Taste through a screen: strange intimacy in culinary anime

Something about the wildly popular anime Shokugeki no Soma (Food Wars), has always struck me as a bit odd. Why make anime about taste?

Among the five senses, anime only has access to two: vision and sound. As a result, depictions of food rely on visuals and sounds (both sound effects and linguistic referents) to explore the experiences of scent, flavor, texture, temperature, and pressure.

Even though we can’t taste the food, and the food is the main appeal of these shows. Viewers reliably tune in to experience care, intimacy, and sensuality through imaginary/vicarious dining. I’ll explore how by contrasting two very different shows about cooking (a battle-style shonen, Shokugeki no Soma, and a yuri slice-of-life, Gourmet Girl Graffiti).

There has been a recent boom in the genre of late, but food-centric anime (and manga source material) is nothing new. The earliest well-known property about cooking is Mister Ajikko, a battle-style manga serialized in Weekly Shonen Magazine in the late 1980s. Mister Ajikko inspired a 99 episode series that aired on TV Tokyo during the manga’s serialization. It is also said to have inspired Iron Chef.

The last couple of years have produced shows like Silver Spoon, Shokugeki (starting its third season this fall), and Restaurant from Another World to name a few. Since Shokugeki‘s commerical success as an anime in 2015, more and more food-related animes have been popping up. Cooking animes span many genres. Some stay close to its roots and tell high-octane shonen style stories. Others are quiet, charming slices of life. Some are even thinly veiled yuri romances. But a few things hold these stories about food together:

The food itself is the main focus of the show. It dominates the screen, it is the object of narration, and the center of plots. The food is treated an object unto itself, equal to to any other object. In such shows, food “enjoys equal being, no matter their size, scale, or order,” [1].  Food is raised to the status of fellow characters in the narrative. In Gourmet Girl Graffiti, the first character you meet is inari sushi, not any of the young women the show features as protagonists and supporting roles.  Often the direct focus of the plot, these dishes “do not merely exist, they exist equally … the flat existence that entails equal levels of potential worth,” within the world of the show [2].

The show is told from the perspective of the producers of food, often as chefs but sometimes as agriculturalists, pastoralists, or sourcers. While most shows feature characters who work with food professionally, some are focused on home cooks to pack love into every recipe. There are no shows, however, about consumers, food critics, or people who can only make PB&Js.

After the food itself, the next most important thing  is the protagonists’ relationship to it. In Silver Spoon, for example, the main character attends an agricultural high school and builds his personal food ethics throughout the show. In Restaurant from Another World, ingredients serve as bridge for understanding one another between alternate dimensions; the main character is the owner-chef of this inter-dimensional eatery, where he quietly labors in the background to serve his fantasy creature guests. There is no clear food philosophy that runs through the breadth of food anime and manga; each uses food to tell a different story.

Food, care, and intimacy:

Taste is uniquely private as a sense. There is something deeply intimate, hidden, and reserved about the intersubjective experience of flavor and personal anatomy that allows it to happen.

Can food help bridge the intersubjective barrier? Some characters seem to think so, by putting “all their feeling” into a dish. In Shokugeki and in Gourmet Girl, people invest physical and emotional labor into food; this is seen as the best way to make great dishes:

The more care and emotion you invest, the tastier the meal.

Machiko Ryou (GGG)

Listen well, Soma, the secret to becoming a great chef is… meeting a woman that will make you want to give all the food you make to her…

Joichiro Yukihira (Shokugeki)

Sharing food involves trust and intimacy, with associations of both family and homeEven in the heated, competitive environment of Shokugeki is dictated by professional care:

I just want to eat food created by all sorts of chefs … and compete with them…. I want to protect that kind of environment.

Soma Yukihira (Shokugeki)

These chefs all show us the connection between love and labor, the work that goes into exercising care.

Food is avenue not only for emotional intimacy but for physical intimacy as well. Both Shokugeki and Gourmet Girl emphasize the sensual and sexual nature of food: fluids, mouths, tongues, blush, steam, and the moans and whimpers of foodgasms gallore fill the eyes and ears during every episode.

The two shows present us with different visions of love, sex, and intimacy tied to food. While Gourmet Girl focuses on intimacy and sensuality of interpersonal relationships through food, Shokugeki highlights the libidinous and the absurd aspects of taste and touch as senses, from the perspective professional chefs in high stakes competition.

Gourmet Girl explores romance and intimate relationships as protagonist cooks her recently deceased grandmother’s recipes. Grieving and living alone for the first time, none of Machiko’s food tastes good anymore. It’s not until she hosts a implicitly romantic weekly house guest that she begins to enjoy her own cooking again.

It’s because you’ve been eating alone that the food doesn’t taste good. 

