Sunday, November 29, 2009

Antique Bakery (manga, vol. 4) by Fumi Yoshinaga

Sadly, this is the final volume of Antique Bakery. I really enjoyed this series and will have to see about hunting down the anime (although I'm not a huge fan of what I've seen of the color scheme, which appears very pastel).

Sorry about the long post, but I couldn't help it. This is a great volume, and there's a lot packed into it.

Synopsis:

As usual, Tachibana wakes up from a bad dream about the time when he was abducted as a child. All he can remember is that his abductor forced him to eat cake every day and that he stabbed the man in the thighs. He thinks the man who took him probably said something to him, but he can't remember what it was, and that really bothers him. Thankfully, Chikage is still staying with Tachibana - Chikage's kind, but not very bright, and so manages to keep Tachibana's mood from getting too dark.

This volume follows the usual pattern of having a few scenes involving characters who will probably later be shown to be much more important (in this case, very important). An elderly lady has just returned home (or whatever - I'm not sure if this is her home or the man's home or a part of her store) from the Antique Bakery. She gives the cake to a silent, bearded elderly man who gives her some money for it, although she tells him that he doesn't need to. As she puts on makeup and otherwise pretties herself up, she talks to the man, telling him that she's thinking of closing her own shop up and moving to Sendai, where her brother and his wife live. She asks the man if he'd like to come with her, but he's not listening - he's offering cake to an invisible Atsushi, his son, who's been dead for 20 years. The woman is sympathetic but gets upset when the man slaps her hand away and continues to pretend as though she's not there while he coos over his invisible son. When she pushes the fact that his son is dead in the man's face, he acts as though he will stab her. Crying now, the woman begs him to go away with her. For some reason, the man stops, puts the knife away, and quietly leaves the shop/house/whatever, much to the woman's surprise.

Meanwhile, back at the bakery, Kanda's cakes have become pretty popular. Deko compliments both him and Ono on their cakes (climbing happily onto Ono's back, much to his horror) and even says she thinks she might one day want to bake cakes like the two of them. Although Deko frightens Ono (he's much better with women than he used to be, but Deko would be a bit much for a lot of people), Kanda thinks she's really cute. In fact, he asks Ono, "how old does a girl have to be to get married?" while gushing over Deko (who is, by the way, 10 years old, although she looks much older).

All of this is interrupted by a surprise visit to the bakery by Nagako, one of Ono's sisters. She's come to tell him that she's getting married and would like him to come to her wedding. He hasn't seen her or any of his family in years, and he thinks she might not want a gay family member at her wedding, but that doesn't bother her. Nagako had always thought that Ono had left and not come back because he knew that their father was having an affair with another woman and didn't want to be around his messed-up family anymore. The news shocks Ono a little - he knew their mother had been having an affair (something his sister still doesn't know), but he hadn't realized about their father (or so I'm assuming). He recovers quickly, though, and agrees to attend her wedding. The first chapter ends with Chikage and Tachibana seeing a news story about a kidnapped 9-year-old. Also, the woman from earlier is still waiting in her house/shop for the man.

In the next chapter, Kanda is upset when Tachibana and Ono tell him they've signed him up for French lessons. Kanda has never liked studying, but Ono thinks this is a good next step, since he eventually expects Kanda to spend some time in France in order to study authentic French cuisine. Tachibana, who's paying for the classes, is a little worried that Kanda isn't actually going to them or paying attention when he does. When Tachibana comes across Kanda beating up a random thug one night, his worries increase. Kanda's bad mood gets worse when he gets back to the shop after class one night to discover Tachibana helping Ono with the cakes and pastries - and doing well enough to earn Ono's praise.

