Manga is already renowned by its fans for its impressive breadth of subject matter, which ranges widely from stories of superpowered heroes, to super-talented surgeons, to Scandinavian goddesses hanging with regular guys, to even—gasp!—simple stories about everyday life. Manga can also be famously weird, which often leads non-manga fans to look upon it with a skeptical eye.
That said, otakus and the rest of the world may not have agreeing tastes, but if there is one thing that they all can agree on, it is this: Food is awesome.
And since there are manga about the above varied subjects and more, it is only natural that there should be manga about food and the culture surrounding the preparation of it. Check out two of the most recent food-themed additions to the library’s manga collection:
Arguably, today’s best food manga series (and this author’s favorite manga of all time) is Yakitate!! Japan by Takashi Hashiguchi. Protagonist Kazuma Azuma is a kid from the country who wants nothing more than to be a baker at Japan’s leading bakery chain, Pantasia. A number of challenges stand in his way—the simplest being that Japan isn’t really a bread-eating country, preferring rice instead—but like the main character of just about every shonen manga, he has the determination to make himself succeed, as well as the baker’s equivalent of his own little superpower. He has spent every day since childhood inventing his own special series of breads, which he names “Ja-pan,” aided by his “Hands of the Sun.” The latter refers to his unusually high-temperature hands, which give him an advantage when kneading bread, as the added warmth causes the dough to ferment and rise faster than it normally would.
Speaking from my own experience, baking bread is not very exciting. It mostly consists of doing one five-minute step, letting the bread sit and rise for a few hours, revisiting it to do another five-minute step, letting it sit for another few hours, and so on. Not quite the stuff one would expect to put into a shonen manga, which generally relies on fast-paced battles to keep its readers’ attention. What makes Yakitate!! Japan such a great manga is how it seamlessly blends the cooking genre with the shonen genre and does it with intense and hilarious results. Iron Chef has nothing on this series. The cooking matches featured here are often as action-packed as any battle you’ll find in Naruto or Bleach.
One of the largest selling points of this series, though, is its sense of humor and its hidden complexities. Yakitate!! Japan would probably be a hard series to tolerate if it took itself seriously. However, it knows how wacky its premise is and runs with it, adding to its own absurdity by featuring over-the-top villains and judges that would rarely be seen in an actual cooking competition, but seem perfectly fitted to shonen manga. The main characters are a bit more realistic, but even they have their own notable quirks. The title itself is a small indication of the wacky humor that shows up in this book. It translates into “Freshly Baked Japan,” “pan” itself being the Japanese word for “bread,” thus Azuma’s appropriate insistence on his truly Japanese bread being named “Ja-pan.” This pun is just the first of possible hundreds that show up in the series itself, but even people who detest puns should still give this series a try, as there is much more to its humor than just cheesy wordplay. Hashiguchi’s art is wonderful, fluctuating from the comical to the realistic to the comically over-realistic, and this art provides half the humor.
Neko Ramen by Kenji Sonishi is one of the most recent entries into the food manga genre and simultaneously one of the most absurd. As the title suggests (to anyone loosely familiar with Japanese), it is a comic about a cat (“neko”) and ramen—more specifically, a cat who owns a ramen restaurant (Yes, you did read that correctly).
Main character Taisho is not a kitty of the Hello variety; in fact, he’s quite the opposite. Originally he came from a family of cat models , but couldn’t pull off the basic cuteness required of a modeling cat, much less the standard of cuteness established by his father, who was famous for being adorable. Unable to take the abuse that his dad inflicted upon him for not being cute enough, Taisho ran away from home and, after tripping through various jobs, finally found his place as a hot-tempered ramen cook.
How he has managed to keep his place as a ramen cook is a mystery, as his ramen is apparently horrible, but this comic isn’t concerned with that. Presented in 4-koma style (with single-shot stories depicted in four vertically-arranged panels), Neko Ramen thrives on short bursts of comedy. Most of this comedy comes at Taisho’s expense and often deals with the difficulties a cat experiences when trying to run a restaurant in a human-dominated world. “It takes some time to pick the cat hair out” is something you might hear said of your food in Taisho’s shop. Deliveries are difficult for Taisho as well, especially when the delivery to be made is inside another cat’s territory. Taisho’s business sense, too, is another source of amusement, as he misinterprets and overprices just about every ramen dish that he makes. His Zero Calorie Ramen, for example, is a bowl of hot water, and when he briefly gives up on authentic ramen and sells instant noodles, he sells them for a whopping $8.00 a bowl. He also tries to pay his human employees with glasses of milk and hires other cats to work at his shop, not minding that they’re essentially paid to nap all day. Then again, he’s a cat himself, so maybe he expects that.
The primary flaw in this manga is that, in many ways, it takes some getting used to. The art is not of the big, watery-eyed sort typically seen in manga, with artist Sonishi opting instead for a rough, sketchy look. It’s not unattractive, but it is unexpected, and until the reader becomes accustomed to looking at it, it’s hard to really enjoy the story. The story itself takes a bit of getting used to as well, simply because of its absurdity. At the beginning, readers don’t know the context in which Taisho is being written—we don’t know if it’s a world in which cats commonly run restaurants, for example—but once this is established (It’s not such a world), the humor begins to take off.
The level of wide appeal that this manga might have is debatable. While the back cover of its first volume declares itself a must-have for ramen aficionados, cat lovers, and manga collectors, an appreciation for the nonsensical (and sometimes downright ridiculous) is necessary for full appreciation of this manga. Anyone who doesn’t love the weird and absurd might find other cat-themed comics like Chi’s Sweet Home or What’s Michael? more palatable.
If you find these comics to your taste, then you may also want to try some of our other food-themed manga. Kitchen Princess by Natsumi Ando and Mixed Vegetables by Ayumi Komura are recommended for fans of cute or romantic shojo manga, while Café Kichijouji by Kyoko Negishi should suit those who like comedies with quirky characters.
by Heather, Teen Services Assistant at the Headquarters Library