SPOILERS: Discussion of select episodes of the Wakakozake TV short and live-action series.
It’s no question that food sells. Food resonates across audiences and media, from the chefs making it to the foodies looking to indulge in the newest offerings. This also includes manga and anime, where food as a genre is just the start to a wider array of subgenres.
However, despite the diversity of stories that feature food, there’s historically been a glaring lack of female and intersectional viewpoints, namely in portraying the intimate moments one has with food and encouraging the solitary exploration of food and drink. One series is helping challenge this status quo: Wakakozake.
The series originated as a Japanese manga created by Chie Shinkyu for the seinen magazine Monthly Comic Zenon in 2011. Wakakozake has received critical acclaim, ranked 10th in 2014 recommended comics selected by the nationwide writing clerk of Japan. Its popularity resulted in a one-cour anime short, a half-hour live-action drama that’s been airing for three seasons (two of which will be the focus of this article), and has even been remade into a Korean drama called Cheers To Me.
The story revolves around Murasaki Wakako, a 26-year-old “Office Lady” who lives in Tokyo and—in her own words—was “born with a taste for liquor.” Her life initially seems ordinary: her 9-to-5 job consists of menial labor with low-stakes trials and trivialities. But Wakako’s day really begins when work ends. She explores the streets of Tokyo in search of the perfect meal. Her love of food and alcohol is gloriously portrayed by her signature “Pshuuu,” a noise of utter satisfaction.
Wakako’s experience of eating is also quite radical in that she almost always eats alone. The show portrays a young woman in dialogue with her own passions without ever having to sacrifice them or feel ridiculed.
Wakakozake stands as just one series in a current growing trend of food manga and anime subverting a historically male-dominated narrative while also challenging the archaic judgments about a woman going out to eat or have a drink by herself. The series arguably helps solidify a new food counter-genre, reaching a wide audience (written by a woman about a woman in a generally male-targeted publication) and welcoming intersectional perspectives surrounding one’s relationship with dining out alone or with others, empowering its characters and readers alike.
Since its initial inception in the 1980s, the food genre has been noticeably present as a thriving market in the manga industry. Breaking down the genre on a mainstream level, you have more typical shounen-eque series where food is a source of conflict and is metaphorically framed as a “war” or a “battle,” alluding to the iconic Iron Chef competitions.
Series such as Food Wars and Yakitate Japan raise the stakes with hyperbolic cooking and enjoyment of food (disintegrating clothes), fantastical environments (hunting rare mythical beasts for cooking), or by putting characters in dystopically hierarchal conflicts (fighting literal Culinary Fascism). These series, which feature young men and are aimed predominantly at boys, weaponize food and the act of cooking often by using hyper-violent as well as sexualized imagery (especially on female characters).
On the other hand, the genre also features more subdued melodramas aimed at older readers, such as Drops of God, Antique Bakery, and Ristorante Paradiso. In these series, the main characters work within the food and restaurant industries, with their conflicts stemming from emotion as well as competition. Their love of food and cooking comes from professional aspirations to be the best, which they share with shounen series despite the less extravagant framing.
Some of these series are written by women, with Ristorante Paradiso featuring multiple female point-of-view characters and Antique Bakery featuring queer characters and narratives. However, most of the other series mentioned in this article center on a mostly straight male perspective. Taken together, both subgenres reinforce gendered ideas about who gets to tell stories about making and eating food—an issue that pervades food media in Western culture as well.
That’s where a series like Wakakozake comes in. In both the anime and live-action series, Wakakozake has no real narrative arc or conflict, yet it does challenge several pervasive cultural and social stigmas. Creator Chie Shinkyu made it clear in an interview that she hopes the series encourages young women to feel confident enough to go out drinking alone: “With Wakakozake, I hope I can show many more aspect of drinking alone to all those people who’re aiming to ‘debut’ in this world.”
When Wakako enjoys a meal, she gains perspective on the conflicts she faces in her day-to-day life. At the same time, we hear her internal monologue debating what she’s in the mood for, the best food and drink pairings, and their taste overall. Her tastes and wants are as important as her “normal” problems.
The stakes are always about whether or not she’ll be full and satisfied at the end of the evening. Wakako is clearly an amateur foodie with the same passion as any professional or aspiring chef, but she’s content to just make food part of her daily self-care.
This also calls to mind mangaka Fumi Yoshinaga, author of Antique Bakery. Both Not Love but Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy, her semi-autobiographical manga, and What Did You Eat Yesterday?, her series focusing on a mature gay couple living in Tokyo, portray female and queer intersectional perspectives on food and promote eating as an act of love—both for oneself and for others.
Wakakozake is also part of a growing genre of women dining and drinking alone or with others, including Nomi Joshi (Drinking Girls) by Ukatsu and Takunomi (Drinking at Home) by Haruto Hino. While these series may not be as mainstream as Wakakozake or Fumi Yoshinaga’s works, they add to the conversation of stories about older women enjoying food their own way.
Other series are also gradually catching on to what Wakakozake is doing, even if they approach it differently, such as the recent series Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles. Also created by a female mangaka in a seinen magazine, the series follows Koizumi, a high school student who seemingly appears enigmatic and aloof but becomes enthusiastic and serious about ramen.
