*What Did You Eat Yesterday? Books 2-3 — Recommended

I adore this series. I’m so thrilled that Vertical has committed to What Did You Eat Yesterday?, since it combines such favorite things: art by Fumi Yoshinaga, a focus on cooking as an achievable skill, and insightful underlying relationships.

Book 2 opens with a flashback, showing how Shiro and Kenji met at a gay bar and got to know each other. They’re so cute together, both unsure in various ways, creating a relationship anyone can identify with. To commemorate, the first meal in the book is a lavish Christmas special, focused on spinach lasagna and marking their anniversary.

Shiro’s cooking is home-taught, often with non-specifics, particularly when it comes to seasonings and timings. He’s working to his taste and demonstrating that one doesn’t have to be precious when it comes to making tasty food. A delicious meal is a great way to show the depth of feeling for someone. His cooking is home-based, not restaurant-style, and the character’s focus on economy and value — not buying expensively, reusing ingredients so nothing is wasted — is particularly timely and inspirational.

The food is also inspiring in how the meals are made up of various small dishes, not meat-heavy and including plenty of vegetables. That’s a style of cooking that the Japanese do well, balancing flavors to provide satisfaction without huge portions or overly unhealthy ingredients.

Because I love this series, I also have gripes. The biggest is the lack of endnotes. With so much based in the particular culture of the author and characters, a few pieces of additional information would be much appreciated. Many food terms aren’t translated. Perhaps it can be argued that someone interested in this series likely already knows what ponzu, yuzu, mitsuba, and wakame are, but I love Japanese food, and I had to look them up. I want more people to try and love this series, and I wish this was less of a potential stumbling block for readers. I’d love to see an additional text page or two where a knowledgeable cook comments on the dishes. However, I suspect that the additional cost to develop the editorial material might not weigh favorably on the book’s profit-and-loss statement.

I am thrilled to see the recipe steps and dishes illustrated in such detail, but at times, I wasn’t sure the words used to describe the illustrations matched up. For instance, at one point, Shiro is said to be chopping leeks, but they look more like green onions in size. This may not matter to most readers, who aren’t likely to try and replicate the recipes. Heck, some of them — such as the stewed yellowtail scraps and heads — are unlikely to be possible in this country unless one lives near a specialty retailer. It’s still fun to dream about sharing the meals with someone you care about.

What Did You Eat Yesterday? Book 2 also has a story about a legal case where Shiro’s trying to help a divorced mom, punctuated by the hilarious panel where Shiro’s clearly having a bad day. His co-workers, unaware of his boyfriend, assume he must have had an argument with his girlfriend, but it’s really because one of his food purchases went bad before he could use it. That’s another virtue of this series, the way the structure allows for stories focusing on different aspects of Shiro’s life, from work to home to family.

Key for a visual artist, Yoshinaga has a great gasp of how appearances affect character, as shown by a story about a co-worker whom everyone assumes is about 20 years older than she is, based on how she talks and dresses. I also like how she recognizes how relationships really work, as in a later chapter, Kenji is explaining to Shiro how bad he felt about an incident with a friend. Shiro wants to advise Kenji on what to do, but Kenji just wants sympathy and a listening ear.

The book concludes with more insight into Shiro’s family life, as his father goes into the hospital for cancer surgery. He’s thinking about home, and the seasons are changing to fall, so he makes meat-and-potato stew.

Book 3 sends Shiro home for New Year’s, a family holiday, to spend more time with his recovering father and trying-to-be-supportive mother. That means we get to see Kenji cook ramen for himself, showing that he’s got a few culinary skills of his own. The story also hints at how being a gay man in Japan, with various expectations about families, can be difficult for an older generation to accept. A childless couple of any gender, though, can identify with the occasional worry of “who will take care of me when I’m older?” Shiro also struggles with the question of whether to help support his parents financially, with all the feelings that entails about loyalty and gratitude and pride preventing the acceptance of help. They have a lot to negotiate, since they’re not 100% accepting of their son’s choices, but they still love him.

At work, Shiro has trouble working with a female apprentice, while Kenji picks up a new customer by being sensitive to her needs. Shiro and his female bargain-hunting friend also talk about their relationships — as one gets older, one may understand that staying together is easier than all the work in finding a new partner. That doesn’t deny their love for each other, but adds a realistic reason to work at staying together, too.

