Reviewby Carlo Santos,
With her natural talent for cooking, Najika Kazami has quickly made a name for herself at the prestigious Seika Academy, but not everyone is happy to share in her success. School beauty Akane is jealous that Najika seems to be winning the affections of Daichi, the boy that Akane likes, and she's stooped to some highly unethical methods to win Daichi back! Who will come out on top when Najika confronts Akane? Meanwhile, Daichi's brother Sora reveals something to Najika that could change her entire life. Sora does seem like the perfect guy for her—even helping Najika enter an international cooking contest—but Daichi doesn't seem to think so...
Najika Kazami isn't out to create the national bread of Japan. She's not trying to make the perfect bowl of curry or become a master Italian chef. In fact, we're not even sure if she wants to excel at cooking at all, because she seems quite content to make really nice recipes for people that she likes. That's the paradox of Kitchen Princess, which despite its culinary theme, seems to be more interested in the romantic wranglings of its shoujo-stereotype characters. Volume 4 takes that aspect of the story to new heights with some surprising twists, plus a classic girl-on-girl catfight that proves Najika has a spine after all. At the same time, though, it's annoying to think that a cooking series with some genuinely clever and fun recipes still has to trod over the same old schoolgirl-romance material everyone's seen before. Come on, kids, do you want to cook, or do you want to fall in love? Kitchen Princess is trying valiantly to balance both, but it seems to be losing track of why it's got "Kitchen" in the title.
For those who want to see Najika's life take a dramatic turn, though, this is definitely a high point in the series so far. It's got a forceful conclusion to that whole brouhaha over Najika's wristwatch, complete with water-pouring-on-head action, and the resolution between Najika and Akane leads to a strange, uneasy friendship. Meanwhile, the boys are definitely fighting over Najika now—Daichi's little self-confession that he likes her may feel kind of forced, but it's a necessary point to make, because that's what sets the conflict in motion. You don't even need to read more than a couple of chapters to see where that conflict leads to: grabbing, shouting, a fateful kiss, and a heart-pounding cliffhanger. Hey, who says that romance stories are sappy and weak-willed? This may be a pretty basic love polygon, but it's got emotions running high and plenty of tension to go around.
The only problem with that is when the love polygon starts to overshadow the theme of the story. In the past three volumes, we've seen Najika cook her way out of various little dilemmas, and while she still kind of does that here—most notably in offering Akane a dessert of friendship—it looks like her search for the "Flan Prince" from her childhood has completely taken over the series and flung it straight into the melodrama pit. Blame it on Sora's dramatic revelation, because everything from there becomes a game of who-likes-who and why-doesn't-he-like-me and why-does-she-love-him and other teenage shenanigans.
It gets to the point where cooking becomes almost completely irrelevant, and nowhere is that more obvious than in looking at the chapter titles: "Najika and the Apple Cake," "Najika and the Cocoa Scones," referring to food items that show up for maybe one scene but may as well have been deleted without affecting the plot at all. Why bother with one recipe per chapter if the food doesn't even matter in the story? The international competition might help get things back on track, but we won't find out until Volume 5 because the last chapter of the book is pre-empted by a clichéd little side story.
The art, like the storyline, is a mixed affair: charming and compelling when it delivers emotion, but irritating in its overuse of conventions. There are some brilliantly paced sequences here, like Najika's fight with Akane, and that final cliffhanger. While it's true that most frilly, girly comics tend to cram panels right next to each other, this one is able to pull back and make room for big dramatic moments. Amidst those artistic displays of emotion, however, are the usual pitfalls of the genre: way too many screentones and patterns, hard-to-follow chains of dialogue and layout (although not nearly as bad as some other artists), and an unhealthy overdose of shiny eyes, swishy hair and generic character poses. Which is not to say that the character designs are bad—they're all pleasing to the eye, and easy enough to tell apart, but come on, no one's ever going to cosplay Najika, because she looks just like any other pigtailed heroine. Even the food illustrations are kind of average: detailed enough to see what it is, but lacking the texture and flair that would make one's mouth water.
The course of true love is written in fairly simple words and phrases (at least in this story), and the translation does a straight-ahead job of bringing out the characters' feelings. The writing isn't particularly eloquent, and some might even say it feels stiff and over-simplified, but that's probably due to the original work itself being targeted at younger readers. Being a romance title, it doesn't rely too heavily on sound effects, but each one is translated on the page while keeping the original art intact. A short glossary in the back provides some necessary cultural context, but the real bonus material here is the collection of recipes based on the dishes featured in each chapter. Due to the small page size and layout restrictions, the recipes aren't quite as easy to read as those in a proper cookbook, but it's legitimate culinary material that's worth checking out (the cocoa scones look particularly enticing). One "anti-bonus", however, is that the chapter splash pages which were originally in color are now reduced to grayscale, which does a disservice to these attractive illustrations.
Kitchen Princess has clearly taken on a bittersweet flavor in this volume, with emotions intensifying and a series of sharp twists. The small cast of characters and simple dialogue make it easy to follow these romantic developments, and the dramatic artwork makes it clear when we've hit a turning point in rivalry, friendship, or love. For fans of romance and soap-operatic storytelling, this is about as good as it gets, but those who came for the cooking might wonder what happened to that part of the story. It's still a likable series, especially if you enjoy your emotional ups and downs, but sadly, it looks like Najika's culinary aspirations have hit the back burner for a while.
Overall : C+
Story : C+
Art : C
+ Dramatic twists and a focus on romance drive up the emotional intensity.
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