Reviewby Carlo Santos, Apr 21st 2008
Najika Kazami went to Seika Academy's culinary school with a dream: to become a master chef and to find the "Flan Prince" who saved her life when she was a little girl. Now that her classmate Sora has revealed himself to be the Prince, the dream has come true—except that Sora's brother Daichi has also expressed his feelings for Najika by stealing her first kiss. Amidst these distractions, Najika must come up with dessert ideas for a nationwide competition. What she doesn't know, however, is that Sora and Daichi's father, the director of the Academy, has a very good reason for wanting Najika to succeed in the competition ... a reason that could destroy her trust in Sora.
Yakitate Japan for girls? Maybe! All right, so Kitchen Princess doesn't quite have the insane humor of everyone's favorite breadmaking saga, but Volume 5 shows that it contains all the other essential ingredients for a great cooking series. The Confectionery Competition goes into full swing here, and with it, all the technical challenges, competitive tension, and mouth-watering sights that make cooking contests so much fun. But the personal side of Najika's story is not forgotten: her relationships with Sora and Daichi continue to waver up and down, while the school director's intentions add a whole new set of problems. But the single most stunning moment in the book is that one end-of-the-last-chapter cliffhanger that proves this is more than just another fluffy cooking series.
Admittedly, the previous volume was kind of a romantic polygonal mess: too much jealousy and bickering (and something about a watch), and not enough of the culinary spark that made it interesting in the first place. Fortunately, this installment totally puts the "kitchen" back in Kitchen Princess, with Najika looking for a solution to the next round of the baking contest. This is the volume where you will learn how shortbread cakes differ around the world, how to kick castella cakes up a notch by applying Japanese ingredients, and (in the side-story chapter) how to make cupcakes out of a microwave. It may not be a wild plot twist or a striking new character, but these pockets of culinary creativity do add to the story in their own way.
What about readers who care more about the characters than the food, though? Not to worry. The excitement of the competition is enough to propel the story through first couple of chapters, but then deeper stuff comes up when Sora and Daichi's dad arrives on the scene. The school director's media manipulation techniques cast a darker tone over this story arc: Najika discovers her true purpose in the competition and must face the memory of her parents, while Sora's integrity is called into question as he must choose between family allegiance and the girl he loves. But just as things seem to have settled between Najika and her boys ... then comes the cliffhanger that plunges the series into a whole new world of tension and promises more drama to come.
Unfortunately, that's the point where the side story comes in and takes up the last 40 pages. It's an irritating bait-and-switch that diminishes the quality of this volume: after all, the main story is finally starting to go places, and one more chapter would have really hit the spot. Instead, we get some light fluff that harkens back to the catty classroom rivalry of the first two volumes.
Despite the recent improvements in the storyline, the series still wallows in average-to-decent artwork that slavishly follows convention. All the main characters are graced with soul-swallowingly huge eyes, and the only way to tell Sora and Daichi apart is by keeping track of "the light-haired one" and "the dark-haired one." Then come the visually busy backgrounds where screentone patterns are shoved into just about every available white space, regardless of whether it makes sense or not. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but does grade-school shoujo have to be the same way? Yet somehow, by some act of artistic magic, the layouts are still easy to follow compared to other works in the genre—the backgrounds may be overly decorated, but you can always tell which panel to read next and which character is talking. With 30-40 pages per chapter, there's plenty of room for those big, emotionally charged scenes—especially the cliffhanger where the main storyline leaves off.
Simple, straightforward dialogue is another key to the series' ease of reading. All right, so maybe the characters wear their emotions on their sleeves a little too much—everything boils down to "I like you" or "You are special to me"—but it's still better than being painfully vague. A glossary in the back helps clear up any cultural points, mostly specialty foods that are mentioned in the story. But the real bonus material, of course, is the collection of recipes based on the desserts featured in each chapter, and even total beginners can have a go at the microwave cupcakes.
There have been times when Kitchen Princess' potential for success seemed questionable: was it going to devolve into a pointless back-and-forth love triangle? Was the heroine going to get locked into an endless tournament of increasingly difficult recipes? Fortunately, these doubts have been washed away by the events of Volume 5, which is loaded with twists and revelations: the true motives of the school director, the role of Najika in the competition, the story behind her parents, and of course, the cliffhanger that will have devoted readers waiting with bated breath for Volume 6. The art still isn't all that great, and the side story really should have been saved for another volume, but the positives do outweigh the negatives as this series continues to get better and better.
Overall : B-
Story : B+
Art : C
+ A well-balanced offering of competitive excitement, dramatic revelations, and some tasty recipe ideas.
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