Talking comic books, food, movies and music with Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose over unfiltered sake, beer and plates of Japanese pub fare, or izakaya, in Times Square's Hagi bar ain't a bad way to make a living. Not only are the drinks and grub great, but the company is honest, and honestly don't give a damn about talking in promotional soundbites.
This is not my first time talking to Rose, and it's not my first -- or fourth -- time talking to Bourdain, so I know what to expect. The one who used to be known as a chef before he was an author before he was a TV host will do much of the talking. The one who was a New York journalist before he was a screenwriter before he was a novelist and comic-book writer will pipe in on occasion with a funny quip or comment. Both of them will use salty language my editor will likely make me take out.
We gather at the Hagi sake bar to talk about Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi, the Vertigo comics sequel to the 2012 best-selling graphic novel they co-wrote about a renegade sushi chef in near-future Los Angeles, where chefs rule like crime kingpins. Available now, the prequel is an origin story set in Japan where Jiro, an heir to a yakuza empire, chooses to secretly pursue the culinary arts instead of following in his gangster father's footsteps. Whereas the first was described as a "stylized send-up of food culture," the prequel is more akin to an ultraviolent Toei yakuza flick one could imagine Quentin Tarantino popping into his VHS player.
In the following conversation, Bourdain and Rose discuss the motivation behind telling Jiro's origin. We touch on possible plots ideas for a sequel and move into the territory "this will kill you" studies. Bourdain also talks frankly about the Hollywood machine and how they could ruin a Get Jiro! movie. Unsurprisingly, we eventually veer into one of my favorite territories: Where should I be eating?
Why did you choose to tell a prequel instead of a sequel?
Anthony Bourdain: It was actually a journalist, during the interview process for the first book, who asked if we considered a prequel. We thought, "Well, that's a really good idea." He is a really interesting character, and he appears full formed in Get Jiro! We refer to a definite backstory, and he's covered in yakuza tattoos. He is really great at making incredible sushi, but also at slicing people into their constituent parts. I would like to know more about this man, and where he came from.
Was there a challenge moving him out of L.A. and back to Japan?
Bourdain: We could create a complete universe in a future L.A. to be sure. Look, I'm not going to say I hope we didn't screw up the details too badly. We're working with an established genre. In Japanese gangster films, traditionally, there is a much higher body count. In one Japanese yakuza film, they kill off more people than are actually killed in Japan in a decade. So, we are working within an established fictional genre. But we took that seriously, and honored that. Is it really Tokyo? Did we get all the details right? We tried real hard to do our best.
There are some things better left as a mystery, but the nature of prequels is to reveal more. What did you still hold back on?
Bourdain: Why is Jiro different? Everyone else goes along. Why is he relatively nice? Why is he slightly less cruel? What happened to his brother to make him such a f---ing psychopath? What was the first thing that brought him to sushi?
Joel Rose: Exactly. What brought him to supplicate himself to the old master, and make rice over and over again when he's the designated prince. Why would he do that?
Speaking of that, when your father is already the king...
Rose: And wants you to be...
Bourdain: There's a word for "Beginner's Mind": Shoshin. In martial arts and sushi, they use it a lot. Even if you've been the best sushi chef in Japan, and you're 75 years-old, you come to work every day with beginner's mind as if you are just starting. With the attitude that I am always learning. Jiro has beginner's mind, a willingness to put himself at the disposal of someone who knows more than him so he can get better in increments every day.
Rose: You were just talking about this in relation to Jujitsu...
Bourdain: I know every day, when I get the s—t hammered out of me by younger, more physically fit people in a really difficult martial art, which I will never be great at or win competitions in, and will probably never be a black belt in. But I like being forced to learn, or try to learn, or try to improve every day. I love that challenge.
So, conversely, being the son of a kingpin doesn't require that beginner's mind?
Bourdain: It's his birthright. It has come easy to him. He is the favorite son, with all the advantages. He's the natural born son of the boss, he's a smart guy, and he's physically fit. He has all of god's gifts, but it's been handed to him. He's not interested in that. He wants to the hard thing. We don't explain that, but I'm a show, don't tell guy.