Kirin Morino (GGG)

If Gourmet Girl is sweet and romantic, by contrast Shokugeki is raunchy and absurdist:

Wait for it, I’ll make you clearly say “It’s Good” with that mouth of yours, even if I have to exhaust my cooking to its limit…

Soma Yukihira (Shokugeki)

In Shokugeki, the professional act of tasting a dish descends into an erotic hallucination.

While both shows highlight the sensual aspects of our food and the tastes and textures that go in our mouths, Gourmet Girl (on the left) takes a more grounded approach to “foodgasms.” In sharp contrast to the constant and absurd nudity, Shokugeki is also very technically focused, providing molecular and historical context for many recipes. While Gourmet Girl presents emotional care and an intimate experience to the viewer, Shokugeki practices technical care and libidinal experience.

Why food anime is exciting:

Giorgio Agamben argues in his forthcoming book that tastes is a historically underappreciated sense. Since this book comes out next month, we can’t exactly talk about it yet. Nonetheless, the premise intrigued me and it reminded me of readings I had done in grad school while taking a class in Museum History and Theory:

In general, the Western world has a precedent of foregrounding vision as the primary mode of knowledge and experience. Vision gained particular traction in Victorian Era, as royal museums were stuffed with “observable facts” from other lands. Victorians also imposed moral characters on the senses, with vision being the most mannered of the five, and touch as the most crass and/or childish.

Food animes are interesting because they try to do homage to the underappreciated senses of taste and touch by elaborately narrating tastes and textures, summoning images of ingredients, of the metaphorical landscapes to which a great meal transports you. But in this attention to details of flavor, texture, and temperature, animes are forced to mediate through symbolic referents (typically visual representation and words). While food anime is always striving towards sharing a taste with the viewers, it is utterly dependent upon optical and sonic cues.

As the viewer, you are left with an odd disconnect: flavors and scents are described linguistically, textures and temperatures communicated visually. In Gourmet Girl Graffiti, one character even jokes that she can’t eat without narrating.

But if we can’t taste or smell the food ourselves, why are we watching? Based on Shokugeki and Gourmet Girl, it is to experience care, intimacy, and sensuality on a vicarious or imaginary level through onscreen dining.

[1] Ian Bogost. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: 2012, 6.

[2] Bogost, 120.


A labor of fiction: how and why unreal things matter.

In a context of severe economic inequality and political unrest, one might easily conclude that discussing fictional worlds is a waste of time, better spent pursuing meaningful action towards a concrete end.

When I think about my aspiring career deconstructing and reassembling these already abstract entities, fictional worlds (Are they art? Communication? Product? Zeitgeist?), I wonder if I should be focusing my energy on more “serious” issues. As someone who labors over the oeuvres of others, I can’t help but feel a bit like a meta-intellectual leech. Can this kind of labor ever be a politically relevant praxis?

Last week, I shared my concerns that representational politics divorce labor politics from race and gender issues (on the grounds that one is a “material” issue, while the other is a “symbolic” one).

A clear critique presents itself:

Fictional worlds are not real, and therefore can be neither vital nor important. At best, they can only reveal oblique truths about what is indeed real, and worthy of attention and labor.

Let us linger on the present ontological claims:

  1. There are mutually exclusive planes of being, real and unreal,
  2. Which define different types/tiers of being.
  3. Being which is real is superior to being which is unreal.
  4. Accordingly, the unreal cannot reveal the real in-itself.
  5. Only the real in-itself is a worthy object of attention and labor.

What are we to make of this? How can abstracting about unreal objects center labor in my intellectual project?

Work on fictive worlds does not increase employment, it neither raises annual income nor provides better union protections. Rather, meaningful political action must happen in the real.

The real is full of living beings and inanimate things; it is material. The plane of the real is ready-to- and present-at-hand, always understood in relation to its context and apparent purpose. By contrast, fictional worlds are always only ready-to-hand; as things made only for us, they are always within the context of their purpose in relation to people.

If the real is where actual being happens, then it is where the political world of beings and labor must happen as well. By comparison, what can fiction do?

On making things, or the problem with the real:

Applying the metaphor of “carpentry” from speculative realist Graham Harman, Ian Bogost describes the philosophical project of making things, which “entails making things that explain how things make their world,” [1].  Bogost identifies “carpentry” as philosophical lab equipment, constructed as an operable theory, experiment, or question in the mind, and then externalized. Via carpentry, we have access to both putting theory into practice and to practice as theory. Fictional worlds depend upon a similar philosophical carpentry, as things formulated solely in the mind.

