The Japanese obsession with cooking shows borders on the pathological. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. Well, I can… but it won’t be printed. Hence, let me break down my observations into “bite-size chunks” so they go down more easily.
Let’s start with frequency. You cannot surf Japanese TV for more than five minutes without encountering some kind of program where you are sure to witness pornographic close-ups of quivering soft-boiled eggs, wobbling mounds of custard, or in-your-face spoons of yogurt-infused God-knows-what.
These types of shows also spend inordinate amounts of time on how to properly knick your eggplants to get that prized “criss-cross” effect, how to dot your faux nouvelle cuisine with little swirls of "kawaii"-colored sauces, how to arrange and rearrange your curled carrot sticks into virtual flower arrangements, how to…
Are you getting the picture? Are you getting sick? I am.
Not only do the same types of dishes (usually Japanese) tend to get prepared ad nauseam, the experience of making them is often “enhanced” by hideous background music, the sort of cutesy crap you would only hear on ’50s American TV shows (or, I imagine, in a Japanese lobotomy ward). The “effect” is such that you will start looking around for the first sharp object you find — no doubt the very knife you’ve been brainwashed into purchasing so that you, too, can prepare the same dishes that are now driving you insane.
More than the disturbing close-ups, annoying music and blabbering commentary, however, is the “moment of truth”: all guests, usually borderline “talents,” are forced to eat the dishes they’ve been jawing on about for hours. Seeing their “honest” reaction to these morsels is clearly the most important part of the show.
To ensure we “get the message,” the cameraman inevitably zooms in on the face of the idol-who-will-be-forgotten-by-next-week as she chomps her way through some marinated octopus, followed by a mid-orgasmic shout containing the only comment acceptable: “Oishii!”
Not only does this pathetic display of “enthusiasm” take place on cooking programs, it is also considered “news.” That’s right: every morning on NHK, some super-genki “reporter” wanders through the fascinating world of “new products” (read: paid advertisements), many of which involve preparing food. One recent product was a mini-grill which would allow a family to enjoy four tiny sticks of yakitori without having to walk down the street to the nearest izakaya.
As the reporter and his cameraman stood by in the home of a “normal” Japanese family, the family, acting “normal,” prepared their little feast on their little grill, everyone’s mouths salivating to the point of foaming. When the sticks o’ flesh had been grilled to perfection, the family grabbed the grilled goodies, made their dental impressions, and shouted, on cue, “Oishii!”
Well, what if it wasn’t oishii? Do all Japanese have to put up with it and pretend they liked it? How come, on every show in which eating is involved, must everyone say “oishii?” Is it good manners? Have they been bribed? Blackmailed? I don’t get it.
Famed American comic Jerry Seinfeld once said, “Watching people eat is disgusting.” That’s right; it is. What kind of pleasure can be gained from viewing other poor souls forced to consume food with cameras in their faces, close enough to see clogged pores (or unclogged, if they’re pretty idolettes) as they masticate, swallow and robotically shout “Oishii!”?
I am aware that fine Japanese cuisine approaches the level of art. Problem: “Fine Japanese cuisine” is rarely shown on Japanese TV. I am also aware I can change the channel. Problem: I’m going to see the same thing on the next channel. Isn’t there anything else in this country that’s considered important? Are we all just couch potatoes, stuffing our faces with rice crackers, watching fake nobodies boiling, draining and inhaling noodles, gasping in ecstasy about how oishii they are? They’re noodles, for God’s sake! They might be oishii, but, so what?
I’m not here to say it’s not interesting to see how new or time-honored dishes are prepared, or that it’s not fun to watch "The Iron Chef" and enjoy the “race” to see who can make the finest dish before the clock stops ticking. But unless the daily “cooking shows” have something to offer other than squealing “tarento” or the fake reactions of bribed Joe and Jane Yamada, then they are wasting a tremendous amount of time on nothing.
David Chester is a Tokyo-based songwriter, musician and filmmaker. This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today