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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Yakitate!! Japan Part 2: What Does Everybody Need? Bread!!

lortnoc ni eno eht ma I niaga ecnO

Previously on the Yakitate!! Japan Review:
"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."

It's been a good while since I reviewed the first DVD boxset of Yakitate!! Japan from Right Stuf's Nozomi Entertainment label; nearly a half year, in fact. Since that review, the second & third sets have both been released, fulfilling something that I never thought would seriously ever happen. Viz releasing the original Takashi Hashiguchi manga was surprising enough (& I seriously need to grab the many volumes I'm missing of that release), but for Shawne Kleckner & his team to release the anime just over a decade after it's debut is simply outstanding. Anyway, while the first story arc, the Pantasia Rookie Competition, is generally looked at with a lot of love, it's the second story arc (of three) where Yakitate!! starts entering "love it or hate it" territory; some people love how ridiculous the series becomes, while others miss the way it used to be. Where am I on this matter & where might you be? Well let's investigate, shall we?

Kazuma Azuma, with his natural ability to create delicious "Ja-pan" bread, has won the Pantasia Rookie Competition, with his friend Kyosuke Kawachi & rival (in his rival's mind, anyway) Kai Suwabara tying for third place; artisan prodigy Shigeru Kanmuri won second place. All of them win a month-long education in France to become better artisans, which Kanmuri doesn't take (as he's already been to France), but there's another reason for the trip to France. Just like the previous year's rookie champs, but not told to this year's, the winners will compete in the Monaco Cup, an international bread baking competition overseen by the King of Monaco himself. Kanmuri volunteers to stay in Japan with the South Tokyo store, where he's moved to, but he also has his own reasons. While having Azuma, Kawachi, & Suwbara potentially win the Second Annual Monaco Cup would be great, it still wouldn't do much to stop Yukino Azusagawa, first-in-line to inherit Pantasia. Yukino is so obsessed with eradicating the "cockroaches" of her half-sister Tsukino's South Tokyo branch that she's secretly working with Yuichi Kirisaki, the owner of rival store St. Pierre. In order to stop Yukino's insanity, Kanmuri is hoping to raise money to have Tsukino buy the majority of Pantasia, and the only way to get that capital is to bet it all on Team Japan in the Monaco Cup. The stakes have not only been risen, but are also in the oven.

One thing to note for this anime adaptation of a longer-running shonen manga is the sheer lack of outright anime-original content, i.e. "filler", within the first year of episodes, which is what this set finishes up. That being said, there is one "filler" episode early in this batch, but luckily its very well done & works just as well as a standalone product, especially if you're a fan of one of Sunrise's biggest franchises. Episode 29, in something that could only be done because Sunrise did the animation, has Yukino try to take out Pantasia South Tokyo by hiring a trio of artisans under the false pretense that she's the angelic heir & Tsukino is the maniacal bitch that threw her mother's ashes onto a dying tree. The trio that Yukino hires? The Black Tri-Stars from the original Mobile Suit Gundam. What makes the joke work so well is how accurate these three are. While they don't have their respective Doms, but instead roll around on skates to simulate how Dom's hover, they do look exactly like they did in the One Year War, they have the same exact voice actors, & they are even named Gaia, Ortega, & Mash. Obviously, the reaction they have to Azuma's bread that he challenges them with involves parodying Gundam, even going so far as to having a disclaimer on screen to reassure viewers that they are still watching Yakitate!! Japan. Overall, it's an excellent example of "filler" being done right, and is well worth the watch even by those who don't have any interest in Yakitate!! itself.

