Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Sub.DVD - Part 1
Kazuma Azuma has always dreamed of making a signature Japanese bread, a bread that Japan can hold up as a symbol of its culture and people - a Ja-pan. In pursuit of this dream, he journeys to Tokyo in the hopes of winning a position at the famed Pantasia bakery. Arriving at the Pantasia gates, Azuma is quickly thrust into a competition for a vaunted job opening, where he makes use of his powerful “Hands of the Sun” to battle through a series of death-defying (okay, more bread-defying, but still) challenges. Will Azuma and his friends find fame and fortune in the glamorous world of breadmaking?
Yakitate!! Japan is a show about youth, and friendship, and hard work, and triumph. It's also a show about bread. It takes all those classic shounen tournament staples - harsh teachers, fierce rivals, harrowing training and last-minute reveals and dramatic reversals - and applies them to a show about characters combining flour, yeast, and various other essentials to make every conceivable variation on the staff of life.
Somehow, this actually works.
The show opens with our protagonist Kazuma Azuma, who has the legendary “Hands of the Sun,” hands whose warmth lend an uncanny speed and power to his bread-making prowess. Azuma dreams of making a renowned Japanese bread, Ja-pan (“pan” meaning bread, the first of many silly puns that only sometimes translate), and after designing fifty-some potential Ja-pan variants at home, he ultimately heads to Tokyo, in order to hone his skills at the legendary Pantasia bakery. There, he finds himself immediately competing in a tournament to earn a spot on their staff (as you do), and after a brief and thrilling run, ultimately washes out under shady circumstances. Fortunately, he and his scrappy new friend Kyousuke Kawachi end up being recruited by Tsukino Azusagawa, the second daughter of the Pantasia-owning Azusagawa family, and so their journey begins at her lowly South Tokyo Pantasia branch.
After a brief testing period by the branch's tough-talking, afroed manager and an unexpected competition with the branch's main rival, tournament season comes round once again, as both Azuma and Kawachi fight to compete in the grand Pantasia Rookie Competition. There, sweat and salt will be shed as the two gain rivals and nemeses, scraping and innovating and battling with all their bread-drenched might. Whose bread will rise, whose loaves shall fall? Only the oven's timer will tell.
Yakitate!! Japan is a very silly show. I'm sure you could guess, given the premise, but this is definitely and directly a comedy, full of wild reactions, absurd bread-prompted fantasies, and lots of meta jokes. The “overreactions and loud noises” school of anime comedy doesn't normally suit my palate, but Yakitate!! Japan fortunately brings more than that to the table, even if the staple comedy food groups are ultimately its bread and butter.
Underlying everything else, the first layer of comedy here is the baseline absurdity of the premise, and the way classic shounen/sports tropes are consistently applied to baking. Bread underlines the characters' tragic backstories (“his sister almost died in a freak lactose accident!”), bread defines their wild powers (“germinated brown rice yeast plus Gauntlets of the Sun, activate!”), and bread is the vessel of their victories (“What is this mouthfeel?!?”). The show's total stone-faced commitment to upholding action cliches with floury flavoring is one of its greatest, most consistent strengths.
The second layer of comedy is the show's “setpieces,” as they were - the absurd overreactions that define each bread-tasting. A particularly savory croissant will send its chewer straight to France, while a well-baked melon bread will leave its devourer dodging melons in a melon bullet time. On top of those fundamentals there's a scattered heaping of pop culture references (some largely untranslatable, like a reference to a specific Japanese comedy duo, others as dated as the bullet time), a bunch of bread puns, and a tendency towards self-awareness that slowly shifts from offhand quips about character roles to the characters actively mocking the show's producers. Ultimately, I only found about half of these tricks funny at all (as I said, ridiculous reactions don't do it for me, and the pop culture references are a mix of stale, obvious, and impenetrable), but fortunately, Yakitate!! Japan has one more major ace up its sleeve: it's actually just perfectly able to succeed in the genre it's riffing on.
At its heart, Yakitate!! Japan really is a dedicated shounen/sports show. There's the long buildups introducing each wacky opponent (one's a Nagoya-obsessed Italian-American who wears a baseball uniform at all times, another wears a koala mask and actually answers to “Koala”), there's the fierce periods of invention as our heroes think of how to best their rivals, there are twists and turns and cliffhangers through the baking, and there are absurd releases as the judges sample our heroes' bread. The show is solid on these genre fundamentals, and even when you're not laughing, the pace keeps up, the characters are likable, and it's fun guessing what might come next.
The characters generally win not by being better at cooking, but coming up with a trick to laterally attack the challenge. Which makes sense, since that makes bread-making an understandable puzzle, and not just “his food tastes better!” And there's always a big reveal, and the opponent can always be “traditionally” stronger, a mighty baker that unerringly prompts a “how can we possibly win?” The show has the traditional mix of “friendship, hard work, victory” you'd expect from a shounen, but to this it adds a firm emphasis on creativity. Invention is what makes a good baker here, which is both an interesting spin on the formula and likely a necessity of the format. We can't taste good fundamentals, but we can be dazzled by ridiculous surprises and gimmicks. Overall, the story certainly won't wow you - for all its bread-based lunacy, it plays very close to genre template, with well-worn character types, plot beats, and structure. Tsukino is never really given much to do, and there are whole lot of repetitive “how will he get out of this one”s and “has he finally lost it?”s when clearly Kazuma always has a plan and definitely has not lost it. But the challenges are fun, and the execution is consistent enough to maintain interest throughout.
The animation is very limited and takes a lot of shortcuts, as you'd expect from a long-running shounen. The show doesn't exactly revel in gratuitous flashbacks, but it does make use of them where it can, and there are virtually no legitimately well-animated sequences. The art is fairly bland, but the character designs are reasonable, and the show does its best to elevate the silly reaction sequences. I also have to mention the show's entertainingly terrible CG melons - they only show up for a couple episodes, but there's a hilarious contrast between these low-res melons and the traditional 2D animation.
The music is unassuming but generally solid. There are some nice florid riffs for the reactions (court music for dancing, trills for sparkling romantic moments with bread), and the core, oft-repeated songs do their jobs, with a We Will Rock You-esque drum-driven piece working particularly well for the dramatic leadups. The opening song seems like too much of a ballad for a show like this, but the first ending is a much more appropriate alt-rock number, and the second, featuring a disco-dancing CG manager, is… well, it exists.
The DVD release is in 4:3, and has the uneven, somewhat jagged-edged quality you'd expect of an early-mid 2000s shounen. The subs are in that classic garish yellow, and there are a few typos throughout. I also had one specific problem where episode 26 would skip to the end right after the halfway point, which I was only able to resolve by “rewinding” until just after the skip moment - however, I wasn't able to repeat this problem on my DVD drive, so it may have been a strange momentary glitch. There are no physical extras, but the fifth disc comes packed with a PDF of liner notes that explain the show's many puns and references (while also revealing just how much fun the translation team had with this ridiculous show). Overall, Yakitate!! Japan is breezy and enjoyable, accomplishing what it sets out to do without ever truly shining or failing. The humor is hit or miss and the aesthetics aren't great, but the show's a reasonable articulation of its genre regardless. It's not the best popcorn watch, but it's reasonable popcorn nonetheless.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : C
Art : C-
Music : B
+ A very watchable riff on shounen/sports shows that more or less succeeds both as a comedy and as a legitimate entry in its genre.
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