Thursday, February 18, 2010

Manga Review: Bartender

(Yakitate Japan cover, from One Manga, for review purposes only.)

Manga about food has a long past. Oishinbo, about a newspaper food critic, started in the '80s, and is still running after 100 volumes. A series called Sommelier follows a wine steward / crime detective through about 12 volumes. Then of course there's Cooking Papa, an ongoing 105-volume series about a family that likes to cook, where each story is resolved with a specific dish, and the recipe for the dish appears at the end of the chapter; Yakitate Japan, with it's adventures of a pastry chef; and many, many others.

(Oishinbo cover, from wikipedia, used for review purposes only.)

As with most sports manga, food manga breaks up into two classes - the fantasy stuff, and the hyper-realistic stuff. With the fantasy stories, such as Yakitate Japan, the foods are semi-mystical and can send the taster into wondrous flights of ecstasy. The storylines tend to be very off-the-wall, and could be said to be aimed primarily at kids. The hyper-realistic stories are closer to comicbook versions of recipe books. The approach to the recipe is very linear, the science behind the recipe or a given ingredient is laid out for us, and the tasters simply react to the final dish with "this is good" or "this is horrible". With hyper-realistic stories, the plotlines usually revolve around the skills, or lack thereof, of the primary chefs.

(Bartender cover, from One Manga, used for review purposes only.)

There's a series just starting to appear fan scanillated on One Manga, called Bartender. It's a hyper-realistic manga set in the "Rapan Bar" in Ginza, featuring the creator of the "glass of god" cocktail. Actually, the "glass of god" is simply a nickname for whatever drink the customer gets that is closest to what they need to feel happy at the end of a long day. Bartender is by Joh Araki, the creator of Sommelier, and Kenji Nagatomo. It follows Ryu Sasakura as he tries to learn to be a better bartender through his interactions with various "tough nut" customers, and some of the best professionals in the bar business in Japan.

While characters do tend to overreact when given a specific drink, it's nowhere near as over the top as in, say Cooking Papa, or the wine story currently running in Morning magazine. Most reactions tend to revolve around someone's earlier memories of a drink they'd had decades before, or on discovering that a combination of flavors that sounds horrible on paper is actually pretty good.

But, for me, the reason for mentioning Bartender here is the emphasis on the service side of the job. Japanese workers in the service industries tend to be a lot more customer-oriented and "professional" than in the U.S. There's a lot of training involved in reaching that level, and while it looks to be inherent in Japan's genes, it's not something that just "happens". Occasionally, I do editing work for cleaning up translations of Japanese texts, and one such document was an industry report on a tourist spot in the hills of the southern reaches of the main island. In the report was a complaint that the workers running the food stalls were inattentive and unresponsive to the tourists, so sales were down. The solution was to give the workers strict training in service; i.e. - even in Japan, service is a learned skill.

Bartender is essentially a "users manual" for service workers. As such, it's an interesting look at the Japanese mentality for the relationship between a waiter, chef or bartender, and the customer. Service is not one-sided, either. It's just as important for the customer to understand their part of the relationship and to interact with the service professional properly as well.

(The real thing.)

As a final note, there's a reason why I like reading Bartender. The artwork is rather crude, the characters are stiff and cold, but the background art is good. The plots in the first few volumes are just excuses for describing one drink or another. There's no real depth to the stories, which usually consist of the bartender finding out why a customer is so down right now and then finding the right drink for them at that moment. No, the reason I like following Bartender is because I've been to that bar. I wrote about it at the end of last November. It's the "Lupin", in Ginza, based on the Gentleman Thief, Arsene Lupin, and has been very popular with writers, editors, lawyers and doctors for decades. The interior is not the same, and the manga is missing the L-shaped bar counter. Most of the people behind the bar the night I was there were female, while the manga has 3 regular male bartenders and no waitresses. But, it is fun looking at the bars that show up in the stories and trying to see if I've visited them before.

Summary: Bartender presents mixed drinks as a way to soothe people's troubled souls. The insight to the service side of the job is important for anyone in the west trying to understand the Japanese mentality. And the drink recipes are worth trying yourself. Recommended.

Note: There's a new live-drama movie that was just reviewed in the Japan Times, called "Shokudo Katatsumuri", about a woman that can do with food what Ryu Sasakura can do with mixed drinks. The genre will never end.

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