Good news everybody! IRON CHEF IS COMING BACK!
When I heard the news this morning I was beyond excited. The original Iron Chef, the one that aired on The Food Network in the late 90s/early 00s, completely captivated me and my friends. It reinforced my already burgeoning desire to visit Japan, and it convinced me that maybe expensive restaurants are worth trying every once in a while (Nobu certainly lived up to the hype).
However, the more I think about it, the more this might not be such good news.
First of all, and those of you who know me have heard this before, Japanese television is a total wasteland right now. There are only two kinds of shows being made: unwatchable “dramas” and agonizing “variety” shows. A typical variety show takes place on a garish set, features far too many people talking at once, and the screen is jam packed with images of food.
I’m serious, somehow Japanese television has evolved into non-stop food porn and the only thing anyone can say is Oishiiiiiiii! (“Delicious!”).
For years I assumed Iron Chef was partly the cause. It was, after all, a show that was about food, but only a moron would think that the food was the star of the show. No, it was the characters: Chairman Kaga, the Iron Chefs, the music (stolen completely from the film Backdraft), the roving reporter, hell, even the set of Kitchen Stadium had tremendous personality. In the end, the food was something to look at (and it looked good) but that wasn’t what kept us glued to the set. My friends and I had no idea what “konnyaku” was but we watched an entire hour of it on Iron Chef because we loved the people.
Which is why I’m so worried about the new “Iron Chef.” First of all, that’s the title now. The original Japanese 料理の鉄人 (ryori no testujin, literally “iron men of cooking”) has been discarded in favor of the English title, which reminds me of the time when Konami tried dropping 悪魔城ドラキュラ in favor of “Castlevania” inside Japan: it was dumb, and they went back to the original.
Second of all, and I think you knew this would be the case, none of the original cast is coming back. Not the chefs, not Kaga, and of course the original set is long gone. There’s reasons to be optimistic about this: over the course of the show several Iron Chefs came and went, and it was the third Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto who was my personal favorite. However, losing Kaga suggests to me that they’ve already forgotten how interesting he was. One need only look at the US version to see how big a difference the Chairman makes: he tries his best, but it’s a step down.
And lastly, there’s a quote in the article from Fuji TV executive Akihiro Arai where he namedrops Susan Boyle (!?) as an example of how he wants the new program to “sweep over the world.” Nothing screams to me “we don’t know what we’re doing” like comparing your television program to a flash-in-the-pan viral Internet sensation.
Combine that with talk of aiming the program at “the world” and I’m official concerned. You can’t just decide to make something the whole world will enjoy, that’s as impossible as deciding to make a so-bad-its-good movie. You can’t plan for that, it just happens.
The original Iron Chef wasn’t thinking globally, it was utterly, hopelessly Japanese, beyond cheesy at every turn. Viewers latched onto that and embraced it, got caught up in it, and fell in love with it. Once you convince yourself that you need to make a show for everyone, it won’t appeal to anyone.
But who knows? Maybe lightning can strike twice. Maybe the program won’t be slathered in pop stars and jokeless comedians and maybe they’ll find new performers who own the screen like Kaga and the boys did years ago. I mean, if Japanese television is all about food now, how can they screw up a program that showcases world cuisine?
Wait, don’t answer that. I know exactly how they can screw it up, and I’d rather not think about that. Optimism! Happy thoughts! Allez cuisine!