Eventually, Ono puts a stop to Kanda's thug-beating activities and sits him down for a talk. All of Kanda's bottled-up insecurities come pouring out. Boxing made Kanda feel good because all he had to do was win in order to feel useful and wanted. He's been abandoned before, though, and he's terrified that Ono is preparing to abandon him too. He doesn't think there's anything about him that makes him vital to Ono - he's not Ono's type (I couldn't help but wonder if he'd have slept with Ono if he were Ono's type, just so he could feel more necessary), and, although Ono praises his work at the bakery, he praised Tachibana too. Ono calms Kanda down and boosts his confidence by assuring him that he is very talented and has been a valuable and eager apprentice. This chapter, like the first, ends with Tachibana and Chikage seeing a news report about the 9-year-old boy - unfortunately, he has been found dead.

The next chapter begins with a flashback to Tachibana in class studying law, thinking about how the statute of limitations for his kidnapping has expired - there is no way that the law will ever bring his abductor to justice. Now, in the present, he's trying to deal with his parents, who are telling him that his grandmother would like him to meet a certain young woman (a sneaky way of trying to arrange a marriage for him) - although Tachibana makes it clear he doesn't want to meet the woman, his parents understand and it's a pretty relaxed exchange. Meanwhile, Kanda is doing fabulously well in his French class and is now on friendly terms with his teacher. Ono has gone to visit his favorite gay bar after a long absence and, to his horror, meets the guy he broke up with in volume 2. He's terrified that his ex is still upset with him, but the man has actually settled down nicely with a new lover. Ono, now in something of a reflective mood, finds himself to be a little jealous of their happy, comfortable relationship. In another reminder of the more serious stuff going on just under the surface, Chikage and Deko see yet another news report, this one about the discovery of the body of a 10-year-old who had disappeared.

The story finally turns to the police who have been investigating these murders. Because of the similarities in the cases, they believe the same person was responsible for all of it. Akutagawa, the cake and pastry gourmet and former cop, is consulted because of his knowledge of fine cakes and pastries (the kids had been fed cake of some kind), and he is able to pinpoint the Antique Bakery as the only bakery that sells the kind of cake one of the children ate. Akutagawa and the cops visit Tachibana in order to discuss putting the store under surveillance and to apologize for the way his own kidnapping was handled (Akutagawa and one of the cops were both involved in investigating Tachibana's kidnapping). It's at this point that it's made absolutely clear that Tachibana planned every detail of the store to make it perfect for something like this.

Remember how I chided myself for trying to relate everything to the kidnapping during my post for volume 2? Oh, I laugh. Here is what Tachibana thinks as he considers the police's request to put the store under surveillance: the store is small, so that he can keep an eye on the entire interior, its hours are as late as possible, so that anyone and everyone can visit it, and its cakes and pastries are delicious enough to draw customers from all over. Yes, Tachibana naturally agrees to the police's requests, and yes, it really is all about the kidnapping, or at least it started out that way.

Two cops keep a watch over the store (one of them has a sweet tooth and can't help but drool over the bakery's offerings). Aside from Miss Urushihara's husband (from volume 2 again, with Miss Urushihara first appearing in volume 1), no one suspicious-looking comes by. A drunk guy comes by and harasses Chikage a bit, but he cools down after Chikage spends some time trying to find his supposedly missing contact lens (a scene I found very odd, one which apparently is moving to everyone who sees it but Tachibana - perhaps it was moving to them because he tried so hard, even though his eyesight is so bad?).

Before the store closes for the night, a woman comes by - Tachibana's last girlfriend, the one who he proposed to after she was fired. She's now engaged to be married to Honma of all people, and she wants to know if Tachibana is going to hold a grudge against his old friend for hooking up with one of his former girlfriends (Honma had gone to her to try to talk her back into being with the heartbroken Tachibana again, but ended up falling in love with her). Tachibana, resigned, says it's all fine and that the bakery would love to cater their wedding reception.

After she leaves, happy, Tachibana, on autopilot, helps out a female customer who seems to be feeling a little clumsy and faint. He drives her home, but, before he can leave, he sees little things that make him suspicious. There are bruises on her throat and she seems afraid. Heedless of her demands that he leave, he enters her home (not taking his shoes off, thereby tracking dirt into her home) and marches in, at one point even dragging her behind him as she hangs onto one of his legs, until a little boy rushes out of a room and into his arms. The woman's 24-year-old son had kept the boy captive and had intended to kill him after feeding him the bakery's cake. Haruka, of the Tammy and Haruka duo in volume 3, reports this on TV - yay for her, her first big break.

