'Iron Wok Jan'|
December 4, 2003
By Franklin Harris
I've been reading a lot of Japanese comics lately, and by far the funniest, most outrageous and just plain most entertaining is Shinji Saijyo's culinary comedy, "Iron Wok Jan."
If you have seen Food TV's Japanese import "Iron Chef," you have some basis for comparison. Now imagine "Iron Chef" with a chef who is vaguely psychotic.
The series follows Jan Akiyama, a young, arrogant and, at first blush, extremely unlikable chef-in-training who, under of the tutelage of his recently deceased grandfather, has become more skilled than most chefs with years more experience.
Jan's grandfather, Kaiichiro, was known as the Master of Chinese Cuisine, and Jan intends to follow in his grandfather's footsteps. So, he goes to Tokyo to display his skills at the legendary Gobancho restaurant, home of Kaiichiro's greatest rival, Mutsuju Gobancho, the finest Chinese cuisine chef in Japan. But before he can hope to surpass Mutsuju, he must deal with Mutsuju's granddaughter, Kiriko, who is something of a cooking prodigy herself.
For Jan food is all about competition, but for Kiriko, food is about heart. In the Gobancho kitchen, Jan and Kiriko wage war, trying to outwit each other as well as a slimy but influential food critic, Nichido Otani, who would lie about a restaurant's cuisine just to turn the culinary world on its head.
Despite his arrogance, Jan is, at times, a sympathetic character. He is the way he is because of how his grandfather trained him. Before sending Jan to Tokyo, Kaiichiro telephones his old nemesis and warns him that an "assassin" is coming: "Mutsuju, if you have become a weak old man, hurry up and run! ... But if you still have the energy to fight, hire Jan and test his mettle."
Saijyo's artwork often gives "Iron Wok Jan" the feel of a martial arts epic. Characters strike poses, stare at each other intensely and wield woks and cutlery like deadly weapons. Of course, all I know about Japan's restaurant scene I learned from watching "Iron Chef," so cooking in Japan could actually be like a martial arts film. I do know that there is real method to Jan's culinary madness, no matter how bizarre his recipes.
Currently six volumes of "Iron Wok Jan" are available from ComicsOne, each retailing for $9.95 and weighing in at about 180 pages.
Another Japanese comic, Makoto Yukimura's "Planetes," deals with subject matter more familiar to American comics readers.
"Planetes" (Tokyopop, $9.99, 236 pages) is a science fiction drama set in the near future, when humanity has numerous space stations in Earth orbit and a permanent base on the moon. Unlike most comic-book sci-fi, however, in "Planetes" the laws of physics matter.
A growing problem for space travelers is the accumulation of space junk in Earth orbit. Traveling at great speeds, even small pieces of debris can bring disaster, as one does in the opening pages of "Planetes" Vol. 1. So, private sanitation companies send up ships to pick up the trash others leave behind.
The central character of the series is Hachimaki Hoshino. Hachi helps clean up low Earth orbit while dreaming of exploring the outer solar system with his father, who is set to command a mission to Jupiter. Hachi's shipmates aboard the rickety salvage ship he calls home include his boss, Fee, and Yuri, a widower who lost his wife to a debris-impact accident. (The secondary plot deals with Yuri coming to terms with his loss.)
Artist and writer Yukimura does an excellent job of depicting the loneliness and dangers of space, along with its persistent allure.