Food Wars opens with the protagonist performing a revulting experiment that can hardly be considered “culinary”. That is important. It is important because it means our shounen anime protagonist is capable of making mistakes and failure. It is also important because he does not take this failure seriously. It is important because this failure is used to make us laugh, and thus endears us to the protagonist.
Despite how much Food Wars continues to follow the tropes of a shounen anime—think Bleach or Naruto—it is the small touches add a dash of spice and set the dish apart.
Compare, for example, protagonist Soma to the protagonist of recently airing Alderamin in the Sky, Ikto. In the first episodes of Alderamin, we get to see the protagonist be a bit of a slacker goofball, but this is not the same as seeing him fail. He may be making us laugh (depending on how funny you find a womanizing slacker to be), but he’s not really failing at anything but hijinks. In matters of tactics and strategy, we always witness him displaying a supposed genius that is then met with nothing but amazement from his comrades. When the show tries to highlight this genius, it often feels as if the world’s characters and logic are being bent by the writer in order to force the protagonist to shine.
“See how much of a genius Ikto is?” the writer begs us. “See how I’ve contrived a perfect scenario to work out so perfectly in his favor?”
At the time of this writing, any interest in Alderamin beyond the fourth episode comes instead from potential philosophical conflict between Ikto and the Princess. I am not at all invested in Ikto’s struggles as a strategist, nor am I impressed. It is only through the Princess that he is set apart from bland and conveniently prodigious characters like Kirito from Sword Art Online.
Food Wars jumps through all the right hoops in its very first episode to endear the audience to Soma. The first dish we see him cook is a bad one that even he does not like. We see him lose in a cooking competition with his father for what turns out to be the 489th time. We know this isn’t a perfect character despite his skill. We are then made to laugh as he feeds a young woman his failed experiment, portrayed in a comedic and high energy manner. We know that our protagonist is not so proud as to be conceited. He accepts failure, which is a characteristic that will set him apart to many of his rivals throughout the series. Finally, we discover he’s a bit of an underdog, fighting to keep his local diner in business rather than giving in to lofty corporate types hoping to urbanize and franchise. This makes him Blue Collar in a relatable fashion in the same way John McClane being a New York cop makes him more of an average joe in Die Hard.
This is not to say that the first episode of Food Wars is rock solid, or that these elements make Soma a deep character. What they mean is that the writer, YŬto Tsukuda, is willing to put in the work to have Soma charm the audience rather than bend the universe to convince the audience of the protagonist’s genius. Now the audience is more likely to watch a second episode, or perhaps third, or even more so that the show can continue to charm the viewer.
Of course, there are two conditional hooks to the show, both of which combine to create a new meaning to the term food porn. This is a shonen anime that focuses on chefs competing, after all, and the various ingredients and meals are portrayed with incredibly artistic detail. While much of this is credit to original manga artist Shun Saeki, there is also plenty to be said of the sound effects and animation provided by the television team. Yuki Morisaki also provides the very legitimate recipes, which I’ll get into in further detail later. This combined effort means no shortcuts are taken in regards to portrayal of the show’s food, keeping each dish a fascinating and tempting surprise. This is a show that will make you want to cook and eat.
That’s just standard food porn, however. What everyone talks about when discussing this show is that people’s “clothes fly off” upon taking any one bite. It is more accurate to say that Food Wars completely owns the melodramatic and over-the-top nature of anime, particularly shonen anime. Every shonen anime is filled with lines and lines of dialogue expulsed into the viewer’s ear, detailing whatever clever strategy some character had enacted moments before. Food Wars takes the melodrama and potential metaphors of those moments and turns them into fully illustrated skits. Yes, you’ll see women bathing suggestively in honey in response to the delicious taste of a dish. You’ll also see a garden’s worth of vegetables orbiting a single ingredient like the ring around Saturn. You’ll watch a teen girl pop video sung by an old man to describe how a dish’s flavors make him feel. A woman’s fingers upon a slab of beef are visibly compared to the fingers of a pianist dancing among the ivory keys.
While you could say this is certainly a gimmick, Food Wars knows how to play that gimmick effectively. Keep in mind that a gimmick is not inherently a bad thing, especially if the gimmick is more “over-the-top reactions to food tasting” than it is “people eat food and their clothes fly off”. The latter is a very specific thing, whereas the former is a concept demanding constant reinvention. That after thirty episodes the show can still surprise me with a character response indicates that the creators themselves are striving to do more than rehash gags.