As for the rest of the set, it's all about the Monaco Cup. Naturally, if the previous tournament was a national one, then the following will rank up into a world tournament, but Yakitate!! actually executes itself differently from the usual type of world tournament. Rather than have direct battles against other countries' teams, which is only done for the semis & final match, the Monaco Cup is more about simply being in the top number of required places (16, 8, etc.) by pleasing the judge. Said judge is Pierrot Bolognese, a "world-level" (emphasis on the "-vel", as everyone in the show does so) clown who follows a similar reaction style as that of Ryo Kuroyanagi by being completely batty. Pierrot differs, though, in that he utilizes a lot more puns, and when judging Japan's breads (about 2/3 of them, at least) regales them with his life story of how he was left as a baby at the entrance of a circus & grew up to become ringleader. For a lot of fans, Pierrot is one big part of where the Monaco Cup either works or fails for them. He's an intensely hyper character compared to Kuroyanagi, who is still around but only seen as a third-party commentator for his friends, and his stories about his past are generally very long & not quite as humorous; Team Japan even complains about how long his stories go. For the most part, Pierrot's backstory is where the story arc enters serious mode, so your acceptance of these moments really depends on how you feel about the character. Personally, I find the character to be a ton of fun, and I don't mind of his backstory that much, but I can easily see why others might find that he brings the show down.

Naturally, though, as a world tournament (& especially since it's a gag series), that means that the various countries competing are prone to stereotypes, as it seemingly customary in anime & manga. The main rivals for Team Japan in the Monaco Cup are the Kayser Brothers, the masked representatives of home country(-ish) France. A mysterious trio who take the visage of one giant robed human, with their respective masks appearing throughout the robe, these brothers utilize the usual snootiness & self-assured greatness that the French are normally portrayed with. Aside from the Kaysers, though, most of the other teams are more or less just shown off here & there, but are just as stereotypical, from Team Russia randomly shouting Russian political terms in shock to Team Egypt having one of its members being a man hiding inside a giant pyramid outfit. The only other team of note is Team America, which is formed by Yuichi Kirisaki himself. Kirisaki's notable surprise is luring Rookie Competition contestant Shachihoko to St. Pierre to be on the team, which I'm all for because it brings back another very likable & memorable character; sadly, though, he doesn't appear much until the end of the arc. Alongside him are Monica Adenauer & Shadow White, two mysterious rookies who have hidden talents that aren't revealed until needed. In a smart manner of execution, the story focuses on Team Japan simply having to survive the tournament, & the attempts at cheating from Kirisaki to have them eliminated (or even killed!), leaving the Kaysers as the real force to deal with. Team America is equally dangerous, but saved for when they are needed, which keep things surprising.

Another common complaint I've seen about the arc is a mix of how absurdly it handles itself & how hard it would be to actually make most of the bread showcased. Starting with the latter first, I will admit that most of the bread made here is on the side of being more extravagant & too hard for regular people to bake. Whether it's having to utilize a wide variety of ingredients, utilize blind cave fish, or rely on very rare or expensive fruits, seasonings, & the like, the bread shown off during the Monaco Cup is indeed the stuff that you won't find in any regular bakery; hell, most probably wouldn't even be in a higher-level bakery. Still, everything showcased during this arc is still completely doable in concept, even if it's hard to make or nigh-impossible to get a hold of, which still showcases just how educational this series can be. Also, while most of the breads can't be recreated by most artisans, a number of the concepts used are still doable, like baking bread with a microwave or without electricity. While this story arc definitely aims more for the extravagant, the concoctions are still just as mouthwatering as ever.

