Art & Culture

Apr 1, 2015

Cartoon Connections

Manga artist Yaro Abe whips up a winning dish of nostalgic ingredients and the beautiful human bond with Shinya Shokudo.

From the manga Shinya Shokudo

The premise of Shinya Shokudo is incredibly simple: Every day after midnight, different motley crews of characters enter a tiny eatery called Shinya Shokudo where they share their life stories. Yet, the takeaway message from each episode can be remarkably profound, leaving behind an indelible mark in the readers’ hearts.

Every story begins with one customer ordering his favourite dish. Before long, we get a glimpse into his life as he regales the owner and other customers with anecdotes of his past and present. Never mind that the characters are individually unique; their shared response over the themes of love, loss and hope ties them together. It’s safe to say that few manga artists are able to capture the moving complexities of the human connection as beautifully and cleverly as Yaro Abe has with Shinya Shokudo.

Perhaps that’s what makes this manga series so popular among readers not only in Japan but across Asia, including Singapore (the Chinese-translated version of Shinya Shokudo is available at Kinokuniya). It’s also been made into a Japanese drama series, now already in its third season.

We spoke to the artist behind his richly layered characters to find out more.

What inspired you to come up with the concept behind Shinya Shokudo?

When I debuted as a cartoonist/manga artist, I struggled a lot because editors often rejected my ideas. Then one day, an editor suggested that I draw cartoons related to food. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it initially. After much thought, however, I figured the story would work if it revolved around the concept of an izakaya, which is a type of Japanese restaurant that only opens late at night.

The book cover of Shinya Shokudo
A film still from the TV adaptation of Shinya Shokudo

How do you decide on the dishes and themes featured in the series?

First, I would look at the timing and seasonality to narrow down the types of dishes suitable for each episode. Once I’ve decided on the dish, I would think of a character whose story would be most interesting and fitting with the dish. Then once the character and his story are fixed, it would more or less set the tone for the theme of the story. It’s difficult to pin down exactly where I draw the inspiration for my storylines. Usually, it’s based on stories I hear from friends – though sometimes, it’s based on casual conversations I overhear at bars! While each story is different, one of the common broad themes in Shinya Shokudo is fate. I believe some people are meant to meet one another, but whether or not they really do is another story altogether. When it happens, however, it’s like magic.

What would you order at Shinya Shokudo?

I would order aosa, green sea lettuce, picked from the riverbed of the Shimanto River, Kochi Prefecture, as well as a bowl of warm rice. The only condiment needed for this simple dish is soya sauce. The aosa is a local produce of my hometown, and I’ve loved it since I was a child.

Shinya Shokudo deals with a lot of insightful tales about life. What is the biggest life lesson you’ve learned?

I think the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that life doesn’t always go according to plan. It’s a harsh fact, which is why I try to create a happy ending that’s at once realistic and humble for each of my stories.