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Friday, April 10, 2015

Yakitate!! Japan Part 1: What Does Everybody Want? Bread!

lortnoc ni eno eht ma I

Wow, was the last actual review of an anime back in December for the Reverse Thieves' Secret Santa project? Maybe that would explain the drop in total views I've been having since January; good thing I don't worry about stuff like that. Anyway, this month I will make up for the lack of anime reviews lately, and this specific one is one that I will consider a request, and it comes from a man whose orders I cannot deny.

That is Shawne Kleckner, "Dark Lord" of The Right Stuf International, purveyor of anime goods & occasional anime licensing mogul. While calling this a "request for review" might be pushing it, I'll take any excuse to talk about one of my favorite anime of my early days as a fan... And re-watching it now is reminding me of why it's one of the best comedy/shonen titles of all time. I'll even break my rule of waiting until I've seen it all & instead split this up across three reviews, one as each DVD set comes out, just so that I give this show all the detail I want to give it. Ladies & Gentlemen, these are the first 27 episodes of Yakitate!! Japan, i.e. the Pantasia Rookie Competition Arc.

Takashi Hashiguchi debuted in manga back in 1987, but saw no big success outside of maybe a short 4-koma gag manga based on Street Fighter II in 1993. It wasn't until 1997 that he gained some notoriety with the 11-volume softball manga Wind Mill in Shonen Sunday & the 7-volume yo-yo manga Chosoku Spinner in CoroCoro Comic, the latter of which was also made into a TV anime series by Xebec from 1998-1999; this anime will likely be a future Demo Disc volume all its own (as I've gotten hold of the first 11 episodes). Hashiguchi's greatest success, however, would come in 2002, which is when Yakitate!!/Freshly Baked!! Japan debuted in Weekly Shonen Sunday. A mix of gag manga, cooking manga, & traditional shonen action, Yakitate!! was a great success for the magazine, running until 2007, lasting 26 volumes, & tying with Fullmetal Alchemist for the 49th Shogakukan Manga Award in Shonen, making it Hashiguchi's single longest work to date. Only his later Saijou no Meii/The Best Skilled Surgeon is longer if you combine the 11-volume original & 19-volume The King of Neet sequel, making 30 volumes. In October of 2004 a TV anime adaptation done by Sunrise debuted & ran until March of 2006, lasting 69 episodes... Get your head out of the gutter. While Viz released the entire manga from 2006-2011, the anime would remain unlicensed until Anime Expo last year, when Kleckner announced that the entire show would be released under the Nozomi Entertainment label. The first DVD set came out last month, so what better choice for my very first Right Stuf anime release review than one of my favorite series of all time?

As a little boy Kazuma Azuma hated bread, but his bread-loving older sister converted him by taking him to the local bakery run by a man who learned to be an artisan in France. Since that moment Azuma has wanted to make a bread that can define Japan, much like how there's French bread, German bread, etc.; he wants to make Ja-pan like the baker who inspired him wanted to do. Now as a older teen, and after making over 50 different "Ja-pans", Azuma has been accepted into the testing ground for Pantasia, Japan's largest bakery chain. Even if he makes it into Pantasia, though, he will still have a long road to travel to truly create a bread to represent Japan, and as a newcomer he'll be entering the Pantasia Rookie Competition, where all of Pantasia's new hires compete against each other to see who's the best. If there's any real flaw with Azuma, though, it's that he has never had any proper training in bread making. Everything he's learned is through his own dogged attempts, failures, & successes... He doesn't even know that nearly every bread he's ever made already exists in some way, shape, or form, for example! Combatting that flaw, however, is the fact that Azuma has "Hands of the Sun", which means that his hands are naturally warmer than normal, which allows dough to ferment faster for him than other artisans can.

