Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Feb 16th 2014
Harumi Takasugi finds himself working part time at a middle school and hanging around helping with research at his graduate school, despite have earned his PhD in geography. This seems like nothing, however, when he learns that he has just been named guardian to his aunt Miya's twelve-year-old daughter, Kururi, a girl he barely knew existed. Now Harumi, a clueless scholar, and Kururi, a wounded soul, must somehow figure out how to make their lives work together, and that memories of Miya's food might be the key to their happiness.
Harumi Takasugi's position is a familiar one, not just in manga, but in life. He's just finished working his way through the halls of academia to attain his PhD, only to find that maybe the world wasn't quite ready for him, and there are no full time jobs. This might be a problem if he had a family to take care of, but for a single guy in his thirties, he can scrape by well enough, even if he does pepper his days with some feelings of inadequacy. His life grows less familiar, however, when he finds that he has been bequeathed guardianship of his aunt Miya's twelve-year-old, Kururi. Miya, who was only seven years older than Harumi and raised with him as his older sister, vanished thirteen years ago, citing guilt over her part in his parents' deaths. Therefore while Harumi knew of Kururi's existence, he had never met her. Now he is faced with a new and baffling array of problems, not the least of which is how he is going to care for a twelve-year-old without everyone assuming he's a pervert.
This is actually a running theme in this first volume of Nozomi Yanahara's Takasugi-san's Obento. Harumi looks like the stereotypical nogoodnik of Japanese pop culture – plaid shirt, messenger bag, shaggy hair, glasses...all he lacks to be the total image is to be overweight. Throughout the volume we see side characters watching askance or in outright horror as he and Kururi go about in public, and twice he gets the police called on him by well-meaning middle aged ladies. While this is mostly played for laughs, the latter time has some severe emotional repercussions of Kururi, and can be seen not just as a running gag, but also as a statement on the plight of single fathers who look (or are) young, a direction Yanahara increasingly seems to be going.
Apart from the social issues, the major difficulty both Kururi and Harumi face is the fact that they, despite having never met before, are suddenly supposed to act like a family. Harumi doesn't want to be misunderstood and to be a real guardian to the girl, while Kururi, still grieving for her mother, doesn't want to be a burden. Matters come to a head on the subject of food. Harumi, who only had beer in his fridge when Kururi arrived, mentions that Miya used to make his bento (lunchbox) every morning and that he always loved her kinpira burdock. Kururi remembers the dish and had only just learned it before her mother's death, and so surprises him with a bento filled with nothing but kinpira burdock. This inspires both Harumi and Kururi to try other recipes Miya used to make, often through trial and error. The food, and the memory of their one link, brings them together.
Yanahara's story is just as much about the power of feeding someone, and the joys of comfort food, as it is about the growing bond between the two protagonists. We watch Kururi seek out the best – yet cheapest – ingredients, and the lengths Harumi will go to in order to perfect a dish for his cousin. Each chapter is titled after a lunch treat, and with each new food the characters become a little bit more comfortable with each other. Harumi's geography background, which really sounds more like cultural anthropology, comes to the fore as he considers what ingredients Miya would have used in Tokyo that are different from those popular where he lives. This helps to rejuvenate his academic interests, and we see food helping to shape his life in ways beyond the family dynamic. Food also helps to bring a romantic interest for both characters into the picture, though the last scene of the volume is a bit worrisome on that front.
Yanahara's artwork is busy without being overwhelming, using lots of panels and gray spaces but remaining easy to read. Kururi's big feet and awkward legs help to give her the look of a twelve-year-old, and her facial expressions ease the fact that she speaks infrequently and haltingly. All of the characters have shine drawn at the bottoms of their eyes, but thanks to the shape of Kururi's, she always appears to be on the verge of tears, while none of the other characters do. DMP's translation reads well and smoothly, and really the only complaint is that there is no glossary of foods. Yes, they can all be looked up online, but liner notes would have been a good touch, to say nothing of convenient.
Takasugi-san's Obento's first volume introduces us to a nice story about the power of food in helping to make people feel at ease and express emotions. Fans of Yumi Unita's Bunny Drop or Asou Kai's Only Serious About You should enjoy this take on the father/daughter story, and fans of Japanese bento will also want to check it out. Mixing family dynamics with social issues and some tasty treats, Takasugi-san's Obento is a book worth sinking your teeth into.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Both funny and sweet, nice use of food as a comfort. Kururi's personality comes through despite her limited speech.
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