A quick glance at the calendar reminded me that this is my seventeenth year of blogging about comics—a figure that I find hard to contemplate! When I posted my first review at PopCultureShock, I was living in New York City and slogging through a graduate program in musicology. I was also new to manga; I hadn’t been a childhood comics fan, but my ex-husband was, and insisted on buying me volumes of X/1999 and InuYasha, introducing me to Midtown Comics, and bringing me to my first ComicCon. Things snowballed from there: I started contributing to Good Comics for Kids in 2008 and launched my own blog in 2009. Though I’ve tried quitting a couple of times, I find it hard to do; every time I’m certain I’ve posted my last review, I read a series that reignites my passion for writing about manga.
Thanks to the magic of the Wayback Machine, I recently discovered an old trove of reviews I wrote for PopCultureShock between 2006 and 2008. While many of the titles I reviewed have disappeared without a trace, some of them are enjoying a second or third life through digital platforms. From time to time, therefore, I’m going to dig into the PCS vault and share those old reviews with anyone who might be interested in learning more about these newly resurrected series, and for anyone curious about the state of manga licensing in the early 2000s. I freely admit that my motives are also a little selfish: I hate to see my work disappear into the ether, and so, in the spirit of historic preservation, want to give these essays a more permanent home.
First up: Yakitate!! Japan, a shonen series about competitive bread baking. The series spans twenty-six volumes, all available in English in both print and digital. The cheapest way to read the series is through a subscription to the VIZ Manga app. (N.B. There is an untranslated sequel, Yakitate!! Japan Super Real, which was serialized on the LINE app and eventually collected in five volumes.)
Yakitate!! Japan, Vols. 1-4
Story and Art by Takashi Hashaguichi
Translated by Noritaka Minami; Adapted by Drew Williams
Lettering and Touch-Up by Kelle Han
In the first volume of Yakitate!! Japan, we meet Kazuma Azuma, a teenager with an unusual dream. His great aspiration is to create a bread so beloved by the Japanese people that it becomes synonymous with the country itself: Ja-pan. Though he lacks formal training and, frankly, common sense, he’s a prodigy in the kitchen, blessed with “hands of the sun” (a.k.a. hands warm enough to jump-start the dough’s rising) and a jazz musician’s knack for improvisation. These skills land him at the modest South Tokyo branch of Pantasia, a popular chain of bakeries. There, alongside the loud-mouthed apprentice Kyosuke Kawachi, the cute but steely manager Tsukino Asuzagawa, and the bread master Ken Matsushiro, he hones his craft, develops new Ja-pan prototypes, and enters countless bake-offs.
Having introduced us to the principle characters, volumes two and three of Yakitate!! Japan then settle into a basic formula: Kazuma and Kawachi attend a competition where they’re regarded as the underdogs. When faced with a challenge—say, making mold-resistant bread or baking the perfect butter roll—Kazuma cheerfully devises a new recipe on the spot, wowing the skeptical judges and advancing to the next round. Though the stories trace a familiar pattern, I found much to love about these volumes. The ridiculous, Iron Chef-style competitions. The wretched puns. The impromptu science lessons. Matsushiro’s hairnet-defying ‘fro. But most of all, I loved the mouth-watering descriptions of baked goods, from Ja-pan #57—the deep-fried concoction that Kazuma fashioned out of day-old bread—to Ja-pan #32—the wasabi bread he improvised in volume 3. Those first 600 pages were pure pastry porn.
Then I read volume 4.
Volume 4 begins with the extras: a brief flashback explaining how Matsushiro became a baker, and a super-jokey short called Takitate!! Go-han. At first glance, Takitate!! appears to be a Bizarro-world parody of Yakitate!! Just as Kazuma encourages his family to substitute toast for their customary breakfast of rice, an American boy tries to wean his father off bread in favor of a Japanese-style porridge sold by a comely young foreigner. So far, so good. Then we get a glimpse of the vendor herself: a super scantily clad hottie in a bikini top and cut-offs that would make Daisy Duke blush. That initial hubba-hubba sketch is followed by several pages of utterly gratuitous fan service that sorely tempted me to abandon ship.
I’m glad I didn’t bail out at page 40, however, as the previous volume ended at a climatic moment in the Pantasia Rookie Tournament. Having survived the near-disastrous decision to use margarine instead of butter in a previous challenge, Kazuma must now overcome his lack of culinary skills to produce an “okonomiyaki sandwich.” (Imagine a hot dog bun filled with deep-friend soba noodles and a tangy sauce.) He and Kawachi face added pressure to succeed, as Tsukino’s honor rides on the contest’s outcome. Just as Kazuma and Kawachi are poised for victory, however, a hulking figure in a koala mask proves himself to be a formidable opponent. In other words, it’s another helping of business as usual: pratfalls, shouting matches, wacky new characters, and death-defying feats of bread baking.
This review was originally published at PopCultureShock on March 7, 2007 at http://popcultureshock.com/index.php?p=41094. It has been lightly edited for clarity.