Welcome, one and all, to something a little bit different: my very first OWLS post! Now, if you don’t know, OWLS stands for Otaku Warriors for Libery and Self-Respect. Basically, we are a group of otaku bloggers who promotes acceptance of all individuals regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and disability. We emphasize the importance of respect, kindness, and tolerance to every human being. Each month, we will look at a specific theme. But what is the theme for February? Let’s take a look.
In honour of the 2018 Winter Olympics, this month’s topic will focus on the theme, “Competition” because the Olympics is where athletes from all countries join together to compete in sporting events. Through these events, we see how “competition” brings out the grit, the teamwork, and the competitive spirit within athletes. This month, we will be exploring anime and pop culture media that discusses the good and the bad when it comes to competition and what it can cant each us about ourselves and the world around us.
So, let’s start with the technical stuff. The term ‘competition’ is defined in two ways:
- the activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others.
- an event or contest in which people take part in order to establish superiority or supremacy in a particular area.
What makes the whole concept interesting to me is that we essentially live in a world where we are presented with the need to compete on a regular basis. Schools encourage students to aim as high as possible and are then ranked against other educational bodies on a national basis. When you apply for a job or a promotion, you compete with other hopefuls. When you sell a product, others within the same industry are competing for a share of the same market. It can all be very cut-throat.
That’s not to say that competition is naturally a source of conflict though. The world of professional sports primarily deals with team-based competitions, and while opposing teams do indeed compete, there are a lot of positives to taking part in such activities.
All that being said though, I wanted to talk about an anime today that isn’t really a sport. In fact, I want to focus on one particular side character from the show in question: Megumi Tadokoro in Shokugeki no SOMA.
The reason I chose this subject is that, in many respects, Megumi’s journey through the first two seasons of the anime serves as a potent reminder of both the pros and cons of the concept of ‘competition’. Be warned though, this article will feature some big spoilers for the storylines of these two seasons, so if you’re wanting to watch without knowing what’s coming, you may want to skip this one.
So, Shokugeki no SOMA, or Food Wars in the West, is set at Totsuki Culinary Academy, a prestigious cooking school that is responsible for producing some of the world’s finest chefs. While the series is based around the life of a young hopeful named Yukuhira Soma, there is a veritable bounty of supporting cast members available to pad out episodes and provide foils for Soma’s exploits. This all ties into the subject because success at the school is based in part on being highly competitive. Not only are the top ten students in the school (known as The Elite Ten) responsible for many decisions regarding the running of the school, but students are encouraged to challenge each other in ‘shokugeki’, or sanctioned cook-offs. These competitions are carried out on a stage in front of the competitors’ peers and feature high stakes, such as the use of certain school buildings, or even potential expulsion for the loser. All of this equates to high expulsion rates and intense pressure for those attending the institution.
Now, this is obviously a very stressful environment to study in. As such, Megumi Tadokoro is perhaps not best suited. She has stage fright, and panics easily. She also has a great deal of self-doubt. But then, why wouldn’t she? When the series starts, she is on the verge of being expelled due to continuous poor grades. The thing is, she obviously has talent. Totsuki Culinary Academy won’t allow just anyone to enter the school, so she must have had potential at one point, right? Unfortunately, when competition becomes part of everyday life, you start to really pay attention to yourself.
And herein lies perhaps the biggest problem associated with the concept of competitions. If you’re at the top of the food chain and winning out in every – or even most – of your battles, confidence likely won’t be an issue. When he pressure has caused you to crumble though, most people naturally start to look at what others are doing well and compare this to what they themselves aren’t doing so well. Such is it in Megumi’s case.
Megumi first meets our leading man, Yukihira Soma, during their first-class assignment of the year. Soma had already made enemies with a brazen entrance speech, and so when he and Megumi are paired together, it really adds to her fear that others are judging her. To make matters worse, the assignment is being run by a notoriously harsh tutor. The pair work together, but the other students manage to sabotage their dish before they can hand it in. Luckily, Soma is able to come up with a solution that not only saves the food but causes the tutor to smile for the first time.
Then, when Soma first turns up at the Polar Star Dormitory, he is given the customary entrance examination: prepare a meal that impresses the dorm advisor or be cast out onto the streets until you can. Our leading man, of course, passes the test first time, even though he wasn’t aware of the requirement and so had to make do with left-over ingredients he could find in the kitchen. Megumi, like many, hadn’t passed on her first try.
These two events essentially serve to increase Megumi’s self-doubt. In her eyes, Soma is everything that she isn’t. He’s confident, adaptable, and beyond competent when it comes to the culinary arts. This level of negative introspection would undoubtedly be enough to destroy any chance Megumi had of remaining in the school if it wasn’t that the continuing events meant that she was able to experience the positive side of competition too.
This all begins with a simple thing: teamwork. Despite her negative views on her own role in the first assignment, it’s important to note that the pair did work together. While Megumi essentially viewed Soma as the living embodiment of how much she needs to rely on others, he never viewed her as anything other than his equal. Not only did he treat her with respect during the first assignment, he actually leans on her a little in the build up to his first shokugeki. Here, while struggling to come up with a dish to defeat a master of meat-based cooking, Megumi is instrumental in his victory. She not only provides encouragement for Soma when he’s struggling, but also provides the book that gives him the basis for his winning dish.
