Kino Nani Tabeta?: Fumi Yoshinaga

I’ve always had this love-hate thing with Yoshinaga. I mean, it’s mostly love, but there is this thing about her drawing style where everyone looks like they are smirking almost all the time that really gets to me. I had the hardest time pushing through Ichigenme wa Yaruki no Minpo because of all the smarmy looks. (I notice it in Ooku  too, but so far, it’s not making me put the books down or anything.) (And yes, I am still reading Ooku. My to-read pile is insanely high.) It didn’t help that the majority of the characters were rich, soon-to-be-lawyers who you could easily see smirking their way through the majority of their lives. So first off, the thing I maybe liked the most about Kino Nani Tabeta? was the serious lack of smarminess. Facial expressions are a lot more relaxed and there is not the distinct downturn in the mouth lines of characters at rest.

I picked this series up because of the weird research I’ve been doing into BL as a genre. I’m sort of fascinated with the feminist undertones and implications of a genre of manga that takes as its subject male sexuality, but which is almost exclusively written by women and for women. In the course of exploring the genre, I have read a *laht* of BL. And full disclosure, I translate this stuff too, so I have spent far more time than is probably normal with comics focusing on man-on-man action. (And coming up with the sound effects for a BL manga is often awkward; I spend waaaaaay too much time thinking about what skin rubbing against skin sounds like in English.) All this to say, the gentler, more introspective approach Yoshinaga takes with Kino is more than welcome.

There is not a single sex scene in the first two books of this series. I mean, Shiro and Kenji, the main characters, don’t even kiss. They just eat a lot of food together. Which is appropriate, given that the title translates to “What did you eat yesterday?” Food is so lovingly portrayed in this book, the relationship between the two men is almost secondary, just a vehicle to introduce a new dish. No surprise considering Yoshinaga also wrote Not Love But Delicious Foods, which (from what I understand not having read it) is basically food porn.

Each chapter dedicates a few pages at least to the preparation of a Japanese meal, with all its tiny side dishes. All this thanks to Shiro, an uptight lawyer who is obsessed with cooking on the cheap. This guy has all the prices of all the foods at his supermarket memorized. Whenever something goes on sale, he is on top of it. And he is so focused on being economical and not wasting a thing, that he spends several panels mourning when the celery goes off before he can use it all. (And I can relate to this! Why is celery always sold in such large quantities? Who is actually able to use it all before it gets sadly wilted and dried up in the refrigerator drawer?)

Almost all of the food prepared in Kino is stuff I can’t eat, being a vegetarian with far too many food issues. But I am totally going to make the strawberry jam. Yoshinaga doesn’t just tell you what they’re eating, she gives extremely detailed recipes, with quantities and everything, in the form of Shiro’s thoughts as he’s cooking. It’s an effective device that she supplements with notes at the end of each chapter, offering up ideas on variations or substitutions. Foodies, delight in the world of possibilities Yoshinaga gives you.

The thing that completely won me over, though, was the believable sincerity of the relationship between Shiro and Kenji, their lives together. I have a hard time even giving this a BL-esque label, since it really it more like a slice-of-life manga. And it’s so antithetical to the norms of the BL genre. The two men are basically the same age, both over forty. They both identify as gay and we see some of the issues with coming out that they faced and continue to face. Especially hilarious and sympathetic is Shiro’s mother who tries so hard to accept her son as he is, but is so very awkward at it,  asking him in a cringe-inducing scene if he’s come out to his co-workers, and trying to invite Kenji to dinner sometime but failing somewhat spectacularly.

And we see the tension between Kenji and Shiro, between Kenji’s more open nature and Shiro’s slightly closed-off self. Kenji is so proud of Shiro and their relationship, and wants to tell the whole world, but Shiro likes to play his cards a little close, so there is a conflict. But over and over again, food brings them together.

This is one of those series that I enjoyed more the more I read it. I was rather put off by it at first; Shiro is not an easy character to love when you meet him. But the more I read, the more I liked the simplicity of the storytelling, the uncomplicated drawings. It’s easy to think that such simplicity implies a lack of depth, but what really surprised me was how Yoshinaga slipped in important issues in such a casual way. Or rather in a way that didn’t make me feel like I was reading an “issue”. Like how matter-of-factly she approaches the issues faced by gay men in Japan. Or how she deftly gets domestic violence some page time. The way she mixes the domestic and the professional with the political is really in line with how things tend to play out in real life. We are not always political or professional or perfect partners. We live in a mix of these different spheres and Yoshinaga captures this perfectly. Kino Nani Tabeta? is the kind of work that grows on you. And I mean that in the best way.


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