Book Review: Get Jiro!

The scene I most loved in acid tongued celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s new graphic novel set  in futuristic L.A., “Get Jiro!” is when Jiro, the sushi chef protagonist, cleanly slices off an ignorant customer’s head after he drenches his nigirizushi rice in soy sauce. In our food obsessed culture where everyone is an expert, I can understand sushi chefs’ desire to behead an oafish gaijin for their bad sushi etiquette and know-it-all attitude.

The world Anthony Bourdain et al has depicted in this new comic is violent and anarchistic–food obsession has been taken to the extreme so that two factions led by chefs with opposing food politics rule the world in an uneasy balance of power. Kitchen knives are wielded as weapons in samurai like gang wars between the factions (more Tarantino than Kurosawa) into which enters anti hero Jiro. It’s a good premise for meaty satirical narrative, but the plot never thickens, and the graphics, while elegantly bloody, didn’t do it for me in the same way that it enthralled others, perhaps because Japanese manga culture is part of my upbringing. Attention to detail was lacking in the otherwise beautifully rendered pics, and the number of blatant errors in its Japanese content (in spelling and sushi presentation) plus the lack of narrative flow suggest to me that this book is merely Anthony Bourdain’s personal little indulgence.

There’s nothing wrong with that of course, he’s an entertaining guy. But you need to be familiar with Bourdain’s food obsessions in order to appreciate the book, like his admiration for Jiro Ono, the famous eighty something year old sushi master immortalised in recent doco Jiro Dreams of Sushi on whom the main character is based. And the references to things like foie gras which is banned in California or the decadence of dining on ortolan (which appears in Bourdain’s book Medium Raw) are surely lost on some who are not Bourdain fans or food geeks.

If you happen to get the coded messages, there’s depth to the satire, which sends up everything from food politics (locavores, globavores, and other up and going fads), fusion obsession (tacos with monterey jack cheese or fish) to kitchen sexism. And the slogan “CHEFS ARE THE NEW POWER” which graces the front flap is surely poking fun at rampant chef stardom and the sushi purist Jiro character is possibly Bourdain’s attempt to re-elevate what being a chef is really about–dedication to craftsmanship.Or is he sending that up too?

In the first few pages of the book, Jiro serves up sushi with a mound of wasabi on the side, which of course is never done (well, at least not in Japan). Sashimi (raw fish, not sushi) is served with a wad of wasabi on the side. Did Bourdain make an oafish gaijin blunder, or is it attempt at satirising how some gaijin still get sushi and sashimi confused? Food for thought…

So how seriously should we take “Get Jiro!”? Should we ignore the spelling errors, plotlessness, lack of suspension of disbelief (like why the two warring chefs should become friends in the final pages and ride off into the sunset…) because it’s merely a comic? Surely not.

The long running Japanese Oishinbo culinary comic series which was popular in the nineties had much content and lots of tasty narrative. Each book’s theme might be a particular food, like beef or cheese, and the narrative would be driven by culinary history, psychology, anthropology…in short, it was damn interesting stuff. To be fair, there were a few glimpses of Oishinbo in Get Jiro!–the pot au feu making scene for example was illuminating (and genuinely heart warming), as was the ikejime scene. But the rest was kinda scrappy and a bit pointless…a bit like a Tarantino bloody fight scene–great impact but I was left wondering, what was the bloody point?

My wish is that Bourdain and his pals, author Joel Rose and artist Langdon Foss would take their craft more seriously and write a series to rival the Japanese Oishinbo. Bourdain is the best man for the job.

Get Jiro! reviews:

By Karin Kross

By Adam Liaw

By Tim Carman

by Masako Fukui, Copyright Kei’s Kitchen

Get Jiro! by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose, illustrated by Langdon Foss, and colored by José Villarubia, originally published in 2012