Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Yakitate!! Japan (manga, vol. 12) by Takashi Hashiguchi

The Japanese professional bread baking team is now going on to the Monaco Cup finals, with Team USA as their opponent. Before that gets underway, however, the sports breads that Azuma and Shadow baked in the previous volume must first be tasted by F1 driver Mikael Shumapa. Although Shumapa likes both breads, his uncontrollable reaction is based on Shadow's bread (the bread prompts him to tell a story about his past, much to his own confusion), and he admits that Shadow's bread is the one he prefers. Kuroyanagi worries about Azuma's reaction to what could be considered his very first defeat, but Azuma barely even notices and continues to be fired up by the thought of baking incredible breads.

Later, Team Japan and Team USA are told that the finals will be composed of three matches with three different assignments. The first assignment, couture, is to create a bread with beautiful form. The second assignment, comfort, is to create an everyday bread for the home. The third assignment, country, is to create a bread that captures the quality's of the baker's country to the fullest. Any team that loses its first two matches loses the finals, meaning that the third match won't be held.

Azuma is naturally chosen for the "country" assignment, because of his lifelong goal to create Ja-pan. Kawachi takes the "comfort" assignment, while Suwabara takes the "couture" assignment. There's some nervousness that Kawachi and Suwabara might lose, meaning that Azuma would not get to compete, but Suwabara is confident he'll win (the assumption being that Kawachi will probably lose). Suwabara will be competing against Monica Adenauer, Kawachi against Shachihoko, and Azuma against Shadow.

Kuroyanagi tries to find information about the members of Team USA and has some difficulty. Shachihoko is relatively simple for him to gather information on, and Azuma has competed against him before. However, the others don't seem to have ever taken part in professional bread baking competitions before. Although Kuroyanagi still can't find information about Shadow, he discovers Monica's shocking secret - she's the world's top confectioner. This makes her perfect for the first assignment, since appearance is so important in the world of confectionery. Rather than being worried by this information, Kuwabara is energized.

When the match actually occurs, Kuwabara's bread is an amazing golden-colored crown with jewels made of fruit. Monica's bread is a multi-layered rye bread with a candy sculpture in the shape of a rose "growing" out of it. Although Kuwabara's bread is wonderful (the judge's reaction has some creepy aspects), Monica's bread is declared the winner (in this case, the judge's reaction involves turning himself into the cops and getting put in jail). Kuwabara may have lost his match, but love seems to be in the air - Kuwabara finds Monica's hands, scarred from years of working with molten sugar and razor-sharp candy, beautiful, and the compliment has Monica sticking to Kuwabara like glue and even teaching him confectionery techniques.

Now Team Japan's chance at winning depends on Kawachi, who doesn't even believe in himself and who hasn't been thinking about the kind of bread he'll be baking at all. Everybody from the South Tokyo Branch shows up in Kawachi's room and expresses their disapproval when Kawachi wimps out and tries to take the easy way out of his match. For the sake of the South Tokyo Branch and his family's pride in him (his family will also be there to see his match), Kawachi must win his match - and the good thing is, he's finally gotten himself fired up.

As usual, the reactions to the bread are odd and corny. It took me a while to figure out what Shumapa's reaction had to do with Shadow's bread - let me tell ya, it's a groaner. The puns and plays on words in the judge's reactions to Kuwabara and Monica's breads were also pretty out there, although I thought they were funnier and easier to understand.

In the previous volume, I thought the breads had gotten a little outlandish, but the breads in this volume, although amazing, seemed much more possible. It's too bad this volume was entirely black-and-white - Kuwabara's bread sounded like it would've looked amazing in color. Monica's bread was beautiful even without color. I sometimes wonder if these incredible breads actually could be baked, and I found myself wondering that again in this volume, especially when one of the South Tokyo Branch people starts talking about "ice bread" - bread with ice cream in it. According to the footnotes, such a bread actually does exist, and there's even a waiting list for it. The person who created that bread assists in the research for this manga, so the breads that turn up in this series can't be totally off-the-wall.

