I can’t remember how I found out about Osen but I knew I had to give it a shot after checking out the manga that it was adapted from. Written by Kikuchi Shota and serialized in the Japanese men’s magazine Evening, Osen is a manga about food (or more specifically, traditional Japanese cuisine) and a fond tribute to the vanishing artistic traditions of the country. Most of the story takes place in Isshouan, a venerated traditional Japanese restaurant located in the town of Kasagi-no-yado near Tokyo. It’s one of those places that rely not so much on media publicity but the loyal patronage of regulars and “those in the know”.
As you can imagine of a restaurant of this calibre, the food served at Isshouan is of the pornographic, superlative-inducing variety. However its main star is really its foxy proprietress Osen, an unabashed sake-loving hedonist who can often be seen enjoying a long soak in the bath or lounging around in a semi-perpetual state of undress.
Don’t be fooled by her come hither pouts though. There’s a reason everyone, from the restaurant’s patrons to the town’s villagers, fawns over her and that’s because Osen has skills no one can touch (of course the fact that she’s a total babe probably has something to do with it as well.) As the okami of Isshouan, her knowledge of food and culinary techniques is unparalleled but being a master chef isn’t her only call to adulation. She’s also a master potter, gardener and sake maker – a living embodiment of the artisan trades that once flourished in Old Japan, if you will – as well as one helluva okami.
Nothing fazes Osen, not even the sudden arrival of a sumo wrestler and his entourage, and every time you see her diffusing a crisis with her skillz (or plain common sense), you can’t help but wonder: ‘Why has no one made this woman mayor of Tokyo yet?”
It goes without saying that I think the manga is definitely worth checking out (only the first two chapters of Volume 1 have been translated into English though) but what about the drama?
It should be said that Osen the drama is a very loose adaptation of the manga. The biggest change comes in the form of Isho-an’s proprietress, as you might have guessed from the casting of Aoi Yu. Kikuchi’s sultry okami has been re-imagined as an extremely genki yamato nadeshiko of yore (though they’ve kept her fondness for baths and sake), which isn’t as disastrous as it might sound. Had a weaker actress been cast, I’d probably have found the character annoying and saccharine but Aoi is a winsome and nuanced actress who knows how to play up Osen’s innocence without making her appear childish or dim-witted. Also, she plays her with such an infectious charm that it is difficult not to be smitten with the character. Just look at her!
She enjoys making silly puns…
and she can drink most guys under the table…
and she’s a real trooper who pulls her own weight (literally.)
The only reservation I have about Drama Osen is that she comes off as a bit too lenient and forgiving to be an okami of such a longstanding restaurant. But I can accept that she’s an idealised fantasy dreamt up by NTV’s scriptwriters so this doesn’t bother me too much.
Far harder to stomach though are the changes they’ve made to the character of Ezaki Yoshio, the young apprentice at Isshouan. In the manga, he’s a wide-eyed college student but in the drama, he’s a smug, know-it-all who’s constantly whining about not being paid enough. (It’s like a stagiaire telling Thomas Keller or Guy Savoy how to cook and then complaining that they’re not getting paid, a scenario which is about as WTF as it is unbelievable.) Ezaki oversteps his boundaries so often in the drama — there is an episode where he actually goes behind Osen’s back to talk to the businessmen who want to open a branch of Isshouan — that you just wish someone would smack some respect into him because this kind of behaviour isn’t cool and it would never fly in a real restaurant.
This role was presumably beefed up for Uchi Hiroki, the Johnny who plays Ezaki. Research tells me that he was demoted to trainee status for underage drinking and that this was his comeback role. I’m not sure if they could have created a more unsympathetic character for him or if the lack of sympathy I’m feeling is due simply to his performance, which consists of overacting, posturing and pouting.
Speaking of pouting, what is he doing with his mouth? He does this throughout the entire drama. Someone should tell him he’s supposed to be acting, not posing for a selca.
There isn’t much to say about the rest of the supporting cast because they’re just spectators in this drama. Seiji the head chef is a former yakuza member in the manga but that detail’s been removed here. Mukai Osamu is supposed to be an up-and-coming actor but he is wasted in Osen. Frankly, his character could have been played by anyone. He’s the kind of secondary guy who exists to be thwarted by the male lead, which is a bit tragic considering who the latter is.
That said, if you can close an eye to the sketchy secondary characters, Osen does have a good story to tell. Isshouan is presented as one of the few remaining strongholds of traditional Japanese culture but at the same time, there is the constant reminder that it is fighting a losing battle with the times. Preparing food the traditional way with ingredients sourced from artisans and local merchants has become a luxury that most people can’t afford nowadays because either they don’t have the time or they don’t see the point of doing so. One of the things I like about how the drama handles this subject is that it doesn’t place tradition on a pedestal and condemn modern conveniences such as fast food restaurants and packed bentos. They each have their place and in the case of the former, it is also people’s responsibility to protect their own traditions and ensure that they continue to survive for succeeding generations.
This being a drama about Japanese cuisine, there are a lot of gorgeous shots of food and being a food nerd myself, I especially enjoy the prepping and cooking segments. Needless to say, you should not be watching this show on an empty stomach.
My gripes about Ezaki and the secondary characters aside, I’d say if you enjoy cooking, watch Osen for the food porn and Aoi Yu. Oh, and definitely do give the manga a shot.