Yakitate!! Japan Volume 1
The latest entry in the “I must be the best at ___” manga genre combines cooking and competition in an unusual way in Yakitate!! Japan Volume 1. Kazuma is determined to become a world-class baker and create a national bread worthy of Japan, one that tastes better than rice. (It’s a pun, you see, since “pan” is Japanese for bread.)
Kazuma leaves his family and hometown to apprentice at a “super-famous” Tokyo bakery. It’s been an uphill battle for him. Grandpa was proud of their history as rice farmers and rice’s place in the Japanese diet. As a child, Kazuma hated bread, and it was only because of his sister’s desire to be modern that he even tried it. A kindly neighborhood baker instructed him that great bread came from ideas and love, firing his imagination.
As typical of these types of stories, it turns out that Kazuma has an unusual ability. His rare “magic hands” are naturally warm and thus aid in the yeast’s fermentation. He’s also been experimenting for years, trying different combinations of ingredients and techniques to create a ja-pan.
The comedy is over-the-top, supported by exaggerated caricatures. Grandpa at times looks like a demented coot with a dislocated jaw, and Sis drags Kazuma to the bakery by tying him up and dragging him via rope behind her bike. Every emotion leaps off the page with tears and speed lines and giant eyes. A successful tasting of a slice of bread is accompanied by sunbeams casting light on the previously ignorant.
After heading off the big city, Kazuma’s talent overcomes his initial disabilities of appearance, lack of formal knowledge, and clumsiness. He participates in a bake-off to earn his spot at the bakery, quickly making friends and enemies. As with Iron Wok Jan, the owner’s granddaughter works beside him, making decisions and helping him along.
There’s lots of information about different types of bread. Every time Kazuma is introduced to a new type (because he knows little about other country’s breads), it turns out to resemble one of his experiments. This quickly becomes amusing, that he has supposedly independently invented all of these types of baking. Co-worker Kawachi’s naked ambition is also funny, that he’s so obviously an Eddie Haskell.
With more than 20 volumes in the series, I suspect Kazuma has quite a long struggle in front of him before he learns to become a professional baker and perfects his bread. Whether or not you’ll enjoy his journey depends on how much you appreciate slapstick fish-out-of-water comedy leavened with bread-making lessons. For now, I’ll keep reading… but not when I’m hungry.