by Carlo Santos,

Yakitate!! Japan

GN 5

Yakitate!! Japan GN 5
Japan's best young bakers are fighting it out in the Pantasia Rookie Tournament, and now they're down to the final eight. Kazuma Azuma of Pantasia's South Tokyo branch faces off against the mysterious masked Koala, pushing his skills and creativity to the limit to create an animal-themed bread. Meanwhile, Azuma's partner Kawachi breezes through this round, but lurking in the wings is an opponent bent on destruction. Kawachi's next challenger is a Harvard-trained chemist backed by Yukino, the ruthless older sister of South Tokyo shop owner Tsukino, and she will stop at nothing—even cheating—to bring down Azuma and Kawachi!

So far we've all been laughing along with each volume of Yakitate!! Japan, enjoying the series' antics as it simultaneously pokes fun at and pays homage to the time-honored shounen tournament genre. But as with every story of a young boy living out his dreams, things have to get serious eventually, and this volume takes a turn towards the darker side of Japan's specialty-bread industry. Already we know that the original founder of Pantasia left the store's various branches to his daughters—but that plot point finally comes into full bloom here when a true villain shows up. As always, the young competitors are all fired up and ready for battle, but take note: behind the wacky, hyperactive exterior lies a tense family rivalry, ready to take the story in a new direction.

Before going in new directions, though, it's important to pick up where you left off—and this one starts out by finishing Azuma's duel with Koala (somehow, a guy with a koala head is always funny). This, along with Kawachi's crab-bread endeavor, is the last of the generic, run-of-the-mill, knock-out-a-secondary-character matchups—and it's just as well, because that formula was getting pretty stale. The turning point comes when the boys go with Tsukino to visit her mother's grave, and at last we see just how much bad blood lies between Tsukino and Yukino. It makes the next round of the tournament that much more dramatic, especially with Yukino's underhanded methods, and the main characters are more than ready to step up to the challenge. Between Kawachi's do-or-die spirit and Azuma's unpredictable genius, this is easily as riveting as any fight series ever. Ninjas? Souls? Who needs those when you've got bread?

What also sets Yakitate!! Japan apart from other series is that, even as it switches into chest-thumping, tear-jerking, I'm-not-gonna-lose mode, it still maintains that inimitable sense of humor. Even when Kawachi or Azuma's livelihood is on the line, there's always time for a wacky judge's reaction, or maybe a sharp remark from Matsushiro, the afro-headed manager. As always, the jokes come in many forms—visual, verbal, or otherwise—from the sexually deviant behavior of Kawachi's quarterfinal opponent, to the judge's amusingly trite, English-impaired recollection of a romance abroad. Best of all, there's another bonus chapter of "Takitate!! Go-han" in this volume, because if competitive breadmaking wasn't already funny enough, well, there's always the culinary possibilities of rice.

The humor and energy of the series continues to come alive thanks to a detailed, dynamic art style. Unfortunately, Hashiguchi is so good at drawing facial overreactions that the more dramatic scenes, like Kawachi's crisis in the semifinals, leave the reader torn between whether to laugh or cry. On the one hand, it truly shows his depth of character; on the other hand, it's a parody of every "I won't give up!" scene ever. Aside from that, however, the series' visual flair is a prime example of how to do a great action comic, even if baking doesn't fall under the traditional concept of action. Clean lines and rectangular paneling make the story easy to follow, even at a rapid pace, while striking close-ups and camera angles keep things lively. Memorable character design is another key to the series' fun factor—not everybody is gifted with the Matsushiro's flamboyant afro, but they all have a distinctive look, from Azuma's headband to Suwabara's stoic glare.

Translation wonks can sit back and relax a bit with this volume—there's only one pun to be found, and it's in the bonus chapter anyway. The rest of the dialogue is colorful and energetic, just like the characters, and it avoids the cheesy awkwardness that often comes with a tournament series. Meanwhile, the Japanese sound effects are replaced entirely by English sounds, but the variety of fonts and creative positioning help to integrate it smoothly with the art. Add in the sharp print quality and this volume is worthy of the $10 price tag, even though it lacks the color-page bonus of the previous one.

If Yakitate!! Japan seemed too wild and pointless at first, then the dramatic turn of this volume is sure to change your frame of mind. And if you already liked the series in the first place, then this should help to reinforce that enthusiasm, as serious character conflict is mixed in with rapid-fire comedy for a highly addictive recipe. Laugh at the crazy judges, cheer on Azuma's ingenuity, and tremble as Yukino coldly sets up our heroes for failure. Clearly, the discipline of breadmaking isn't just art or science—it's a battle as well, and one that will keep readers hooked on this series for many more pages to come.

Production Info:
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-

+ Big laughs as always and big drama as the story takes a serious turn in the tournament.
Still has to mop up some of the dull, lower-level matches before getting to the good stuff.

Story & Art: Takashi Hashiguchi

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