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.


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