Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma (2015) IMDb

Extent

Seen in 2016.

Categorization

Shounen tournament comedy and cooking show.

Subject

A kid raised in a diner by a single parent is sent to Japan’s premier school of cooking, where only 10% of students graduate. The institution’s crushing elitism is counterbalanced only by the objectivity of its frequent high-stakes competitions.

Commentary

Comradely violence, the ur-motif of shounen, is often proxied by sports and other games where a clear winner can be determined. In Food Wars, the proxy is cooking, an extremely popular subject of Japanese entertainment. The central invention that enables this merger of two big genres by keeping up the appearances of a genuine competition is the visualization of taste, somewhat awkwardly ported from the comic’s full-page spreads.

Emotions in the tasting scenes run so high that only one character ever seems able to lie about them. That lie is eroticized as a shameful weak point of one of the elite girls. Tasting good food, in general, is eroticized throughout the show, positioning the cooking competition as a proxy for sex as well as the traditional violence: The tasters cannot hide their opinions because approval takes the form of extreme arousal, illustrated with nudity and shown as akin to orgasm. That is a stroke of commercial brilliance, probably done better here than ever before in animation.

So it’s food porn and actual porn in an established format for children. Because it’s about children, the studio is obliged to pretend through captions that celebrating teenagers are getting drunk on fruit juice, not alcohol. The crassness of the idea, which was obviously shaped for some manga editor with a clear view of her market, is effectively softened by comedy and by the uncommon portrayal of the protagonist as a sore loser who does indeed lose some competitions. Unfortunately, women are disproportionately objectified by the visualized taste tests, particularly in the last competition, which becomes a drag.

The “special school” trope is done quite well here, without any attempt at realism. In particular, regular classes are rarely shown, and we see nothing that could really be called pedagogy or instruction. There is absolutely no sign of education in subjects other than cooking, despite this being a high school. Even chemistry is strangely absent as a taught subject.

A shokugeki (食戟, approximately “meal fight”) is a formal cooking duel, a conceit and neologism of the show. I suppose the word comes from kengeki (剣戟, sword fight), shigeki (刺戟, excitement/thrill etc., using the character for halberds and other weapons metaphorically) and partial homonyms like chokugeki (直撃, direct hit), used repeatedly about the fragrance of curry in the last episodes.

Japanese production animation fiction moving picture series

Sequel:

Food Wars: The Second Plate (2016) IMDb

Extent

Seen in 2016.

Categorization

More of the same. It is effectively a second one-cour season, but as is common in anime, it ran under an expanded title.

Commentary

Pretty solidly crafted, but tamer. There is little dramatic or epic development and unexpectedly few students flunk out. The first stagiaire episode lacks even the pretense of competition, beyond presenting a difficult school assignment.

Japanese production animation fiction moving picture series

Sequel:

Food Wars: The Third Plate (2017)

Extent

Seen in 2018.

Categorization

Another two cours, separated by a one-cour break in winter 2018.

Subject

The end of Sōma’s first year at Tōtsuki. The threat of expulsion returns, both in the year-end finals—where 50% normally flunk—and in a coup where the school falls under new administration. Ironically, the coup promises to reduce competition.

Commentary

The melodrama escalates with the coup, which cements elitism and conservatism as evil, over a detour into the mere militarism and conformity of Kuga’s Chinese cuisine. The name of the new administration, “Central”, recalls A Wrinkle in Time (1962) with its soulless conformity and “CENTRAL Central Intelligence”. In opposing the villain, the heroes increasingly play upon the strengths of creativity and personal freedom. Sōma uses his diner background and cheap ingredients to good effect, but all explicit discussion of social or economic class is excised.

Nakiri’s background is unfurled without ever associating her pickiness directly with childhood orthorexia or the need for control. The act of throwing away food in episode 6 is shown as one of her father’s terrifying brainwashing techniques; I find this detail ingenious in such a mass-market show. We also get the back story on Sōma’s father and his burnout, allowing the show to touch on the same themes as Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (2017).

The coup brings crooked examiners who gleefully cheat and conspire against the heroes by refusing to taste their food. Once compelled to taste it, even they cannot lie. This is connected, in the script, to the idea of ron yori shōko, fact over theory, as stated in episode 24. Even Nakiri gradually gets more honest. The camera work continues to objectify her: Whereas other characters tend to speak in simple, relatively static shots, the camera routinely pitches up from Nakiri’s chest to her face. She, more than any teacher, actually provides formal instructions, to prepare her fellow students for the ridiculous showdown in Hokkaidō.

Japanese production animation fiction moving picture series