Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Antique Bakeryby Jason Thompson, Apr 7th 2011
Episode XLVI: Antique Bakery
The first scene is a scene straight out of a Boys Love manga, but then everything goes horribly wrong. A blushing schoolboy with glasses tells his handsome classmate, "I love you. I know you're straight, but I just wanted to tell you before we graduate… goodbye."
The other boy listens quietly, and then smiles. "Admit it, you don't just want to confess your love and walk away, do you? Don't you want to make out with me? Don't you think about me when you touch yourself?"
The blushing boy brightens up. He's so surprised, he doesn't know what to do. "You're okay with it? Y…you aren't grossed out?"
Then the other boy explodes in anger. "Of course I'm grossed out! I'm so grossed out it makes me wanna puke! Hurry up and die, you homo!" Then the scene cuts away.
After this opening, it might be hard to believe it, but Fumi Yoshinaga's Antique Bakery is a manga that makes me happy to be alive. Unlike some manga, it doesn't try too hard to make me happy by being super-cheerful; it just makes me happy because it feels real, and it reminds me that life can be beautiful, even if it's also difficult and maybe you're a 28-year-old woman trapped in a frustrating career or a 34-year-old man who works every night till three in the morning and lives with a roommate. And it's one of the few bishonen (or since the guys are adults, I guess it'd be beseinen) manga which depicts gay characters and prejudice in even a remotely realistic way. Lots of people like Fumi Yoshinaga, and she's written so many manga it's hard to know which one to write about, but Antique Bakery was her first translated work, and when I read it, I realized she was an original. A woman who used to work at VIZ loved it and tried to pitch it there, but DMP was faster on their feet and snapped it up. And let's be fair, if you just describe it in one short sentence—four hot guys work at a bakery—it doesn't necessarily sound like one of the most original manga ever written, does it? I can think of half a dozen other manga about restaurants staffed by hot guys, but I like Antique Bakery the best.
The bakery of the title is the kind of hole-in-the-wall restaurant that's a rare find: a tiny little pastry shop in a residential neighborhood, which stays open from noon till 2:30 am, its little light shining in the dark. The food is served on priceless antique tableware, and the menu always changes. The sweets are delicious. Also, importantly, the waiters and manager are all good-looking older guys. (Like, twenties and thirties older, not Ristorante Paradiso older.) "They look more like escorts at a host club than a bakery," one customer says. One of them is a little scruffy and beardy, but when he shaves, he's as handsome as the rest.
The manga begins slowly. Yoshinaga doesn't cram to explain everything in the first chapter; instead she shows us the restaurant through a lot of different short scenes and day-to-day life. Customers come and go, people talk about sweets, and all the time we're wondering, Who are these guys? What does this have to do with the gay kid getting rejected? Gradually, we get to know everyone and figure everything out.
The scruffy guy, Tachibana (32 yrs. old), is the owner of the restaurant. A former salaryman from a rich family, one day out of the blue he quit his job and used his family money to start a pastry shop. His ostensible reason for starting the bakery is to meet women, but he doesn't have much luck. ("Why is it that most women just don't understand the appeal of the beard?") There's just one problem: Tachibana can't bake. In fact, he doesn't even like sweets. Still, he dreams of running Tokyo's greatest pastry shop, so he goes searching for the best pastry chef he can find.
He finds Ono (also 32), a mild-mannered chef with glasses, who trained in France. Ono's skills are magnificent, but despite his talents, he has never been able to work long in any one place. Tachibana asks him why all his previous employers have fired him or gone out of business under mysterious circumstances.
"I am a gay of demonic charm," Ono blushingly replies.
Shyly, Ono explains that he has been fired from every other place he ever worked at, because wherever he goes, ostensibly straight men become madly attracted to him and it causes chaos in the workplace. Furthermore, when he's attracted to a guy, he just can't control himself. Tachibana is skeptical. To prove it, Ono takes off his baker's uniform, puts on a leather jacket and dark glasses, and transforms from a shy guy into a smooth, confident player. They head together to a gay bar in Shinjuku Ni-chome (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinjuku_Ni-chMme) and Tachibana watches the awesome spectacle of Ono getting fawned over by all the young gay boys.
