Sushi Chef Against the World — Anthony Bourdain’s Get Jiro!

There’s a good chance that Get Jiro! will make you reconsider ordering a California roll the next time you go out for sushi. 

Of course, it’s extremely unlikely you’d ever meet the same fate as the dumb schmuck who does so at Jiro’s tiny sushi restaurant—compounding a list of offenses that includes soaking his nigiri rice-side-down in a wasabi-soy slurry—and loses his head to Jiro’s finely-honed tanto blade for his trouble. Still, that kind of thing makes an impression.

And it’s par for the course in the over-the-top future Los Angeles of Vertigo’s new graphic novel Get Jiro!, written by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose, illustrated by Langdon Foss, and colored by José Villarubia. This is a time and place where all other forms of entertainment are moribund and food culture is dominant: “Chefs are the new power. All desire is based on access to them.”

L.A. is dominated by two chef-warlords. Bob leads the Global Affiliates, who import ingredients from all over the world and control both the exclusive fine dining restaurants of the rich and the big boxes that serve the hoi polloi. Rose leads a constantly changing faction of hippie locavores, and vegans, fanatically dedicated to organic farming and serving food only according to season. Don’t ask what happens if you’re caught serving a caprese salad in the middle of winter.

Jiro, a master sushi chef with a mysterious past, is the perfect target for both Rose and Bob. The cuisine of which he is a master can be made to fit neatly in with Bob’s commerce-driven, internationalist style. Whereas Rose wants Jiro’s passion and commitment to his craft—and, not incidentally, to stop him using non-local fish, if possible. But Jiro just wants to make his sushi in peace, and since neither faction is planning on leaving him alone (or even alive), it isn’t long before he’s determined to bring them both down.

Now. Let’s be clear on one thing—I am a straight-up Bourdain fangirl; you know the kind. I’ve read most of his books and seen almost every episode of No Reservations and The Layover. I’ve been to two of his talks, and I may have considered putting in a little extra effort to track and spot him when he was filming in Austin in March. (I didn’t, though I’m given to understand that at one point he paid a visit to a dive bar less than half a mile from my house.)

So I’m not wholly unbiased, particularly insofar as practically every page of Get Jiro! echoed back to another thing I’d read or seen on TV. The scene where Jiro serves up ortolan to Bob’s henchmen? Distinctly reminiscent of Bourdain’s own account of dining on the tiny rare bird in Medium Raw. Jiro’s fondness for a humble and tasty banh mi bought from a cart is part and parcel with Bourdain’s own well-documented love of street food. And it’s hard not to see echoes of some of the great chefs Bourdain loves and respects in Jiro’s friend Jean-Claude, who cooks up a beautiful boudin noir and pot au feu in his tiny, nondescript bistro.

Part of the appeal of Bourdain’s shows is their curious cocktail of profanity, wiseass humor, polymath curiosity, and a surprising romantic streak, all filmed beautifully in high definition. Get Jiro! operates similarly; there are brutal beheadings à la Lone Wolf and Cub with lavish arterial spray, and there are even a couple of cannibalism jokes, but there are also sublime moments of culinary rapture, as well as the occasional educational tidbit. Among other things, you’ll get a highly memorable lecture on sushi bar etiquette, catch a glimpse of the Japanese fish-killing technique known as ike jime, and learn a few pointers on how to make a pot au feu with perfectly clear broth.

Ike jime at the fish market - Foss/Villarubia

And the art by Langdon Foss and Jose Villarubia is extraordinary. Foss’s composition and draftsmanship are occasionally reminiscent of Moebius, and his attention to detail is exceptional. Villarubia uses a wonderful cold blue tone for Bob’s empire and deep, earthy browns and ochres for Rose’s organic farm. Between the two of them, Foss and Villarubia manage to express the fatty lusciousness of a lobe of foie gras (not easy, trust me) and the rapture induced by a dish of elvers (tiny baby eels—you’ll see). The illustrations of the fish market alone are likely to make you hungry. The character designs are all marvelous; Jiro is as elegantly impassive as a Beat Takeshi character; Bob over-polished, sleek, and satisfied; and Rose a dreadlocked hippie R. Crumb girl.

Jiro makes sushi - Foss/Villarubia

So if you’re not particularly into food and you’re not a Bourdain fan, is Get Jiro! still going to entertain you? I’d say so—the art is enthralling by any standard, and at its core, Get Jiro! has the DNA of samurai films and westerns—the tale of the Man With No Name or Zatoichi-style badass whose arrival in town spells doom for the bosses who thought they were in charge. Jiro even has a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who discovers one of the secrets of his past in a scene that’s slightly gratuitous, even if what we learn is interesting—and beautiful to look at. Bourdain, by his own admission, is an admirer of the manga Oishinbo, a funny, lovely, and educational comic about Japanese cuisine. It might be helpful to think of Get Jiro! as Oishinbo directed by Quentin Tarantino.

There’s no denying, though, that there’s plenty of foodie inside baseball, and in this respect there is some sense of Jiro‘s reach exceeding its grasp. The food world encompasses epic infighting, self-absorption, and industrialization—ample material ripe for satire, and Bourdain seems determined to zing every target, from wealthy foodies with a bad case of craniorectal inversion, to pushy and dictatorial vegetarian locavores, to agribusiness and fast food—the last of which gets a handful of fairly cheap jokes. Some of the targets of Bourdain’s ire might seem opaque or even frivolous if you’re not already passingly aware of the issues—you might reasonably ask what relevance proper sushi bar etiquette even has to people who might be lucky to get a California roll at the local grocery store.

Arguably, however, the real question is less about the right way to eat your nigiri than it is about how we approach any food that we eat. Bourdain’s heroes, in this comic as well as everywhere else in his works, are the hardworking craftspeople of the food world—for whom quasi-religio-political crusades take a back seat to the simple rules of good ingredients that have been treated kindly and served well. Jiro himself shares the name of the great Japanese sushi master Jiro Ono, the subject of the beautiful documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and I find it hard to believe that this is a coincidence. It’s not just about respecting sushi—it’s about respecting all food as nourishment, as a social bond, and as a craft. Even a humble taco stand vendor has reason to be proud of what he does, and we owe him our respect.

Bourdain’s fantastic-future version of Los Angeles is ostensibly a dystopia, but you can’t help thinking that he actually wouldn’t mind our present being this way, just a little. The good bits, at least. This is, after all, a world where the first observation of a couple of beat cops arriving on the scene of Jiro’s latest customer eighty-sixing is, “You know, the rice here is exquisite.” These guys know that rice is one of the main things that sets a great sushi chef apart from the pack. You can almost hear Bourdain himself wishing that all consumers were so informed and so thoughtful about everything they ate.

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She also makes an excellent pasta puttanesca. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.


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