Iron Wok Jan vols. 13-15

Iron Wok Jan vols. 13-15
 Chad Clayton  rates it:    

Author/Artist: Shinji Saijyo
Format: Paperback
Price: $9.99 each

Over a year ago in my Ikkitousen review, I lamented that the art of “guilty pleasure” anime or manga is becoming extinct. I still believe that, to some extent, but it’s worth noting that my definition of “guilty pleasure” differs from that of many fans and reviewers. I don’t use the term as a diplomatic buzzword for softcore porn, snuff cartoons, and insultingly stupid garbage. To me, a “guilty pleasure” is something that’s inherently silly, but manages to rise above its subject matter through genuine cleverness or sheer glorious excess. If you want to see a manga that does a pretty good job of fitting that criteria, DrMaster’s flagship title Iron Wok Jan is one of the better examples that’s surfaced in the past few years.

As you can probably tell from the volume numbers up there, I’m ill-equipped to speak about Iron Wok Jan‘s story and characterization in a greater context, so I won’t speculate on what has come before or what might come after. However, these three volumes contain a reasonably self-contained story arc that shows off some of the manga’s strengths, so I’ll just stick to what I’ve read. Our protagonists are competitive Chinese-cuisine cooks, and the story is about their Iron Chef-esque cooking competitions against other cooks, each other, unsavory food critics, and all other manner of kooky characters, and most of the comic is spent cooking, eating, or discussing the art and science of cooking and eating.

And the most amazing thing about all that is, I wasn’t even trying for alliteration in that sentence when I wrote it.

Iron Wok Jan!
When I first saw Iron Wok Jan on the shelf a few years ago, I thought it was someone’s Iron Chef fan-comic. In retrospect, that was pretty dismissive of me, but it wasn’t really all that inaccurate. Iron Wok Jan basically does Iron Chef one better: it’s even more over-the-top, more melodramatic, and more savagely competitive. But in the midst of all the cooking, trash talking, and melodrama, there’s still a very rich vein of absurdity running through the entire work. Much like its counterpart, the genius of Iron Wok Jan lies in the fact that it’s fully aware of how unapologetically overblown and inherently silly its subject matter is, and it makes subtle plays to that without calling too much attention to it, lapsing into overt comedy, or falling into self-referential, apologetic digs at its own silliness. That’s not to imply that Iron Wok Jan is a full-blown comedy. It’s still a fairly serious action/competition manga, but it knows how to have fun, and it doesn’t take itself too terribly seriously.

One of the more striking things about Iron Wok Jan is its overall attitude and approach to its subject. It doesn’t share the bright, comedic, exuberant quality typical of the Shonen Jump-style manga. This is fairly nasty two-fisted stuff. Jan isn’t a plucky, determined little kid with a good heart; he’s a flaming prick. He’s arrogant, hostile, contrary, rude, and a generally not the most pleasant of people. Yet he inspires a kind of grudging respect, and by the time I finished reading, I actually found myself liking the guy in spite of his abrasive personality. But in truth, he’s not really such a bad guy in the context of this particular story; almost all the heroes in Iron Wok Jan are competent, confident, and have a mean streak. These aren’t your everyday plucky/milquetoast guys or demure/moe girls. All the villains really know how to make you desire their comeuppance. It’s very satisfying to watch Jan and company make them squirm.

Iron Wok Jan!
Other notable qualities of this manga include the amount of attention given to the science of food and flavor. At least some of the food-science discussion that takes place is based on principles of real-life food science, though I don’t know how accurate (or even possible) the applications of these principles are. Also interesting is a dichotomy that runs through the story: the story is about the cooking and eating of exceedingly delicious food. And indeed, all the food is rendered in loving detail – every last muscle fiber and bit of fat. It’s rendered in such hyper-realistic detail, in fact, that the food actually looks as gross as it does tasty. There’s also a heavy amount of attention and detail given to the act of eating the food – chewing, drooling, slurping, and all that, and it strikes an interesting balance between “ooh” and “eww” that fits nicely with the tone of the series. One particularly notable instance of this is on one of the manga covers, where Jan is dangling what appears to be a moisture-dripping raw beef tongue into his mouth. Appetizing.

One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of recent manga releases is that, for all their overt goofiness and attempts at humor, many of them just aren’t very fun to read. A lot of them are extremely silly but seldom funny, or action-packed without really ever becoming exciting. There are countless reasons why, but a common one is that many of them try so hard, they come off as more desperate than funny. With Iron Wok Jan, Shinji Saijyo shows everyone how to be over-the-top while still keeping a straight face. There are a few annoyances in this manga – particularly the deformed proportions of the female characters – but for the most part, Saijyo doesn’t push things too far. There’s a little bit of “guilty pleasure” vibe emanating from Iron Wok Jan, and I don’t know how well it would continue to hold up over its lengthy 27-volume run, but it’s still a solid competition manga that’s easy to pick up and a lot of fun to read.

Added:  Monday, March 13, 2006

Related Link:  DrMaster Books
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