Tachibana seems to be feeling a bit off about the whole thing. He knows that the boy probably won't ever really be fine, although he's alive. He thought he might be in trouble with the police for barging into the woman's home, but they have no intention of punishing him for that. The 24-year-old gave the police a long story about how his father used to give him cake and how his mother sometimes got the wrong ones (he sometimes hurt her for that, which explains the bruises on her throat). All the employees at the bakery rushed back after the found out what Tachibana had done, all of them wanting to know if the guy was caught and if the boy was still alive - all of them know about Tachibana's past, but that isn't spoken of.

At the bakery, things are changing. Kanda leaves to go to France for a few days to spend some time with his French teacher and her family, who own a bread shop that is also sometimes a cake shop. It'll only be a matter of time before Kanda will want to strike off on his own, so, although Kanda will be coming back, this is still a bit of poignant moment. Also, Chikage is moving out of Tachibana's place - he's decided that Tachibana is doing fine on his own now and doesn't need him to be around all the time. Tachibana, who still has nightmares, feels differently, but Chikage doesn't move far away, and he'll be coming back to the bakery just as soon as he gets himself settled in his new place.

The man from earlier, the one who almost stabbed the woman who brought him cake, is selling his home and will apparently be moving to Sendai. Before he goes, he visits the Antique Bakery to pick up a cake, which I'm guessing will be for the woman (maybe an apology?). It's at this time that readers are shown the past that Tachibana can't remember. This man was Tachibana's abductor. Young Tachibana, scared and wanting to get back to his family, stabbed him in the thighs but was then horrified at the thought that he might have killed a man. His abductor, who had been yelling at him that he wouldn't forgive him for being so terrible after he had been treated so well, tells him to go, that he was never his son to begin with. His words before young Tachibana leaves, the words present-day Tachibana struggles so hard to remember are, "Leave...and forget all this!!" In the present day, this man, who now walks with a limp, visits the Antique Bakery and buys a cake from Tachibana, and, although there's something about him that tickles Tachibana's memory, he doesn't connect this man with the man from his past. Then Honma arrives, and the moment is lost forever.

Although Tachibana is a bit upset that Honma has the happy relationship he's been seeking for so many years, he and Honma part on friendly terms. Once they're alone, Ono asks for some time off to go to his sister's wedding, some high school girls mistake Ono and Tachibana for a gay couple, and Tachibana and Ono have a moment in which they remember graduation day, when Tachibana was so hurtful towards Ono. Ono's words to Tachibana, that he's grateful to be working at this bakery because it's the first time he's felt glad he became a patissier, seem to me to be something like him granting Tachibana forgiveness.

In the end, Tachibana still has nightmares, still can't get over his past, and still can't remember what he's forgotten, but he can appreciate a nice day and his job at the bakery.

Commentary:

Goodness, that was a long synopsis, and I mixed more commentary into than I should have, now that I'm trying to have that sort of thing in its own discrete section. However, it's the last volume, and there's just so much I want to write. Just reading through the synopsis gives me shivers. I really enjoyed this series and, at some point, I need to buy it all. This is one that I can see myself wanting to reread.

One of the things I liked about this ending is that it wasn't really an ending. Usually this sort of thing drives me crazy, but, in this case, it worked. The characters in this series had their goofy and strange moments, but they still felt like people, and the events and troubles in people's lives don't always get wrapped up all nice and neat. Yoshinaga took care of the important things (showing readers the ways the characters have developed, finally showing readers what happened to Tachibana, etc.), but it's still easy to imagine everyone living their lives after the series is over.

