I suppose there are two audiences for every popular WSJ adaptation – fans of the manga and new viewers. That’s true for every adaptation of course, but it seems more germane with shounen titles that have as much mainstream reach as SnS does. A director and writer have to keep this in mind when they’re making the choices for how to bring a popular manga to the screen – and it seems to me that Yonetani and Yasugawa are taking the approach of letting the manga’s charms speak for themselves. Which means, I think, that the same people who enjoy the manga are going to be the ones who enjoy the anime.
I’m technically somewhere in the middle, in that I’m not up to date on the manga but have read enough of it to know what to expect. And I think, at heart, Shokugeki is on a very simple blueprint. It’s about as riddled by tropes (both shounen and LN, though of course it’s a manga) as you can imagine. The popularity, in my view, stems from pleasing readers who love those tropes while putting just enough of a twist on them to keep the interest of readers normally turned off by them (but not so much as to displease the first group). You can see what you want to in SnS – you can view it as fun exploitation pulp, or as satire. It works both ways.
Make no mistake about it – those tropes exist. You do have a male MC surrounded by a bunch of girls who fulfill pre-assigned harem waifu roles. The series is extremely sexist – I mean, I would say 70% of the shots of Nakiri Erina (Taneda Risa) were lingering, florid close-ups of her butt or jiggling cleavage (she’s supposedly 15, remember). There’s ample yuri-baiting with her loyal flunky Hisako Arato (Oonishi Saori). And of course Souma’s situation itself could hardly be a more cliched shounen battle premise – a training arc and vision quest from his father rolled into one. And the themes of classism and discrimination are about as subtle as the flavor of a Big Mac.
That said, this story is just skewed enough to be interesting even if one is turned off by all that cliche. The twist of putting all those battle tropes in a cooking school is clever and different (though not unique). The focus on the eroticism of food is genuinely interesting and well-executed. The M.C. is a sharp-witted and sharp-tongued badass who doesn’t take any shit from the girls harem protags are supposed to take shit from (like Erina). And the males in the series (which has male and female co-authors) aren’t totally exempt from being eroticized (though it’s not remotely equal-opportunity).
In the end I think Shokugeki no Souma – at least in manga form – manages to pull off this balancing act very well. And so far it seems to me as if the anime could hardly be more faithful to the manga than it has been, in letter and spirit. If anything the foodgasm scenes like the cherub Soumas tickling a naked Erina with feathers (really – just LOL) are more effective in anime form, though I do think there’s a risk of overselling them if Yoentani-sensei isn’t careful. If nothing else there really aren’t many good anime focused on food in a serious way (serious being a relative term in this case), and I do think SnS is pretty good about getting that side of things right. As a hopeless foodie myself, that has real appeal. I’m very curious to see how all this plays with an anime audience, especially new viewers – my guess is that this show has a chance to be one of WSJ’s most successful adaptations in terms of making the jump to disc sales.