Kazuma Azuma (his name sounds like it comes from a Japanese roadshow of Guys And Dolls), the hero of Takashi Hashiguchi's Yakitate!! Japan (Viz), is a lad with a mission. A sixteen-year-old wannabe baker blessed with "hands of the sun" (which is to say: palms warm enough to get yeast fermenting as you knead the bread dough), Kazuma dreams of one day creating a bread that will represent his native country – much like French or Italian breads recall their countries of origin.
It's no easy task, though, since bread is not considered a primary food source in his country. To some old-timers, in fact, like Kazuma's grandpa, the eating of bread has unhappy connotations. It connects to the hard rolls and crackers handed out as food by American soldiers in occupied Japan: it is, in other words, the taste of defeat. "Little fool!" he shouts, "we're rice farmers! You want us to eat bread? Westernized idiot!!" Clearly, our hero has some major cultural hurdles to get over.
Country boy Kazuma heads to the city after ten years of trial-and-error attempts at creating Ja-Pan ("pan" being the Japanese word for bread, while "yakitate" apparently translates as "freshly baked"), a bread so good that it will make Japanese diners forget rice. With no formal training and even less school-learning, he applies for a job at Pantasia, the best-known bakery chain in the country, only to learn once he arrives that he has to compete in a contest for the one position available in the company's main Tokyo store.
Like Shinji Saiyjo's Iron Wok Jan!, the prime action in volume one is in a cooking contest, though hero Kazuma is nowhere near as arrogantly obnoxious as the hyper-competitive Jan. He's more a naive lad with a single obsessive mission and a tendency to speak without filtering.
Through the course of the competition, we meet Kawachi, another country boy with dreams of making it to Pantasia's main store, though with much less scruples than Kazume (he is not, for example, above tripping our hero with a rolling pin to make him drop his kneaded bread dough), and Sadanao Asuzagawi, the granddaughter of Pantasia's owner. Both Sadanao and her grandfather recognize the potential within the largely untutored Kazuma; in one particularly telling moment the young girl briefly holds our hero's hand and afterwards licks her own palm yearningly. Can't say I've ever seen that particular moment in a manga romance before.
Hashiguchi's art is both detailed and comically histrionic: people don't just yell in this book, they bellow with their jaws practically distended to the floor; when Kazuma bakes his first loaf of French bread everyone who tastes is momentarily transported to France as the "elegance of Paris" explodes in their mouth; when a brutal judge tastes one of Kazuma's crescent rolls, we get a panel of the moon walk with a baker astronaut juggling a moon-shaped roll. Who needs to-the-death sword fights when you can bake?
Though both cooking series are primarily comedies, the tone of Yakitate!! Japan is not as harsh as Iron Wok Jan! For all of his figures' broad displays, Hasiguchi seems more interested in character over caricature (in Jan!, most of the competitors are fully encapsulated by their respective "cooking is" mantras) – in the first book at least. (The introduction, near Volume One's end, of Ryu, an afro-wearing baker who looks like he stepped out of a seventies blaxploitation flick is definitely enough to give one pause, however.) As with that "giant leap for bread-kind" croissant, airiness remains an essential component in this sweetly lightweight Older Teen manga series.
As of this writing, Yakitate!! Japan has reportedly spawned twenty-five volumes and an animé series in its native country. Seems rather amazing to me that Hashiguchi could squeeze out so many manga pages from such a limited subject, but, then again, bread is the staff of life…