With carpentry, unreal objects are really not so different from other, very real kinds of things. Works of language, practice, knowledge, and science “never leave abstraction behind;” real though it is, the concrete is “condemned to using abstraction to target, name, know, attain and appropriate it,” [2]. The more we examine real things, the more obvious the networks of both practice and theory are needed to constitute them. The problem only mounts when we turn our attention to the relations of things:

If we are to believe in the “vicarious causation” of speculative realism, then “things never really interact with one another, but only fuse or connect in a locally conceptual fashion,” [3]. By this logic all things—material and immaterial, vital and inanimate, real and unreal alike—exist (in its primary mode: relation) through purely conceptual, often metaphorical adjacency.

The relation of all concrete things is abstract by its very nature. The suffusion of language into a plane of event, context, and objects presents further problems for distinguishing between the real and the unreal. Always already ready-to-hand, fictive realities exist for no reason other than for us. The unreal is always understood by its purpose. The real, on the other hand enjoys no such clarity.

Rather than being defined by purpose, “real objects are locked in impossible tension with the crippled descriptive powers of language, and … unbearable seismic torsion with their own qualities,” [4]. While unreal objects exist in the movement between theory and practice, real objects exist in the stalemate between the two. If the real is “stuck,” so to speak, then the unreal is a more fertile ground for scholarship, description, categorization, and metaphor.

The reducibility of “fiction” to “abstraction,” under the auspices of the unreal, is a necessary formation in the use of philosophical carpentry. Fictional worlds collapse practice and theory: narrative, aesthetic, electric, chemical, generic, sonic—fictive genesis considers and applies abstractions at many levels of execution. As theory and practice are mutually constitutive planes, so too are those of real and unreal. Neither reducible to the other, yet impossible without their coexistant.

Laboring over the unreal:

Beyond any philosophies of access, fictive realities are also objects in their own right, equally existent as an unreal object as the real objects of hammer, banana, computer chip, mountain, electron, and so on. But how can we align this posthumanist ontology with solipsistic concerns about labor and fiction? What kind of labor ethics can be based in a worldview that denies the very primacy of humans and their labor?

To borrow the tools of object-oriented ontology, we must first acknowledge fictional beings, their relevance in the world of real and unreal existence, and their relation to our own labor as equal things in-the-world with our own selves.

Returning to “carpentry,” just as a cabinet cannot be made without a blueprint, there can be no making of the real without the making of the unreal; realness depends upon unrealness via abstraction. This is what Bogost means by “things making their world,” through a complex series of relations under the project of OOO.

Harmon has pointed out that discourse (relation by language) indelibly alters the real, warping it under the descriptive power of language. The unreal resists linguistic pinning-down, provides the tools of our abstractions, and empowers us to create. Consequently, the project of fiction presents alternative and nonhuman visions of being otherwise unavailable. Fictional worlds offer fish, robot, chicken, toy, and insect utopias, or at least alternate ways of being. Judith Halberstam explores such ideas dissecting the silly, the low, and the frivolous:

The dream of an alternative way of being is often confused with utopian thinking and then dismissed…. And yet the possibility of other forms of being, other forms of knowing, a world with different sites for justice and injustice … should not be dismissed as irrelevant or naïve, [5].

The same can, and should, be said of unreal objects. Unreal ways of being are dismissed as quickly as utopian ones, in favor of a status quo which can be identified as real (despite its dependence upon many unreal abstractions).

The essential project of labor is productive genesis. Fiction is both of the real, wherein labor exists, and of the unreal wherein abstractions about labor and the products of real labor intertwine to form new modes of being.

Unreal things are ready-to-hand, reliably laboring towards a purpose, as they were always already invented by us and for us. If one purpose of fiction is to build an alternative economic way of being in-the-world, the purpose of revolution will be ready-to-hand in fiction.

Unrealness, and by extension fiction, reveals to us undiscovered ontological alternatives. Labor over the unreal (and its relation to adjacent labor, leisure, production, and consumption) is an avenue for the discovery of alternate modes of being, of nonhuman abstractions, and of visions for the future. A real object, an unreal object, and a product of labor, fiction sits at intersections of theoretical and practical being, straddling notions of production and consumption, of labor and leisure. Fiction can serve as the bridge between the real and the abstract relations of labor.

There can be no fiction without labor, just as there can be no worker’s utopia without the recursive production of things. We must not only make things, but make explanatory things, ones that give credence to a world made of and by things.

[1] Ian Bogost. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: 2012, (93).

[2] Louis Althusser. Philosophy for Non-Philosphers. Bloomsbury, New York: 2014, (67).

[3] Bogost (2012: 111).

[4] Graham Harmon. Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. Zero Books, Washington: 2011, (27).

[5] Judith Halberstam. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, Durham: 2011, (52).