12/18/2012

Get Jiro!

Written by: Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose 
Pencilled and Inked by: Langdon Foss
Colored by: José Villarrubia and Dave Stewart
Lettered by: Todd Klein

As a disinterested reader, I initially wondered if Anthony Bourdain's graphic novel debut Get Jiro! would turn out to be the kind of vanity project too abstruse with its particular obsessions to enjoy. As it turns out, I was only half right. The comic does indulge in the kind of topics Bourdain deeply cares about, and it eventually looses me before the end. But it's a tale told using a medium with a reputation for geeky obfuscation.  So what's wrong if the foodies and gourmets bring their eccentricities and obnoxious tics into the comics community? Get Jiro! is the kind of story that could not have been conceived anywhere else.

The story works to suck the reader in by framing itself with traditional pulp conventions found in spaghetti westerns, crime dramas, and samurai epics, most central being the anti-hero taking on the establishment. Naturally, the whole comic is steeped in the ethos of rugged individualism. In a dystopian version of Los Angeles, pop culture has become dominated by food culture. Imagine if in the real world the Food Network was the only television station around, and the only true celebrities were celebrity chefs. For everyone but foodies, that sounds like a nightmare scenario. But the real horror as far as the book is concerned are the social inequalities being perpetuated in the name of good food. Located at the city center are the finest dining establishments patronized by the glitterati, who willingly line up for hours. The further one travels from the center, the cheaper and dirtier the eateries get, and the more ethnic the composition of the neighborhoods. There is some form of strict segregation being enforced which prevents easy access to the inner part of the city for the residents of the outer rings, although it's never really explained how it came into existence or how it exactly works.

The unofficial rulers of Los Angeles are two chefs who command their own factions like mob bosses, with each faction ruling its own turf. The two chefs could be conveniently labelled as the "snob" and the "hippie". The former demands the highest standards and finest ingredients, the latter supports a number of social causes like veganism and using only locally grown organic produce. Despite being mortal enemies, they've managed to maintain a fragile truce. I've had very little exposure to Bourdain's TV shows. But I'm left with the strong impression that these two figures embody his pet peeves, because they're basically straw men shown to be hypocrites who quickly betray their beliefs to obtain wealth and power. The snob is willing to finance his empire of sophisticated dishes with trashier fare, while the hippie conveniently contradicts the nonviolent core of her ideals for the same ends. The satire throughout is fairly heavy handed.


Into this setting arrives Jiro, a sushi chef with the aloof bearing of a Japanese warrior, who sets up his sushi bar at the edge of the city. He's a finicky type who literally cuts down his customers for not observing the proper table etiquette, which reminded me of the "Soup Nazi" from Seinfeld. The difference is that Jiro's devotion to perfection is held up as an admirable trait, and his reputation spreads so far and wide that the snob and the hippie try to recruit him to their side. What happens next will be familiar to anyone who's seen Yojimbo or A Fistfull of Dollars. Jiro isn't about to give up his independence, so he manipulates both sides for his own benefit while befriending other indie chefs who are fed up with the status quo. Eventually the whole city is engulfed in a war between the big two. Through it all, Jiro remains an enigma. We never learn much about his background or his motives beyond wanting to be left alone to practice his profession. If this story contains any official message, it would be that real chefs should be free to be chefs.

Get Jiro! is far more clever than it is compelling. Between the avarice of its villains, the quest for culinary purity of its protagonist, and a barely repressed contempt for the poor saps who have the bad taste to order something as vulgar as California Rolls, there's not much room to maneuver, let alone arrive at a middle ground. And there's no denying that the text engages in so much inside baseball that it never fully transcends its own self-involvement. The closest thing the story has to a sympathetic portrait of the ordinary consumer are two fat cops who possess such impeccable taste that I doubt they would ever be caught scarfing down a box of donuts. One of them even worries about loosing his restaurant reservation as the gang war erupts all around them. That's actually kind of funny.

The art has its own way of appealing to the reader that surpasses the text. Obviously, the book has many scenes devoted to food porn. Whether it's frying baby eels in olive oil, demonstrating the proper technique for cutting into a fish to paralyze it without killing it, or displaying all the raw ingredients needed to make a pot au feu. Langdon Foss draws in a clear line style which is complemented by the saturated color palette of José Villarrubia and Dave Stewart. The end product is superficially reminiscent of the look and feel of many a Heavy Metal short story. Only this time, the characters aren't just hacking each others limbs, they're slicing animal parts as well. Scenes of detailed food preparation are often juxtaposed with scenes of extreme violence in which the same kitchen implements are being used to maim and kill humans. The results are sumptuous in appearance, but also kind of repulsive. Whatever personal philosophy being endorsed, ideology being preached, or traditional cuisine being championed as more authentic, cooking is always portrayed as a bloody vocation. And more often than not, this is used to reinforce very masculine forms of self-expressions.


If you've already read Get Jiro! and want to get rid of the aftertaste with something more sweet, go read Kitchen Princess or Antique Bakery.