I have an easily documented history of mocking the culinary philosophy of Sandra Lee, or at least her zealous enthusiasm for its outcomes. I can’t deny that there’s truth in her claim that adding something real to something packaged can change the outcome for the better. Next time you make brownies from a mix, try replacing some of the water with good coffee that you’ve brewed and cooled, or add a tablespoon of real vanilla extract to a packaged cake mix. You probably won’t, as Lee swears, camouflage the formulaic origins completely, but the result is more complex and satisfying.
It’s true of comics as well, and it’s appropriate that one of the most striking examples I’ve come across recently is the next volume of Natsumi Ando and Miyuki Kobayashi’s Kitchen Princess, due this week from Del Rey. It took a couple of volumes for this series to grow on me, and it took the most recent installment for it to become manga crack.
Here’s the story so far: a plucky orphan (I know) enrolls in an elite private school (bear with me) to find the boy (yes, there’s always at least one) who gave her hope when all seemed lost. She overcomes the snobbishness and resentment of her upper-crust classmates (that crowd again) and catches the eye of the school’s cutest boys (insert feuding bishônen here) with her good heart and nigh-supernatural skills as a pastry chef. (If this were shônen manga, she’d want to become the world’s greatest creator of sweets and set about crushing all rivals when not recruiting them to her entourage, but it’s shôjo, so she wants to use desserts to make people happy, smooth the course of young love, reconcile broken families, and heal the sick.)
So how could a series so transparently formulaic become anything but pleasant, predictable fluff? The secret ingredient is cynicism. (There are spoilers after the cut, so be warned.)
In the fifth volume, Ando and Kobayashi reveal that they aren’t the only ones capable of exploiting orphan Najika’s Cinderella story. In fact, the school’s director (father of Sora and Daichi, the feuding bishônen mentioned above) has been manipulating Najika from the beginning. He brought her to the Seiji Academi with the intent of thrusting her into the spotlight via culinary competition, then trotting out her tragic past for media attention and sympathy, then using her as the poster girl for the academy’s new culinary division. If that level of craven self-interest isn’t distressing enough for you, it turns out that dream-boy Sora has been helping his father with the scheme.
So basically everything that has gone before has been staged, to an extent. Though real to Najika, there’s been puppetry in play, which should force her to re-evaluate her choices and relationships. Sora claims that he’s developed genuine feelings for Najika in the course of executing his father’s crafty, unscrupulous plan, and that he didn’t understand just how low his father was willing to sink. I remain unconvinced, though optimist Najika forgives him and proceeds with the competition. (Participating serves Najika’s ends, at least. She can further hone her skills and honor her parents, gifted pastry chefs who died too young.)
There’s nothing meta-textual about the revelation. Nobody laughs smirks and notes that Najika’s background is “straight out of a shôjo manga,” and that’s good. In a series with so many shôjo staples already in place, that level of self-awareness might be detrimental. Instead, the twist seems heightened but real… a character demonstrating self-serving media savvy in a way that cuts the sweetness of the series without completely demolishing it. Moments like this (which are increasingly frequent though none quite this severe) make Najika’s optimism and generosity seem hard-won instead of… well… simple.
I wish the art had some of the sourness of the plot, but it’s pretty much all pretty sweetness. It’s perfectly competent, and the food illustrations can be mouth-watering, but the visuals are generally too sunny to capture the moodier narrative elements. Those elements aren’t to be overlooked, because they elevate a pretty good shôjo with a fun premise into something much smarter and more interesting. I hope Ando and Kobayashi keep the unpleasant but surmountable surprises coming.
(This long ramble is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)