Monday, November 4, 2013


November is here, and Thanksgiving is mere days away.  As such, in preparation for that great day of gorging, this month will be all about manga about food, cooking, and baking.  We'll start with a recent shoujo hit, but does it rise to greatness or fall flatter than a failed soufflé?

KITCHEN PRINCESS (Kitchin no Ohime-sama), written by Miyuki Kobayashi and drawn by Natsume Ando.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2007.

Najika is one of the many children housed at the Lavender House orphanage, way out in the countryside of Hokkaido.  She was the only child of chefs, and as such is not only a great chef in her own right, but has the culinary equivalent of perfect pitch: Najika can distinguish distinct ingredients by taste alone.  She's been accepted to Seika Academy in Tokyo, but she has personal reasons for going there.  When she was a small child, she was comforted by a mysterious young boy who gave her a delicious flan and a silver spoon with Seika's logo, and Najika is determined to find her "Flan Prince" at Seika.

Right away she runs into Moody Bad Boy Love Interest Daichi, as well as Pleasant Perfect Princely Love Interest Sora.  Soon she is impressing many of her new classmates with her mad cooking skills, but not everyone is impressed.  In particular, the pretty, popular Akane sees her not only as competition for Sora, but also as someone not worthy to attend the academy.  Now Najika must find a place of her own within the school, as well as to continue her search for her Flan Prince.

Some will see this story as simple innocent fun, but those out of their preteen years are more likely to see how clichéd and flawed the story is.

This manga is clumsily written.  You know things are bad when you start off with a supporting character telling the lead "Remember what you were like after your parents died?" which serves as the lead-in for a flashback about Najika's past.  It's incredibly ham-fisted to have your supporting cast tell your lead about their own past for the sake of exposition.  The character development isn't much better, having mostly been taken straight from Shoujo Writing 101.  Light-haired kindly love interest?  Check.  Dark-haired rebellious love interest with blatant issues?  Check.  Popular mean girl who hates the lead more or less for existing?  Check.  Gaggle of nameless girls who serve only to be the Greek chorus for mean girl?  Check.  Ingenue protagonist who is a perfect little Pollyanna with a tragic backstory who manages to solve every problem of hers and others with her particular skill or quality?  Check, check and double check. 

Aside from the cooking angle, you've seen these characters a zillion times before, and likely done better.  I could forgive the simplicity of the characters if they were developed in some way or put in an interesting story - Fruits Basket is a grand example of that - but those characters that make any sort of impression are flat stereotypes, and most make no impression at all.  Najika gets the most development of anyone, but that mostly means that she has TWO moods instead of one: Happy With Life, Friendship and Stuff, or else Sad Because People Are Mean and She Is Homesick.  She's not even a terribly inventive, creative cook - the craziest she gets is making a rainbow-layered gelatin treat.  Mostly she's just good with a recipe and able to improvise with little to few ingredients to work with. 

It's rather appropriate that this series is about cooking, because the story and characters alike are about as cookie-cutter as shoujo can be.  Younger readers who aren't familiar with these clichés may enjoy this (this was published in a children's magazine, after all), but older readers will find themselves bored.


Sorry, that's all I could think of as I read this volume.  Ando was clearly ripping off taking a lot of cues for character designs from Arina Tanemura, right down to the ridiculously exaggerated eyes and wispy, pointy hair.  You'd think that with such large eyes, the characters would be more expressive, but in fact they're quite stiff.  I think that's mostly due to the fact that all the detail is lavished on the eyes, while the rest of their faces are positively sparse with faint traces of noses and plain, blobby mouths.  Ando clearly had more fun drawing the clothing, although I do question how a poor orphan girl like Najika can have such a diverse, stylish wardrobe.  Instead of drawn backgrounds, the panels are filled to the brim with screentones, sparkles, and bubbles, to the point of verging upon parody.  Panels are splices and layered frequently, and while panels tend to be large, Ando mostly uses them for close-ups.  It's not completely unattractive, but it's clear that Ando had yet to start perfecting her own style (as seen in Arisa), and thus much of it is as clichéd as the story.

All the usual Del Ray extras are here: an honorifics guide in the front, and translation notes, an author's note, and an untranslated preview of the next volume in the back.  There are also simple, child-friendly for each dish Najika makes in the story, and these are easily the best part of the volume.  It's a great way to engage the reader with the story by letting them make sweet, tasty things along with Najika instead of just reading about how awesome everyone else thinks they are.  Unfortunately, I've not had a chance to look through Kodansha's 2-in-1 omnibus rereleases, so I can't tell you what, if any extras have been carried over into that edition.

While there are a few little flourishes in the art to be enjoyed, as well as useful recipes to be gained, there's nothing of substance to be found in the story or characters.  It's meant to be a sweet little trifle of a manga, but instead it's as bland and boring as iceberg lettuce.

This series is published by Kodansha, formerly by Del Ray.  All 10 volumes were released.  The single Del Ray volumes are out of print, but the Kodansha omnibuses are in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!