And as Tachibana watches Ono using his moves, he remembers something shocking: he knew Ono in high school! In fact, Ono came on to him, and he rejected him! Tachibana and Ono were the two teenagers in the flashback! Tachibana, who isn't really a homophobic jerk most of the time, actually feels really guilty about how he treated Ono, and he blurts out a confession! He's sorry he treated Ono like that! He's always felt guilty about it! Obviously they can't work together! But Ono is simply surprised; he didn't recognize Tachibana with his beard. It's all cool, says Ono. That was a long time ago, and besides, if Tachibana hadn't rejected him then, he never would have had the crisis that made him fully accept his sexuality. In fact, since Tachibana is the only man who ever rejected him, they'll be great coworkers, since there's obviously no danger of Tachibana falling madly in love with him! Tachibana is still a little weirded out, but he accepts Ono as an employee, and now his little shop has the greatest pastry chef in Japan!
There's just one other problem: Ono has a phobia of young girls. (Kind of a stereotype about homosexual men, but anyway…) Tachibana is brokenhearted when he finds out he can't hire cute young girls in maid uniforms to work at the bakery, but they find another employee: tough but boyishly cute Eiji (21). Once a boxer, Eiji was forced to quit because of his injuries, and he LOVES sweets. When he tastes Ono's delicacies, he begs Ono-sensei to accept him as a student and train him so he, too, can be a pastry chef one day! Soon, Eiji is devoted to baking the way other manga characters are devoted to martial arts training. ("Aren't I supposed to go into the mountains and make hundreds of bûches de noël until I've unlocked its secrets?") Ono patiently teaches Eiji like a good sensei should, but inwardly, he doesn't understand why the kid has to be so gung-ho about everything. ("Eeek…I hate this intense sports-training feel…this is why I never joined sports teams at school!") Eiji is totally straight, and he's not Ono's type, so they work well together.
But the cast still isn't complete. In volume 2, Tachibana meets another old friend from his past, Chikage (34). The son of a servant who used to work for Tachibana's family, Chikage is handsome, clueless, and so tall he bumps his head against doorways. Chikage is dedicated to his childhood friend Tachibana, and still calls him "my lord." Since Chikage is obviously incapable of taking care of himself, despite his age and size (he's a bit like a big dumb Japanese Superman), Tachibana gives him a job and even lets him crash at his house like old times. But as soon as the big sweetheart takes off his dark glasses in the workplace, Ono falls madly in love with him. Not wanting to screw up his job, he tries his best not to turn into a ravishing seducer and take advantage of Chikage's manly adorableness. Chikage feels an attraction to Ono, too, but he's so shy and slow it's uncertain he even knows what 'homosexuality' means.
Can this crew of four men of various sexualities (I'd say 2.5 straight men and 1.5 gay men, but my calculations might be inaccurate) work together? Will their bakery be a success? Gradually, Ono overcomes his fear of ladies, and the four guys become more at ease with one another. But there are obstacles along the path, such as Jean-Baptiste, Ono's pastry-chef sempai from France, who still has a thing for his ex-student and ex-lover. And as time goes on, we discover the real reason why Tachibana started a bakery: when he was a child, he was kidnapped and held for several months by a mysterious man who was never caught. He blocked out most of the memories of his abduction, but he remembers one clue about the kidnapper: every day, the man would feed him a different delicious pastry or cake. Is the whole Antique Bakery business just a way for Tachibana to find the 'cake kidnapper' from his past? Beneath Tachibana's cynical exterior, do the scars of his childhood still hurt? And are there any other past hurts which go deeper than they appear?
Antique Bakery, and Fumi Yoshinaga's manga in general, is proof of how you don't need complicated art in your manga if you have excellent writing. Most of the art is just people talking, but every line of dialogue is important. Yoshinaga's simple backgrounds and restrained camera angles help focus the attention on the dialogue and facial expressions. And although Ono is partly a comedy character, and it flirts (literally) with the general Boy's Love attitude of OMG THEY MUST ALL BE GAY FOR EACH OTHER, it tries more than most manga to depict gay issues realistically. For instance, Ono is estranged from his family and even went to France because he felt, as a gay man, he couldn't work in a corporate environment in Japan.