I also enjoyed the small amount of romance in this volume - Monica and Kuwabara seem like they'd make a good couple, although Monica's probably going to have to hit him over the head to get him to do anything that's not in some way related to bread baking. Monica and Kuwabara were also responsible for lots of fanservice in this volume. Monica shows up to her match in a bikini, hoping to fluster Kuwabara into making mistakes during his match, so Kuwabara retaliates by ripping his clothing off so that he's dressed only in a loincloth. After my jaw finished dropping, I couldn't stop laughing. I couldn't help but like Monica - she's not a bad person (her bread is influenced by her mother), and she and her family came from Germany (I'm half German).

Overall, this was a fun volume. I predict that Kawachi will win his match - for one thing, it'd be lame if things ended at this point, and, for another, Kawachi is finally fired up, and his experience with family should make him perfect for his assignment. As far as extras go, there are four short funny manga starring the author/artist, footnotes here and there throughout the manga, and a couple paragraphs on candy-making at the end of the volume.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America (non-fiction book) by Steve Almond - This candy-obsessed author, who has eaten a piece of candy every day of his life, reminisces about the candy brands of his youth, tours candy production factories, and more. For those who'd like to read something from the perspective of someone who loves candy as much (almost as much?) as Monica might enjoy this book.
  • The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars (non-fiction book) by Joel Glenn Brenner - This is more of a corporate history than a book about making candy, but those who loved the candy-making aspect of this volume of Yakitate!! Japan and who like the general idea of varied personalities battling it out in the arena of food might enjoy this book. Brenner writes about the ongoing competition between Hershey and Mars and its beginnings with Forrest Mars Sr. and Milton S. Hershey, two very different men who each became successful in the world of chocolate.
  • Gin Tama (manga) by Hideaki Sorachi - Gintoki is a broke samurai in a world that no longer needs samurai. His life gets a little more complicated when he starts living with Kagura (a super-strong alien girl who looks tiny and cute) and Shinpachi. The group takes odd jobs, trying to save people and earn enough to eat and pay the rent. Those who'd like another manga series with weird and sometimes crass humor might like this series.
  • Eyeshield 21 (manga) by Riichirou Inagaki (story) and Yuusuke Murata (art) - Sena, a freshman in high school, has been bullied for years and, as a result, has learned to run really fast. His talent is spotted by Hiruma, the hilariously sadistic president of the American Football Club, who forces Sena to join the club as the mysterious "Eyeshield 21." Those who'd like another manga series with weird humor that focuses on competition might enjoy this series. Even if you don't like football, I'd still suggest this series - Inagaki, aware that many Japanese readers might not know how football works, explains many of the rules (so even American readers who don't know the rules can follow along) and keeps things fun, even for non-football lovers, by cranking up the wild and weird humor.
  • Hikaru no Go (manga) by Yumi Hotta (story) and Takeshi Obata (art); Hikaru no Go (anime TV series) - Twelve-year-old Hikaru is looking through his grandfather's things for something he can sell when he comes across a haunted Go board. Sai, the ghost of a long-dead Go instructor, is delighted that Hikaru can see him and basically forces him to give him opportunities to play Go. Hikaru is reluctant, at first, but he gradually learns to love the game and starts on the path to becoming a professional Go player. I'm sure that Japanese readers don't consider the premise of this manga (focusing on a board game and professional Go playing) to be nearly as odd as Yakitate!! Japan's professional bread-making competitions, and it's really not. However, Western readers unfamiliar with Go may find a manga about a board game just odd enough to be interesting. Those who'd like a manga series with exciting one-on-one competition might like this manga. Yes, I did say that a manga about a board game has exciting competition - Hotta and Obata do an excellent job of making the Go matches both exciting and believable.

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