Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Hanayu Ashitaba is the daughter of an illustrious baking family—but her lifelong dream is to become a sushi chef. Fortunately, her culinary school classmate Hayato Hyuga just happens to be the heir to a famous sushi restaurant. Hanayu's plan is simple: win Hayato's heart, marry into the Hyuga family, and live out her dream! After trying in vain to impress him in the classroom and the kitchen, however, Hanayu's grand scheme takes an unexpected twist when Hayato asks her out. Should she go along with the plan and spend more time with him, or admit that she's only interested in Hayato out of convenience and not because of love?
What's the best cooking manga in the shoujo demographic? If you answered Kitchen Princess, you are a person of good taste, and it seems inevitable that Mixed Vegetables is going to draw some comparisons. Although both series share similar elements—a young heroine at a culinary academy, hoping to find the boy of her dreams while whipping up some fancy dishes—this title skews a little older, a little more down-to-earth, a little more ... boring. The characters and the humor are cute, but not exactly outstanding, and the cooking aspect doesn't seem to set its sights very high. (And seriously, no bonus recipes?) Then again, Kitchen Princess didn't achieve its greatness until about Volume 5, so with romances like these, it's probably best to say that first volumes are not an indicator of future performance.
If there's one thing Mixed Vegetables does well, though, it's in establishing a rarely seen type of lead couple: the kind where both partners are evenly matched. Hanayu may be a bit klutzy with some of the kitchen basics, but she's no mean slouch at gutting a fish (an essential sushi skill), and she can hold her own against Hayato when he picks on her. As for Hayato's pointed barbs, well, he means most of them in jest, and is actually pretty friendly to Hanayu most of the time—a rather fresh approach compared to the usual "I'm going to be a complete ass to the main girl except for the last 5 pages of every chapter" type of male lead that seems to pop up too often these days. The result is a lot of good back-and-forth humor, especially about each other's criss-crossing culinary leanings (wouldn't you believe it, Hayato wants to be a patissier).
As the story moves on from the premise, however, the quality starts to drift. There are still some good moments, like Hanayu's unusual conflict of conscience after Hayato asks her out (indulge his desires, or let him down gently because she only wants to marry him for his restaurant?)—but the rest plays out like a bog-standard back-and-forth romance with occasional spurts of cooking class. That's the trouble with an evenly matched couple—with no major contrasts between the boy and the girl, it's hard to feel any particularly strong emotions about either of them. The spurts of cooking class aren't terribly exciting either; challenges like "cut a cucumber really quickly" and "bake a cake for the teacher" are underwhelming compared to the outrageous things most prodigies do in other cooking-related series. Still, one has to give it up for Hanayu's "I'm going to collect all the knives in the world!" gag, if only because it's so true for culinary wonks.
Much like the story so far, the artwork also has that "kind of nice but not particularly impressive" feel to it. The appealing character designs are probably the strongest point so far, with Hanayu's distinctive dark hairstyle, and Hayato channeling an Arina Tanemura leading man except more rugged-looking. Unfortunately that's about as far as it goes with design—cute and unique within the pages of the story, but probably forgettable once compared to all the lookalike characters out there. The panel layouts also reach about the same level of competence: readable and reasonably spaced out, with a good variety of angles and borders, but unable to deliver truly dramatic scenes or instant-win comedy punchlines the way the best series do. Backgrounds also settle for the typical genre standards, with lots of screentone patterns and draw-by-numbers scenery (the perspective guidelines in the classroom interiors are almost painfully obvious).
As an evenly matched couple, the back-and-forth dialogue between Hanayu and Hayato is one of the key mechanisms of this romance. The comedy bits are definitely on point—Hanayu's plan for knife domination, Hayato's admonitions when they go strawberry-picking, and even just his general jibes at her in cooking class. The more serious stuff isn't as effective, however: Hanayu spends most of her time hemming and hawing about her feelings and sounding every other romantic heroine, except with more references to sushi. Speaking of which, a short glossary in the back provides some useful background on Japanese cooking, from common ingredients to specialty items and techinques. However, Japanese language in the form of sound effects (used mostly to express emotion) gets snuffed out in favor of English replacements—not that it matters too much, since they only appear infrequently and don't get in the way of the art.
Although it gets points for trying, Mixed Vegetables's first volume leaves a pleasant but bland aftertaste—the kind of dish you prepare because there's nothing else to eat in the house. The leading duo does have promising chemistry together, the culinary-school setting is somewhat different from the norm, and the art does have its appeal, but it's yet to push the barrier from "good" into "great." Maybe this volume's real fault is in trying to master two genres at once: not quite dramatic enough to be a great romance series, and not quite gourmet enough to be a great cooking series. But as a combination of the two, it's a decent combo, and besides, you'll need something to tide you over in between (rather slow-releasing) volumes of Kitchen Princess. Still a shame about the lack of bonus recipes, though.
Overall : B-
Story : C+
Art : B-
+ A different sort of couple (the girl actually has a spine; the guy is actually nice sometimes) in a different sort of setting, with a lively sense of humor.
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