Once in a while, from the thousands of manga titles out there, something so utterly bizarre and original comes along that stands out amongst generic and eccentric series alike. These things usually pique my interest: after all, my favourite anime of all time revolves around a traditional board game. But Yakitate!! Japan is so crazy, so bizarre, and so hilarious that I found it irresistible. There is, in fact, a whole genre of manga based around cookery: Cooking Papa, Cooking Master and others dramatise the lives of chefs. But none strike the same chord as Yakitate!! Japan.
Young Azuma Kazuma’s life changed forever when his sister forced him to try some bread as a child. The son of a rice farmer, he was devoted to Japan’s staple carbohydrate, but bread changed his life – he became a baker, helped by his naturally warm ‘solar’ hands, and set about trying to create a national loaf for his country, which he will call ‘Japan’ (‘pan’, from the Portuguese, is the Japanese word for bread, and of course isn’t the name for the country in Japanese).
It took some time for me to warm up to the anime, especially as a fan of the manga. The art and animation looked cheap and very ugly beside the very professional manga art, the voices didn’t match up to the ones I’d imagined (especially the woman who played Tetsunosuke in Peace Maker Kurogane as Azuma: far too brash, even for his country accent) and the comedy timing never seemed quite right. Until Yotsubato!, I considered Yakipan the funniest manga I’d ever read, and that was part of what made me keep watching: I was waiting for gags I’d found hilarious in the manga to be repeated, mostly still very funny in anime form, and anticipating gimmicks that were tailor-made for the manga (such as when it all becomes colour) to see how they would be adapted. But towards the end of the series, there was more than that to look forward to: the fillers increased, and new gags were added. The anime was braver with parodying current series, One Piece and Naruto both getting nods. The character voices never did feel quite right, but I got used to them, and started to look forward to new episodes.
The comedy of the series revolved around bread being so very delicious that those who have a sensitive palate cannot help but have a strange reaction to the flavour. This starts out with them seeing visions or their bodies involuntarily doing something slightly odd like forming a kanji character, but it grows through causing the tasting judge to relive their past romantic affairs, to sending them to the afterlife, and ends up even changing the course of time itself. It’s daft, insane, and many times totally brilliant.
The final episode was painfully hurried, bringing with it that usual unsatisfying feeling you usually get when an anime ends before the manga is even thinking about wrapping up. Well, at least it’s only a comedy anime about baking bread, so there aren’t many loose ends left untied – and in all fairness, the tournament setup tends to be a dull way to prolong a shounen manga. But despite that, I actually feel lucky to have experienced this strange and delightful story of competitions, comradeship, romance and bread.
(collated from impressions, 11.3.05 and 19.6.06)