Yakitate!! Japan, to go with the cooking motif, has a recipe that's very easy to explain. It's one part cooking anime, two parts shonen competition, & five parts punny humor, all kneaded together by a cast of zany & kooky (or would that be... cooky?) characters & finished with a glazing of serious storytelling. Getting the most well known part of the anime out of the way first, the part of this show that will stick in your mind the longest are the various reactions to the bread that are baked. Being part gag manga, these aren't simple reactions in any way, nor are they simple imagery showcasing what the eater is thinking. Instead, characters will go all the way to describe how a bread tastes. Vivid imagination is still there, but more often than not the person will also showcase what he/she is imagining in some physical manner, such as crying or outright acting it out physically. The image above showcases rival artisan Kai Suwabara bending backwards over a croissant so that he can imitate the shape of the Crescent Moon... And this is the tamest reaction in these episodes! You'll also see referencing of pop culture like crazy alongside all sorts of pun-based names & humor. Thankfully, while the reactions are almost always the part of a cooking title that people will bring up first, Yakitate!! Japan isn't just about showcasing wild & crazy bread.

Truly, the most impressive thing about this story is that, alongside all of the crazy reactions & humor, you'll be learning a lot about bread as well. Takashi Hashiguchi did a lot of research about the science of bread baking, relying on professional help, and that information carries over into the anime as well. You'll learn all about how gluten works, why certain types of yeast work better in different circumstances, and how too much endoprotease can make bread making impossible, as well as enough more tidbits to house a book! Want to know how you can make a bread that works with something like natto & miso soup, which normally doesn't mix well with bread? Curious about making bread that looks like Mt. Fuji, complete with a white top that looks like snow? Ever wondered why French bread looks the way it does? Can you truly make bread with a rice cooker? All of these questions are answered in these 27 episodes, and all of the bread that is showcased is indeed doable in real life, though some (like a croissant with over 300 layers) might be too tough for the layman to replicate; the original manga would often include recipes, while the anime shows how to make rice cooker bread. The best cooking titles make you want to eat what's being shown, and Yakitate!! Japan not only makes you want to eat more bread, but it makes you want to try replicating what's showcased.

Let's now move onto the cooks, because they are the biggest reason why this series is as good as it is. Our lead, Kazuma Azuma, is immediately lovable for two main reasons: His simple & cheery demeanor, & his steadfast dedication to making Japan-defining bread. There's just no way one can see Azuma in motion & not find him endearing & worth rooting for, and his lack of any actual baking knowledge not only acts as an effective way for the viewer to learn about bread making, but also results in a good portion of the wordplay jokes the series utilizes. Alongside him are his co-workers at Pantasia's South Tokyo store, all of which are fun to watch as well. Kyosuke Kawachi is a Kansai-accented equivalent of Azuma, but replacing Azuma's naïveté & lack of bread education with actual knowledge & an ego. This however, results in Kawachi being easily agitated, resulting in him being quick to scream out "What the!" to almost every reveal & surprise that happens in the story, i.e. he's the butt monkey of the group. Tsukino is the assistant manager & one of the potential heirs of Pantasia, having great knowledge of bread but also being the replacement butt monkey when Kawachi isn't a position to be such. Finally, there's Ken Matsushiro, muscular manager of South Tokyo & all-around afro-toting man of awesomeness & explanation. The best character in the entire show, however, isn't some young prodigy, but rather an experienced man of dough: Ryo Kuroyanagi.

Kuroyanagi is an employee at Pantasia's main store & both proctor of the initial entrance exam as well as main judge in the Rookie Competition. He's normally very rough & easy to anger, especially if you call him an "old man" ("I'm only 22 years old!"), but what makes Kuroyanagi so memorable & amazing is when it's time for him taste the bread he's presented with. Due to the wild reactions that help define Yakitate!!, Kuroyanagi is prone to doing anything to showcase how he feels about a loaf or roll to the viewer. He'll go as simple as make a silly pun to as vivid as imagining himself taking the first steps on the Moon to as outlandish as becoming a human equivalent to Japan's very own giant space monster Gamera (copyright Kadokawa Shoten). The best of all, though, is that Kuroyanagi is dead serious about all of his reactions, showcasing a wide variety of emotions, actions, and feelings that more or less betray the fact that he's a prodigal Harvard graduate. Of course, he doesn't really need bread to do that, either, as he has his own moments of silliness from his past, like how he went against his usual character & pleaded & begged for Matsushiro to take him as a pupil until he gave in. Without a doubt, Kuroyanagi steals every scene he's in.

