So there I am, in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, standing in a room full of still life paintings from the 17th century, feeling irrationally rational about Stilleven met vergulde bierkan, by Willem Claesz. This painting, executed in 1634, is photorealistic, almost ridiculously so. The way the light hits the silver salver in the front was so…real. I stood there for a good long time, amazed at the technical skill, but also kind of put off by it.
The thing about still-life paintings is that we don’t need them any more. I mean, it’s all well and good for 17th century painters to be cranking out photorealism, because they didn’t have actual photos, right? So when I recently encountered Luciano Ventrone‘s work – like this still life – I have to stop and think, no seriously, why do we still do photorealistic still life?
It makes sense to recognize that in the 1600s they needed painting like this. But in this day and age of photography, there clearly is still a place for painting like this – and the literary equivalent, the slice-of-life story. For a slice of life, we might justify it to ourselves and say, “Well, this is not our life, so this is a glimpse into another world.” But the best slice of life stories don’t have to be alien, or alienating. The protagonist of Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto, is not me, but I was able to fully engage in her non-engagement with life. Willy Loman’s story is both alien and alienating – and to me, so is something meant to be realistic, but feels not at all real, like Sakura Trick.
In the same way that I am able to observe, but not engage with, still life paintings, I was able to read, but not really engage with Yoshinaga Fumi’s What Did You Eat Yesterday? It’s slice of a life that is not even remotely alien, but was surprisingly alienating.
The protagonist, Kakei Shiro, is a lawyer in his 40s who is off-puttingly attractive and youthful according to his co-workers. His major interest is in cooking and he’s a narcissist. Shiro lives with a boyfriend, a hairdresser. Kenji is out at his work, although Shiro is not. At first I thought Shiro was out, just not at work, but as the story goes on, he comes off as more uptight and closeted, although his parents know he is gay. Kenji’s equally as annoying and I cannot see how he and Shiro stay together with such vastly different approaches to life.
As the story goes on, Shiro become less likable, until I realized that he just doesn’t really like anyone and suddenly I felt as if I was observing a stunningly drafted bit of 17th century tablecloth. Realistic, technically well-crafted, but not all that interesting, ultimately
As a slice of life, I found the story less engaging as it progressed. Shiro and I are not far apart in age, we both are professionals, in committed relationships, love food. and I’d rather have dental surgery than spend half an hour stuck in an elevator with him. The more hyper-realistically his life is shown, the less I cared for it.
I was very much looking forward to a story in which the protagonist is gay, has a relationship and then the story happens, but very disappointed with the lack of any connection between Shiro and Kenji. They may as well have been roommates. Shiro’s gayness is both talked about and shown as normal, but completely stripped of any affection of any kind. Shiro shows no tenderness towards his lover, his family, his coworkers, clients or self.
Ultimately, the story isn’t ever really sure if it is a commentary on the food Shiro cooks, with his life as the background, or a commentary on his life, with the food as the background.
Art – 9 Excellent as always
Story – Not as compelling as usual, with unlikable Shiro standing between me and delicious-sounding food, like a disapproving aunt keeping me out of the kitchen.
Characters – 3 Honestly, there’s almost no one to like.
LGBTQ – They talk a lot about being gay, but they could be talking about being a fireman, as we see no signs of affection, not even a kind word.
Service – Foodie only, with meals in detail
Overall – 5
Vertical does a great job of getting out of the way of Yoshinaga-sensei, now the story needs to get out of its own way and develop into a narrative. As it stands, it’s a perfect slice-of-still-life.