Like Wakako, Koizumi has no problem eating at a ramen shop by herself, which are predominately visited by men. She shares Wakako’s motivation for the solitary exploration of food (in Koizumi’s case, all the ramen she can get) and indulges in her passion when she can.
However, the framing of Koizumi’s enjoyment in most episodes is through the perspectives of other characters, who are more fixated on her “cold” nature until she enjoys a bowl of ramen. We see this most notably through our central point-of-view character, Ohsawa Yuu, another high school girl who is attracted to Koizumi and sees ramen as a chance to talk to her.
Ms. Koizumi examines what can be interpreted as a potential queer relationship through ramen both at home and at restaurants, which other characters support. However, like What Did You Eat Yesterday, the series never lets the romance progress or tackles it seriously. Koizumi is more the object of desire and mystery for the audience and characters’ gaze, often framed in a sexual and fetishized way when she indulges in her passion.
The aspect of “fetishizing girls/women enjoying food” isn’t uncommon (this visual theme is also present in the series Takunomi), which is another reason why a series like Wakakozake is so vital to challenging genre expectations. True, we do see Wakako get excited and “Pshuuing” about food and booze with a slight blush. However, the imagery of her satisfaction is neutral in framing and gaze, highlighting her introspection and emotions for the viewers.
Likewise, while we are introduced to some characters who recur in the series (such as the paternal chef and smitten waiter at one of her regular restaurants, or a couple of friends from work), the camera and audience gaze remain focused on Wakako, her thoughts, and the food and drink she’s consuming.
Another way Wakakozake adds to this counter-genre is how it manages to subvert the tropes that could typically be present in a character like Wakako, from her romantic life to her work life. Wakako has a boyfriend, Hiroki, but the audience never meets him. She herself doesn’t seem too interested in being with him.
In the live-action episode “Drinking at Home,” she gladly gives up meeting Hiroki just to enjoy a stay-at-home Italian schmorgesborg. This includes putting her cell-phone in the fridge after Hiroki texts her and then devouring two bottles of wine, endless appetizers, and an aromatic stew. In another episode, she resents the interruption of his text while she’s enjoying a meal out by herself.
It’s open to interpretation whether Hiroki is a marketing gimmick meant to make Wakako seem “available” to male readers or a commentary on cultural pressures for young women to have a boyfriend even if they’re not interested in romance. Regardless, the series doesn’t judge Wakako for enjoying some alone time or suggest she isn’t a real person without him. Instead, he is a passing thought compared to the main feast.
Similarly, while Wakako’s occupation as an Office Lady is one that many jobs that young Japanese women do temporarily, the show doesn’t seem interested in probing Wakako’s professional ambition—a fact that readers may take as a positive or negative. Yet these things don’t seem to matter to Wakako, either. When we’re with her, the only thing on her mind is achieving the perfect marriage of tender meat to ice cold beer.
While much of Wakakozake is about a the joys of solitary dining, the series also doesn’t fall into the trap of treating other female characters as antagonists. When Wakako interacts with other women in the office, in particular her neighboring co-workers, they’re always interested to know what she’s eating and acknowledge her passions. There’s never competition or belittling.
We do sometimes experience Wakako’s insecurities when eating alone, and she compares herself to other women. In one episode, Wakako eats at a fancy Spanish restaurant. She feels out of place at first, admiring an elegant older woman, but soon gets lost in the new cuisine she experiences. Later in the episode she returns to the restaurant feeling more confident and ends up sharing a moment of mutual admiration with the same woman. The series portrays support, encouragement, and healing through food.
While Wakako is often alone at these restaurants, we also get a few episodes where she shares her passions with like-minded friends, such as when Wakako returns to her hometown of Hiroshima to visit her childhood friend and fellow foodie, Aya. They do briefly talk about boyfriends, but the majority of the episode is just the two of them chatting endlessly about food and drinking the most mouth-watering pints of beer and plates of okonomiyaki.
She also shares her passions with her co-workers, who both recognize and trust her knowledge of food and food planning. For instance, one episode places Wakako in a situation where she’s planning a department dinner party—the kind that, in any other series, would go through a series of mistrails and miscommunication.
Instead, the episode ends with triumph: we see her confidence in knowing that the yakiniku place she selects has the best food, even though its appearance is shabbier than her supervisor would prefer. And, indeed, her boss and coworkers love the food and thank Wakako for taking care of them. Her private joys aren’t just for the audience, but something that enriches her relationships with others.
On a personal note, my love for Wakakozake started at a time of major transition in my own life as I moved to a full-time job out of school, dealing with anxiety and depression and fears of the unknown. As a result of watching Wakakozake, I felt inspired just to get out and explore my own neighborhood.
Now, on pay day, I take myself out to a restaurant I haven’t been to before and splurge on a nice meal and some booze. I’ve become more cognizant of food and drink pairings (Wakako gets very specific about her needs) and more open to meeting new people.
This is why Wakakozake feels so refreshing as a bar-raiser for the genre: it portrays an open-minded world and balances the everyday anxieties of a young professional with the everyday joys of experiencing the small pleasures that make life worth it to explore, even if you’re dining on your own. Hopefully the success of stories like Wakakozake will encourage more creators to find new was to explore this niche subgenre of introspective food exploration and build a growing, intersectional market of stories for underrepresented readers.