The spookier corners of Japanese folklore serve as the inspiration for Hungry Ghosts, a four-part comic book series from TV star/author Anthony Bourdain and novelist Joel Rose. This is the same duo that created the epic graphic novel Get Jiro! about master chefs who rule as crime bosses in a not-too-distant future where people literally kill to get tables at the best restaurants. If you enjoyed the kitchen nightmares of Get Jiro!, then Hungry Ghosts might be right up your alley. Here’s a rundown of what to expect from this series.
If you’re a fan of stylized comic book violence (think Raw meets Lady Snowblood), then you’re in for a treat. Joining Bourdain and Rose in issue one are artists Alberto Ponticelli (Unknown Soldier, Dial H) and Vanesa Del Rey (Bitch Planet, Redlands). Issue two features the work of Leonardo Manco (Hellblazer) and Mateus Santolouco (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). These artists further amplify the horror element in each story with their wonderfully grotesque art. There’s also the amazing color by José Villarrubia, whose saturated reds pop off the page. Raw flesh, both human and animal, never looked more nauseating.
And let’s not forget Paul Pope’s covers, one of which features an onryō hunched over a bowl of tonkotsu ramen while she stares deep into your soul. The style is very reminiscent of the 19th century ukiyo-e woodblock prints by rival artists Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Kunisada. Surely, some readers will consider this issue a collectible worth framing.
The Bourdain twist
In addition to featuring awesome art, Hungry Ghosts is full of great stories. The main plotline revolves around a Russian oligarch who is hosting a party at his beach house on Long Island. As the night grows darker and stormier, he and his rich cronies get bored, so he invites the chefs working in his kitchen to play a version of 100 candles, an old game in which brave samurai would try to one-up each other with terrifying tales of ghosts, demons, and unspeakable beings. This take on the Japanese Edo-period game gets the Bourdain touch with chef-storytellers telling tales about food and hunger.
The influence of Japanese mythology
Each installment of Hungry Ghosts promises two courses, both of which draw inspiration from the many horrors found in Japanese mythology.
In the first issue, the game of 100 candles begins with “The Starving Skeleton,” a story about a ramen chef who, after refusing to give a beggar a free meal, gets eaten, piece by piece, by the same man he turned away. The beggar turns out to be a gashadokuro (“hungry skeleton”).
“The Starving Skeleton” is then followed up with an even more terrifying tale. “The Pirates” tells the story of a band of sailors who rescue a drowning woman from the sea and get more than they bargained for. The woman is actually a sazae-oni (“shellfish ogre”), but she doesn’t reveal her true form until after she seduces every man on board and — wait for it — bites off their testicles. After she finishes the dirty deed and returns to the sea, she demands they give her all of their gold in exchange for their “treasures.”
But the most terrifying tale of the first two issues is perhaps “Salty Horse.” The story is simple: A wealthy don living in the Spanish countryside develops a taste for horse meat, but his addiction goes too far, too fast. As he works his way through the countless breeding horses on his estate, one member of his staff suggests he consider trying goat or lamb, but he replies: “There’s just something about horse flesh. I crave it. I can’t get enough it.” And it’s true. The following panels detail his grotesque feast of horse meat tartare, polpette, grilled loin, brain, and a final course of boiled horse head with garnishes.
Of course, the story wouldn’t be complete without some nasty consequences. One night, after the don eats his last horse — an old, stringy warhorse braised in fine red wine and served with wild mushrooms — an apparition of the animal appears, saying that his hunger is unholy and it has come to reclaim his flesh. As the horse bursts through the don’s stomach, the story comes to its gruesome conclusion.
Who’s the ideal reader?
Die-hard Bourdain fans will likely love this series, of course, but keep in min that this could also be a cool thing to keep on your coffee table, especially considering that Paul Pope’s first cover is an explosive masterpiece, stringing together horror elements with that common thread of food. Also, because each issue is relatively short and easy to obtain (you can buy digital copies online), Hungry Ghosts is an excellent comic book to add to your rotation when you’re commuting or traveling.
This collection of kitchen nightmares is a thrilling way to pass the time, but proceed with caution — you might lose your appetite somewhere along the way. The first two issues of Hungry Ghosts were released by Dark Horse on January 31 and February 28, respectively, and two more are due to be released March 28 and May 9.