And like with the opening scene, Yoshinaga isn't afraid to poke fun at the fannish desire to assume that every character is gay. In one early scene, two twentysomething women, who haven't seen each other since junior high, have lunch in the restaurant. When one of the women accidentally gets some cream on her face, the other woman wipes it off with her finger and licks it. Seeing this, Tachibana confidently whispers to his coworkers that the woman who licked the cream is obviously a lesbian who has feelings for her old friend, but then the woman says that she's married and she's gotten into the habit of wiping food off people's faces ever since she had her first baby. The old 'cream on the face' gag is used a few times in Antique Bakery. Even when there's no gay action going on, it's like a Boys Love manga in that these otherwise manly men are always swooning with raptures of pleasure, only for love of food instead of sex.
Ah, food! It's not just man-porn; it's also food porn. Yoshinaga doesn't include actual recipes, but if you read it, you'll learn a lot about sweets, as well as the ins and outs of running a successful restaurant. (It's not all just about looking cute.) Instead of drawing super-photorealistic food to appeal to the eye like some mangaka do (including Yoshinaga herself in her later work Not Love But Delicious Foods, about dining out in various restaurants), Yoshinaga uses descriptions to get the reader's mouth watering. There's a ton of food terminology here. "The reason it tastes of caramel is because the sugar in the meringue has been baked until caramelized. By doing so, a fragrant burst of aroma is added. Because the meringue is at the bottom, the moisture from the cream layer above sinks down, causing the caramel to seep out in a toffee-like form. This 'weeping' state is what produces the praline-like taste and texture." Well, maybe every line of dialogue isn't important, but the point is, this is a manga for foodies. Personally, like Tachibana, I'm more of a fan of savory foods than sweets, but this manga still leaves me hungry. I hope that some company will translate Yoshinaga's current series Kinô nani Tabeta? ("What Did You Eat Yesterday?"), a pure cooking manga about a gay couple who cook lots of tasty food at home.
Although it originally ran in the shojo fantasy magazine Wings, at its heart Antique Bakery is a josei (women's) manga—in fact, maybe the most popular josei manga ever translated. All of the major characters are adults, both male and female, and most of them are in their mid-twenties and thirties, the age when they're starting to think about things like marriage and long-term plans. The large cast of side characters includes Chuhiro, a stony-faced middle-aged businessman who only smiles when he eats delicious desserts. There's Haruka, the aging TV announcer who's tired of having to flaunt her D-cups to get ratings, and Muramatsu, Tachibana's ex, who is chewed out by her bosses over a failed contract ("A stupid woman like you…the only reason we keep you here is for appearance's sake, to show how equal-opportunity we are!") The level of realism of the story is such that people have to deal with these kinds of grownup problems, and yet there are also scenes where Eiji comes home from work smelling so sweet and pastry-like that all his male roommates can barely keep themselves from licking him. Tachibana's family would really like him to find a wife, but Tachibana has other business to take care of. He's in his thirties, the age of maturity; time is ticking by. Maybe he'll find 'happiness', maybe he won't. No one but you can define what 'happiness' means. How about some cake?
Antique Bakery doesn't have tidy resolutions for all of its characters' problems, but this isn't a bad thing. As Yoshinaga clearly knows, real life is made of bits and pieces, and if you leave some mysteries about your characters—even some contradictions—the reader's imagination will fill them in. The DMP edition of Antique Bakery has a great translation and, in some editions at least, even includes an awesome SCRATCH N' SNIFF cover so you can smell that hot baking action. My only regret about the manga is that, after the 4th and last 'official' volume, Yoshinaga has continued the story in a series of dojinshi which, although they probably sell really well for Yoshinaga at conventions like Comiket in Japan, are unavailable in English in any legal fashion. Hopefully they'll eventually be collected by a major publisher and licensed in English. It's nice to know that the story of Tachibana, Ono and Chikage is still ongoing, and even though the dojinshi occasionally cross into 18+ territory where the original series never goes, it always feels real.
GRAND PRIZE: A limited edition, full-color King of RPGs t-shirt designed by Victor Hao! Available in M, L and XL. Plus a signed and sketched-in copy of King of RPGs volume 2!
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For a chance to win some of this stuff, submit your fan art of the King of RPGs characters to jason (at kingofrpgs.com) by April 15. I'm looking forward to seeing some really weird and beautiful stuff, so please do your best to do some psychic damage on me with your insanely great drawings!
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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