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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Yakitate!! Japan Part 3: What Does Everybody Love? BREAD!!!

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Previously on the Yakitate!! Japan Review:
"The second boxset for Yakitate!! Japan, covering episodes 28-52, is definitely one that can make or break the show for people... 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."

Hmmm, something feels a bit off... Huh, must be my imagination.

Well, it essentially took me most of the year, but we're finally here: The last 17 episodes of the Yakitate!! Japan anime. At this point the manga was still running, so the anime obviously couldn't finish the same way the manga would one year later. Instead of entering a completely original storyline, however, the staff at Sunrise decided to adapt what they could of the manga's third & final story arc, turning what was called Yakitate!! 25 into the shorter Yakitate!! 9. Considering that the Monaco Cup ended with what was deemed the greatest bread in the history of mankind, where can the story go from there? Not just that, but how well does the anime finish up in these last episodes? It's time to finally see if this anime has survived the ravages of time, or if it's become moldy & stale when all is said and done.

The Monaco Cup has come to an end & St. Pierre's Yuichi Kirisaki was unable to kill off Pantasia. With no option left, he & the vile Yukino Azusagawa decide to more or less merge the companies together, but as a way to determine which bakery is truly the best, & give Pantasia one last chance at survival, Kirisaki offers one last challenge. Instead of a traditional baking competition, Pantasia & St. Pierre will face off in Yakitate!! 9, a TV program where Azuma & his friends will take on various artisans in nine specific towns across Japan, creating competing food that matches with the local environments. While Pantasia is consistently represented by Azuma, Kanmuri, & Kawachi (& is also footing the production bill via the money they won by betting on the Monaco Cup), St. Pierre is bringing in all sorts of outside artisans, whether it's the cooking idol group CMAP/Cooking Meal Assemble People, famous TV celebrities, or even various people that Azuma & Co. have met in the past.

Comedy is always a genre that rides a fine line between working & failing, and that's even more so for gag comedy. There's also the fact that stakes have to get higher & higher as a story goes on, especially when it's a shonen-styled competition tale. When it comes to comedy-etched competition that means not only having the heroes take on tougher & tougher foes, but also upping the ante when it comes to making jokes. For some people, however, there's an additional line that can be crossed, one where the comedy goes "too far" & becomes too much to be accepted. Where that line exactly is differs wildly on the person. Some people will be willing to let the comedy go to whatever lengths it needs to make sure it doesn't play it safe & become stale, while others will just get pushed beyond their suspension of disbelief & can't take the product "seriously" anymore. This line really applies to any genre, but it's all the more important in comedy. I bring this up because Yakitate!! 9 most definitely will be the point where the show will lose people; even if some accepted the Monaco Cup's zaniness, this arc may break them beyond all belief.

Yakitate!! 9 is also a pretty formulaic arc in general, which may annoy some people. While there was an element of formula in the prior two arcs, this last one is the most blatant about it. Azuma, Kawachi, & Kanmuri find out who their opponent(s) is/are, where the match will take place & what the theme is, followed by our heroes having to lodge in a super-cheap & dilapidated inn (usually matching the theme of the food), and then the match itself happens; hell, this happens almost always two episodes at a time, too. In concept, Yakitate!! 9 (& it's original 25-match concept) is meant to showcase the variety of cuisine that Japan has in its various locales, but in doing so Hashigushi (& the staff at Sunrise, in turn) ended up relying on a repeatable formula so that the focus can be put towards the specific environment & theme of the match at hand. In fact, I've been told that the manga doesn't even manage to get through all 25 matches, likely showcasing just how repetitive the arc wound up being in its original form. In that regard, the anime works much better by reducing the scale to only nine. Though I only have read a little of this arc via the manga, I did look at volume descriptions as I went through this arc in the anime, & from what I can tell the anime actually adapts all the way until the last three episodes. Even then, the final two opponents in those episodes do happen in the manga as well, just obviously in different ways. I had expected this arc to enter original content pretty early on, so to find out that Sunrise adapted as much as possible is just really cool.

Still, what's most important is the actual content in the end; even if it's formulaic more so than before, it doesn't matter if the content is good. Luckily, this arc still delivers the goods pretty well in that regard. There are only four matches involving brand new characters, but the matches that bring back established characters still impress. Whether it's characters like sweets artisan Mokoyama (a.k.a. Panda), Monaco Cup partner Suwabara, or even having deliciously evil villain Yukino get her hands dirty, they all offer something new & different in how their individual matches work out. There's also a nice bit of finality to their matches, as their own personal journeys all come to an end afterwards; it's a nice way to say farewell to them. Thankfully, too, the various breads showcased here (plus a couple of non-bread foods that had to be made) are nowhere near as exquisite & unreachable to most people as they were in the Monaco Cup. Yes, all of the bread made in this arc is uniquely Japanese, but that's always been the goal of Yakitate!! Japan: To showcase what Japan can offer when it comes to something that the country has never been uniquely known for. The end products not only sound delicious but also feel definitively Japanese, bringing Azuma's dream full circle in the end; he always could create Ja-pan, he just needed to be shown the way to go.

