By Michael W. Harris
Shokugeki no Soma, aka Food Wars!, is a strange anime. It is a show with its central focus on the world of a gourmet cooking academy in Japan, albeit one with a large, sprawling campus, a huge student base, though also is a school rigorous enough that students are routinely culled in intense examinations and trials. It is categorized as a: comedy anime, a slice of life show (it is essentially a high school series after all), a competition/battle anime (most of its story arcs revolve around the titular “Food War” battles), and also an ecchi series (or semi-erotic/sexy anime, in this case the clothes of various characters are routinely blown off as a way of demonstrating just how intense and flavorful the food is). As with any ecchi series, yes, many of the women are drawn without regard to realistic body proportions, but dammit if the show isn’t a hell of a lot of fun and also funny. And the actual food wars, or shokugeki, are absolutely thrilling and really make me want to do more cooking, or at the very least experiment more in the kitchen.
And it is the food wars that I want to to talk about a bit more here, or one in particular that occurred in the first half of season 3: Yukihira Soma (our main character) vs. Eizan Etsuya (a member of the school’s Elite Ten council of students).
For any of this to make sense, though, I should probably explain a few things first.
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Food Wars! Is set mainly at the fictional Totsuki Academy, an elite cooking school. The main character, Yukihira Soma, is the brash, arrogant son of Joichiro Saiba, a former student of Totsuki (though he never graduated, and it is only after Yukihira has begun to attend Totsuki that he learns that his father was once a student there) and owner of the Yukihira diner. One of the elements at play in the show, which is brought out in the show’s third season, is the pseudo-class conflict between snobbish, upper class “gourmet” cooking, and the more down to earth, everyman (but still objectively good and homemade) cooking epitomized by the Yukihira diner.
This conflict can also be seen with the two main “best girls” of the show: Megumi Tadakoro, who is more like Yukihira and is from a more rural region and grew up in a family restaurant, and Erina Nakiri, granddaughter of the academy’s director and someone whose culinary skills have been cultivated from the day she could hold a spoon (and probably before).
To say that this show goes deeper than its premise and ecchi stylings would suggest is an understatement. Beyond a depth of message far beyond such plots, tt has also cultivated a large and fairly well-developed cast of secondary characters. Truly, it is much better than it has any right to be!
So what about the titular “food wars,” I hear you asking. Basically, they are a way of resolving conflicts, from the mundane to the meaningful, at the school. Want a better space for your club meeting? Challenge whoever has the space you want to a food war. Have a beef with a classmate? Food war. Someone got a better room assignment? Food war. Professor fail you without cause? Food war. Want a seat on the Totsuki council of Elite Ten? Food war. You get the idea.
Food wars are also used in the many competitions held at Totsuki, such as the Autumn Elections (a competition that takes up 10 of the second season’s 13 episodes). The basic format is that each war has a theme and ingredient (topic) that must be used (i.e. – French cuisine and venison), and then each competitor has a set amount of time to cook and then must present their dish to a panel of 3 or 5 judges (the number varies), who then casts their vote. There are some wars that assign points that are then tallied, while others are a straight up or down, best of three or five. There seems to be some variations, but it is all pretty typical if you have ever watched any type of cooking competition show.
What makes all of these competitions, or any of the cooking and tasting segments, so great is that the show goes into insane amounts of detail about how dishes are prepared, how the ingredients interact, what makes each so tasty, the history of the cuisine or region or cooking style, etc. All while showing people’s clothes getting blown off, but leaving something strategically covering certain areas. It is the last and most over-the-top element in an already absolutely insane show.
And like any good anime with competitions as a central plot mechanic, these battles can be stretched over multiple episodes with just the preparation and tasting of a single dish taking an entire episode. And this build-up of anticipation is only heightened when the show is actually unpredictable when it comes to who will actually win.
While the show clearly has favorites in terms characters, those who we are clearly meant to root for, it is not shy about having them lose. Even our protagonist, Yukihira Soma, loses. He lost in the finals of the Autumn Election, he has lost other battles, or just barely eeked out a pass in various examinations. Other students living in the Polar Star Domitory have also lost, as have those students pulled into Yukihira’s orbit, including former foes who are now friends.
This is all to say that unlike so many “battle shonen” anime, Food Wars! can be surprising with its outcomes, which how I found myself verbally cheering when Yukihira defeated Eizan in episode 8 of Food Wars! third season.