From there, their relationship grows. When Megumi cooks onigiri for her fellow Polar Star members, Soma is really taken aback by how good they are. This praise serves as a boost for Megumi and gives rise to the knowledge that stage fright keeps her from performing well. When the students then go to a multi-day camp, the pressure is built up one more: fail an assignment, and you’re expelled. On the first day, Megumi is again paired with Soma, and he shows faith in her by asking her to gather the relevant ingredients for their dish. They pass, of course, but Megumi is struggling. As far as she is concerned, she passed only because she was working with Soma again. Soma, however, views things differently, and states that he only passed because of her assistance. This boost allows Megumi to start considering that she can succeed on her own.
The next day, the students are competing to cook individual dishes rather than team efforts and are seeking to please another strict alumnus. Megumi’s less than aggressive nature almost foils her here, and she ends up with ingredients that are not entirely fit for purpose. Drawing inspiration from Soma, she experiments and adapts the recipe to counter-balance the low-quality ingredients that she had been left with. Unfortunately, this displeases the tutor, and she is faced with expulsion … until Soma steps in.
Here, Megumi is faced with a double-edged sword of a situation. On the one hand, her comrade has not only stood up for her, but placed a great deal of faith in her by gambling his own place in the school on her being able to defeat an alumnus in a shokugeki. On the other hand, she is forced to take the lead and face not only stress but her own perceived shortcomings head-on. At first, Megumi is understandably freaked out by this, but then she turns a corner. Soma’s constant support and unwavering faith in her, as well as his excellent support in creating a dish of her design, means that she is able to pass the test set out before her and remain in the school.
The effects are instantaneous, and Megumi starts to grow in confidence, resulting in her cooking improving exponentially. The first real test of this comes during the preliminary competition for the school’s annual tournament. Megumi is again faced with scorn from her peers as they still look down on her. On top of that, part of her still believes that Soma is the key to her success; after all, even if she was taking the lead, he was still present and lending a hand in most of her biggest victories. Fortunately, the preliminary match-up gives her an opportunity to lay these demons to rest. Megumi embraces the curry making challenge and creates a dish that utilises ingredients from her home town, scoring highly with the judges and, to the surprise of many, landing a spot in the main tournament.
Now, the tables here have turned. Megumi has finally tasted victory in a manner that she can’t attribute to someone else. The dish was very her, and no one helped prepare it. As a result, she walks into the first round of the tournament with a new-found confidence. Here, two things happen. First, when her opponent criticises her fellow dorm members, she stands up for them. Second, she is able to rise above the pressure caused by the judges and the audience and completes her dish unfazed. Gone is her lack of faith in her own cooking. Now, Megumi believes that she simply cannot lose, even in spite of her opponent offering an incredibly dish as his entry.
And here’s the important bit: Megumi loses. There is no happy ending for her in the tournament in terms of victories. But she does take something away from it all. Not only does she earn the respect of her peers, she leaves her loss behind with her confidence unshaken. There are no feelings of inadequacy, and no expectations of being kicked out. She can’t wait to cook again.
So, that was a bit of a ramble, right? Yup, we took a veritable bimble (it’s an incredibly cute word for a leisurely walk or stroll) through the various story arcs. But how can we summarise this in terms of the actual topic? Well, like most things in life, ‘competition’ is a balancing act in terms of the positive and negative effects. Poor result therein can really dent a person’s self-esteem and confidence. Pressure can rise. The aggressive nature of the events (and others) can create a truly hostile environment. But there are things to balance all that out.
For one, introspection doesn’t have to be unhealthy, if you treat it as a learning experience and a tactic to cement your strengths. When you get the hang of it, teamwork helps you grow too. You can take inspiration from others, receive (and give) praise, and take advice. It creates a feeling of comradery and shows you that there are others there that have your back. And when others believe in you, that helps inspire you to believe in yourself. That confidence carries you through both wins and losses, and helps you reach out to exceed your perceived potential.
In that way, competitions can be both the mirror that reflects our weakness back at us, and the fertilizer that helps us grow beyond them. It can knock us down or build us up. It all comes down to who you surround yourself with, and how you deal with the challenges in front of you. My advice: embrace it all, the good and the bad. When you do that, the negatives of a competitive world don’t seem quite so bad, and the positives it can yield become all the more worth striving for.
And there we have it. I hope you all enjoyed my first foray into the world of OWLS. Please do leave your thoughts below. And don’t forget to check out not only the previous posts on this tour, but the upcoming ones too! For quick access, here are links to the already posted pieces:
- Feb 1st: Moonid – Do You Like … Glory?
- Feb 2nd: Pop Culture Literary – Variations on Tropes and Themes: Competition in Anime
- Feb 3rd: Auri – Stronger Opponents Bring Out A Stronger You: Aoharu x Kikanjuu
- Feb 5th: Nice Job Breaking It, Hero – How a Scoundrel from the Slums Became an Icon: The Rise and Fall of Joe Yabuki
- Feb 7th: Matt-in-the-Hat – Clannad: Competion with today and past life
- Feb 9th: Let’s Talk Anime – Is it Really the Best to Be ‘The Best’: My Hero Academia
- Feb 10th: Archi-Anime – Welcome to the Ballroom: The Spirit of Motivational Rivalry
- Feb 12th: Mel In Anime Land – Winning Through Competition and Hard Work
- Feb 14th: Shokamoka – Kitauji High’s journey on getting the most out of the Regionals
- Feb 15th: Yaoi Playground – Pinned! A Competition of Ego
Next up is Gigi from Animepalooza over on YouTube, so be sure to check that out!