Reading Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts

The subtitle of this comic is “Tales of Fear and Food from Around the World,” but the stories are all from Japan.

I didn’t know this, but apparently Anthony Bourdain was really into Japanese yokai and yurei lore. He and his Get Jiro! collaborator, novelist Joel Rose, along with several acclaimed comics artists (Sebastian Cabrol, Alberto Ponticelli, Vanesa Del Rey, Mateus Santolouco, Leonardo Manco, Irene Koh, Paul Pope, and Francesco Francavilla) got together to create this collection of yokai and food-themed tales, adaptations of some popular Japanese folk stories. This seems to have been one of Bourdain’s last projects before his passing.

Anthony Bourdain's Hungry Ghosts

The framing story of the collection is that an obscenely wealthy Russian businessman has “won” the services of eight famous international chefs in some sort of charity auction. After a lavish banquet, the oligarch invites the chefs to join him and his guests in a game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (A Gathering of 100 Weird Tales). To play the game, the participants sit in a room lit only by 100 candles. Everyone takes turns telling a spooky tale, then blowing out a candle. As the room slowly darkens, the game is said to summon spirits and ghosts. When the final candle is extinguished — look out! Something horrible may be waiting in the dark.

The pieces in Hungry Ghosts relate the stories told by each of the eight chefs.

Two or three of the tales are set in Japan, and the remaining tales have been transposed to other countries, to reflect the origins of each of the chefs. I recognized several of the tales, or the yokai in them (though not all); it was fun to see the stories and the yokai adapted to different locales. Most of the stories also feature food (and chefs!), and Bourdain includes five recipes at the end of the book, to match dishes featured in the various stories. I’m eager to try his recipe for Tokyo-style ramen.

Bourdain and Joel Rose dedicated the book to EC Comics, and to EC’s famous “hosts”: the Old Witch, the Crypt Keeper, and the Vault Keeper. It’s an apt dedication, given the EC-like karmic retribution theme found in many of the stories, including the frame story. Rose in turn dedicates the book to the memory of Anthony Bourdain.

If you aren’t familiar with Japanese ghost stories, this is a cute, if not entirely faithful, introduction. If you are familiar with kaidan, you may still enjoy the interpretations — I liked the more sexually frank variation of Yuki-Onna. Either way, you will enjoy the work of the various artists: Sebastian Cabrol and Francisco Francavilla were my favorites, but they are all great. And I hope to enjoy the recipes, too.

A pleasant short afternoon’s read. Recommended.

2 thoughts on “Reading Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts

    1. Oh, do pick it up if you can! I’m sure you can get it at Amazon/B&N/Powell’s/etc, and even some brick and mortar bookstores carry a smallish collection of graphic novels, if there isn’t a comic book store near you. Or the library.

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