Artistically (and otherwise) derivative, yet worth a try.
I was a little interested in Kitchen Princess when it first appeared in American bookstores several years back; if I recall correctly, it was one of the first properties that Del Rey published in North America. However, it never caught my attention quite enough, so it was only earlier this year, with the end of Twin Spica closing fast and Spiral long completed, that I decided to check it out. Happily enough, I discovered that Kodansha was planning to re-release all of it in omnibus format.
The omnibus format is a very good deal. Each omnibus is set to contain two volumes (some places are reporting three, but this is simply untrue), for $14.99 MSRP. Its a very good price, particularly when one considers that the single volumes were $10.95 each. (Hey, folks, remember when Shounen Jump titles were $7.95 per volume and Shoujo Beat were $8.95? Man, those were some crazy-ass days!)
Now the question is, though – is it worth it?
Well, first off, I’m stunned by the similarities between it and Yumeiro Patissiere. However, even though I saw YP first, the manga was published several years after Kitchen Princess started up, so I can only conclude that it was ripping off of this. However, I have to say that I find YP’s main heroine’s motivation much more compelling than Kitchen Princess’s; in YP, Ichigo arrives at the prestigious school of her universe having finally found that she has a talent for something and with the ultimate goal of being able to make the strawberry tart her pastry chef grandmother used to make for her. In KP, Najika arrives at the prestigious school because she’s looking for a boy who saved her when she was a little girl.
Speaking of, KP completey rips off of the Revolutionary Girl Utena manga for Najika’s past and her motivation for arriving at her new school, Seika Academy. For those of you unfamiliar with the RGU manga, after Utena’s parents die when she is a child, she wanders aimlessly and miserably, and falls into a river, where a man saves her from drowning – the man who gives her the rose crest ring. He also encourages her to live and promises that they’ll meet again. The ring eventually leads her to Ohtori. (Utena, being the intrepid lass she is, also must decode a series of postcards her aunt receives in the mail to finally find her way to Ohtori; manga!Utena is smarter than anime!Utena.) After Najika’s parents die, she wanders aimlessly and miserably, and falls into a river, where a boy saves her from drowning. The boy gives her flan, and leaves a special metal spoon in it. He encourages her to live on despite her parents’ deaths. The spoon eventually leads her to Seika.
I would also like to address the other major derivative issue with Kitchen Princess. Natsumi Ando, the artist, has a style so clearly cribbed from Arina Tanemura circa 1996-2000 (Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne, Time Strange Kyoko, etc.) that it is distracting. There are many, many panels where I would’ve assumed I was looking at Maron and Chiaki from KKJ had I not known any better. There are visual tropes pulled from the likes of Naoko Takeuchi as well, but at least with these it doesn’t feel like Ando is directly copying; you wouldn’t mistake these moments for her tracing off of someone else’s work. If you were shown an isolated page and told to guess who had illustrated, you would guess that it was Tanemura, not Ando.
Now, these two artists have similar active periods, so I also checked some of Ando’s older work; maybe she and Tanemura just happened to utilize a similar style independently that itself was influenced by general trends. But looking at art from Ando’s older efforts shows an art style that, while similar to Tanemura’s, is visibly different. It is only with her later work that there’s this startling resemblance to Tanemura’s early style (one can see subtle shifts in her art starting in Full Moon wo Sagashite, if you’re wondering, but they are very subtle; not the obvious difference you can see between a volume of CardCaptor Sakura and Kobato., for example).
Now, at this point, I can guess what you’re probably thinking – that I must’ve hated Kitchen Princess. I actually didn’t, although I was driven a bit mad over the matter of the art.
Kitchen Princess is a pretty simple story. Najika, an orphaned girl, enrolls at Seika Academy having been accepted on the director’s recommendation, and in search of the boy who saved her life as a child. She’s a master at cooking, in part because she has super-sensitive taste buds which allow for her to never forget the taste of something and detect even trace bits of ingredients in a completed dish. She is placed in the elite class for her year, but is bullied by her classmates, who think she doesn’t deserve to be in the class. One girl in particular, the model Akane, is especially cruel to Najika, doing her best to make her classmates hate and torment the girl. But Najika makes fast friends with Sora and Daichi, a pair of seemingly mis-matched brothers, one of whom is admired by the entire school. Predictably, this worsens the bullying.
Najika perseveres, though, with the help of her newfound friends and a refusal to quit, transforming the neglected cafe on campus into the hottest lunchtime destination in the process and does win over most of her classmates. Akane remains stubborn, although the preview for the next volume indicates that she’ll have changed her tune by then… surely because of something that did manage to make this manga stand out from a crowded field of girls going to elite schools, being bullied there, and being befriended by allegedly hot guys.
Akane is absolutely awful to Najika, who, in grand shoujo tradition, is too nice or too dumb to catch on before Akane point-blank says that she hates her. Even after, Najika still tries to befriend Akane. I kept hoping, even as I knew it’d never happen, that Najika would just backhand this asshole and there’d be a fight. Even after the “explanation”, Akane’s behavior is totally shitty and inexcusable. Najika’s persistence in being nice to Akane only makes sense when it becomes clear that Akane has an eating disorder, and it is at this point that KP gives us something to sink our teeth into, no pun intended.
Akane, under pressure from her mother, who was a supermodel, and from others who know that her mother was a supermodel, develops an eating disorder. It surprised me that we actually saw her “on-screen” forcing herself to throw up. When her big debut comes in the form of a commercial for ice cream, she can’t bring herself to eat the ice cream on camera, and ends up being kicked from the project, supposedly for looking too unhealthy… even though she had been praised for doing well prior to being unable to eat the ice cream, a neat little demonstration of the hypocrisy of the model industry, in that girls and women are supposed to be unnaturally thin but are punished if they cannot pretend adequately that this is a healthy ideal.
Najika recognizes what is wrong with Akane, explaining that one of the girls in the orphanage had an eating disorder as well, so she knows the signs. She reaches out to Akane, trying to help, despite being rebuffed several times. It is Najika’s efforts here that really show that she’s a good person, much more so than her previous refusal to reciprocate Akane’s crappy attitude and actions toward her. Akane is in serious trouble, and Najika understands because she’s seen it happen to someone else.
While the solution may be a bit simplistic (Najika makes a peach pie just like Akane’s grandmother used to make her, reasoning that a former comfort food will be easier for Akane to eat some of than anything else), I was still surprised to see such an issue covered at all. Dieting comes up so often in shoujo manga that it is really cool to come upon such a thoroughly food-positive series, even if the body-types on display themselves aren’t exactly diverse.
Overall, I did enjoy the first omnibus for Kitchen Princess, despite the obvious flaws. It is largely a light story, with a surprising detour into the serious issue of eating disorders that was handled quite well. Although I wish our heroine were less stereotypical (really nice, not very bright), the eating disorder storyline made me appreciate her as a character a lot more. I will certainly be checking out future omnibuses.
I also wanted to note quickly that, reflecting the subject matter, the author included recipes for all the dishes made in the story so far. I haven’t tried any of them myself (I just bought the book yesterday… also, it is summer, too hot to cook indoors), but they’re all there. I will criticize Del Rey (as the single volumes have simply been re-printed here) for not converting the measurements to imperial units, though, since it was printed for the United States market.