(Episode Three: choppin’ brocolli.)
I first learned of Iron Wok Jan! (ComicsOne) from a comment by manga fan Shawn Fumo discussing manga diversity. A comic series devoted to culinary competition: if there’s any topic removed from the themes and concerns of mainstream American comics, it’s the simple act of eating (unless you’re talking about a world-spanning entity, capable of devouring whole planets – or a cartoony glutton like Little Lotta or Jughead). In mainstream comic terms, the act of food preparation is even more mundane. Though cooking has appeared as a subject in magical realist fiction (Like Water for Chocolate) and in character-driven movies like Big Night, you’ve got to wonder how anyone could make it exciting in manga format. Oh, look, he’s cutting up more vegetables!
I’m not a die-hard foodee: only show on The Food Network I’ve viewed more than once is Unwrapped, a series that’s primarily devoted to candy and junk food. I’ve never made it all the way through a half hour of Iron Chef. But Shinji Saljyo’s Iron Wok Jan! (“Supervisor: Keiko Oyama,” the cover also tells me, which I assume means that either Oyama edits the series or is a smiling figurehead like Stan Lee) delights me and in ways I wouldn’t have expected when I first heard of this series.
Jan! is set at the Gobancha Restaurant in Ginza, which we’re told is the foremost Chinese restaurant in Tokyo. Into this bastion of top-flight cookery comes Jan Akiyama, a “very skilled yet arrogant chef” who’s been drilled in the art of Chinese cooking by his harsh taskmaster grandfather. Announcing that he’s the “one and only king of Chinese cooking,” Jan instantly alienates the rest of the kitchen staff, including buxom trainee Kiriko, niece to the restaurant’s head chef and a talented cook on her own. Cooking, Jan asserts, is all about competition, but Kiriko (who has a pretty healthy ego of her own, we soon learn) begs to differ. No, she asserts, it’s about heart. A real Men Are from Mars, Women Venus conflict. At one point, the two trade so many one word barbs that you just know romance is inevitable.
Much of the first volume is devoted to episodes where Jan and Kiriko demonstrate their expertise. Each display of skill is treated like a showdown (you feel like whistling a Ennio Morricone theme every time one of the cooks gets challenged), with much aggressive posturing and braggadocio. (“I’ll make you realize that cooking is about heart and not competition,” Kiriko proclaims at one point, looking as if she’d like to cram that lesson down Jan’s throat, while Jan is shown tauntingly laughing at his cooking inferiors.) But the best of them are also cooking puzzles: how, for instance, can Jan cook an odorless stir-fry dish using pork liver, “the smelliest internal organ”?
In a way, the chapters of Iron Wok Jan! are structured like an old Silver Age superhero comic: we have a problem and our cooking hero solves it, then explains how s/he solved it to the other chefs and the reader. (Only thing that differentiates it from a Mort Weisinger-edited tale is the absence of a panel showing the lead winking at the reader.) In two chapters, for instance, both Jan and Kiriko are separately challenged by a mercenary food critic to serve him something he will not be able to identify. They both succeed, though Kiriko does so in a way designed to preserve the old fraud’s dignity, while Jan naturally rubs his nose in it, making an enemy of the critic in the process.
Because the boy and girl leads are sixteen when the story opens (as is a third character, Okonogi, an inept trainee who mainly serves to ask, “What’s goin’ on?” for the reader), we know that both still need to grow to become true chefs. As a complete series, Iron Wok Jan! spans some twenty-seven volumes, so clearly this isn’t something that’s gonna happen overnight. Midway into the first volume, we learn part of Jan’s history: that his training as a cook was accompanied with much not-so-grandfatherly abuse, that the dying man’s sent Jan to the restaurant as “an assassin to destroy” Kiriko’s grandfather, the owner of Gobancha and himself a master of Chinese cooking. In addition to the two young cooks, then, the series also contrasts two different mentoring styles. In the last chapter of volume one, Mutsuju Gobancha comes down to the kitchen to demonstrate teaching by example. The older, harsher ways of teaching are no good, he says, since they only serve to drive students away from cooking.
In addition to the conflict between elder teachers, Iron Wok Jan! can also be viewed as a battle between two types of creators: the amateur (one who does something first for the love of it) and the pro (one who does it because it’s what they’ve been trained to do). We don’t see Jan sit back and eat any of his creations, but maybe that’s not expected in this culinary community. What really matters is the approbation of those you serve.
Saijyo’s art in the first volume is devoted to plenty of panels of characters facing each other down, zestfully tossing food around and talking with their mouths full. We get many loving graphics of unprepared, then finished food, sometimes with text explaining cooking techniques or recipes alongside. (I have no idea how true to Chinese cooking these are, but for the story, I’m willing to believe they’ll work.) Occasionally, the artist seems to fall back on the same character poses – barely a page featuring her goes by without Kiriko crossing her arms under her breasts, for instance – but at least the sweaty foreheads make sense. We’re in a kitchen, damn it, so of course it’s hot.
Iron Wok Jan! is packaged as a teen-focused series with a suggested of age 13 and up, which seems apt. Can’t quite picture the profile of the average American reader for this series (aside from me, of course), but whoever they are, I suspect they need an active sense of whimsy. That or a burning desire to look at black-and-white renderings of veal intestines.
(Originally posted in Pop Culture Gadabout.)
Iron Wok Jan
(Episode Three: choppin’ brocolli.)