Yakitate!! Japan

Guest Post

These days, it’s not unusual to find a manga about almost anything. Having discovered that fantasy, sci-fi, magic, mecha and spiritualist storylines have been done so much they’ve practically become cliché, manga-ka (the people who draw manga) have been left scrambling to find interesting ideas for stories that draw upon the ordinary, rather than the extraordinary. Sports storylines have been popular for a long time – even going back to 1968 with Tomorrow’s Joe – but while artists continue to draw them, even the stories have started to seem a bit lackluster and overdone.

So what is a starving, dedicated manga-ka to do? Much like the novelist who wants to create a work that will become a classic, it’s often best to take something people encounter every day and shine new light on it, thereby creating a personal connection to the material that would be absent in a high fantasy tale or epic space opera.

Granted, it’s a bright, shiny, colorful light that shines on only the most exciting aspects of this mundane thing.

Yakitate!! Japan has, over the past several years, taken this concept and run with it to great success, accolades and a long-running plot spanning over 25 volumes – all of which center around one boy’s quest to make bread.

Not just any bread, of course – that would be far too uninspiring, and certainly wouldn’t lead to a 5-year, serialized run in Shônen Sunday. No, instead, this one boy wants to make a bread that will represent all of Japan. A bread that – as with countries like France, Germany and Italy – will come to be representative of Japan to the entire world, and that the Japanese people will embrace as one.

Quite literally, a JaPan.

The title itself, you see, is a pun. “Japan” in Japanese is translated as “Nippon,” but “pan” is the Japanese word for bread, hence, “JaPan” is Japanese bread, much like “FuransuPan” is French bread and “ItariPan” is Italian bread. “Yakitate,” for its part, means “freshly baked.”

Believe me, understanding such puns is absolutely vital to appreciating this manga, though knowledge of other famous anime/manga series is also somewhat important.

But before that, the storyline itself manages to make a seemingly mundane idea interesting. The protagonist of this story is a boy named Kazuma Azuma who was raised by his grandparents, mother and older sister in the countryside. While originally not caring one way or the other about bread, his grandfather’s refusal to have bread with breakfast (he’s a rice-farmer after all, and it wouldn’t be right to have bread instead of rice) – despite his sister’s entreaties – led Kazuma to meet a good-natured baker in the same town. After learning a bit about Japan’s lack of appreciation of bread, and the baker’s quest to create a bread that will represent all of Japan, Kazuma becomes wrapped up in the idea as well, and spends the next decade trying out various ideas for breads, in all developing 55 successful “JaPan,” which he numbers 1 through 55 (these are trials and are not to be considered true JaPan, hence their numbering).

Then, upon graduating from middle school, he takes a train to Tokyo to participate in a competition to enter the prestigious Pantasia Bakery (again, the pun), which specializes in delicious breads, buns, rolls and pastries. It soon becomes obvious that Kazuma has almost no knowledge or formal bakery training, yet his enthusiasm, technique and experience – albeit home-grown experience – end up making up for this in no small part.

It is, after all, a shônen story about a 15-year-old boy.

Of course, he also has another, genetic, advantage. He is blessed with what are called “Solar Hands,” which is to say that the circulation in his hands is abnormally high, increasing their temperature by a few degrees – which is an incredible asset in making bread, because it allows him to knead dough faster and more effectively.

The rest of the manga generally has Kazuma – and friends – going from competition to competition, baking breads (and occasionally some other products) with specific ingredients or themes in order to win prizes, bets and, eventually, control of a major bakery chain. While everyone helps out to some degree, in the end it’s usually Kazuma, with some inspiration and assistance from his friends, who makes the winning products.

As mentioned earlier, an appreciation and understanding of puns is extremely important to appreciating this manga, and that’s due to the “reactions” of the judges in these competitions.

For no matter how high the stakes around a baking tournament, you can only make it so exciting without something else. In the case of Yakitate!! Japan, that extra element is the way the professional food judges behave upon trying the various fruits of Kazuma and team’s labors (and that of their opponents). Exotic animals, hairstyle changes, anime/manga cameos, unintentional suicides, marriage and even time travel are all potential results of tasting some of these superbly delicious breads. The judge then renders his verdict and explains to the – usually incredulous and outraged – opposition why it is that their breads failed to come out on top.

Of course, these reactions almost always end up being a gradual progression from something absurd or out of place into a kanji character or word that looks or sounds like something related to the bread. Frequently, half the fun of a particular contest is the groaning sensation you make when you figure out (or are shown) the pun.

Unfortunately, Yakitate!! Japan also succumbs to some of the typical pitfalls of the shônen genre. In particular, over-dramatization (given the subject matter, a little of this is probably impossible to do without) and what I will call “Fantasia syndrome,” after the setting of The Never-Ending Story. While this isn’t a Shônen Jump title (I’m looking at you, Naruto/One Piece/Bleach), it nonetheless draws the story out in places where it’s not entirely essential and injects melodrama into something that could otherwise be quick and painless – although I give the manga-ka points for creating situations where this injection doesn’t feel so unnatural.

A fair bit of this “drawing-out” is due to the fact that the explanations are actually somewhat educational. It’s quite obvious that the manga-ka either had a baking consultant, or was well-versed in the field already, because there are references to many esoteric ingredients and unusual combinations that serve to further draw the ordinary (bread) into the realm of the extraordinary (with such ingredients as snapping turtle’s blood, oil made from hemp seeds, and cola-boiled nori). Additionally, several chapters include recipes for how to make some of the easier breads (including one JaPan made using the microwave) and descriptions of techniques (some of them doubtless fictional) for making still more.

At the end of the day, Yakitate!! Japan is a good manga to bring along with you on the bus or train. You can devour an entire volume of it on the way home from work, but after you get over the initial response to what is frequently a cliffhanger, you’re usually left with an overwhelming urge to try new bread products as much as anything else. After you slake your desire for hearty baked grains, the story stays with you, but not invasively so. I’d call it beach reading, but it’s got a little more substance than that (another surprise for a shônen manga). However, it doesn’t have enough to be anything more than the fluffy puff-pastry of the literary world.

But hey, puff-pastry sure hits the spot sometimes, even if it’s not as filling as a dark, coarse pumpernickel.