I loved the flashbacks to Tachibana and Ono in highschool. When I read the first volume, I though Tachibana was a jerk for what he said to Ono back then, but the flashbacks in this final volume really make it clear that things were much more complicated than they appeared. I had always wondered how Yoshinaga would wrap things up between Ono and Tachibana. I think I was expecting something a bit less subtle than what Yoshinaga actually did, but I kind of like how things turned out. That bit at the end of the volume, with what might be forgiveness, is so sweet. Ending the scene on a funny note, by having Ono purposefully get those high school girls to think he and Tachibana are a gay couple by putting his arm around Tachibana at just the right moment, was great. Tachibana's expression is priceless.

The revelation about Tachibana's past is heartbreaking. His horror that wakes him up at night is not over what was done to him, but over his fear that he killed a man. He wasn't a bad kid, and he was upset that he stabbed the man who abducted him. In the end, I suppose it was a kind of love that allowed the man to tell him to go and forget what happened - he took Tachibana in order to have him act as a replacement for his son, and then he let Tachibana go because he wasn't his son and he didn't want him to be upset over the stabbing any more. Tachibana doesn't remember him, but part of me thinks the man remembers Tachibana. Or maybe he doesn't, and it was like two siblings, separated by adoption, passing in the street. Either way, just thinking about it...well, I don't think I can name too many manga volumes or series that pack quite the emotional punch this one does.

Kanda - again, heartbreaking. Who knew he was hiding so many insecurities? He can be scary, but when he was crying to Ono he was like a child. I'm glad that he became more secure and willingly asked to go to France on his own. Ono is probably the only one I don't think had a heartbreaking ending. He's mending things with his family through his sister's wedding, but it doesn't feel like things are finally fixed with him - he's definitely a character I can imagine living and growing after the series is over. Maybe that scene at the gay bar is a sign that he's eventually going to settle down, too. I wonder with who? Chikage? It'd kind of be perfect if he ended up with Tachibana, except Tachibana's not gay.

Since I've mentioned Tachibana again...Tachibana discovering the kidnapper was kind of odd - he must've just gone in the woman's house on a hunch, because the bruise wasn't really much of a sign of what was going on in there. For all he knew, she had an abusive husband or something. Tachibana going in was like an unstoppable force - it was a bit chilling, him tracking dirt in, dragging the woman behind him, remembering his own parents after he was brought back to them. The end, with the 24-year-old was anti-climactic - the guy didn't look like much of a killer. I suppose, though, that the anti-climactic feeling could have been intentional, a way of making the reader feel what Tachibana was probably feeling.

Oh, and speaking of chilling moments, the moment when the police are asking Tachibana to let them surveil his shop is also chilling, because it's finally made clear just how much thought Tachibana put into turning his shop into a trap for his abductor. I think that this scene was something of a shock to Tachibana because, although this was his original intention for the shop, it has since become so much more to him - it was a bit of a shock for him to get a reminder of what he originally wanted to do with it. It had to give the other employees chills too, knowing what they knew about his past.

Overall, I love this series and will miss it. I loved the humor (Kanda's crush on Deko, though funny, was a bit icky, but there are so many other parts that are just plain good), the drama, the characters, the pastries, and the artwork. It was a better and more interesting series than I think I expected when I started it.

This list of read-alikes and watch-alikes isn't great - in fact, it's pretty lazy - but every single volume before this one has given me trouble, and this one is no exception. I basically just put together a list using suggestions I made for the previous volume. Yes, very lazy.

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.)
  • Fruits Basket (anime TV series); Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya - Tohru had been living with her grandfather after her mother died, but circumstances and Tohru's own desire not to be a burden meant that she ended up living alone in a tent for a while. However, she gets taken in by the Sohma family, who are hiding a secret - certain members of the family turn into animals in the Chinese zodiac when they're weak or hugged by a member of the opposite sex. Both the manga and anime are good - the anime follows the manga pretty closely (except for a few things, and the last episode), but it ends well before the manga does. Like Antique Bakery, this series has a fairly "calm" feel to it overall - also like Antique Bakery, it occasionally hits you with some jaw-dropping revelations that make it clear there's more to the characters than their light, fluffy surfaces let on.

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