Its episodes like this, that are so totally my jam. Its episodes like this that… Make Shokugeki no Soma one of my personal favorite series and stories. There’s quite a few elements that make Shokugeki no Soma such a joy to behold. The cooking, the art direction, the romance potential, the nice build up of antagonist versus protagonist… But, the one thing that I think I love above all else, is that sense of comradery and friendship that’s been a mainstay in the series since its second season.
Its that sense of friendship that Soma and all his friends have, that I think continues to shine, even in the current “dark” times. Now… Until this point we’ve seen Soma basically win over and become good friends with nearly every character he’s encountered. There was one exception, however, and that was none other than Erina. And this week, we had Erina herself finally experience the joy and the warmth that she had only been gazing at from afar, as she peered towards Soma and the rest.
That’s what makes Erina’s transformation all the more satisfying. She’s changed yes, and she’s learned to appreciate other people, especially those with different views from her. As a result, she’s found that life can be a lot more colorful and fun. They say Hell is other people, but the reverse is equally true. With the right type of people at your side, life can truly hold meaning and provide happiness, even as it throws some truly monumental challenges your way.
Which, incidentally, I think is also where the real value of school and education comes in. You can gain knowledge from a book at home, or these days from a video, but what you can’t get outside of school is the social aspect. Meeting people who are at the same stage of life as you are, going through the same challenges, well… There’s a bond that forms there, and its a bond that carries thorugh throughout your entire life, even as you drift off into different directions from those special people you meet.
And that aspect of school life, its something that Shokugeki no Soma really nails, amidst everything else it tackles. Sure there’s the issue of “Central” and all the stupid stuff that’s being done by Azami, but smartly, that’s made secondary to the new lease on school life that Erina’s receiving amidst all the chaos and confusion.
There were many touching moments this week, moments that I think exemplify the best parts of the Totsuki school experience. The training camp that Erina held for example, was a nice little moment where all the Anti-Central kids got together to level up and become better at their chosen career. Again, I’ve said it before, but when like minded students get together and learn from one another, well… The results are truly exceptional, and provide the real value of group education.
On that note, its also worth noting that it’s the truly talented students at Totsuki, that really oppose Central. Which, honestly, makes a ton of sense since its the creative geniuses that would have a problem with being told what to do. We’ve discussed that aspect ad nauseam, so I won’t retread old ground here. Of course, the reason Erina actually takes the time and effort to hold this “Seminar” as she calls it, has to do with the Final Exams for the Totsuki students.
In classic Totsuki fashion, the whole exam setup feels more like a video game campaign or an outlandish festival event than it does an actual boring practical exam. Say what you will about Totsuki’s cut throat nature, the school truly spends on its students and gives them a luxurious experience like no other. This time, the whole exam situation is a train trip across the entirety of Hokkaido, with various stops and tests happening until the students reach their final destination.
Of course, as has become common place in the Azami arc thus far, Central makes sure that the students against its ideals have a serious, unfair, disadvantage in the first stage of the exams. Now, that’s certainly a given, but… In a surprise twist this week, its not the cooking that gets too much of a focus, but rather the ingredient gathering and teamwork.
One of the other joys of Shokugeki no Soma, beyond just the friendship and comradery, has been seeing different characters interact, whether in competition or collaboration. This was something that I think made the Totsuki Cultural Festival so darn awesome, and I think it works great in the first stage of the exams here, as well.
Simply put. Having a team that features Soma, Ryo, Alice and Megumi (with Yuki there too) is a frigging dream team. Its a rare moment too, because until this point we haven’t seen Soma work together with Ryo or Alice at all, and the dynamic between them is both fun and hilarious. Alice is her usual bossy self, and butts heads a bit with Soma’s own dominant personality, whereas Ryo is his confident but collaborative self, with Megumi and Yuki playing supportive and helpful roles.
Even more interestingly, however, is the solution that the team comes up with. The problem that central shoves at them, is an inferior ingredient, i.e a low quality batch of Samon. The solution, interestingly, is one comes from Alice’s “gastronomy” cooking specialty. Soma and the team end up finding a vendor that stores high quality samon with the brine freezing method. Thus, the solution this time isn’t so much in the technique of the cooking itself (which more or less gets glossed over) but more so in the gathering of the ingredient itself. This, of course, falls more or less in line with the whole “respecting the ingredient” cooking mantra that I’ve pointed out numerous times before.
