A Matter of Taste

My knowledge of manga is far from encyclopedic — for all I know, bakery yaoi could be an entire, hugely popular sub-genre in Japan. In any case, if it isn’t, it should be — as Fumi Yoshinaga’s “Antique Bakery” demonstrates, the rabid consumption of pastry works perfectly as a background for a shoujo tale of semi-sinful, semi-infantilized, polymorphous desire. In Yoshinaga’s series, lust is as idiosyncratically arbitrary as a passion for strawberry tarts, and vice versa. The main characters are all defined, in more or less equal measure, by their relationship to sweets and to sex. For instance, Yusuke Ono, the Antique Bakery’s pastry chef, is a “gay of demonic charm” — if he is attracted to another man, homosexual or otherwise, that man will succumb to his advances. Ono’s romantic talents are matched only by his culinary ones — in fact, his sexual exploits seem, if anything, less orgasmic than his almond-flavored-sponge-cake. People who eat his pastries thrash and shriek and moan in ecstasy. Eiji, the straight assistant chef, offers his body to the cook after sampling the white-chocolate-flavored-mousse (Ono refuses; he finds Eiji unaccountably unattractive.) The only one nonplussed by the glorious desserts is the shop’s owner, Keiichiro Tachibana, who has no sweet tooth — he prefers savory dishes. By a narrative, if not a thematic, coincidence, Tachibana is also the only man on earth immune to Ono’s “demonic charm.”

The series gets off to a slow start with a passel of confusing flashbacks and a couple of maudlin and unmotivated episodes in which Yoshinaga seems to be struggling to figure out what she’s doing with the concept. By the end of the first volume, though, things start to hum along nicely — chef Ono transforms for the first time from gawky, geeky, female-phobic nerd to slick, fashion-conscious gay predator; owner and wannabe ladies-man Tachibana prances around clutching a counter-girl outfit; and we get the first of many extensive and meticulous lessons in pastry making (freeze your strawberries before making compote, kids.) From there, the series spirals off into ever more refined realms of goofiness, accelerating with the introduction of the looming Chikage as semi-competent counter-staff, and probably reaching its peak in volume 3 with the debut of two top-heavy newscasters who begin their television segments by singing a theme entitled “Big-Busted Female Announcer Unit Haruka and Tammy!” Yoshinaga’s layout and design are sparse by shoujo standards — she uses basic grids, and often dispenses with backgrounds altogether. But she has a delightful knack for facial expressions — when Tachibana launches into his sales pitch, for example, he looks almost indecently smarmy. Her command of body language is also first rate. I think my favorite picture in the book is a cartoonish image of apprentice-chef Eiji as he’s about to head out for his French language lesson — with his eyes reduced to pinpoints, his legs slightly bent, and his skinny arms hanging helplessly, it looks as if his overwhelming dejection has actually swallowed up the surrounding art, leaving him hanging in space with only his bookbag and a pitiful high-school letter jacket to keep him company.

Of course, the series isn’t all just passion, gags, and baking tips. There is also plot, and – more problematically – plot arcs. Yoshinaga’s short-form sitcom set-ups can be perfectly entertaining. Tachibana dresses up in a Santa suit to make deliveries, and discovers that the only people on his route who care are the middle-aged drunks — children are terrified. Or, two women come to the bakery; one wipes cream off the other’s face and licks her finger, causing Tachibana to erroneously assume that they’re lesbians. Or, Ono and the clueless Chikage go for a sensual dance in the rain and then almost kiss.

Unfortunately, Yoshinaga is not satisfied with fluffy, frivolous good times; she also wants to give her characters Inner Lives. As a result, everyone in the ensemble is methodically saddled with a meaningful backstory, replete with childhood trauma and emotional obstacles to overcome. Chikage’s mother was abused; Eiji is an orphan with abandonment issues. As an adolescent, Ono discovered his mother having an affair with his schoolteacher; this, we are expected to believe, led to both his fear of women and his player lifestyle (though not, mercifully, to his homosexuality). But the most melodramatic past goes to Tachibana, who was abducted as a young boy — and who was so traumatized that he remembers nothing about his kidnapper except that the man forced him to eat cake. He has established the bakery, Yoshinaga implies, in a semi-conscious effort to catch his still-at-large abductor.

The pop Freudianism is depressingly ill-advised — the book is charming in large part because the characters are all id, and trying to explain in psychological detail why Tachibana strikes out with women, or why Eiji is devoted to Ono, is a lot like trying to explain why you love chocolate and I love vanilla. It’s pointless and, if taken too seriously — as it often is here — annoying. The transparent effort to add emotional heft by gratuitously dragging the bodies of young children through the eclairs is even more ridiculous — and not in a good way. Toward the end of the book, a serial killer with a sweet tooth and a thing for boys shows up. Is it Tachibana’s old abductor? Will the store owner overcome his past trauma? And is there any reason that this whole exploitive, brainless storyline shouldn’t piss me the fuck off? The answer to the third question, at least, is no — in fact, the cynically earnest drift into true crime almost ruined the whole series for me.

Almost, but not quite. Even at her most maudlin, Yoshinaga retains a keen sense of the silly — the detectives investigating the killer, for example, are obsessed with the bakery’s foodstuffs — and the denouement is just anti-climatic enough to relieve a little of the heavy-handed weight. Most importantly, though, the covers of each volume in the series are scratch-and-sniff…a detail I find inexplicably irresistible.

This review first ran in The Comics Journal # 285