The rest of the notable characters are the rival artisans that Azuma & Kawachi compete against. There's Kai Suwabara, who's transferred his skills with a sword into the world of bread baking, which saves lives rather than ends them. All these years later I find Suwabara all the more interesting, especially since he respects good baking first & foremost; he may look evil, but he's completely just & honorable. Originally working for rival bakery St. Pierre we have Mokoyama, a super-muscular but highly-effeminate sweet roll expert who has a past with Matsushiro. After battling Azuma on TV in a promotional stunt, he joins another Pantasia branch as a "Koala"-masked rookie. A hint of international flair is showcased by Spencer Henry Hoko, a.k.a. S.H. Hoko (a.k.a. Shachihoko), a Nagoya-obsessed Italian-Japanese boy who's as much an expert at bread baking as he is a general chef (which means he's really damn good). In Kawachi's bracket there's Katsuo Umino, a pig-faced baker whose nose is no joke, & the last part of the tournament has Shigeru Kanmuri, a young super-genius who went to Harvard with Kuroyanagi & is all about researching to create the ultimate yeast that can create the greatest bread. Finally, there's Meister Kirisaki, the iron masked head baker of Pantasia who rarely makes public appearances; the simple fact that nearly every scene he's in features a variant of Ravel's "Bolero" says it all. All of these characters are instantly memorable & diverse, showcasing Hashiguchi's talent for creating a large but easily-remembered cast.

Even among all of this competition, humor, puns, & general silliness, however, Yakitate!! Japan's greatest asset is actually in how it can take itself seriously when needed. The underlying story arc of the Rookie Competition is that it features bakers who are backed by the three potential heirs of Pantasia: Tsukino, her younger sister Mizuno, & her older sister Yukino. Mizuno, who competes alongside Koala/Mokoyama, originally comes off as petty & grating, but as her part in the story advances you realize that she's really nothing more than a kid who doesn't know better due to her upbringing. No, the real threat is Yukino, a true snake in the grass who is probably one of the most vile & deliciously evil villains in the genre. Caring nothing about bread, Yukino is in this for nothing more than the money & the sick pleasure she gets from torturing the people that she sees as nothing more than cockroaches (which is pretty much everyone to her). There is seemingly no length she will not go to in order to get her twisted laughs in, and she's the perfect opposition to Azuma & the gang from an overall story perspective. While there are dramatic yet silly moments, like Kawachi fruitlessly trying to drop his habit of being a "What the!" Human, but the strongest are the ones involving Tsukino's backstory, which not only help give Azuma & Kawachi more drive to achieve a 1-2 finish in the tournament but also hit you with a real sense that everyone is competing for a simple reason: Acknowledgement. Azuma wants to create true Ja-pan, Kawachi wants to be able to provide for his family, Tsukino wants to be respected by her family, Kanmuri wants to showcase the fruits of his yeast research... Everyone wants the people around them to know that they have a place in the world, and that's the greatest asset to Yakitate!! Japan's story in this arc.

The animation by the prestigious Sunrise is a bit of a product of its time, (a.k.a. it's mid-00s digipaint in 4:3 "full screen"), but it still looks very good & delivers the nutritious goods. Interestingly enough, the show's director, Yasunao Aoki, hasn't really done too much directing, with his only big work being Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz, but any lack of expertise doesn't really show in these episodes. Whether it's simply because he had a very good staff of animators & storyboarders behind him or he just has natural talent, Aoki keeps the show moving & there's next to no real animation errors that I could notice. The writing lead by Katsuyuki Sumisawa (Gundam Wing, InuYasha) is an excellent adaptation of Takahashi's original manga, and I can vouch that first watching this show a decade ago taught me the ideal manga-to-anime adaptation rate (1 volume of manga = 3-5 episodes, depending on the title). The jokes are on-point, the drama is tense & engaging, & the bread education is well worth listening to because it's told so succinctly & doesn't bore. I'll reserve talking about more of the staff for the later DVD sets, but I'll finish off here with the music by Taku Iwasaki (Read or Die, Gurren Lagann). While Iwasaki is now synonymous with mixing rock or rap with more symphonic compositions, in Yakitate!! Japan the music is more orchestral in general. That being said, Iwasaki gives the music a nice range of styles & moods, with the main theme of the show sounding exactly like music you would hear while watching someone bake bread... Or, at least, this show has instilled that feeling into me. That being said, Iwasaki still sneaks in his love of rock, such as nearly outright sampling the iconic 'stomp-stomp-clap' sound from Queen's "We Will Rock You" for another piece of music. The OST for these episodes ranges excellently from upbeat & relaxing to intense to melancholic to outright insanity.

