Reviews of Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma (2015) and related work

Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma (2015Moving picture, 10 hours)

Seen in 2016.

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.

A shōnen tournament comedy. Comradely violence, the ur-motif of shōnen, 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 Buddhist-influenced 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.

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 main concept, obviously shaped for some manga editor with a clear view of their market, is effectively softened by comedy and by the characterization 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, with a consistently high level of escapism that perfectly illustrates the intelligentsia’s view of Japanese comics, as in “The World of Anime and the Scenario” (1995). 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.

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Food Wars: The Second Plate (2016Moving picture, 5.0 hours)

Seen in 2016.

More of the same. It is a second season, but as is common in Japanese animation, it ran under an expanded title and at one-cour length, as a somewhat separate production.

Pretty solidly crafted, but more tame. 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.

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Food Wars: The Third Plate (2017Moving picture, 10 hours)

Seen in 2018.

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.

Another two cours, separated by a break for the winter of 2018.

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 use of class and conservatism must have some relationship with history. I’m guessing that along the way, somebody making the original manga heard about Marie-Antoine Carême and the less conservative Auguste Escoffier, who—from his military experience in the Franco-Prussian War—invented the clean and quiet kitchen environment where all the competitions in this show take place. However, no such thing is mentioned. Escapism is still completely dominant.

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, falling in line with the premise that cooking can serve as a field of meaningful competition. 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, provides formal instructions, to prepare her fellow students for the ridiculous showdown in Hokkaidō.

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Food Wars: The Fourth Plate (2019Moving picture, 4.2 hours)

Seen in 2020.

The latter stages of the team competition between the new administration and the “rebels”, with free access to a warehouse full of ingredients. This all takes place in the same kitchen, interspersed with a few rehearsals and flashbacks for characterization.

The relative minimalism of the tournament format is less harmful than I had assumed it would be. This is probably because the school environment was never school-like enough to begin with.

The resolution is also surprisingly good if you manage to ignore that both the comic and the TV series continued past this point into Sōma’s second year at Tōtsuki. The comic was abruptly cancelled because the continuation was motivated only by editorial greed and the readership abandoned it.

Nakiri Erina’s arc of character development is completed here in a satisfying manner. Her father Nakiri Azami’s superpower, somehow acquired in wedlock, breaks the ontology by bringing the show’s unclothing visualizations into the physical layer of the diegesis, even for characters who are merely in the room with Azami and not actually tasting the food.

This escalation into JoJo territory recontextualizes the show. Without this twist, it was already clear that it followed the basic pattern of A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) et al.: An arrogant youth coming to a prestigious special school, making friends and working miracles as he matures. With the overtly supernatural twist, it’s just more open: Tōtsuki is Roke and cooking is magic. It’s a little dumb and I object to it as a mere plot twist midway through a series, but I do not object to it as a climactic revelation.

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‣‣ “Behind the Scenes of Food Wars” (2019Moving picture, 40 minutes)

Seen in 2020.

Studio staff interviews.

Presented by Crunchyroll mid-season. This really brings home the attention to detail required to sell the high concept. Bonus points for not featuring the actors at all, and director Yonetani seems like a fun guy.

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