October 01, 2015

Hungry for entertainment


Cooking shows have been a staple of "edutainment" programming since the television was invented. They anchor PBS weekends (I'm partial to America's Test Kitchen). During the week, it can seem at times that Chef Gordon Ramsay is responsible for half of Fox's prime time lineup.


On cable in particular, the cooking competition reality show traces back to the gonzo Japanese cooking sensation, Iron Chef. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. NHK loads up their weekday daytime broadcast schedule with cooking and handicraft shows, not just the weekends.

Impressively, all this cooking is done with pots, woks, and frying pans. Plus a computer-controlled rice cooker and a supercharged toaster oven. Few Japanese can afford the kitchen that comes even with an average apartment in the U.S. It's not the money, it's the power and space.

(The above article about rice cookers points out that while traditional Japanese electronics firms like Sony have ceded ground to their Korean and Chinese counterparts, makers of "white goods" appliances are booming.)

The kitchen counter in a typical Japanese apartment is designed to accommodate a compact cook-top, not an oven. With smaller cupboards and refrigerators too, daily shopping remains the common custom.

The "traditional" housewife role is still popular and accepted in Japan, meaning there's a mid-day audience. And an audience for NHK's family-oriented morning soap opera, the perennially popular Asadora melodrama. Five out of the last ten were about food.


TeppanThe heroine revives her grandmother's okonomiyaki restaurant.
OhisamaThe heroine marries into a family that runs a soba restaurant.
Gochiso-san   The heroine masters traditional Japanese cooking in the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s.
MassanThe hero and heroine found Japan's first whiskey distillery.
Ma'reThe heroine (from the sticks) becomes a pâtissier.

Japan has a thriving food culture. Note how food figures into the plot of Spirited Away, as Chihiro watches her gluttonous parents turn into pigs. But there are anime series that are all about food and practically nothing else.


Here's a sampling of anime series (with links):

     • Gourmet Girl Graffiti (Hulu CR)

Her grandmother's passing leaves Ryo Machiko not only living alone but without an appetite. This quickly changes when her cousin Kirin moves to town, giving her somebody to cook for, which she does with a passion.

Gourmet Girl Graffiti is about as art-house porny as food porn gets. Unlike Tampopo (1985), Juzo Itami's classic food flick comedy, there's no actual sex or nudity. Gourmet Girl Graffiti just makes eating good food look hilariously indecent.

     • Food Wars! (Hulu CR)

With the family diner shutting its doors, Souma's dad enrolls him in a cut-throat (almost literally) culinary school. The food/sex nexus in Food Wars! makes Gourmet Girl Graffiti appear downright subtle. It's basically Tampopo with Animal House sensibilities: dumb jokes and gratuitous everything. Oh, and lots of stuff about food.

     • Silver Spoon (Hulu CR)

At first, attending Oezo Agricultural High School was a good excuse for Yugo Hachiken to run away the stifling academic pressures at his preparatory school back in Sapporo. But now, like it or not, he's going to discover where food really comes from ("Don't eat the eggs!").

Along with all the farming and agricultural material, there's a nice lesson here about the difference between real-world "knowledge" and a book-acquired "education."

     • Ben-To (Hulu)

Reaching for a half-priced bento at the supermarket, Yo Sato finds himself in the middle of a full-blown brawl. As it turns out, the only way to get a decent cheap bento in this town is to fight for it. To keep himself fed, Yo joins the "Half-Priced Food Lovers Club."

A bento is a traditional box lunch, a source of often exquisite fare at bargain prices. A home-made bento (in a lacquerware box) is a sure sign of motherly love or a very attentive girlfriend.

Ben-to combines the food genre with the "flight club" genre (the -to is a play on the kanji for "combat"). In the fight club genre, the wildest reasons imaginable are concocted for kids to beat the snot out of each other (the wackiest fight club anime of them all being Ikki Tousen).

Ben-To takes a Looney Tunes approach to the violence, in which everybody gets better by next week. The shows are pretty samey as far as the threadbare plots go, but each episode features a different premium bento as the ultimate objective.

No list would be complete without Anpanman, in which all the characters are food and the superhero is literally an edible jelly doughnut (anpan). Yes, you can eat him in an emergency. The anime has been running since 1988 and is now at over 1200 episodes.

Anpanman's arch-enemy is Baikinman ("Bacteria-man"), which I've always thought is a bit ironic since the fungus koji (Aspergillus oryzae) is such an important part of Japanese cuisine. Whenever he gets predictably beaten, he shouts, "Bye-baikin!"

In prime time, it seems that half of the shows on the science-oriented Tameshite Gatten and the business-oriented The Professionals are about food. The Worker's Lunches investigates what people with unusual jobs have for lunch.

There's no shortage of live-action gurume dorama (gourmet TV dramas): The Emperor's Cook, Akko's Lunches, A Problematic Restaurant, Midnight Bakery, and Bookshelf Restaurant, to name a few recent shows off the top of my head.

So it comes as no surprise that in 2014, Tokyo could again boast having the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.

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