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Iron stomachs and chefs give it their all

by Philip Brasor

Japan has produced a fair number of marathon stars. It’s an achievement that probably has less to do with genetically bound physical attributes than with culturally bound psychological ones. The “gambaru” mentality that governs so many endeavors in Japan, especially in the world of sports, is central to being a good marathon runner.

It’s also why Japanese feature so prominently in international eating competitions. Though pacing is important, there’s no real skill involved in consuming more food than your competitors. Success for the most part depends on will power, which Japanese contestants possess in lieu of gastric volume. A few months ago, the skinny Japanese kid who had held the crown at the annual Coney Island hot dog eating contest for three years running was finally upset by a New Yorker. “Gambaru” just can’t stand up to a big ol’ American gut.

Last Friday, TBS presented a two-hour special, “Ogui Oza Ketteisen (Tournament of Gluttons),” that featured local pig-out masters. The last man standing (as opposed to those left bent double over the toilet) would go home with 1 million yen.

Almost all the contestants were students in their teens or early 20s. The exception was a professional wrestler, who also happened to be the contest’s sole woman. Unlike the occasional TV Tokyo specials to find the “Tokyo Ramen King,” the “Ogui” entrants don’t require special culinary knowledge about what they’re eating. They just have to get as much of it down as possible within the allotted time.

The dishes included udon, ramen, beef bowl, taiyaki, kama meshi and fried rice. As with a genuine marathon, there isn’t much to watch in terms of action except the look of pain that intensifies on the contestants’ faces as they finish another serving. In order to allay our fears that this kind of activity may be dangerous, halfway through the program each entrant underwent a physical examination. Needless to say, they all passed.

In other countries, such a show might be seen as a grotesque commentary on modern society’s insatiable appetites, but in Japan it has a different meaning. Here, so much air time and magazine space is dedicated to good food that the subject of “cuisine” or “cooking” transcends genre labels.

Every variety show has a “cooking corner” and every travel show is centered around a particular region’s food. Eating is considered a sensual, selfish experience. Like nonprocreative sex, it’s accepted as something without which life isn’t worth living, but not for reasons of sustenance.

Against such a background, these eating contests seem even more torturous. The cooks selected to prepare the food are considered masters at their respective dishes, but it hardly mattered. As the contestants stuff their faces and overtax their stomach linings they reduce the appreciation of good food to first a necessity and then a trial. Added to the drama of the race itself is the uncomfortable certainty that these young people are not enjoying themselves.

The paradox is irresistible, and in the end disgust wins out. I myself hadn’t eaten dinner yet when I started watching the special at 7 p.m., and I lost my appetite by the second round.

Was it a coincidence that TBS decided to air the special on the same night that Fuji TV broadcast the final installment of “Ryori no Tetsujin”? Generally credited with having ushered in the TV cooking boom and launching the media careers of some of Japan’s finest chefs, “Tetsujin” has been a regular Friday night feature of the network since 1993, and has even won an International Emmy and become a cult fave in the U.S., where it’s shown on the Cooking Channel.

“Tetsujin” also treats food as a sport, but from the opposite side of the table. Great cooks are given the same main ingredients with which they have to whip up a meal in an hour’s time. A panel of celebrities and cooking experts all gussied up in evening dress eat the meals and rate them on a scale of 1 to 20.

In competitive terms, “Tetsujin” is more like gymnastics than marathon running, which means there’s some creativity mixed in with the sport. But as a viewing experience, “Tetsujin” is closer in spirit to “Ogui” than its producers probably think it is. Just as we don’t watch “Ogui” as a vicarious eating experience, we don’t watch “Tetsujin” to learn how to cook. Both shows are essentially perversions of more traditional programming.

The chefs on “Tetsujin” work at lightning speed, often using ingredients we’ve never heard of, to create what are essentially works of art. They do their thing in a huge work area called, appropriately, the “kitchen stadium.” Even if we could follow what they’re doing, it would be impossible to recreate their dishes.

On Friday, the ultimate contest finally boiled down to two French cooking masters — Hiroyuki Sakai of Japan and Alain Passard of France. Sakai won, though I couldn’t tell you why. (If you suspect a ringer, note that former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was one of the judges.) Both meals brought back my appetite, but the over-refined nature of the dishes made me think that I would have preferred one of the plates of fried rice that were so unceremoniously scarfed on “Ogui.”

And scarfing is definitely something you don’t see on “Tetsujin” (which, by the way, will return next year, but not as a regular series, apparently). The eating is done with the proper use of cutlery and little bites at a time. No one in the real world eats like that. They eat more like the contestants on “Ogui.”

Or like that guy in those Nagatanien commercials that have been offending people of finer sensibilities for more than a year now. You’ve probably seen them: A young stud noisily wolfs down a plate of fried rice or just as noisily slurps up a bowl of miso soup.

The instant food maker’s sales have skyrocketed since those commercials started, proving that, despite their self-image as culinary aesthetes, Japanese people know fuel when they see it.