Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Sweetness & Lightning
Six months ago, Kohei Inuzuka's wife died, leaving him the sole caregiver for their preschool-age daughter, Tsumugi. Now he's trying to balance raising his daughter with his career as a high school math teacher, and what seems to suffer the most are meals. That all begins to change when he meets a lonely student in the park. Kotori Iida's mother runs a restaurant, but a burgeoning celebrity chef career has left her daughter lonely, and Iida proposes that Inuzuka and Tsumugi all eat together at her mother's restaurant. Slowly, the three begin a journey into better eating and the realization that with family, food always tastes better.
Manga has always excelled at creating genres you might not have expected to see, much less enjoy, and Gido Amagakure's Sweetness & Lightning is no exception. It combines “single dad raising a daughter” literature with a cooking story, and the mix proves to be both heartwarming and delightful. The story follows Kohei Inuzuka, a widowed math teacher trying his best to both raise his preschool-age daughter Tsumugi and maintain his career. Unusually for a story featuring a Japanese workplace, his coworkers and principal are all very sympathetic to his situation – at two separate points in this first volume, he needs to leave work early to run to his daughter's preschool. Instead of being treated with the kind of recriminations we typically see (early volumes of Bunny Drop are a good example), he's allowed to simply drop everything and go. Whether this is the new normal or part of the story's fantasy is unclear, but it not only makes it easy for Inuzuka to be a more attentive parent, but also perhaps speaks to the trauma of his recent bereavement and how well liked he is at his school. Only one teacher doesn't seem to quite understand, and they're presented as more of a younger co-worker who doesn't get it than anything malicious.
Inuzuka comes off as a father who's really trying his hardest but is terribly overwhelmed, making him feel like a more fleshed-out character. In fact, all three of the main protagonists feel very real. Inuzuka looks perpetually harried as he tries to get Tsumugi ready for school, fed, back home, and still make their time together special. Not a big eater himself, he doesn't understand that food is more than a source of nutrition until he comes home to see Tsumugi plastered to an ad on the TV for a cooking device – the food looks so different from what he's been making that he realizes maybe he needs to step up his game. Meeting Kotori Iida also helps him think about what he's feeding his daughter – despite her being in his homeroom, Inuzuka doesn't know much about Iida until he and Tsumugi run into her eating and sobbing in the park. Her mother has less and less time for her daughter due to a budding career as the local celebrity chef, and Iida misses family meals. This makes Inuzuka see mealtime as something to be shared, a realization that we share as readers due to the relatability of Iida's situation. She feels abandoned by her own mother, also a single parent, and the constantly cancelled plans are beginning to wear on her. This provides a nice parallel to Tsumugi, whose one major breakdown occurs when she feels her dad has emotionally abandoned her after he fails to give her the exact reassurance that she craves. Children want and need their parents to take care of them, and Iida's suggestion to Inuzuka that they begin eating together explores both the joys of eating with loved ones and the simple act of spending time together as a family.
And it does seem to be about family, worrisome as it might be to think of a young male teacher and his female student forming a unit with his even younger daughter. It's very clear that Inuzuka only sees Iida as a student, and at one point she wonders if being with her own father would be like having Inuzuka to eat with. While there may be one small indication that she has a crush on him later on, the focus of the story remains on families eating and cooking together. It's clear that Inuzuka comes from a close family himself – one phone conversation with his mother when Tsumugi is sick indicates that she'd drop everything and come if he needed her help, and that she's the primary caregiver for her own mother at this point.
The caveat here is that the volume sometimes feels less like a combined family-and-cooking story and more like two separate stories that just so happen to feature the same characters. While we can see Inuzuka's personality remain intact when he's cooking – his anxiety and the urgency to take care of his daughter come across clearly – Amagakure loses the thread of the story when cooking scenes happen. This is not to say that the cooking scenes aren't interesting, because they are; it just feels like they're breaks in the narrative rather than an organic part of it. This is partially due to the fact that they're following Iida's mother's written instructions, giving the feel of a cooking show rather than a continuing story. This also feels slightly at odds with Iida's relationship with her mom – the woman doesn't have time to eat with her daughter, but she can write out detailed illustrated recipes? It makes her absence feel more contrived than necessary, an excuse to bring the characters together rather than a natural cause of Iida's loneliness.
Amagakure's art is pleasant and particularly good in terms of the little kids. Tsumugi's hair is practically its own person, curling riotously around her head and giving the impression that her father doesn't quite know what to do with it, and her body language is pitch-perfect little kid. The contrast between “outside” Iida and “inside” Iida – glasses versus contacts, messy braids versus coifed hair – does a very good job of showing how she presents herself to the world when deep down, she's really just a kid who wants a family, and Inuzuka's perpetually harried expression and tightly held posture emphasize the stress he's under. Amagakure has some trouble drawing the pelvis, as if there's some uncertainty as to how legs attach to the hips, but with the generally strong other aspects – page setup, use of black, white, and gray spaces, backgrounds – the art more than works for the story, especially in odd details like how the vegetables aren't picture-perfect, but more like something you'd actually find in your fridge.
Sweetness & Lightning's first volume may not quite balance the two genres its working with, but it does introduce us to a winning cast of characters. Its core story about families spending time together over meals and a father's struggle to raise his daughter is heartwarming, and its cast of characters feel very human. If you're in the mood for a sweet slice of life story, this is well worth giving a try, and it might even teach you a new recipe along the way.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B
+ Charming story with emotional heft, characters are very well-presented, included recipes also have conversion notes for measurements, art is particularly good with body language
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