Thursday, March 6, 2008
Ten Things to Like About
As we approach perhaps the foremost celebration of synthetic confections, my mind has wandered back to a treat from the higher end of the spectrum: Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery (Digital Manga Publishing). An elegant and satisfying combination of all-natural ingredients, it’s easy to think of ten things I love about Yoshinaga’s Kodansha Award winner.
The right ingredients: Antique Bakery is a character-driven piece, and it runs on the interactions of its principals: gifted gay pastry chef Ono, moody entrepreneur Tachibana, surly apprentice Eiji, and dim but loyal Chikage. Each is more complex than those descriptions suggest, and just about all of them could carry their own story. That’s because Yoshinaga has given them all a solid core – pains that they have to overcome, imperfections and anxieties that rise to the surface at the worst moments, and the kinds of believable foibles that make a character seem like a person. Better still, there’s a complex web of connections among them that’s constantly evolving as the story progresses. They’re capable of surprising each other and readers as well.
Depth of flavor: Like the master pastry chefs she portrays, Yoshinaga knows when to cut the sweetness of her complex workplace comedy. There’s warmth to the tone of the book which is only heightened by moments of genuine pain and uncertainty. Teasing banter can trigger deeper understanding, and run-of-the-mill events can have unexpected emotional consequences.
Presentation is everything: Yoshinaga’s illustrations match the variety of tone. Some moments are elegant and minimalist, others precise and detailed. Emotion is infused into every panel, including the playful chibi moments that are sprinkled throughout. And I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a manga artist who’s so good at rendering a character attempting to conceal emotion.
Sex as food: There’s a wonderful spectrum of human relationships on display here -- parent and child, old friends, new friends, co-workers, ex-lovers, crushes, and so on. I particularly love Yoshinaga’s playful approach to seduction, which manages to come off as both sexy and ridiculous at the same time. That mixture is most evident when Ono turns on his “demonic charm,” but Yoshinaga isn’t ridiculing him. Tachibana’s sultry sales routine with the female customers is undercut with equal deftness. It’s just a playful nod to the fact that seduction, if you’re not directly involved in it, can look pretty damned funny from the sidelines.
Food as sex: Equally endearing is Yoshinaga’s portrayal of the erotic potential of culinary indulgence. Look at the blushing cheeks and widening eyes of the bakery’s patrons as they move from flirtation (looking at the menu) to foreplay (ordering) to climax (eating). It’s not a novel juxtaposition, but it’s a charming way of illustrating the act of indulgence, and elevating it in the process.
Specials: Roughly a third of the way through Antique Bakery’s four-volume run is the two-part “Recipe 9,” which is both a natural element of the ongoing story and a marvelous stand-alone piece. The bakery crew is gearing up for its first Christmas Eve, concocting seasonal specialties and sales incentives for customers. Suave Tachibana hops in his Ferrari to play Santa, delivering bûche de Noel to delighted (or baffled) celebrants while clueless Chikage tries to man the fort. Beyond the chapters’ hectic charms, there’s also the very real sense that these characters are running a business and concocting ways to stand out in the minds of their customers through quality, novelty, and service. It’s a fresh approach to a holiday story, undeniably seasonal and celebratory but very much in keeping with the manga as a whole.
Junk food: Adept as she is at elegant storytelling and emotional nuance, Yoshinaga is also able to fold low-brow comedy into the mix. She plays with Eiji’s shônen-ready origins (he went from biker gang to boxing ring to pastry kitchen) both visually and verbally. While the book is largely about the satisfactions work can bring, she doesn’t hold back from portraying its frustrations as well. That’s where Big-Busted Female Announcer Unit Haruka and Tammy come in. They’re good for a bunch of laughs as they navigate the lower end of personality journalism, but they sympathetically embody a lot of the book’s larger themes – work, love, and the ways they intersect.
Eye candy: This one doesn’t need much explanation, does it? From meticulously rendered pastries to diversely handsome beefcake, Yoshinaga packs the book with appealing visual diversions.
Family style: At times, manga characters seem to have come from nowhere. Absentee parents seem to be the norm in many shôjo and shônen titles, and there isn’t always room for a family context in conventional romances. But Yoshinaga uses family to strong recurring effect in Antique Bakery. The book jumps around in time, revealing bits of the protagonists’ youth and childhood as the story emerges, and readers meet parents, siblings, aunts, and grandparents along the way. Each is interesting in his or her own right, but they also provide different perspectives on Tachibana, Ono, and the rest. Even better, Yoshinaga takes an expansive view of precisely what family can mean, folding in schoolmates, exes, and bar mates along the way. Nobody is the product of a single influence, and it makes for richer character development to meet many of those influential figures.
Fusion cuisine: I think fusion food can get a bad rap, calling to mind images of a plate where disparate elements sit uncomfortably next to each other. But when someone gets the combination of influences right, they can create something new and satisfying. That’s what Yoshinaga has done here. Antique Bakery is difficult to classify, with elements of comedy, romance, and even suspense in place. But they all come together in a coherent fashion to become something moving and unique. Sometimes Yoshinaga’s approach seems elliptical – seemingly unrelated moments crop up or aren’t fully explored at that moment. By the end, those moments have been woven together beautifully. And if she doesn’t precisely offer conventional closure on every one of them, she does offer satisfaction.
Before I wrap things up, I have to do a little nitpicking. As lovely as Antique Bakery is as a story, it begged for extras and got next to none. The four volumes have lovely, wrap-around covers but no color plates. In spite of the subject matter, there isn’t a recipe in sight, or even a glossary of culinary terms. Digital Manga could make it up to me by releasing an extras-packed omnibus edition that would heighten the reading experience by surrounding a delightful story with relevant resources.