Are you already thinking about a story for part three?
Bourdain: Not until tonight! The hygiene police is a good idea; the creeping, smothering crawl of people trying to make it difficult to make great sushi but first put on the gloves, and the rice has to be a certain temperature. All of this would be awful. These faceless drones of everything hygienic. Nothing could smell, nothing could be dirty.
In the first book, Jiro unleashes fury on California Roll-loving customers who slosh sushi around in a slurry of wasabi and soy sauce. Did you experience that people became better eaters of sushi as a result of that story?
Rose: Totally. People have come up to me and said exactly that, time and again.
Bourdain: There's hope. They say, "I didn't know. Ever since I started doing it right, the chef likes me better, giving me the good stuff, the whole experience has changed for me."
What is the sushi state of affairs? Is it getting better or becoming too much of an assembly line situation, where the craft is lacking?
Bourdain: Even in Tokyo, there's conveyor belt, utility sushi, then thousand dollar-per-person sushi. It is not mutually exclusive. There is a need for both of them.
Rose: I was just in Tokyo, and had the absolute worst meal I've ever eaten in my life – and without question, the best meals of my life.
But it's a tough time for food when a report comes out from the World Health Organization that processed meats are killings us...
Rose: ...sitting at your desk is killing you, right?
Bourdain: I heard that. Look, every few years a silly study says bacon kills you, then it wasn't killing you. Meat is bad for you, then it's good for you. Fat is bad for you, fat is good. Cunnilingus was supposed to be carcinogenic for a while. For f---'s sake, you know?
That seems like a ready-made opponent for Jiro: The "this is going to kill you" police.
Bourdain: Compared to Cinnabon, how bad can it be?
Having a bestseller is a great thing, but is there pressure when you want to return to that world?
Rose: I did not. Zero. We just had a good time.
Bourdain: We really and truly don't give a f---. We both show up on time, and do the absolutely best job we can. We have a really good time doing it.
Rose: It's all we can do.
What are your thoughts about the entertainment industry mining comic books for nearly every movie?
Bourdain: I would not mind seeing a Japanese, quasi-super hero getting the girl and not having a sidekick. Chow Yun-fat: Great actor, great Chinese action hero, megastar in China. He makes a film in America, they have to give him some f---ing jokey-ass, bulls--- comedy sidekick. If there is a hot girl with him, he doesn't get to bone the girl. That's wrong, man.
Have you been thinking of this in terms of a film?
Rose: They already own it. Warner Bros. bought it right away, and we had a lot of interest.
Is it something you'd want to see?
Rose: Nobody is coming to us, saying, hey this is our idea going forward.
Bourdain: If I've learned anything, thinking about that sort of thing is the road to madness. I think it is really good to have zero expectations. It would be really nice if that happened, but it wasn't our intent, and I'm not going to bed thinking, "it would be super awesome if so-and-so comes along." You can't think like that. Generally speaking, you'll be disappointed.
What would that soundtrack be, though, for a Get Jiro movie?
Bourdain: There's a vibrant Japanese thrash metal scene. Who did Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence...Ryuichi Sakamoto from the Yellow Magic Orchestra. It was an amazing, amazing soundtrack. We rip it off all the time for my show. It would be a Japanese composer, for sure. That would be the fun part. I don't even want to think about the film! When they call, the first question will be, "Does he have to be Japanese, because we think this would be a great vehicle for, like, Kevin James."
Not in the Kevin James camp, then?
Bourdain: No, I like Kevin James. His MMA film was awesome.
You've both worked within the noir genre. Would that be something you'd take on together? Or is there anything you two want to work on after this?
Bourdain: Ask us after Thanksgiving!
What restaurants should I be visiting in New York City?
Bourdain: Tori Shin. It's been around forever but it's fantastic. Takashi on Hudson Street is great. Baekjeong, the Korean barbecue place in K-town. Oh, it's f---ing awesome. That would be my number one.