The first opening theme, used throughout all the episodes on this set, is "Houki Gumo" by RYTHEM, a calming song that matches the bread-baking theme more than anything. RYTHEM's singing is very soothing & can really lull you into a feeling that the show isn't all that wacky, even if the footage in the OP showcases the zaniness, like showing Matsushiro riding a horse towards the screen while wielding a loaf of French bread. The first ending theme, "SUNDAY" by The Babystars, is similar to the opening by being a calming theme, this time by way of softer rock. It's an enjoyable theme song, if nothing else, & the ED footage showing a window of an actual bread maker preparing various loaves just makes you drool all the more for some bread. After episode 12, however, the ending theme changes... And it is nothing but glorious. "To All Tha Dreamers" by SOUL'd OUT is probably the least likely song you would imagine for a cooking anime, but in spite of that (or maybe even because of that), it's amazing. A soulful piece of hip-hip, complete with full-CG ED footage of Matsushiro dancing solo like he's from Saturday Night Fever, this is easily the best theme of them all in these 27 episodes. By being so utterly ridiculous in music genre compared to the genre of the anime, combined with the use of mid-00s CG, "To All Tha Dreamers" is absolutely glorious.

The voice cast in this show is also superb, and since it's so big I'll focus on the major characters here & will focus on the secondary cast in the later reviews. Leading it all is Yumiko Kobayashi (Sarah McDougal in Love Hina, Poemy Watanabe in Puni Puni Poemy), who delivers an ace performance as Azuma. Her voice & acting is a big part of why the character's naïveté & innocence works so perfectly, quite honestly, and the passions she gives is infectious. Kawachi is performed by Shuuhei Sakaguchi (Alan Cloud in Tokyo Majin, Genjou Kakouton in Ikki Tousen), a natural Osaka native who gives the character a real feeling of accuracy, not to mention Sakaguchi having an excellent shocked reaction. Voicing Suwabara is Takayuki Sakazume (Besson in Gundam Unicorn), who actually doesn't do much anime (he's more of a dramatic actor), but here he delivers an great performance. You take one look at Suwabara's design & you instantly imagine some sort of bancho or tough guy, & Sakazune nails it perfectly. Matsushiro (& the narration) is done by Hiroki Touchi (Pantherlily in Fairy Tail, Abel Nightroad in Trinity Blood), and he does a fun performance, playing up the sheer masculinity of the character while also coming off as believably knowledgeable. The one who takes the cake, however, is the voice of Kuroyanagi, the iconic Takehito Koyasu. This is likely one of Koyasu's most impressive performances, delivering not just his own usual gruff vocal performance that he's become known for, but also a wide variety of inflections for all of the various reactions. You get to hear Bruce Lee Koyasu, Gamera Koyasu, intellectual Koyasu, nostalgic Koyasu, & completely bonkers & silly Koyasu. Every scene Kuroyanagi is in is a scene stealing one because of Takehito Koyasu.

The first 27 episodes of Yakitate!! Japan are an outstanding start to the anime adaptation of Takashi Hashiguchi's manga, adapting the first six volumes & somewhat into the seventh. The characters are instantly memorable, the humor is on-point, the puns silly & stupid (what other kind of pun is there?), the competition handled very well, & the various bread made insanely mouth-watering. When I had first watched this anime about a decade ago I had only seen up to episode 25, so it was great to re-watch those episodes & properly finish up the story arc. When Right Stuf was giving hints as to what anime was going to get announced at Anime Expo last year, the hint for this show was an egg. While Yakitate!! Japan did come to mind, it just seemed like such an unlikely choice, especially from a company that hasn't really released anything like this, but I was so happy to be wrong when the announcement was made. Check back in a month or two, when the second DVD set is out, where Azuma's journey to gluten glory takes him to a new level... International competition!

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