Cooking Master Boy
It is 19th century China, and 13-year-old Li Mao Hsing is orphaned and left in charge of his mother's restaurant, Ju Xia Lou. However, most people think he is too young and too inexperienced to be an adequate chef, much less follow in the footsteps of his mother, but Mao is determined to face every challenge in his way, eventually aiming to be the greatest chef in the land.
Contrary to popular belief, stories about cooking in Japan did not begin with Iron Chef. Manga like Hochonin Ajihei, Tekka no Makihei, and Oishinbo made readers' palates water with delight through the 1970s and 1980s, priming an entire generation for showman Kaga Takeshi's overblown (but appetizing) phenomenon in the 1990s.
So it's no surprise that Ogawa Etsushi's semi-historical cooking manga series about a boy's travails in China would be animated, capitalizing on the success of television chefs such as Chen Kenichi, as well as the trend of popular anime using China as a locale (Fushigi Yugi).
What we get in the end is a strange blend between the theatrical presentation of Iron Chef (with Chinese courtiers oohing and aahing over plates of sumptuous-looking food) and the "I'm gonna be the best" cliche of a sports series like Captain Tsubasa, with "battles" every so often punctuating the progress of the main "hero" (the young chef Mao) on his journey.
Visually, it's surprisingly a very colorful show. Everyone wears bright, beautiful outfits (like you've come to expect from anything set in China), and has bright hair colors, and the character designs are very strikingly shounen, with sharp lines for the grown men, and big eyes for the teenage Mao, who looks oddly enough rather like a refugee from the Lunar video game series stuck in Fushigi Yugi clothes - the effect is actually sorta cute.
The characters themselves are a bit of a mixed bag early on. Mao is a pretty stock-seeming shounen "hero" archetype, a little prone to getting in trouble, but earnest, studious, and, most importantly, very highly competent. The first "opponent", Shou An, is way too obvious and transparent as a villain, and most of the characters just seem a little too generic to stand out, though this has immense potential to improve later in the series (there's two seasons worth), and certainly Mao's character design change in the second season would point in this direction. Interestingly, I have screened this in both Cantonese and Japanese, and strangely, the show felt right in Cantonese, even though the voice acting itself wasn't necessarily better in that language.
Animation-wise, it's not impressive, relying mainly on the strength of the art design to pull it through. No flashy action sequences here, this is about cooking. Lots of dramatic stills and, yes, pans to draw things out. But while I'm speaking of the art design ... the food! Oh, the food. Don't watch this hungry, or you will find yourself quickly seeking out your nearest purveyor of Szechuan cuisine. Really. Fried rice never looked so good.
Personally, I like the concept of this show a lot, but as for the actual execution, I find myself having to table my optimism for future installments of the series. It's a little slow for most viewers, and the premise isn't going to appeal to a lot of Westerners, who would be more interested in eating Chinese cooking than watching an anime about it.
While not quite as dramatic as Iron Chef, and not nearly as immediately appealing as Ranma 1/2 and Fushigi Yugi, Cooking Master Boy is very watchable and rather interesting. Still, I don't see it appealing to any but a select few.
Add a star if you're a big fan of Iron Chef or the manga I mentioned above. Plus later episodes of the series involve a whole lot of pretty pretty men cooking Chinese food, so female fans should probably make a note of this for future reference. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: There is some violence in this series, what with the severe rivalries between the chefs and their supporters. Apart from that, some profanity (depending on what digital source you're using), nothing sexual and no nudity.
Version(s) Viewed: VHS, Cantonese dub; digital source
Review Status: Partial (3/52)
Cooking Master Boy © 1997 Nippon Animation
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