War-hardened samurai gather in the deepest night, extinguishing a candle with each kaidan (supernatural tale) they whisper. At the end of the 100th tale, when the room plunges into blackness with a single breath, otherworldly spirits are summoned. Or so goes the popular Edo Period (1603-1868) game, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (A Gathering of 100 Supernatural Tales).
BERGER BOOKS, Manga.
It’s a deliciously sinister game for storytellers, and it’s no surprise that kaidan or kwaidan, as it is sometimes transliterated, caught the attention of two modern American storytellers. Hard-boiled, multifaceted writer Joel Rose — best known for his satirical thriller, “Kill Kill Faster Faster” and his 2001 urban historical, “New York Sawed in Half” — paired up with the late Anthony Bourdain to pen “Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts,” an illustrated collection of fright and food evoking the kaidan tradition. Bourdain’s work in cuisine and culture garnered fans across the globe as he touched our shared humanity. For the legion of fans still mourning his untimely death earlier this year, “Hungry Ghosts” proves a fitting finale for this master storyteller and culinary commentator.
Rose, Bourdain’s friend, co-author and frequent collaborator (the two also penned an award-winning manga series, “Get Jiro!” in 2012) explained by email: “Tony and I went through a portal together. The ability to enter into an abundance, a richness of storytelling, of myth and legend, of yōkai (spirits) and yūrei (ghosts); we were guests, but longed to participate. Tony and I had a dynamic of work. It was a natural segue to turn the samurai into chefs. I came up with the crypt-keeper hostess ghostess, Tony came up with the Russian oligarch and the charity auction, and we were off.”
Reworked within Rose and Bourdain’s imaginations, the samurai are transformed into the world’s greatest chefs, gathered for a charity event when their wealthy benefactor, a mysterious Russian oligarch, suggests they play the infamous storytelling game. The result: eight tales loosely connected to food, with each chef providing a savory story.
Feast on the misadventures of a ramen cook who disdains the pleas of an emaciated beggar and meets “The Starving Skeleton,” or the young apprentice chef who must battle “The Heads,” or the classic kaidan tale, “The Snow Woman,” cleverly reimagined with a modern twist. In distinctive Rose/Bourdain tradition, underneath the spine-tingling entertainment of each lies a pithy strand of street-smart wisdom: show compassion; control your greed; respect others; use discretion.
Ten different artists are used for the book, and the result is grotesquely gorgeous art, each story blooming on paper in its own distinct way. As Rose explains: “Visual artists are the true elixir for both of us. To work on a story like this and to hand it over, and to have it come back with such potency and point of view, doesn’t get better for a writer of words.”
It wouldn’t be Bourdain without a celebration of food, and “Hungry Ghosts” also includes five original recipes that each link to a story. Whether it’s the “Tokyo Ramen,” “Saffron Risotto” or “Pan-seared Duck Breast with Red Cabbage,” each recipe adds a light-hearted spice to the mix. In addition to food and fright, there’s a full appendix cataloging the ghosts and ghouls that traditionally inhabit a kaidan tale, again masterly illustrated. An essay at the end offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the project took off and provides recommended reading for newly initiated fans of kaidan.
Fittingly, Rose and Bourdain’s friendship started 33 years ago through a comic book. As Rose relates, “I once had a small, but well-noticed literary magazine in New York City called Between C & D. Tony sent me a submission. It was a comic book he had written and drawn. I wrote back a rejection note telling him the drawing sucked, but the writing was pretty good. Next thing I know, he showed up at my door. We’ve worked together since.”
The two soon discovered they shared more than just a love of comics: Rose grew up around restaurants in New York where his father was a waiter, and himself bussed and worked tables around the city as a young, struggling writer.
“Hungry Ghosts” was simply the next course for these two storytelling friends, and if this collection is unavoidably tinged with sadness, it also undeniably celebrates life lived to the brim. Although the book was originally dedicated to the “enduring allure of EC Comics,” Rose added a special dedication for Bourdain: “For the hungriest ghost of them all: my friend, my collaborator, my pal, my long-time running mate. May resting in peace truly not be your option. Save me a beer, brother, and a seat at the table.”
“Hungry Ghosts” is a special book and one that will be hard to shelve: graphic art, cookbook, spooky tales, a testimony to friendship and a cultural introduction to supernatural Japan. Take a seat at the table and read.