Because of our Thanksgiving holiday, American Football, and the Fall season, this is a big food month here in the States. So, for the month of November I’m going to review cooking manga. I love cooking manga. In my mind, cooking manga demonstrates everything that comics can be—all about great stories about something everyone does. I mean, let’s face it; everybody eats. We all do, and the popularity of television like Iron Chef and the Food Network, and books like , Eat, Pray, Love and In Defense of Food or Like Water for Chocolate, they all speak to something inherently dramatic and fascinating about food.
Cooking manga is shonen, shojo, seinen, yaoi—it cuts across genres in ways that other types of stories don’t. I just think it’s cool how creators play with food and cooking to come up with so many different situations, characters, plots. Plus, there’s some inherent difficulties in representing food in comics—the visual pleasures of food are not easily re-created in black and white line drawings, and the obvious draws—smell and taste—are not available to the mangaka. Yet the best cooking manga make you hungry! For my first review, I’m talking about Kitchen Princess, volume 1:
Publisher’s Description: Najika is a great cook and likes to make meals for the people she loves. But something is missing from her life. When she was a child, she met a boy who touched her heart–and now Najika is determined to find him. The only clue she has is a silver spoon that leads her to the prestigious Seika Academy. Attending Seika will be a challenge. Every kid at the school has a special talent, and the girls in Najika’s class think she doesn’t deserve to be there. But Sora and Daichi, two popular brothers who barely speak to each other, recognize Najika’s cooking for what it is–magical. Is either boy Najika’s mysterious prince?
I’ll begin by stating the obvious–Kitchen Princess is both fun and sweet. It makes a perfect introduction to the pleasures of cooking manga. I originally bought it looking for something for my six year old daughter to delve into. The series is rated T (ages 13+), but I’d had a number of folks suggest the title as appropriate for young girls. While the first volume is fine for a young audience, I’ve decided to wait a bit before letting her read it. Not a long while, just a year or two (it’s perfectly appropriate for ages seven or eight and up). In the meanwhile, however, I have the pleasure of reading this fun series.
The immediate charms of KP are obvious—Natsumi Ando’s art is cute without being treacly, and though it is full-on shojo style, it doesn’t fall prey to what I feel are the traps that some shojo can fall into: I always have a strong sense of place, no matter how much the backgrounds fall away to dancing sparkles and emotive zip-a-tone, and the action is easily follow-able. It has a strong plot device, almost a variation on the children’s novel The Little Princess if you were to substitute cooking for wealth. And the series has a winning heroine in Najika, a plucky, determined, and bright young girl who’s naivete and lack of “grit” (for want of a better term) never leaves her two dimensional or frustrating.
What’s not so obvious about the series are its unfolding surprises and well-finessed plot development. Even though the set-up is a series of challenges Najika resolves through her cooking talent, the solutions and developments never feel ham-fisted or forced, and the plot seems to flow naturally and in subtle ways from the choices the various characters make. Even Najika’s enemy Akane—the bitchy, scheming popular girl—rises above the stereotype from which she is molded. In addition, Najika is more focused on her own struggles for success, both academically and socially, than she is caught up in boys and love—a refreshing difference from much of the shojo we see here in the US (not that there’s anything wrong with a good love story, but I like seeing girl protagonists with goals of personal self-worth rather than just fawning over a guy. Plus, that has more dramatic thrust for plot, rather than the more circular comedic strengths of a love triangle).
Finally, the food looks yummy, and there’s recipes! One of the things I look forward to when I do share this with my daughter is trying out the great foods found within the series.