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Here’s the setup: a new regime has seized control of Totsuki and is trying to force everyone to adhere to a very narrow definition of gourmet cooking and stamp out any sense of creativity and individuality. They are shutting down the individual clubs (or “research socities” as they are called) along with Yukihira’s Polar Star Dormitory. The ins and outs, and logic, behind all of this gets into more spoilers than I would like to reveal, but the TL;DR is that, in order to save his beloved home, Yukihira challenges Eizan, a member of the Elite Ten (the best of the best), and the person charged with shutting down the organizations, to a food war. However, it has also transpired that, in the rash of Food Wars challenging these shutterings, Eizan has rigged the competition, essentially buying off the judges.
Things do not look good for Yukihira, and as the food war begins, Eizan reveals that he has dispatched his goons to begin the removal of Polar Star’s residents…maybe also hoping to distract Yukihira. But he refuses to quit, annoying Eizan to no end, and further antagonizing the Elite Ten member and the judges by preparing what seems to be rather pedestrian fare: gyoza. However, then comes the moment of truth. After hearing relentless mocking by the judges, being dismissed by Eizan, and knowing his friends were defending his home from a pack of thugs, Yukihira finishes his dish and, overwhelmed by the scent, Eizan tries it, and his rapturous reactions convinces the judges to also give it a fair evaluation. And, in a shocking turn, Soma is declared the winner.
And I cheered.
In hindsight, we might have expected this outcome, but in the moment I had no idea that Soma might actually win. He had lost on many occasions before, against just as steep of odds, and now the judges were already bought and paid for. How could he hope to win? I could even logically imagine the unique twists the show would make with the loss and closing of Polar Star. It would be another status quo change in a show that has had more than one, and had had it most radical shift just three episodes prior. So of course he would lose!
For all these reasons I was legitimately shocked when Yukihira turned the tables and won. It was by far his biggest victory to date and represented a direct challenge to the new administration at Totsuki, setting up the conflict that dominates the second half of season three. More importantly, though, it helped to maintain the show’s careful balance between “plot armor” victories and showing our lead character as still human (though with the stakes getting higher in the second half of season three, the plot armor does become quite thick…however, some of the secondary characters do suffer losses). This is one of the big problems with a lot of battle anime: if a character is shown to be overpowered, too perfect, or otherwise infallible, then we, as an audience, get bored. The only way that sort of things works is a show like One-Punch Man, where the character is already bored himself with how easily he wins!
Yukihira is cocky in most ways, but because is he also open to learning, and indeed each of his victories is due to him having learned something from a classmate or teacher, he is shown to be fallible and, more importantly, humble. He can be an arrogant prick, sure, but he balances it with a sincerity that is also refreshing. It is what keeps us cheering for him in spite of his brash proclamations that might otherwise make him insufferable. Insufferable like Erina Nakiri is prior to her major plot twist in season three in which she actually comes to accept and even become friendly with her fellow classmates—I would say more but her storyline in season three is actually really great and I want to preserve it for those who choose to check out the series.
But what is most interesting is that the battles are less about the battle and more about character development (this is something spoken to in the series My Hero Academia in a recent video from anime YouTuber Gigguk). And the way it shows this development is in precisely how much detail it goes into with the backstory of the dishes, the commentary on preparation, and the competitors own words about how they came up with the dish. A lot of the time it is shown to be something they learned from a classmate or otherwise during their education. The people are still students and learning. The battles have a purpose and propel the story forward rather than bringing it to a crashing halt as the show treads water while waiting for more manga chapters to be published.
But surprises like Yukihira’s victory, and his losses, keep Food Wars fresh and unpredictable, something that so many of the above mentioned anime fail at. It is a big reason why I largely stay away from series with more than one season, that and not having the time to dive into a show with 50 or 100+ episodes, let alone something like Dragon Ball. Indeed, Food Wars! is one of only two anime with more than 50 episodes that I have ever watched (the other being Higurashi no Naku Koro ni).
Of course, season three just ended and I now have to wait until the hopeful season four to see how the shokugeki battle royale ends…either that or start reading the manga.
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Anime isn’t for everyone, and anime that leans so heavily on ecchi elements is even more niche, but dammit if Food Wars! isn’t a hell of a lot of fun. And the fact that it can still be unpredictable and surprising this far in is a testament to its narrative power and structure. I miss shows like that. Maybe if more of them existed on American television I would be watching more than two on-going American series right now (The Expanse and Star Trek: Discovery), plus my one BBC show (Doctor Who).
Take note American comedy makers: Food Wars! is comedy and action done right.