In the end, though, what exactly did I mean when I said that Yakitate!! 9 could potentially break even those who accepted the insanity of the Monaco Cup's later moments? It's truly in the various reactions showcased. After having to let Pierrot Bolognese take the spot of judge for the most part in Monaco, Ryo Kuroyanagi returns, having given up being a bread artisan in order to become a professional taste tester for the competition. While both characters rely on puns for their reactions, Kuroyanagi was always the more wild & showy judge, and that's simply taken to new levels in these last 17 episodes. In fact, Sunrise gets pretty gutsy when it comes to it's parodies in this arc, with outright blatant references to non-Sunday manga like Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, & Naruto, outright using a deceased celebrity as an opponent for Azuma & crew to take on, & let's not forget the obvious parody of idol singing group SMAP; all of this applies to Hashiguchi & Shogakukan for the manga, too. This arc is also where the show becomes super self aware, moreso than before, with musings about if they can get away with certain references, if they have the proper copyrights, & even wondering if the show is trying to get itself canceled midway through the final episode being regular occurrences. The third-to-last episode in particular purposefully rushes to the battle itself, with characters literally appearing in new locations & days just so that they don't bore the viewers with how they got there. With Kuroyanagi's reactions having no seeming restrictions & the show more or less not caring about being even relatively realistic as you get close to the end, Yakitate!! Japan's last arc is easily the most "love it or hate it" of them all.

Yes, the show gets THIS blatant about its parodies.

I fully understand if some viewers just won't be able to accept some of the happenings to be found here, especially in the last few episodes, because there was even one moment that I almost felt was too much to take (luckily it wasn't a long one). Still, my personal feeling about storytelling is that if you're going to do something & have to keep upping the ante, then you might as well go all the way, especially if you're at the end game. Even if it doesn't gel perfectly with everyone, you go out swinging, and that's what Yakitate!! Japan does here. It throws down, takes risks, & only cares about getting a reaction out of the viewer that's just as dumbfounding as some of its own bread reactions are, because that's what it's always been about in that regard. It definitely won't appeal to everyone, but you can't please everyone in the end; better to be bold & experiment than play it safe & be boring.

Since I've covered the staff in more than enough detail in the reviews of the previous two parts, I'll just stick to anything that's notably different & new here. Taku Iwasaki adds in a new song or two to the soundtrack, mainly an especially infectious earworm for when everyone's at the Yakitate!! 9 game show set, ready to select the location of the next match. As always, director Yasunao Aoki & writing team of Akatsuki Yamatoya, Katsuyuki Sumisawa, Tetsuko Takahashi, & Toshifumi Kawase deliver a show that looks very good for its time & holds up just fine now, & the writing is generally on point. Finally, we have the new opening & ending themes, which maintain the general quality that the previous songs all had. The final OP, "Chiisana Uta" by MARIA, is a super upbeat ditty that's actually the most rock-styled of all the three openers; it's as if the OPs just continued to build up on how hard the sound is. Meanwhile, the fifth & sixth EDs, "Merry Go Round" by Mai Hoshimura & "Kokoro Biidama" by RYTHEM, are both slower-paced ballads, making for great counterparts to their more energetic opener. The last episode closes out with a look back at scenes throughout the entire show, while the first OP, "Houki Gumo" by RYTHEM, plays out. Quite frankly, it's an excellent way to bookend the entire show, not to mention nice to hear such an addictive ballad one last time.

Likewise, the cast has been covered as much as needed, especially since there are few brand new characters, so I'll focus on any stragglers I haven't gotten to yet. First & foremost, though, I have to once again give praise to Takehito Koyasu's Kuroyanagi, as he runs the entire gamut of emotion & style in these episodes. Without a doubt, this is one of Koyasu's absolute greatest roles ever & a true example of the sheer amount of range he has in his repertoire, even if he does tend to have the same sound to his voice any time he does a role in an anime. As for other major characters I haven't covered, Marina Inoue (Yoko in Gurren Lagann, Rio in Rio - Rainbow Gate!) delivers an intellectual Kamuri, & her softer pitch in voice matches well with the character's less masculine look. Much like Suwabara, Tsukino is voiced by a stage actor, in this case Chihiro Otsuka, who generally does a good job with the girl everyone is fighting for. Mokoyama/Panda & his boss (& Azusagawa sister) Mizuno are voiced by Tessho Genda & Chigusa Ikeda, respectively, and the two make a fun little pair vocally, with Genda doing a very effeminate variation of his normally gruff voice to match Ikeda's childish sound. Finally, Meister Kirisaki, who only made the rare appearance in the show in general, is voiced by Sho Hayami, who's generally a master (or would it be meister?) at voicing calm, cool & mysterious characters. Finally, there is a fun cameo by Nobuyuki Hiyama, who voices Tessho Iwashiro, the lead character in Takashi Hashiguchi's veterinarian manga Wild Life, as he takes the place of Kuroyanagi for one specific bread explanation.

The final part of the Yakitate!! Japan anime, Yakitate!! 9, is an arc that's both very formulaic yet ambitious & risk taking. While the general path from start to finish of each match in this arc is the same, it's the focus on creating bread that's definitively Japanese & the reactions going more than above & beyond what came before that keeps it from feeling as repetitive as it should (at least, in the anime version of the arc). At the same time, however, it's those very reactions that may be too much for some viewers. While the Monaco Cup started comparatively tame & escalated to ridiculous levels, Yakitate!! 9's reactions are insane from the very beginning & just continue on from that point, going to a level that will likely be beyond some people's suspension of disbelief (which were already going to be pushed by the very nature of the product in general). Still, beneath all of the zaniness & sheer insanity, Yakitate!! Japan still succeeds as a whole because it delivers truly memorable characters, entertaining storylines, goofy & enjoyable comedy/gags, and, most importantly, a lot of really cool looking & likely intensely delicious bread that you want to eat. While I'm sure I'll never have the opportunity to eat 99% of the bread showcased in this series, especially the extravagant ones made during the Monaco Cup, just seeing them being concocted was more than worth the price.

Luckily, since Nozomi Entertainment's DVD releases there is now another way to see the show, aside from Right Stuf's YouTube page, as it was added to CrunchyRoll's catalog only a month or so ago. Now, more than ever, you have no excuse to skip out on watching one of the most entertaining anime comedies of the 00s. Before you know it, you'll have watched a baker's dozen-worth of episodes.

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