Well, it's time to wrap this year's holiday review up, and much like I've done in the past, I end it with a series that's not just one of my favorites to come out this year, but one that's all about food and family. If that's not appropriate for Christmas, I don't know what is.
SWEETNESS & LIGHTNING (Amaama to Inuzuma), by Gido Amagakure. First published in 2013 and first published in North America in 2016.
Kouhei Inuzuka is trying his hardest to keep his life together after his wife's recent death. He not only has to juggle his teaching job, but also raising his 4-year-old daughter Tsumugi. As such, things like cooking fell by the wayside and they mostly subsist on take-out and restaurant food. Then they meet Kotori Iida, one of Kouhei's homeroom students. She's the daughter of a single mother herself, and thanks to her mother's job Kotori is often left alone in their family's empty restaurant. Kotori offers to help Kouhei learn how to cook, and together the three not only gain new skills but also the warmth and joy of family and friendship.
It was pretty much a given that I was going to like Sweetness & Lightning. It's not just that it's a food manga, although that certainly helps. No, what has me coming back to this series time and again is how well it understands the feeling of togetherness and family, even if that togetherness is born more from circumstance and tragedy than blood.
There's a tinge of sadness to the story here that tempers what might otherwise be nothing but happy cooking fluff. After all, our protagonists are a single father and widower, a little girl who hasn't quite grasped that her mother is gone, and the daughter of another single parent who can't help but feel a little abandoned because of her mother's job. All of them are hurting in their own way but are too stuck in their respective ruts to get out. By coming together for their impromptu cooking classes, they fill up all the lonely voids in their life. Tsumugi gets to spend more time with her father and treats Kotori like the big sister she's never had. Kotori gets some of the parental guidance and acceptance she needs along with the companionship she craves. Kouhei gets some help with understanding Tsumugi's perspective and the joy of making his daughter happy with his own two hands. You'd have to be a immovable hardass to not get even a little bit of the feels from that, and Amagakure is very good at weaving it into each chapter without hammering it into the reader's head.
I also love how they handle Tsumugi as a character. It would be easy to make a little girl like her into a perfect saint or just a vehicle for kids-say-the-darndest-things comedy. Instead she's written like an actual 4-year old girl. She's not a perfect kid. She throws tantrums and sulks sometimes. She can be loud and wild sometimes. Yet she takes a true child-like delight in watching the cooking and helping out where she can. She feels real in much the same way that someone like Barakamon's Naru feels real. I also love how Kouhei isn't the perfect father. He's had the role thrust upon him unexpectedly, and while he's learned to manage some of the everyday stuff he doesn't have a lot of friends with children or nearby relatives to consult for advice. Thus, his cooking lessons also sometimes end up being parenting ones as well. He's learning and growing just as much as the girls are.
It's also just a plain good food manga. Each chapter is centered on the trio learning to make some new recipe, and all of the food they make is the Japanese equivalent of simple home cooking or fare for a bento box. While each chapter covers the process of cooking each meal pretty thoroughly, it doesn't get too hung up on detailing each little step. Instead, the focus is on how the trio react to each step and to the end results. The focus is on the emotion and the relationships and not the recipe. That onto itself is probably the best summary of what makes Sweetness & Lightning so special to me.
Amagakure's art isn't quite as polished as you tend to see in food manga. This is most obvious with the character designs. There's a scruffiness about them, most obvious with Tsumugi's wild mane of hair. Their faces break out into squiggly smiles and hatchy blushes. The paneling and composition is a little disorganized at times. Even the food isn't drawn with the sort of photorealistic detail that one usually sees in these sorts of stories. What it lacks in technical precision it more than makes up for in sheer charm. She captures the joy and the tears just through their faces. She reinforces the focus on the human elements of the story by keeping the visual focus on the main characters while cooking instead of on the actual chopping and boiling and whatnot. The emotion shines through every panel, and that ultimately is more important than any technical skill.
Like any good food manga, it does include recipes. It just saves them for the end of each chapter. There's also a pretty thorough translation note section to cover all the different sorts of Japanese food and ingredients mentioned. Having read both the physical volume and the digital release, I can confidently say that there's virtually no difference between the two.
Sweetness & Lightning hits my sweet spots for both food manga and heartwarming non-moe slife-of-life fare. Its understanding of emotion and relationships more than makes up for any technical flaws it might possess. Even if you already watched the animated version, it's worth reading if you want a big old dose of the feels.
This series is published by Kodansha Comics. This series is ongoing in Japan with 7 volumes available. 3 have been published and are currently in print. This series is also available digitally through Crunchyroll's manga service.
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