Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Antique Bakery (manga, vol. 1) by Fumi Yoshinaga

This volume begins with what might be the most horrible moment in Yusuke Ono's life - just before graduating from high school, he confesses his love to the gorgeous and popular Tachibana (who happens to be a guy). Instead of just letting poor Ono run off after the confession, Tachibana feels the need to tell him that the confession grosses him out and makes him want to puke. As if that wasn't bad enough, he then tells Ono "Hurry up and die, you homo!!"

The volume skips forward a year, showing a young girl in junior high, trying to remain unnoticed as several other girls verbally abuse someone named Urushihara. Then the volume skips forward 11 years, to show promising young boxer and pastry lover Eiji Kanda as he wins yet another match, only to find out that he has detached retinas and must give up boxing. Finally, the story jumps to the present day as a businessman guilt-trips his son into studying and settles down to enjoy some desert. The son had been watching a television report about unsolved crimes, including the kidnapping of a young boy. Although the boy was found, his abductor never was.

The volume then focuses on two women, who turn out to be Miss Urushihara and the wallflower girl (Miss Ito) from the little junior high snippet at the beginning. They chat a bit and agree to meet again. On her way home, Miss Ito stumbles across a tiny bakery in a residential area that, amazingly enough, is still open even though it's late. Although the stubbly guy who greets her makes her a little nervous at first, the bakery's teas, coffees, cakes, and pastries all sound so good that she stays to buy something. Before she leaves, the father who guilt-tripped his son earlier also comes in to order something.

This is a very character-focused manga. Some parts focus on particular customers - Miss Ito and Miss Urushihara, the pastry/cake connoisseur father who used to be a police officer, and a boxer and his girlfriend. That's the first part of the volume. During the last third or so of the volume, the Antique Bakery and the three men who work in it are the focus. Readers get to see the bakery's beginnings - when Ono was first hired, when Kanda was first hired, and how Tachibana became so well-versed in cakes and pastries, despite not actually liking them.

I'll admit, I didn't really know what to expect when I got this manga. I wanted to read it because the title kept popping up in books and articles I've read, and I fell in love with a page of its artwork (page 158 of this volume, actually) I saw in a book. The first few pages seemed darker and more serious than the stuff I normally read, but I figured I'd continue - then I could say I read one volume, and if I didn't want to read the next that was my decision. Well, although it has its serious moments, the overall volume was much funnier than I expected. Yoshinaga inserts something funny into almost all of the serious moments (the one big exception being Ono's horrible high school rejection). For instance, when Kanda finds out he has to quit boxing, his trainer tells him not to worry - "I may not look it, but I've got some powerful connections...Like at a ramen restaurant or a ramen restaurant or a ramen restaurant." Then there are bits that are just plain funny, like Mr. Tadahiro's very brief courtship of Miss Sawako - it shouldn't take much for the reader to figure out why Mr. Tadahiro is proposing already (even if Miss Sawako's mother can't figure it out) and it says a lot about him and what he's like. Basic character development combined with humor - yay!

Besides the humor, I also enjoyed the story structure. Yoshinaga often shows things out of sequence, either with flashbacks that aren't fully comprehensible until the reader has seen other events, or by revealing characters' stories in bits and pieces. I read the volume a second time immediately after finishing it for the first time, so that I could catch more of the nuances. I wonder if the second volume will refer back to events in the first volume? Anyway, some things take only a chapter to unfold. For instance, one of the reasons Tachibana's story about Miss Ito and Miss Urushihara (Tachibana seems to enjoy making up detailed, on-the-fly stories about customers) is so plausible is because Yoshinaga has staged several panels so that it does seem plausible to readers. However, almost immediately after Tachibana concocts his story, it is revealed to be wrong - so readers can reread the chapter from a new perspective not based on wild speculation.

Other things take the entire volume to unfold. One example: the father from the beginning of the volume is revealed to be the police officer involved in the kidnapping investigation, the one in which the kidnapper was never found. (I do admit that I find it odd that, after one failure, he commits himself to eating fine cakes and pastries for the next 22 years.) Another example: Ono and Tachibana's connection to one another. I admit, his name and appearance should have tipped me off, but I didn't immediately connect the Tachibana of the present with the Tachibana of the past, mainly because it seemed incomprehensible to me that Ono would be able to work so peacefully with someone who had once hurt him so badly. During my reread, I realized that, although Ono says everything is fine between him and Tachibana, he definitely still thinks about and is saddened by Tachibana's rejection of him. I wonder what will happen between them in future volumes? Present day Tachibana doesn't seem to care that Ono is gay, as long as Ono continues to work for him ("the legendary cake master," "the genius pastry chef," etc.) and doesn't try to hit on him too much. I seriously doubt, however, that Tachibana will ever hop into bed with Ono, and it doesn't seem too healthy for Ono to keep going through lovers like potato chips.

Overall, this first volume of Antique Bakery was very enjoyable. I love the artwork and the humor. There's not much of what you might call "story," unless you count the stories that grow from the characters - those are wonderful. Oh, if only Digital Manga Publishing weren't one of the expensive publishers (this first volume is $12.95, although I'm sure there are websites and stores that sell it for less). That said, the people in the interlibrary loan department at my library had to call me over just to figure out how to request the second volume, so I may end up having the buy the rest of the series after all - my consolation is that I now know the series is worth the cost.

My biggest problem right now - Antique Bakery has given me a huge craving for pretty, delicious pastries and cakes, with (as far as I know) no place in town capable of satisfying it.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Yakitate!! Japan (manga) by Takashi Hashiguchi - Azuma Kazuma's goal is to make Ja-pan - every country except Japan seems to have its own national bread, and Azuma wants to correct this by making bread that would fit in with Japanese cuisine and be loved as much as rice. In pursuit of this goal, Azuma finds work at a branch of Pantasia, a famous bread-making chain. Bread-making isn't a sport, but you wouldn't always know it from reading Yakitate!! Japan - in this wacky manga, people bake the craziest things (which usually have some sort of basis in real-life breads), competing rabidly against one another. The feel of this manga is nothing like Antique Bakery - although this manga is also humorous, its humor is wackier than Antique Bakery's, and it doesn't have that same undercurrent of seriousness. However, readers who'd like another manga featuring mouthwatering foods might want to try this.
  • Honey and Clover (manga) by Chika Umino - (This popular manga has spawned both anime and live action shows, none of which I've listed here - check out Anime News Network if you'd like to know a little more about them.) This "slice of life" manga focuses primarily on a group of art college students - their friendships, dramas, and loves. Those who liked Antique Bakery's mix of humor and seriousness, character-driven story, and focus on relationships may enjoy this manga.
  • Bartender (manga) by Araki Joh (story) and Kenji Nagatomo (art); Bartender (anime TV series) - Ryu Sasakura is a genius bartender who makes the most incredible cocktails anyone has ever tasted. Customers of all kinds come to his bar, and Ryu uses his talents to help each one with their worries and problems. This is another character-driven "slice of life" story. In addition, those who enjoyed Antique Bakery's lovely and well-described pastries and cakes may enjoy Bartender's various drinks. (It is very bad of me to include this in the list, because neither the anime nor the manga are available in the US yet. But, oh, I wish - I've read some very nice blog posts about the anime.)

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