Coincidentally, as Soma himself points out quite aptly, the stupid plan by Central’s Examiner is hardly something that would be a threat to his team. Leaving aside Soma’s whole “I need to get ingredients for my diner every day” reason, nearly every member of his team made it to the Autumn Elections. It was in those elections that many of the contestants actually had to go and find their own ingredients. So its not surprising that Soma and the rest would get around the Central scheme by just going out and finding a good vendor. Its just business as usual.
Again, the purpose of this little exam stage isn’t so much to focus on the cooking, but rather to give us a nice little opportunity to see some unlikely characters work together. I think it works personally, but your mileage will definitely vary here, based on what you expect from this show at this point. If its character driven moments you crave, then you’ll certainly be satisfied, for that seems to be the focus in these recent episodes.
And as if to almost argue my point for me, the next third of the episode is mostly dedicated to these character driven moments. After having beaten the first stage of their exam, the Totsuki students all board a luxury sleep-in train towards their next destination. Its here that Erina truly gets to feel that warmth that I mentioned earlier. As the journey begins, Erina gets multiple visits from some of her new friends. Aldini, Ryoko, Megumi and Soma all show up to either give Erina something nice or invite her on some kind of mutually fun activity.
Curious, Erina asks Soma about this seemingly “strange” behavior. Soma’s answer is a good one, but I don’t think it highlights the whole picture. Sure, its like Soma says, everyone’s cetainly thankful for Erina’s help. Even more than that, however, it feels like everyone’s just excited to finally get a chance to hang out with Erina. Much like how everyone crowds around a new friend, Erina gets that extra dose of attention because she’s finally opening up and allowing people in.
Erina finally making the friends she’s craved all this time, is certainly a good forward step in her character arc. But beyond just that… There is one more thing. Before the episode ends, we get a nice moment that strongly hints at an Erina x Soma pairing. To say I have complex feelings about this development is putting it mildly. On the one hand, I really enjoy Erina’s growth here. On the other hand, I can’t help feel that there are girls more suited to be paired with Soma (Megumi and Nikumi come to mind). Whatever we may feel, however, it is true that the show has always kind of been gunning for this Erina x Soma pairing from the get go, and the route it has taken thus far, isn’t an outlandish one.
There’s a lot of couples that first end up disliking one another, only to settle into something more romantic once the initial ice melts away. As Erina herself remarks, the mere sight or thought of Soma would get her pretty darn angry in the past. Now, she’s not only thankful for him, but actively likes being around him, and this change has happened in a gradual believable way. Some of that perhaps has to do with his relation to Joichiro, but a lot of this has to do with their own interactions as well. Which is why, at the very least, I can get behind Erina’s fascination and interest in Soma on a purely logical level. As to whether this pairing will work for me on an emotional level? Well… The jury’s still out on that one.
In closing, I will say that we’re now at a part of the Azami arc that I really like. While its not at a high point like the cultural Festival arc, the show has still got the trademark school life elements that elevate Shokugeki no Soma from being just a regular Shounen battle story. And yes… I suppose its worth addressing the whole Azami arc as a whole once again, given the current murmurings around the internet.
Look I get that the Azami arc has a lot of people annoyed. I don’t think the idea behind Azami and Central is particularly great myself. The basic concept behind it is fine, but I think the story goes a bit too much into absurd with the whole “dictatorship” angle, and that obviously has a few people annoyed. Its sad to me that those people have left the show entirely because of this, because the way I see the Azami side of the story is nothing more than a plot device.
Its a reason for Soma and co to face insurmountable odds and basically up the stakes for the story. You could argue that the show would’ve done fine with the way it had been going for the past two seasons, but I think a story has to evolve and take risks to prevent stagnation.
In the end, I guess for me, the show still provides the things I’ve always looked to receiving. Solid character moments, a good ficitonal look at culinary school life and some good old food and travel escapism. I’ve never been to Japan myself (although I do hope to make the trip one day), so its no exaggeration when I say that I live vicariously through Soma and his friends, as they travel both through school life, culinary school and Japan itself.
That I think, is why, despite the rather odd setup with Azami and what not, Shokugeki no Soma still manages to deliver everything that I want from it. Its still good IMO, and one bad villain and outlandish setup hasn’t ruined it all yet. For me, I think that’s more than enough.
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