Friday, December 12, 2008

『Moyashimon. Tales of Agriculture』 by Ishikawa Masayuki

Moyashimon (『もやしもん』) by Ishikawa Masayuki (石川雅之) embodies much of what I like best about Japanese manga. With little more than a pen and paper, the artist bites off some small corner of the universe, exotic or mundane, educates me on the background information — slang, technical lingo, history — injects a bit of fancy, and opens my eyes to visual possibilities perhaps too expensive to pursue on Hollywood’s big screen. Moyashimon does all of the above.

First appearing in the August 2004 issue of Kodansha’s bi-weekly serial Evening, the story evolves around college life at an agricultural university. I didn’t attend an agro school, but my brother did. Moyashimon teaches me the vocabulary (in Japanese) and provides the images to let me participate visually in some of the stories I heard about life at an agro school (such as how to take a horse’s temperature the old fashioned way).

Moyashimon also offers a ton of info about things like brewing sake and soy sauce, and making cheese. In this sense, Moyashimon reminds me of Oishimbo, where culinary sleuth Shiro marshals vast culinary expertise to expose mediocrity and mischief, while teaching the reader why beef raised on the coastal cliffs of Normandy tastes better than beef raised on landlocked plains, and why raw fish tastes better when sliced with a sharp knife. That was Oishimbo. But if you liked Oishimbo, you’ll enjoy reading Moyashimon to learn about kiviak (a stinky Inuit dish), hongeohoe (an even stinkier Korean dish) and kami-zake (sake’s ancient precursor, a kind of fermented rice ball that was chewed and sucked). These aspects of Moyashimon will satisfy your inner geek, your inner Encyclopedia Brown.

Now here’s the fantasy: The main character, Sawaki Tadayasu (沢木直保), is a freshman who comes from a family of sake makers and is a bit of a genius in the field of microbiology. At least insofar as he can see microbes with his naked eye. Like the first child with perfect pitch, or a prodigy who derives polynomial square roots in his head, Sawaki becomes the darling of the Biosciences department as researchers fight to get him on their teams. Meanwhile, the high-minded Professor Itsuki inspires Sawaki to think of agriculture as the science of the history and future of life itself.

The artist lets us see the microbes the way Sawaki does, which makes for a visual experience that is hilarious, cute, beautiful, grotesque — and completely unique. I’ve never seen anything quite like this. The omnipresent microbes, blanketing the landscape in nearly every frame, have their own jokes, their own sub-plots, their own agendas. In a word, their own “culture.” I expect Moyashimon has triggered something of a science boom in Japan, just as Hikaro no Go turned youngsters on to the game of go, and Saibancho! (Your Honor!) got them traipsing into courts to watch criminal trials.

Moyashimon was twice considered for Asahi Newspaper’s Tezuka Prize before finally winning it in 2008, sweeping up the Kodansha Prize and the Soy Sauce Culture Prize (awarded by Japan’s soy sauce industry for particular cultural achievements) in the same year.

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