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Review: “Toriko” Is the Low-Calorie, Less-Entertaining Snack

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vlcsnap-2015-06-30-20h46m26s248Legend states that there is a show about culinary warriors, but which rarely sets its scenes in a kitchen. A tale of giant beasts that roam the countryside of a mysterious world filled with delectable meats that companies and individuals will fight over. Two men rise above the others to bring these dishes to the world. One is a lowly chef trying to make his way and survive the dishes he’s bringing out, while the other is a brawler who respects all the animals he battles, using every part and giving thanks in attempts to fill his limitless stomach and spirit. This is the Gourmet Age, where war and famine has disappeared in a glorious era of gluttony and spectacle. Our hero is Toriko, and with his special attack of “knife and fork,” he’ll slice his way to the top of the food chain. Is his steak well-done, or overcooked?

Toriko’s a bit of an odd beast: a Shonen Jump property that reached out to the sun that is Dragon Ball and One Piece as young male-targeted comics that go on for decades. One Piece is nearing 20 years, and Dragon Ball just hit 30 years (with decent gaps between Z and Super). The three shared the screen and print in specials and games, but Toriko’s animated world ended a year ago with the manga still running (Dragon Ball’s anime continued past the manga, and One Piece has kept both media running concurrently). At a glance, Toriko himself looks like an off-model Goku, with both heroes in costumes dominated by orange, and Toriko’s blue hair paralleling Goku’s “Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan” blue-haired form. Goku, Luffy (of One Piece), and Toriko all also follow the same character mold; good-hearted, friend-focused, slightly goofy, serious warriors who can eat you out of house, home, and supermarket.

TorikoThe two Toriko Collection DVD boxed sets from FUNimation is roughly a third of the series, and it somewhat shows why the show just might not have made it as far as its heroes, but might portend why the manga still runs strong.

Toriko traverses the world on jobs to hunt down and “capture” rare and exotic animals and ingredients, which is a bit of a misnomer. While the show does make a valiant point about respecting our place in nature, with Toriko giving thanks before every meal and making a point to use all parts of the beasts, “capture” usually implies an effort to take something alive. Toriko’s not chopping off the tail of a dinosaur and letting it run off to heal (admittedly, he does steal donuts off of a deer, which does seem to survive the encounter). Komatsu, his chef ally, has a vaguely more stable job with the International Gourmet Organization, tasked with coming up with the best dishes for various events, some of which may defuse difficult political situations. Intersecting with them regularly are Tina, a news reporter always out for a big scoop, and threats from Gourmet Corp, a criminal empire out for their own goals and profits. Between them all are the Four Heavenly Kings, four individuals (including Toriko) who have taken on the powers of Gourmet Cells and gained superhuman and supernatural powers.

If you got a bit lost there, it’s understandable. The world of Toriko has very few reference points. TL;DR: a planet has a ton of crazy delicious creatures, one governing body tries to do good with them, another wants to do evil, and some people ate certain special things that gave them powers. There’s a lot of fighting and a lot of food.

TorikoMuch of the show’s weakness lie in the fact that it’s a very “Saturday morning low-budget” show. In a different era, this show would fit perfectly as a budget pick-up for Fox Kids next to Digimon, or a reactionary response on Kids’ WB towards “the animes” being popular. Looking into the original comic, characters and concepts were added to vary up both the target demographic, fill time, and make a bit more marketable items available. Lacking mechs or notable machinery, and recognizing that most cutlery would be improper to sell to children, Toriko creates an unusual cast of brawlers and monsters like the Gourmet Spicer, a fist-shaped food grinder that was released as a kid-safe product soon after it’s reveal. The designs are unique enough, giving a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure vibe from stylization at times, but the problem is with the actual animation. If a character is on-screen but not talking, they’ll stare unblinkingly at whatever the focus is. It’s a cost-saving measure, as are the generically-designed grunt villains that have no mouths (to save mouth animation and design work). These cheap tricks become more and more apparent as the show progresses. Much like it’s brethren, it also takes a good amount of time to get from point A to point B, at least theoretically to ensure it doesn’t outpace the slower-by-nature comic book. This is only exacerbated by the fact that each 24 minute episode features 4 minutes of intros, ending, and bumpers, 1 minute of recap, and 2 minutes of “Gourmet News,” a low-budget time-filler that recaps the episode or pitches a small recipe. Add all that up and you’re knocked to 17 minutes of show (and even then may only feature 15 minutes of padded out animation).

Are there good characters in the show? Only slightly. Most tend to boil down to one or two traits, such as “creepy + bugs,” “fancy + hair,” “support + unexplained unrequited crush,” and so on. Even Toriko, the titular lead, gets minimal characterization in the show. He has the traditional “Oh hey, I’m not as strong as I thought I was, so I should train and bulk up” arc as his only motivation, other than the plot-moving “I want to make the best full-course menu of my life.” Tina could theoretically be a great character as a reporter (and one of only two women in the entire regular cast) trying to survive a harsh world while finding the best stories and advancing her career. Sadly, she boils down to “tagging along and recording/commenting on events.”

TorikoVoice acting is as good as you can expect. Notable highlights include Toriko’s performance by Ian Sinclair, an actor who clearly seems super-pumped about food and the show. Oddly enough, another highlight is the show’s narrator, Chris Guerrero, who brings a certain appropriate level of overblown pomp and circumstance that comes from talking about fictitious creatures, “Gourmet Cells,” and superhuman fights, all with a credible Liam Neeson impersonation. The in-show music and ending themes are forgettable, but you’ll find yourself singing along with the theme song.

Over the two sets of DVDs (comprising eight discs), you have eight regular commentaries. As an advocate of original English-language extras on US releases of Japanese properties, eight commentaries is a good amount for a show that has many episodes just blending into one another, but that type of show also leads to a certain “sameness” about the commentaries. The cast rarely reflect on the actual action of any particular episode, instead focusing on the food culture that imbues it. Much of the commentaries include the cast talking about what would be on their ultimate meal plan, recommending places, giving minor recipe tips, and the like, while a fair amount goes to standard commentary notes when you just have the voice actors: how did you get in the business, where does that voice come from, what experiences have you had at conventions, and so forth. It’s not bad, but the show itself does not lend to much in-depth talks about, say, the score (though, the commentators frequently sing the opening theme song), animation, direction, and so forth.

TorikoThankfully, the crew decides to fully-embrace the hunger-inducing nature of the show, turning out a rare video commentary. Much like the excellent extra on the Cowboy Bebop set (where the voice cast ate dinner with one another and reminisced), four of the voice cast of Toriko made show-inspired dishes, sat down at a dinner table in the recording booth, and watched an episode, passing around things such as “Rainbow Wine” and “Garraragator Sliders.” It has nothing in particular to do with the actual episode, and it might be more interesting to just let them have a proper dinner without the pretense of commenting on an episode, but the experiment is worth it. You also have the stock extras of the US trailer, trailers for other shows, and the textless opening and three textless closing songs. Fold in the standard comment about how it’d be nice to have some of the Japanese promos, commercials, video game footage, etc., add a dash of “probably couldn’t get a hold of that stuff”, mix, and serve lukewarm.

Toriko’s first third of the series is not particularly a gourmet meal or even a buffet with uneven dishes. It’s a gigantic can of flavored popcorn that you get for Christmas. It’s light and fluffy and not too filling in small doses, but you can just get a bit tired of it. Feel free to pick at it a bit or power it down with friends, but don’t expect it to end up on anyone’s Full Course of animated classics.