“What in the world type of secret is hidden in that fried shark?! The first thing he did was prepare the large stove for frying the shark…next, he went into the freezer…I’m not sure what he did in there but I bet it has something to do with those bean sprouts!!
“And then he fried the live shark whole!!“
Contest manga* is an enduringly popular shonen (boys’ manga) genre. Characters compete with one another in series of rounds, often in vast arenas, to prove their skills. Individual contests can last whole volumes or more, as we see the inner turmoil of the contestants, in-depth discussion of their skills, reactions from the crowds, and so on. The competitions aren’t limited to sports, either. There’s contest manga for fighting, music, pokemon, and no doubt even weirder stuff.
One of the weirdest contest manga around is Shinji Saijyo’s Iron Wok Jan!, a delirious mash-up of tv show Iron Chef and manga/anime Dragon Ball, with the volume turned up to eleven. And a half.
The series follows the adventures of eponymous protagonist, Jan Akiyama, on his quest to prove himself the greatest chef of Chinese cuisine in Japan. On his way to the top, Jan must defeat in cooking battle various opponents, each of them with their own distinctive style or “philosophy” of cooking.
As with all contest manga, the competitions are the main attraction to the book. And Iron Wok Jan! delivers gloriously, its cooking battles so over the top that they make books like Drifting Classroom or Nextwave look positively restrained. The recipes themselves, and the techniques involved in cooking them, are often outlandish. Even when the recipes are simple, with plain ingredients, Saijyo turns them into virtuoso performances, through liberal use of speed lines, close ups, and reaction panels and amazed commentary from judges, audience and other contestants. Contestants cook as if possessed by demons, while everyone else wonders what on earth they’re up to. Often one contestant will do something completely mysterious, building suspense for the whole battle. Finally, the cooking is done and the judges taste the food. Cue reaction shots from the judges as they place the first morsels into their mouths: “This—It can’t be!!–Impossible!!! No one could cook shao xing jiu and octopus intestine without curdling the milk!”
Twenty volumes in, this routine is by now, well, routine. But Saijyo injects enough dynamism into the battles that this familiarity doesn’t matter, any more that it matters to a sports fan that, in some sense, all cricket matches or soccer games are basically the same. Even when the outcome isn’t in question (Jan rarely loses), the reader still wants to know how we get to that outcome. The answer, in Iron Wok Jan!, is always exciting, in a “action-packed roller-coaster thrill-ride” sort of way.
In these two volumes, the final four contestants vie for the second annual all-Japan Chinese cuisine championship; by the end of volume 22 there will only be three contestants left. Expect to see shark-punching, hypothermia, meat that moves, and a mystery involving syringes and bean sprouts.
Saijyo’s art is nothing special, but that very straightforwardness suits the contest genre. Panels flow dynamically, with lots of transitions from character to action to character. The result is as kinetic as manga is stereotypically supposed to be.
Jan himself is an oddly compelling protagonist, portrayed throughout the whole series as a barely sympathetic arsehole. Arrogant, conceited, self-centred and cruel, he is drawn with a devilish face, Jack Nicholson eyebrows, pointy teeth and a constant, evil grin. He is all ambition, his cooking philosophy “cooking is about winning”.
Ambitious, monomaniacal characters like this generally end up learning important life lessons, usually about love and other people. This certainly seems in the cards for Jan, as his main rival throughout the series is the pneumatic Kiriko Gobancho, whose philosophy is “cooking is about heart”. There’s a love/hate relationship between them, which seems destined to end with Jan realizing that there’s so much more to life than winning cooking battles. Personally, I hope Jan stays a bastard to the very end.
Unless Jan and Kiriko get married and compete over who can cook the best wedding cake, using only bean sprouts, lamb tongue, and x-o sauce. That would be awesome.
* There’s got to be a recognised name for this genre other than “contest manga”. Anyone know what it is?
Recommended? A very pleasant guilty pleasure. Distribution is patchy, so you may well have to start with later volumes. While there is some minimal progression from volume to volume, you can mostly read any volume at random without having plot twists spoiled.
IYL: Iron Wok Chef, Nextwave, or if you’ve ever described anything as awesome.
PC Alert: (1) The two main female characters are strong, independent and highly talented (Kiriko is basically Jan’s equal). They’re still drawn with breasts larger than their heads. (2) Volume 22 has two gratuitous pin-up pages in place of the usual recipes and fan art. What gives? (3) These later volumes feature two very camp characters, somewhat stereotyped.