drawn from how Oishinbo gave the labels, their bottles, and the shops that sell them get the most artistic attention. The cast in Oishinbo, however, is definitely comprised of cartoons that serve more as vehicles for explaining food culture than they are characters in their own right. Still, a concerted effort is made to make the interactions betwixt characters light and humorous enough to balance the dry, albeit interesting lessons on history and brewing processes.
Tasting notes are similarly faceless, never coming close to approaching the flowery, indulgent, over-the top (read: hilarious) portraiture in Drops of God. In fact, most of the tasting notes in Oishinbo are downright vague by comparison. While the descriptions help distinguish body range and olfactory strength, not much elaboration is to be found on what exactly the scents of said alcohols are reminiscent of. This seems a shame given the manga’s main point of highlighting the bottles which exemplify Japanese culture, but again, as a primer/springboard, what Oishinbo offers is more than enough. Taste, after all, varies widely from tongue to tongue, and if this manga is meant more as a guidebook than tasting guide, than it fulfills its purpose. Readers can get a grasp on basics and then venture out on their own to see how their palate agrees or disagrees with specific brewers’ bottles.
Aside from bottle picking practicality, Oishinbo also excels in imbuing its audience, or at least me, with zeal for the guys behind the curtains: the rice grinders, the brewmasters. Processes behind the wines and liquors native to Japan are described as to invoke a sense of national pride or disgust, respect or abhorrence, based on their observance of history or their betrayal of it, respectively. But all is not in the past. Like the craft beer explosion here in the USA, Japan’s smaller sake breweries have, as told by one story in this volume, reinvigorated a market almost rendered irrelevant by the effects war once had on sake production and the lingering greed of larger producers. In effect, Oishinbo sows nostalgia by explaining how contemporary efforts are directed at returning to the past in terms of process but utilize currently available technology to become even better instead of remaining stagnant. Given how much I was moved while reading as a connoisseur of wines and spirits, I can only imagine the effect this manga would have on Japanese readers.
If you’ve yet to try sake or other choice Japanese alcoholic beverages, or if you’ve tried some and not found anything you’ve liked, Oishinbo: Sake might provide some enlightenment as to what to try and why. It will definitely provide a couple of good chuckles via throwaway gags and alcoholic caricatures. Either way, I think Oishinbo is an enjoyable read. The drier aspects of tasting are brief, but the overarching themes of history and pride are portrayed in either beautiful detail or with a goofiness that turns the pages at a pace which makes this volume end all too soon.