As for the former part of this complaint, there's no getting around it: The Monaco Cup starts off wacky & just progresses (or descends, depending on the person) further & further into madness. The tournament itself starts off with neat restrictions for the early elimination rounds, like only using ingredients selected via a roulette wheel or slot machine, but once it moves into the main competition it goes into all sorts of zaniness. Tying in with Kirisaki's attempts at having the head of the competition screw over Team Japan, everyone ends up having to compete in places around the world, namely an abandoned island (hence baking without electricity) & a nigh-inescapable cave in Mexico. It eventually returns to normalcy from the semis on, but another aspect that continues into greater absurdity are Pierrot's reactions. Even if he's not relating it to his past, Pierrot's reactions during the Monaco Cup tend to make Kuroyanagi's stuff from the Rookie Competition look realistic in comparison. The reactions also occasionally let the show get a little meta at times, usually by having the characters wonder if they can really get away with some stuff without breaking the rules of television airing (or the like). The final reaction of the arc in particular is definitely a "love it or hate it" one; some will enjoy how ridiculous it is, while others will find it as a "jumping the shark" moment. Personally, I feel that if Hashiguchi put a limit on how far to go in terms of reactions, then Yakitate!! will end up feeling predictable, as you know just how far it will go for a reaction. To be quite honest, the fact that the story goes further & further into absurdity helps keep everything unpredictable, and therefore you (the collective you, or at I) enter each reaction with a complete lack of expectation.

One last piece of the Monaco Cup to bring up is Yuichi Kirisaki himself, who is finally given major importance here. As mentioned earlier, he is the founder & owner of rival bakery St. Pierre, but he is also the father of Pantasia's Meister Kirisaki & his sister Sophie Balzac Kirisaki, the latter being the closest thing to a heroine for the arc. As the story goes on you find out more about his past & just how good of an artisan he is, but one revelation is easy to figure out, though it isn't brought up here. Since it's so obvious, however, I'll just bring it up; Kirisaki is the man who inspired Azuma to become a bread artisan when he was a little boy. Even more so in the anime, as the two share the same voice actor, Kirisaki was the friendly man who told Azuma about "Ja-pan" in episode 1, which makes is all the more odd that he's now a demonically evil man who hates Ja-pan & wants the utter destruction of Pantasia, which his son is one of the heads of. It's especially odd because it starts making you wonder how nice Kirisaki truly was when he first met Azuma, as Sophie explains that her father essentially abandoned his children when they were kids, only seeing them once when he left them to starve & teased them by eating bread in front of them. Having never read the entire manga, I am curious how the anime handles this plot point when it's (hopefully) revealed how Azuma & Kirisaki actually know each other.

The job of adapting Hashiguchi's manga for each episode was left up to the group of Akatsuki Yamatoya (Gintama, Blue Dragon), Tetsuko Takahashi (the Dirty Pair OVAs), Toshifumi Kawase (The Law of Ueki, Higurashi - When they Cry), & series composer Katsuyuki Sumisawa, and the general pacing for the Monaco Cup is more or less in line with how the first arc felt. While the moments in between the actual bread baking & reactions may feel a little slow, they are simply filled with content, & if not then do a great job of delivering a strong mood. Interestingly enough, even the character designs were adapted by a group, specifically Atsuo Tobe (Kingdom, Crush Gear Turbo), Hiromi Maezawa, & Yoshihito Hishinuma (InuYasha, Tales of the Abyss), all of which are known more as key animators (especially Maezawa). Luckily, the trio do a great job adapting the original manga's artwork, with everyone looking pretty on-point compared to how they were originally drawn. Admittedly, an episode here & there might look a little rough with the faces during this arc, but that's usually followed up with an episode or scene with really nice animation & faces, so it balances out. Taku Iwasaki's music from the first arc returns for a few songs, but there are plenty of new compositions; in fact, the OST as a whole is spread out across two releases. While the Monaco Cup-original music doesn't go as far as some of what came before it when it comes to being blatant about copying certain iconic beats, Iwasaki still utilizes a great mix of genres here. While everything is done via orchestra, there's an obvious influence from the likes of jazz, rock, & blues mixed in, creating a continually excellent soundtrack.

Yes, the King of Monaco wears more than a lion-etched crown...

