Series Description: Azuma Kazuma, an energetic and dense young man, was introduced to the art of bread making when he was six. He decides to take the path of bread-making and become a baker right after graduating from middle school. Through his travels, he encounters many rivals and found work at the branch store of the most famous bread maker brand, the Pantasia.
Volume Description: Kazuma Azuma’s team Pantasia is one defeat away from losing their shop as they enter round six of the Yakitate 25 baking competition. Their opponent is Mokoyama, a man in a panda suit whose silly exterior belies his great baking power…and otherworldly baking powder. If that weren’t enough to bear, Azuma must teach a lesson to a spoiled mini-gourmand who insists on having his bread and eating it too. Will Team Pantasia rise to the occasion or run out of steam?
November begins the holiday season, both here in the US and other countries around the world. As such, I’ve been undertaking a month of cooking manga reviews. Last time, I made this comment about cooking manga: When somebody tastes great food in cooking manga they can immediately break down the ingredients that make it so. In a good cooking manga, nearly every character is, at heart, a foodie. I’ve read only two volumes of Yakitate!! Japan, this one, and the very first. There’s quite a distance between the two-in the set-up volume, our hero Azuma is a naive young man hoping to get a job at the great bakery Pantasia. He’s never had any formal training, but he’s spent the better part of a decade working on his own, attempting to create a bread that is the perfect expression of the concept “the bread of Japan.” He has the idea that every great nation in the west has its own national bread, a bread that perfectly expresses something about the national identity, and Japan deserves its own. This is Azuma’s ultimate goal.
The humor comes in his competing against world-class bakers-he’s kind of an idiot savant of baking. This is a blend of battle and comedy manga. What brings the funny is ##’s ability to turn my description of cooking manga on its end. Everyone in Yakitate!! Japan has a phenomenal understanding of food, baking, and everything that goes into cooking. Everyone, that is, except Azuma. Azuma has a magical talent and an intuitive sense about baking, but he has no formal culinary knowledge. Take a more conventional cooking manga like Iron Wok Jan or Oishinbo, where, like the classic resolution of an Agatha Christie novel, the mystery of the food is laid bare by the one figure in control, the one person whose palate is keen enough to detect the truth.
See, that’s part of the model of the cooking manga-the hero is like a food detective. I used the phrase “idiot savant” earlier to refer to Azuma, but that’s not quite true. He has no knowledge whatsoever of the culinary arts, yes; however, it’s not like he hasn’t worked his butt off to acquire an intense, vital knowledge of what he is doing. So here, he isn’t the detective, but the Watson to everyone around him. He works magic, and the other characters are left to explain the trick. Of course, most of this pertains to the first volume. Here, in the nineteenth volume, some of those initial tensions have shifted.
Azuma now works for the Pantasia bakery, and he lost some of his naive cute;. He’s knowledgeable, and-while he’s always been self-assured-he now has a wise self-awareness to accompany his cheek and pluck. But now there’s a hole where Azuma used to go; so who will fill that naive, comedic role? Hashiguchi uses Kawachi, one of the series’ regular characters, a brash guy who, in the first volume, tries to compensate for gaps in his knowledge and his lack of great skill with bluster, scheming, and overconfidence. Where in the first volume he’s a good foil for Azuma, as the series has progressed he’s outlived his original usefulness. Shifting him, then, more fully into the comedic “Watson” role previously occupied by Azuma seems like a natural choice.
Unfortunately, in execution it’s not that great. Azuma loses some of his early charm (although I have heard some folks don’t like Azuma early on because he comes across as stupid), Kawachi becomes a full-blown cliché, and one of the subtle, quirky ways that Yakitate!! Japan stood out initially from other manga has now kind of faded. Does this mean you shouldn’t get volume 19 of Yakitate!! Japan? Well, it’s not a great jumping on point, in any sense of the term. The storyline is caught in the middle of an ongoing series of battles which seem less than critical if you haven’t been reading continually up to this point. And the crisp characterization that I found so refreshing in the first volume has here mellowed. However, the art and stories are still fun, the cooking battles still interesting-my recommendation is to pick up volume one of this charming series and keep reading until the series disappoints or bores you. My guess is, you’ll still be reading to book 19 and beyond.