Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Shokugeki no Souma: Pressure for Success and Fear of Failure

Out of all the new manga which have come out of Shounen Jump in recent years, Shokugeki no Souma is my current favorite. I am usually more of a battle manga guy, but this cooking manga has become the one I most look forward to every week. 

There are plenty of reasons for it.

Souma is a damn good protagonist. The rest of the cast is colorful enough and the author manages to do just enough to keep them relevant. The arcs are all interesting in their own ways. Then, of course, there is the theme driving the overall narrative.

Because if any Jump manga does justice to the Elite vs Commoner dynamic, it's this one.

To understand what I mean, let's start with the setting of this story, Totsuki.

In the world of Shokugeki no Souma, Totsuki is THE Cooking School. 

It's not just famous in Japan. Parents will send their kids (with suspiciously Japanese names) all the way from Europe to study there, because the school is just that good. If you make it there, make it anywhere. The world is at your feet.

On the flipside, the school is unforgivingly hard. Less than 10% of the students graduate.

Education at work, people
Now, I want you to stop and think about it for a second.

Isn't it a bit counter-productive?

The ideal behind education is to get everyone to graduate. However, Totsiki doesn't roll that way. It's an Elite School in every sense of the world. Create by the Elite for the Elite to make the most Elite chefs ever.

Totsuki puts pressure on the students. Lots of it. A single mistake can cause your expulsion.

Those can endure become diamonds under the pressure and those who can't just crumble. Totsuki creates an environment where the Elite can refine each other by competition and pressure. It's a school for those who are gifted to reach greater heights. It's why the school is so great and it's also the school biggest problem.

Picture it for a moment, what happens when you are in a school that will expel you at the first mistake.

Hell, a guy got expelled for using the wrong shampoo!

About a third of the students got expelled during the training camp. Then we lose another bunch of them during the Stagiaire.

As far as the school is concerned, they should have learned all they needed in middle school and high school is the time to gleefully expel anyone who doesn't cut it.

Naturally, everyone is fucking terrified of making the wrong move.

Totsuki succeeds in creating an environment where Failure is simply unacceptable. Everyone must be Perfect.

If you aren't perfect you simply have no right to be there. Normal chefs won't do. Normal food won't do. Normal ingredients won't do.

It's all about having the best. It's all about striving the image of Perfection.

This is the place Souma enters.

Souma is an anathema to Totsuki.

Most students come from families who own important restaurants or are involved in the high ranks of the food industry somehow. Souma comes from a Special of the Day shop.

Most students are focuses on high class dishes, Souma focuses on B-Class Gourmet stuff. The flavor of the masses.

Most students are scared of failure, Souma embraces failure. Souma is entirely unafraid of failing. He will face all his failures with full honesty and learn from them.

And that's the thing really.

Pictured: The rare case of the Best Girl who appears for one chapter only.

Souma's strength as a chef is that he is willing to learn from his failures. He branches out. He tries new things. If he messes up with something, he doesn't freeze up. He doesn't reject it. He doesn't run away from those failures.

He learns from them.

This theme is cemented early on from the first dish Souma makes. The fake meat loaf. He messed up once, got an idea from that, and created a good dish.

This theme repeats itself with Souma.

During the Fall Election, he fuses two dishes which had previously not worked out all that well for him. The Apple Risotto had been stomped by his dad's Ramen, and the omelet nearly got him expelled.

It would have been normal to discard these two dishes as failures yet Souma kept working with them. He didn't let them stay as failures. 

The end result was a dish that only lost by one point to Hayama's and even then three of the five judges liked Souma's food more.

That's Souma's true strength as a chef.

Now, before continuing, let me address one thing about Souma that I see popping up every so often.

It would be easy to think Souma is some kind of genius because of who his father is.

His dad was Number 2 of the Elite 10. That's pretty high up. The guy is probably among the top 5 chefs of his world.

It would be easy to attribute Souma's success as a chef to this man.

However, that's not the case.

Souma's dad didn't teach him everything there was to know about cooking. He didn't raise him to be a world class chef.

What he taught him was how to cook at a Special of the Day Dinner.

That's like living with a quantum physicist but having him teach you only Algebra.

Furthermore, according to his Dad, Souma doesn't an outstanding cooking sense. He's actually not that talented.

Souma doesn't have Erina's tongue or Hayama's nose. He doesn't have Alice's sheer brains and resources or Kurokiba's immense tenacity for battle and beast like instincts.

What Souma has is something else.

Souma has the ability to unflinchingly look at his failures and learn from them. He can recognize his own ignorance and absorb knowledge without his pride getting in the way or ever losing heart.

That plus 12 years of experienced cooking and learning through trial and error are what make him a chef more than capable of holding his own in the elitist world of Totsuki.

That's what sets Souma apart from every other Totsuki students.

In the world of Totsuki, where Failure is punished with expulsion, people who take risks are rare. Rather, only those who are talented enough can afford to take risk. The rest are too aware of their limitations to bother branching out and trying new ideas.

However, by doing so those without talent end up limiting themselves. They don't try hard enough because they are scared to try.

They convince themselves that it's impossible for them to reach the talented Elite.

Souma does not work that way. Souma does not fear rule him for even one second.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is his match with Mimasaka.

Against an opponent who can copy everything he is, Souma wins because he never stops thinking. Not even for one moment. Every single attempt was building up towards a greater whole.

Souma didn't know whether he was going to win or not. He just knew he was going to make the best damn dish he could and did so.

In a world of elites, Shokugeki no Souma has managed to do justice to courage and relentless determination. That's big.

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