Which leads me back to the show’s writing. The descriptions of the show among the anime fanbase are quite shallow and do no service to the actual work the author puts into the story they’re telling or the humor they’re using. At the very least, the first season of Food Wars is an exceptional execution of the shounen formula.
Make no mistake, it’s still formulaic. It’s not really subversive, either. But tropes and genre conventions are not always something to be balked at. Like the concept of a gimmick, they themselves are not inherently negative. Despite following the shounen formula, Food Wars manages to avoid many of the pitfalls other shows so easily fall into.
The best example is to use the show’s challenge of the Shokugeki. This is a duel between chefs at the academy used to settle disputes. It is first showcased as a sort of territorial dispute, with an academic organization seeking to keep their facilities while their opposition hopes to replace it. By following the introduction of the Shokugeki up with Soma becoming actively involved in one, a trend is assumed to be established. However, once the protagonist launches into another Shokugeki, he is pushed aside and another character is forced to take the lead in the challenge. This is the equivalent of Goku throwing down the gauntlet but Krillin is the one that has to fight.
This moment of the show is important because it indicates what is perhaps its greatest strength: Food Wars respects and admires its own side characters. Each character has some moment in the first season to shine. They all prove themselves as worthwhile candidates to be at this elite culinary school. They each face their own trials and are given the opportunity to grow. While some will certainly get more emphasis than others, this is not All Soma All the Time.
There is something to be said of “plot armor”, however. No matter how good of a story it tells, Food Wars still shields its characters from expulsion from the academy within its first season. Failure is always experienced in a comfortable setting without real risk, is barely overcome by convenience in writing, or is given some heart-warming circumstance to make us happy that everything turned out alright after all. As such, the show’s stakes and tension are limited. In addition, Food Wars runs the risk of becoming bloated like Bleach, filled to the brim with characters that are never expelled or die. So when the main character bids the end of his cooking career on a challenge, you know he’s going to win. Otherwise, the show would be over and that’s not going to happen. As the show progresses, we’ll lose tension because ultimately the only loss will be their pride. People need to fail, and fail to the point that they’re no longer in the academy and thus are perhaps demoted to series cameo at best.
This is not yet a criticism, however. Not a full one. It’s more a cautious warning to viewers of what sort of pitfall the show could fall into. The second season has only just begun, and it certainly looks like this is a series that’s going to be running for a while. Right now, I can solidly say that the first season is strong. However, I can say the same thing for Ranma 1/2. I still really enjoy the first season, yet with the introduction of the character Shampoo it fell into a rut. More romance options meant more rivals meant more shenanigans of the same flavor. It got tiresome, and as creative and wonderful as Food Wars is now, it could easily stumble into the same repetitive rut.
Currently, I think the strength of the show is that the writers are challenged. Despite the plot armor the characters have been wearing, the reliance on food has meant the recipes must be appetizing, and that the audience must, on some level, be able to comprehend why one would remain victor over another. True, there can be some magic spice that no one would be familiar with, or some other “reverse-the-polarity” gobbledegook uttered that is absolutely meaningless to the majority of the audience. But some effort must be made, unlike most sports and fighting shounen anime that merely requires the protagonist just train for a whole lot of episodes and then boom! they’ve mastered this mystical and rare technique.
By grounding the competition in food, the writers must put effort into our protagonist’s victories and failures being believable. Unlike Alderamin in the Sky, you cannot merely bend the actions of the characters to make your protagonist shine. The audience will know when they’ve been bullshit for too long.
To this end, I greatly appreciate that Soma’s recipes often take the shape of some sort of egg or rice dish. He’s a really good cook, but his limited experience shines through his dishes. This effort put forth by the authors, that Soma has a tendency to make small-town diner food every time, helps endear me to Soma. The character clearly has room to grow, and I’m left wondering how he’ll begin learning new recipes and dishes. The show makes it clear that this lack of experience is why he keeps losing to his father in every cooking challenge.
So even if Soma is wearing plot armor, I feel like he has no choice but to grow. Given the basis in food, I feel like I can trust in Food Wars to deliver that growth in a satisfying manner.
I will not be able to say whether the series as a whole is worth the time until it is finished. I like the first season, at the very least. However, both the manga and the television show are still going. Who knows how long the creativity can last? I do not. But, at least I’ll always have that first season to rewatch. It’s a good season, and offers a lot more than just clothes flying off.