It's November, and what better way to celebrate the bounty of harvest than with a bounty of food-related manga, starting with one of the wackiest ones on the market!
YAKITATE!! JAPAN (Freshly Baked!! Ja-pan), by Takashi Hashiguchi. First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2006.
Kazuma is a young boy with one thing on his mind: bread. He was introduced to the wonders of Western-style bread by a local baker, and ever since Kazuma is determined to create the ultimate bread. It will be a bread that embodies the people and taste of Japan itself, a Ja-Pan if you will. Kazuma leaves his country home to pursue his dream, but when he applies for a job at a big-name bakery in Tokyo he bites off more than he can chew. There's only one opening and every candidate must prove themselves by creating a loaf of their own choosing. Will Kazuma impress the judges? Will he ever perfect his Ja-Pan?
Yakitate!! Japan is a very odd sort of manga. It's not odd in style or structure - if anything, it's about as conventional as shonen can get - but its choice of subject matter is truly one-of-a-kind and it's completely serious about it from beginning to end. It's not to everyone's taste, but if you're willing to give a try, then you'll be in for a wild ride.
We've all seen plenty of shonen stories about some kid who wants to be the very best like no one ever was, but this has be the first time the kid has wanted to be the best baker. Like most shonen leads, Kazuma is determined but kind of dense and utterly obsessed with his given goal. The rest of the cast is just as archetypical as he is. There's a wacky family (complete with extra-wacky grandpa), a wiseass sidekick, a sweet and helpful girl, cartoonishly hard and rigid bosses, and so on. No one is ever given much in way of characterization and most of it comes down to whether they're on Kazuma's side or against it.
Kazuma makes a big deal out of how different forms of bread are representative of their countries as a whole, but I think that he's making a bit too much out of the whole notion. Yes, bread varieties do have their place in a lot of national and regional cuisines, but few would pick them as representative of their native counties as a whole. There's also a running gag where Kazuma's attempts at Ja-Pan end up being variations on known variety of bread like naan or croissants. The only other thing they make a bigger deal out of is the fact that Kazuma has "The Hands of the Sun," which sounds awesome until they explain that this means that his hands are constantly warm. Everyone considers this to be an advantage for him, even when he's working on breads that don't need heat for fermentation (like naan) or butter-heavy ones that need to stay cool until they reach the oven (like croissants). It's like they wanted to give him a super-special shonen superpower but couldn't think of anything good that was relevant to baking.
It's weird. I was always told that Yakitate!! Japan was silly on purposes and that it was meant to be something of a satire of shonen in general. Unfortunately, I think those folks were just trying to justify their own affection for this series. It's certainly silly, but it's very predictable and never once tries to satirize or put a lampshade on the many shonen tropes it wields or the ridiculous of the premise itself. It's not a clever subversion, just your typical shonen dressed up with a lot of food puns and bread trivia.
While the story is straight, unfiltered shonen, the artwork avoids a lot of the excess of the genre. The character designs are nothing extraordinary, but they're rounded, realistic, and pleasing to the eye. Really, everything is rather subdued, from the panel size to the backgrounds. The only times that things get visually wacky is when people taste Kazuma's bread. Their bodies squash and stretch into over-the-top expressions of amazement and joy. I guess Hashiguchi figured that the premise alone would be enough to amuse people as the artwork is almost sedate for shonen. It looks fine, but I wonder if a little excess would have help sell the jokes a little better.
There's a short, odd extra which is simply meant to be CCTV footage of the token girl changing in the locker room. This not only is weirdly intrusive (seriously, were they THAT desperate for some fanservice?), but it's completely and utterly pointless.
Yakitate!! Japan is the sort of manga that you have to take at face value as it's ostensibly as serious as possible about its very silly premise. It's one of those love-it-or-leave-it stories that will either leave you craving more or just completely baffled.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 26 volumes available. All 26 were published and are currently in print and available in e-book form through Viz.com.