What a beautiful series, reaching so many points of appeal — taste, emotion, and satisfaction. What Did You Eat Yesterday Volume 4 is out tomorrow, and having caught up with the series so far, I’m already ready for more.


The First Japanese Comic Artist Published in English

This is a pretty neat writeup… Ash Brown has the story of Masaichi Mukaide’s translated work, credited as “the first Japanese comics to be translated into English”. It appeared in Star Reach, an early independent comic anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories, in the 1970s. As Brown describes it, much of much of Mukaide’s work was written by already-known US creators and developed for this market and audience, so I’m not sure we’d call it manga, but it’s a neat bit of forgotten history.


No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular! Book 4 (WataMote)

Ah, it’s time for a price rise (from $11.99 to $13 — and I’m glad Yen has gotten away from the .99 dodge). Thankfully, I’m still enjoying this series enough to keep buying. I’m not sure why, since normally I hate comedy based on “look how pathetic this person is”, but somehow, I’m still rooting for Tomoko, even when she’s doing the stupidest things possible. I think it’s because there’s a fondness in her portrayal that allow me to focus on similarities without cringing from the discomfort.

As No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular! Book 4 opens, Tomoko has forgotten how to talk to other people, particularly boys. To improve her social skills, she decides to become a club hostess — which is like deciding, since you can’t get a basketball through the hoop, to join the WNBA. It’s the exaggeration that makes this so funny instead of painful. Of course, as soon as she seizes on this idea (based on a TV interview), she envisions herself as the best hostess ever.

I’m impressed by the non-verbal humor segments that work so well. As part of her self-imposed hostess training, Tomoko is working on lighting cigarettes and preparing drinks. She still thinks of life as a video game, working on speed instead of human interaction and trying to figure out tasks to complete to mark progress. In spite of how out of her league she is, she’s still keeping a positive outlook, as though she just needs to find the next new trick to make things all better. I think it’s that optimism and the resulting enthusiasm that makes her such an interesting read to me.

Also, it’s rare to me to see a teen character who’s shown as so honestly sex-crazy while having absolutely no idea what to do about it. She has bizarre fantasies, but I think that’s a realistic part of having adolescent hormones.

Much of this volume revolves around end-of-year activities, from a school marathon (where Tomoko is handicapped by badly having to go to the bathroom) to not knowing what to do with her winter break holiday — although Mom has ideas about cleaning — to a Christmas party with school friends. The last chapter ends on a high note, as Tomoko marks her sixteenth birthday by pretentiously engaging in what she thinks of as adult activities, which include drinking black coffee at a cafe and appreciating the depth and fascination of mature literature, without pictures. Again, she’s marking life by ultimately pointless details, but those elements give her hooks to start understanding the bigger picture.


Rock and Roll Love

The artist who calls herself Misako Rocks has reissued her quasi-autobiographical Rock and Roll Love (previously released by Hyperion in 2007). It’s about her trip to the US as an exchange student, where she meets a guy in a band.

Because she’s basing the story on her own life, the telling is unstructured and wandering. She decided to learn English and go to America because she had a crush on a pretty-boy rock star she saw on TV. It’s hard to criticize someone’s real-life choices, but that strikes me as shallow, an impression borne out by how she portrays herself as a character. The emotional roller coaster she goes on is tiring and frequently changing, so much so that the character seems even younger than she is.

Potentially interesting observations about how American kids of the same age seem more grown up are cut short in favor of affirmations like “Yes, I can do it! Anything is possible!” Challenges such as struggling in class due to the language difference are glossed over in a couple of pages with a note that she worked harder. Way too much is packed into this book, so nothing gets the space it deserves a a character moment or story point. Good autobiography is formed in the editing, and there doesn’t seem to have been much of it applied here.

Misako knows she falls too easily and gets too emotional, but she keeps doing it anyway. The message, that if you want something bad enough and work hard, you can make it happen, isn’t one I’d want other kids to internalize, because it’s so unrealistic. She’s clearly not mature enough for a relationship, but instead of showing that from the perspective of the author, looking back, I get the impression that Misako is caught up in how fun it was to be that young.

I wish we got to know Natalie, her 16-year-old host, better. All she is is a voice in the background saying sensible things, such as “Calm down a little bit, okay? You’re too excited.” But we never get enough of an idea of her motivations to see her as a three-dimensional character.

