I tried one of the Antique Bakery volumes two years ago, when it came out. I don’t think I gave it a fair shake, because I recently read all four books in the series, and I enjoyed them a lot.
The first volume opens as though this is a yaoi series, which it isn’t (although later, in volume 2, there are overtones and insinuations). A high school boy is confessing his love to a (male) classmate, who rejects him brutally. It’s background for the main characters, setting up a later ironic re-meeting later and revelations.
In the first story, that encounter, then and now, is contrasted with two schoolgirls who later reunite unexpectedly. When I first read this, I thought that the stories were somewhat pointless, in that they didn’t go much of anywhere, but now, I much better appreciate the way that the shop staff speculate on people that they might never see again.
The reader is left to wonder how much their perceptions say about the observed and how much reflects on the observer, much like manga readers and the material they enjoy. The author seems to enjoy puncturing assumptions, especially when they’re overly literary. It’s like adult life, where you view people in passing at the coffee shop and wonder about them based on their looks and interactions, even though you’ll never know the truth. And yet, life is full of unexpected connections, too, as the detective/fan of fancy cakes storyline demonstrates.
But I haven’t set up the premise yet. The Antique Bakery is a gourmet sweet shop/café run by an unshaven dropout from society. He has no taste for desserts — they all taste like sugar to him — but he has an ulterior motive for succeeding (beyond his history of excelling at everything he tries). The master pastry chef is a “gay of demonic charm”, whom every other man falls in love with. The owner is mysteriously immune to his appeal, allowing him to work without fear of workplace disruption. The chef is also afraid of women. The third staffer is an apprentice baker, a promising boxer forced to retire for medical reasons, expanding on his love of cakes by learning how to make them.
Fumi Yoshinaga’s figures are lovely, and since they’re all men, that might also contribute to the misconception about this series’ genre. Their expressions are believable and realistic, making it clear how they feel during the ups and downs of their struggles. And they’re fun to look at, and between them and the gorgeous desserts, you can see why customers are attracted to the shop. And my, the elegant creations are something to linger over! They’re both drawn and described in glorious detail. Don’t read this series if you’re hungry, or you’ll wind up drooling on the pages. A dictionary’s also handy, to find out more about the French-named treats.
Volume two delves more deeply into the backgrounds of the shop workers as a fourth man joins them at the shop, a handyman/bodyguard/childhood friend of the owner. He’s notably tall, always wears sunglasses, mysterious-looking… but not too bright. However, he does make a terrific crush object for the chef. And some great comic relief.
Volume three opens by introducing “big-busted female announcer unit Haruka and Tammy”, aka girls who want to be newswomen but are stuck working as eye candy. They’re sent to cover the bakery’s department store demonstration setup, which provides a new perspective on the characters and an excuse to shake things up a bit.
Haruka falls in love with the gay one, of course. The whole situation comments on the inaccuracy of perception — although he doesn’t want to be anywhere near women, she mistakes his diffidence as shyness and respect. Plus, she’s confined by the expectations placed on her because of her looks and gender. Then there are the plot complications caused by running a different location, with everyone pushed to stretch outside their comfort level in various challenges.
We also see how the chef began in the business as a key figure from his past life returns. Plenty of flashbacks show his training and his personal complications. Plus, the founding of the shop figures in a retelling of the owner’s history. The progress of this series is like meeting a new friend — first you get to know who they are today, then they mention a few things in their background, and only after time has gone by do you hear of the most significant pieces of their history.
Volume four wraps everything up and sends the characters off in new directions with different avenues for growth. The kidnapping plot that’s underlined the series so far is also resolved. The beautiful ending demonstrates how we’re the sum of our experiences, but how we handle them is up to us.
Like the best of their desserts, this story is subtle, requiring attention to the connections, which must be appreciated over time and with a certain delicacy of taste. With the four books done, I’ll miss the bakery and its inhabitants.