2015 has been kind to anime fans. From the Black Lagoon-esque ultra violence of Gangsta, to the military fantasy mash-up Gate, to the MMO deconstruction of Overlord, to Hiromu Arakawa's take on the Legend of Arsland (Arsland Senki), there are a lot of solid options vying for your time. (Shout out to Marcus and Noelle for all of these recommendations). I thought it would be impossible for anything to overtake Gangsta, with its weird mix of criminals and drugged up super soldiers. Then Grace and I started watching Shokugeki no Soma, which roughly translates to Soma's Food Wars. It's not revolutionary, but it is a brilliant example of how Shounen structure can be translated to topics other than fighting. In fact, it is one of the best Shounen to date, provided you can ignore (or enjoy) all the fan service.
Here's the plot in a nutshell: Soma is a 15 year old cook who works in his father's diner in Japan. It's a humble, affordable joint in a neighborhood being targeted for urban development, but it is tremendously successful thanks to the phenomenal food. In the first episode, our hero gets a real estate vulture to permanently piss off just by serving her an amazing dish. It turns out that Soma's dad is secretly a world renowned chef, and he has quietly been grooming his son to one day surpass him by challenging him to no-holds barred cooking duels since he was six years old. But one day, dear old dad disappears, leaving instructions for Soma to (temporarily) close up shop, and head to an elite cooking academy.
This school has a fancifully low graduation rate where kids can be expelled at the drop of a hat, with its alumni going on to be the next world's next Gordon Ramsays, Julia Childs, Wolfgang Pucks, and Giada De Laurentiis. Furthermore, students challenge each other to cooking duels called Shokugeki to settle disputes. I know, I know, the cliches are already thick in rank and file. But like I said, the show isn't an evolution or critique of Shounen anime (go watch Kill La Kill or Attack on Titan for that), so much as an immaculate execution of the form.
Two episodes in, I found myself wondering whether the creator was a chef himself, or a food critic. Whatever his background, he is not writing from Wikipedia knowledge. The cooking techniques that are casually rattled off are insane, covering everything from carving monkfish to molecular gastronomy, and featuring dishes like diner food with tastes and textures that evolve over time, nine layer french terrines, and curries that use compression and convection to enhance their aromatic impact. Needless to say, watching this show while you're hungry is a poor life decision.
I also really love the cast of characters. Even when they get tropey, clever eccentricities and running gags make them relentlessly endearing. Everybody in Soma's dorm has a specialty (fermentation, smoking, game meats, food history) that adds another dimension to their characters. Soma himself is fearless, tenacious, and a little dense (defining qualities of the archetypal Shounen hero), but when it comes to food (this show's equivalent to combat), he is beyond innovative. And when he comes to his friends' rescue, he is every ounce the hero of a show where problems are solved by punching. Moreso in fact, because it requires more creativity from the writer and the characters.
The only thing keeping me from recommending it to every anime fan I know is the fan service. It doesn't approach the depravity of High School of the Dead, Triage X, or other aspiring hentai, but when a character serves a dish that is amazing, the diner goes on a journey. And usually that journey is an orgasm. They blush, gasp, cry out, and are often shown in the abstract, stripped near nude in an explosion of ecstasy. To its credit, the show doesn't discriminate by gender, though the female reactions tend to be a little more explicit. You also have the token stacked girl who walks around in a bikini (although, there's a male nudist who walks around in nothing but a cooking apron, too). Soma also has the habit of developing truly heinous dishes (like octopus with peanut butter) to prank his friends and these experiences draw upon the proud Japanese tradition of the Fisherman's Wife.
It's not all graphic innuendo and implicit tentacle rape. The show routinely employs brilliant imagery. A flawed dish is portrayed as an island paradise, marred by a parade of noisy hippo. A curry duel is showcased as Muay Thai boxer fighting a lancer. A molecular gastronomy dish becomes a metaphor for pioneering the edges of a new galaxy. All of these scenes are rendered with beautiful animation quality, and accompanied by the sort of bombastic music that makes you want to cheer for the good guys, and their opposition, just so you can see what they come up with. When people clash via cooking, everybody wins.
One day, after I get the book-writing thing nailed down, another project I would love to tackle is writing a shounen-style comic set in the ballet world. It features brutal competitions shaped by fierce rivalries set in adolescence, stunning feats of physicality that can easily be embellished in fantastic ways, and inspiring camaraderie. You could even throw in the tasteless sexual pandering and fan service scenes without much exaggeration, because why the hell not.
I haven't seen any other cooking anime, but I'm confident this one's cuisine will reign supreme in perpetuity. I can't wait for a second serving next summer. May even have to jump the gun and start on the manga.