The art has plenty of shading, which gives the book the feel of reading someone’s diary sketchbook. The lettering is computerized, Comic Sans, which isn’t the most professional choice. The images are mostly focused on faces and emotions, as inspired by the shojo manga style.

I hate to be so harsh when it comes to someone’s life, but this was an unfocused, unsatisfying read. (The artist provided a review copy.)


*Wolf Children Ame & Yuki — Recommended

Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki is a gorgeous manga adaptation of an award-winning animated film. Yen Press has really done the material well, releasing a single-volume hardcover containing over 500 pages of story (three volumes’ worth), color opening pages, and notes and character sketches by the authors.

It’s not a new story, but it’s presented in an affecting way. Hana falls in love with a mysterious bad boy who crashes a college course. Turns out he’s a werewolf, but they get married and have children anyway. After a tragedy, Hana moves to the country to raise their two children, Yuki and her little brother Ame. The kids can become wolves, humans, or humans with wolf ears. Hana wants to give them the choice to be who they are, without others judging them or running in fear or harming them, thus the more natural upbringing in relative solitude.

After two chapters that set up the relationship between her parents — and serve as a model of abbreviated but powerful storytelling, along the lines of Up — Yuki begins narrating the story of her life. I’m a sucker for cute kid stories, and these kids are adorable, particularly as they almost unthinkingly swap between toddlers and animals. I sympathized with Hana’s struggles, trying to raise particularly difficult offspring without being able to ask anyone for help. This is a heartwarming family story with easy-to-read yet emotional art.

With hard work and study, Hana learns what she needs, aided by the community around her. As the story progresses, the little family struggles with the kids going to school, finding mom a job, and building relationships with others. They choose different paths as they grow up, as all children do. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


In Clothes Called Fat

Vertical has recently brought several of Moyoco Anno’s manga to our shores, including the historical portrait Sakuran: Blossoms Wild and the biography-inspired comedy Insufficient Direction. Previously, we’ve seen the dark comedy of a woman looking for happiness in Happy Mania, the magical kids of Sugar Sugar Rune, and the savage comments on beauty and popularity of Flowers and Bees.

It was reading that last one that made me realize why it is that, while I appreciate Anno’s work, I don’t love it. It’s because she’s so cruel to her characters. Everyone in her books suffers, often due to their own refusal to honestly realize their flaws. That’s uncomfortable. And yet, at least all these books are available here. I doubt a revealing story aimed at women like In Clothes Called Fat would otherwise have made it to English, without a creator with a significant amount of name recognition here, which would be a shame.

Every woman can relate to obsessing over weight and eating, since so much value is put on appearance. In Clothes Called Fat is the story of Noko, a fat woman (although the way she’s drawn makes it clear that “fat” is in part cultural; if the story was told here, she’d be much larger) who uses food to handle stress and loneliness. The first few pages establish the character — she hates her body, feeling like she’s “wearing a leotard of flesh”, but keeps eating, because that’s a moment when she’s not thinking about her size and how other women denigrate her for it. In psych-speak, she’s swallowing her feelings, along with a lot of food.

Anno’s art style normally features slender women who resemble fashion illustrations, with exaggerated, overly made up features. Those women here are the villains, those who casually make Noko feel worthless. That they are external voices for her internal worries only make it worse. She already knows that guys don’t find her attractive.

She does have a boyfriend. They’ve been together for several years, but his motives for being with her are as abusive as her co-workers, and she eventually finds out he’s cheating on her. In Clothes Called Fat is an authentic, raw portrait of what it’s like not to fit in and hate yourself, although don’t come into it expecting redemption or a positive outcome. That’s the American take, where we expect Noko to just get some willpower, stand up for herself, lose the weight, and find a better guy.

Instead, events bleakly spiral into the increasingly outrageous, with paid dating, a weight-loss clinic, criminal co-workers, banishment, paranoid plots, and a very lost, self-loathing central figure. The most interesting visual change, to me, is how accurately Anno draws a bulimic Noko — she thinks skinny = pretty, but her face is haunted, with bags under her eyes, demonstrating that starving yourself is no solution. As with several other of Vertical’s recent josei manga releases, this is for adults only, given the drawings of naked women used to drive home the subject. (The publisher provided a review copy.)