While this set of episodes starts off with the first OP & second ED, they only last for two episodes before being swapped out. Replacing "Houki Gumo" is "Promise" by TiA, which is an equally great intro, this time being a bit more energetic while still sounding just as soft & melodic. The visuals also set up just how silly the arc itself can be. When you see Azuma & the Kaysers fire energy beams from their baguettes, I think you get an idea of how silly things get here (NOTE: such a scene never happens in this arc, but the point still stands). The third ED, "Hummingbird" by little by little, is an absolutely lovely & outstanding theme, with the lyrics focusing on staying true to yourself & never wavering in what makes you special; personally, I just love messages of that type, so there. The fourth ED, "Re:START" by surface, follows a similar thematic as "Hummingbird", but goes for a more traditional rock style, and it works great as well. I've always been a fan of Yakitate!!'s choices for OPs & EDs, but I've only been familiar with the songs up to this point. The last set brings in one more OP & two more EDs, so I'm hoping that they follow suit by being just as enjoyable as what came before them.

When bringing up the voice cast for this arc, one performance tops all of them, and that's Tomokazu Seki as Pierrot Bolognese. Seki is a very versatile seiyuu, but some of his most memorable roles are when he can just go all out & have a ball, with Pierrot being one of his all-time best. Seki simply brings in such sheer energy, speed, & emotion, both comical & serious, that it's nigh-impossible to not find him to be a near-show-stealer from Yumiko Kobayashi's Azuma. Considering that Yuichi Kirisaki looks almost exactly like Evangelion's Gendou Ikari, only with completely black shades, it only makes sense that Fumihiko Tachiki voices the main villain of this series, and he does a great job in general; in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he was the only choice for the role. Following Tachiki in villains is Atsuko Yuya (Miwako Sato in Case Closed, the present Japanese voice of Resident Evil's Jill Valentine) as Yukino Azusagawa. While her character doesn't appear quite as often during these episodes, Yuya's performance is spot on, complete with an extremely appropriate cackling laugh. The Kayser Brothers are voiced by Jouji Nakata (Gran), Koji Yusa (Edward), & Takanori Hoshino (Bob), all of which do a nice job fulfilling their characters' stereotypical French arrogance.

Finally, for this arc, there are the voices for Team America. Monica is performed by Rie Kugimiya, who delivers a mix of a more natural-sounding voice, that's likely true to how she actually sounds, with the higher-pitched child-like demeanor that she's become way more well known (& partially typecast) for. Shadow is voiced by Yutaka Aoyama (Wielte Talan in Yamato 2199), who fits the character very nicely, reminding me of his performance as Nizo Okada in Gintama, which had a similar feel at times. Finally, Shachihoko is voiced by Takuya Kirimoto (Ivan in Gangsta., J. Geil/Centerfold in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure TV), who I just can't get enough of. Kirimoto's purposefully awkward pronounciation of characters' names & insanely catchy verbal tic of "-dagya" just helps make the character one of my favorites in this series. Sadly, I doubt we'll be seeing anymore of him after this point.

The second boxset for Yakitate!! Japan, covering episodes 28-52, is definitely one that can make or break the show for people. While I'm sure nearly anyone who watches this show, or reads the manga, expects the story to continue being silly & the reactions being ridiculous, as the Monaco Cup moves on it gradually becomes more & more absurd, especially with the reactions, and for some people it may reach a point where it goes "too far", and becomes to zany for them. Even if someone was fine with everything the arc puts out, that last reaction may truly be a tipping point that can't be forgiven. Still, for me personally, this arc just kept putting a smile on my face throughout it all, which I think is the best kind of praise I can give something. I had read the original manga version of this arc years ago, so it was refreshing to finally see how the anime adapted it, while also reminding myself of certain moments & reactions. In terms of "filler" within the arc itself, I believe there is one small instance (the stuff with the Mexican cave), but it's nothing intrusive or experience ruining. I may be in a minority here, at least when compared to other recent reviews of this set when it came out earlier this year, but I had a ton of fun with the Monaco Cup, and Yakitate!! Japan is still one of my all-time favorite anime comedies. There is still one more set, though, so I'll eventually get to that one & enter mostly unfamiliar territory. Who knows, maybe the mighty bread bakers will fall...

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