Food Wars Volume 20 concludes Volume 19’s cliffhanger shokugeki with Eishi winning, but not holding Soma to the terms of their duel. Soma is “too unpredictable to be of use,” with the implication that Soma is a fly in the ointment of the Azami ideal. As Soma is antithetical to Central’s aesthetic of controlled cooking, a rogue element that Eishi decides is “too dangerous to have close,” there is also the insinuation that Soma is a creative threat to Eishi as well. “If you were my right-hand man, I might not be able to keep you fully under control.”
However, as you may have guessed from the cover art, the spine of Food Wars Volume 20 is Erina’s story. Not only is it her story, it is her self-portrait, a crucial slice of Erina’s backstory that defines who she is, what she values, and her personal aesthetic. While Volumes 1-19 have been Soma’s Bildungsroman, in pages 91-102 of Volume 20, the focus shifts to Erina, and by the end of the manga, Soma and Erina are not only rivals, but spiritual family, with ties forged not of blood, but the savory memory of food. As I’ve always appreciated a good Bildungsroman, especially with the form of heightened sensibility that it takes in sequential art, when a single slice of life can be exploded across twelve pages into a moment of near-cosmic significance, this is possibly my favorite volume of Food Wars! since the Subaru/Soma shokugeki.
When Erina was a little girl, and already overwhelmed by the responsibility of being the “god tongue,” Soma’s father Saiba came to visit her grandfather for a kind of private exhibition of Saiba’s new dishes. When Erina followed her nose to the dining hall, Saiba and Grandfather Naikiri initially were going to send her back to her room, but when Erina’s stomach groaned, Saiba served Erina as well. Not only did the dish amaze Erina, but through all of her father’s rigid training, she has remembered. Though she sees the truth of her father’s ideals, and believes, like him, that “the culinary world of today is flooded with trite and uninspired dishes,” she has also clung to the memory of Saiba’s eye-openingly idiosyncratic meal.
Perhaps because I was reading Hayao Miyazaki’s Starting Point when I read this volume, and much of Starting Point is a polemic against mediocre anime, Erina’s line–“the culinary world of today is flooded with trite and uninspired dishes”–seemed also to be a meta moment commenting on the world of manga. While I may be reading in to this, Yuto Tsukuda and Shun Saeki have earned the authority to make this point, obliquely or not, after producing a twenty volume series at such a high quality without losing steam or sight of the central themes.
Certainly, every time Soma Yukihira puts on his bandanna, I experience a palette-cleansing moment; much like Erina remembers the joy of food when tasting Soma’s dish, in reading the adventures of Soma Yukihira, my love of comics and manga gets a cathartic reset. And while I don’t believe it to be the best manga that I have ever read (currently, that would be Goodnight, Punpun), there is no manga that I have recommended more than Food Wars!. Like great food, Food Wars! is wonderful not because it is commendable, but because it is recommendable, an eminently shareable work that is hopefully destined for as many courses and plates as possible.
Food Wars Volume 20 arrived in stores on October 3rd, 2017, but if you find it sold out, you can buy it through this hyperlink to Viz Media. You can find reviews of earlier volumes of Food Wars through this link.
Viz Media sent the review copy.