Friday, November 13, 2015

Recommended Reading for 11/13: Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi

One of the first recommended readings I ever wrote on this blog was for Get Jiro! a graphic novel that combined gangsters, dystopia, and culinary criticism from one of the world's most famous chefs and culinary critics, Anthony Bourdain, and his cowriter Joel Rose. A couple weeks ago, a new book starring Jiro, the sushi chef who you do not want to mess with (or order the California Roll from) was released, and it's a very different book than the first.

While the original Get Jiro! was very much about a world where food was scarce and chefs and food magnates controlled the world, a very sci-fi concept, the new volume, Blood and Sushi, is much more of a mob story, a story about revenge, as well as about a young man finding his place in the world. And that young man is Jiro. Set years before the original book, this volume takes place in Jiro's native Japan instead of Los Angeles, and tells the story of how Jiro came to learn the art of the sushi chef and why he had to leave Japan. I'm loathe to use the word prequel, since that has certain unpleasant connotations; consider it instead a well crafted origin story.

The Jiro that readers meet in this book is still a quiet and thoughtful man, but instead of a master chef, he is a young Yakuza lieutenant, working for his father who is a powerful local boss. The crew Jiro works with is headed by his elder half-brother, Ichigo, who is as different from Jiro as night is from day. Ichigo is all loud words and action, reveling in the blood and carnage of the Yakuza. As heir father observes, Jiro is a minimalist, an artist, while Ichigo is a maximalist, believing more is always better.

While Ichigo relishes his Yakuza life, Jiro wants something very different, so after days of carnage and bloodshed, something that there is plenty of, Jiro takes his leave from his brother and their compatriots and secretly goes to his other life. In this life he is not the boss's son, but is instead an apprentice sushi chef to a demanding master chef. He also has a girlfriend, Miyako, a woman of half-Japanese and half-Italian ancestry, who works in an Italian restaurant. It is through his talks with these two characters that Bourdain puts in most of his discussions of culinary arts and culture, especially one memorable exchange from Miyako about the similarities between Italian and Japanese cuisine; something I never had thought about before but is absolutely fascinating.

What really grabbed me about this book was how different its view of Jiro was than the first one. The older Jiro was a ronin chef, masterless and wandering, practicing his art. He was the calm eye of the storm that revolved around him. This second volume is much more a character piece. The Jiro here is a lighter soul, who despite their differences jokes with his big brother and cares for him. He loves Miyako. He respects both his father figures, his biological father and the chef who is his mentor. An slowly, over the course of the book, much of that is stripped away, giving the readers hints of the Jiro to come.

The true inciting incident of what will change Jiro's life is the death of Boss Joji, and underboss who was cheating Jiro and Ichigo's father. With Joji dead, Ichigo moves into his territory and makes a brutal show of force to everyone who would pay protection to Joji, including Jiro's master. We don't see the beating that Ichigo inflicts, but a scene at another restaurant is more than enough to tell us what it was like. The fact that the book pulls no punches with its violence but keeps that scene from the readers eyes is enough to make at least me imagine it is even worse than how the master describes it.

If his master swearing that he will one day kill the man who did this to him, who is Jiro's brother, wasn't bad enough, it turns out that Miyako's flighty roommate, Kame, is dating one of Ichigo's crew, and when she sees Jiro's Yakuza tattoos, she tells her boyfriend about the sushi chef named Jiro who has Yakuza tattoos. And after blabbing it to half the town, the boyfriend goes to Ichigo, who kills him, after eating a delicious meal togeher, to keep word of this dishonor from spreading and then tells his father, who sends him to retrieve Jiro.

The view of Jiro's father is interesting and heartbreaking, as he angrily tells Jiro he must stop, that he should not be serving those below his station, and shocks Jiro by telling him that it is Jiro who will inherit his criminal empire, not the more enthusiastic Ichigo, since Ichigo is a thoughtless ball of murder, while Jiro can plan and think. But this is he fatal decision for Jiro's father, who tells Ichigo exactly this after Ichigo proposes a business venture involving tainted fish, and I don't think any reader is surprised when Ichigo kills his own father to claim the empire for his own. And with that act the die is cast; Ichigo summons Jiro to help them avenge their father against the other clan that "killed him." During that bloody encounter , Jiro learns the truth, and Ichigo spins it to look like it was Jiro who killed their father, sending his soldiers to, "Get Jiro!" The bloody climax leaves one brother dead and the other on his way to America, leaving behind the woman he loves. There are a couple twists in those last few pages that resonate, and the tale of revenge and family has all the marks of a great tragedy.

While this new volume doesn't delve into the changes to this near future world as deeply as the previous one did, instead more focusing on gangsters than chefs and food, their are still hints of it, and it directly effects the plot. We see that fishing is now limited, since most of the fish pulled from the sea are radioactive and lethal. It is these fish that give Ichigo the idea that leads him to the idea that causes the rift that forces him to kill his father, and reminds readers that this is a darker future than the world we live in, if not by much.

The original Get Jiro! had art from Langdon Foss, whose hyper-detailed work gave readers a view into this strange near-future world. This new book, which has a very different feel to it, has an equally different artist, one made for it. Ale Garza's art is heavily influenced by manga, and so a tale of Japanese murder and revenge is well suited to him. His action scenes blur with chaos and blood, but still are easy to follow, and his character designs are strong. Even with such a different art style, the character the two books share, Jiro himself, is still easily recognizable. And the food looks absolutely delicious.

It's not every day you run across a graphic novel that seamlessly blends action, sex, social commentary, and food together. Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi succeeds in creating a tragic tale that adds to the original book and stands perfectly on its own. Now, if you'll excuse me, writing this has made me hungry and I think I'm getting sushi for lunch.

Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi is available at better comic shops and bookstores everywhere.

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