Food manga gets mangled by superficial, bland drama


POSTED: Sunday, February 22, 2009

The way to a man's — or even woman's — heart is through his stomach, so the saying goes. High-schooler Najika Kazami seems to have taken this adage far too much to heart in the manga series “;Kitchen Princess,”; by Natsumi Ando.

Najika's parents died in an accident when she was a child, and she's been living in the Lavender House orphanage since then. Soon after arriving at the orphanage, Najika fell into a stream and would have drowned if not for a boy who pulled her out. To cheer up the crying, heartbroken girl, the boy gave her a cup of flan — a delicious dessert that finally made her smile. He ran off after that, leaving not only the flan, but a silver spoon that Najika treasured as a memento of her “;prince.”;

Six years later, Najika discovers that the emblem on the spoon belongs to the prestigious Seika Academy. Determined not only to follow in her parents' footsteps and become a pastry chef, but also to find her mysterious “;Flan Prince,”; the girl applies and is accepted — with the recommendation of the director, no less.

She ends up in the gifted class, surrounded by music and art prodigies. Some of the more haughty girls — especially aspiring supermodel Akane Kishida — seeing no apparent talent in Najika, proceed to make life miserable for the new student. What soon comes out is that Najika has amazing cooking skills, but far more than that, she has an “;absolute”; sense of taste — once she tastes something, she never forgets it, and she can even determine what ingredients and how much of them were used to make the dish.

Adding to the envy is the amount of attention Najika is getting from popular class president Sora Kitazawa and his younger brother Daichi, who also happen to be sons of the school director. The latter's attentiveness is particularly irksome for Akane, a childhood friend of the brothers who holds deeper feelings for Daichi.

With the sudden popularity and notoriety she has to deal with, Najika doesn't realize that she's secretly being groomed as part of a larger plan, one that could cause her to lose faith in her dreams.

AFTER TRYING to sink my teeth into five volumes of “;Kitchen Princess,”; I sadly found the series as bland as dry bread. The jealousy of the other girls, the tension between Daichi and Sora, the pettiness of Akane, Najika's persistent sweetness that slowly warms the hearts of the other students — granted that none of it is very original, but here, the staleness is painfully obvious. This plot's definitely been served up in better ways before.

The premise has the right elements for a decent story: Orphaned girl finds her purpose in life and seeks to bring happiness to others through the care she puts into her cooking. But like the Easter Bunny, that's all Najika is — just a bearer of food, served with a cute smile.

With other, similar high school heroines, we see varied aspects of their personality that make them rise from the stereotypes from which they're molded. But Najika never really goes beyond cooking, using food to solve all her problems and comfort both herself and those around her. That formulaic response loses any possible freshness extremely fast.

Although Najika pours her heart and soul into her goals and her cooking, there's also something about that passion that is as superficial as the uppity girls in her class. Even the tragedy of her parents adds little flavor — perhaps because they're referred to by their profession as first-rate pastry chefs so much that there's not much else to them ... and they even died in an accident while on the way to a pastry competition!

Food might warm the soul, but as Sora and Daichi prove when they must constantly taste-test Najika's attempts at perfecting a peach pie, too much of it kills any enjoyment.

The supporting characters fail to add much spice. Sora's personality is dry and flat. Even after we find out what's really making him tick, his detached demeanor is such that one feels that he's still disinterestedly acting by rote, too kind to be truly false-hearted but too cold to lend much support to the gentleness he previously showed to Najika when he pulled her from the stream. Even Daichi's warmth and ensuing confusion over his feelings for Najika can't jazz things up.

Being an aspiring cook, I admit that my interest was really drawn by more than just the story: Each food that Najika makes has its corresponding recipe printed in the back of the book, complete with cute illustrations. (Time constraints prevented me from attempting most of the recipes I'd marked, but partner-in-fandom Jason Yadao and I did at least try making the series' signature “;flan in a cup.”; Read about the insanity online at starbulletin.com!) While each recipe does include tips, don't expect a hand-holding, beginner's experience; still, most of the dishes should fall in the range of someone with basic cooking and baking skills.

“;Kitchen Princess”; turns out to be a hodgepodge of ingredients thrown together, crumbling away when it tries to bake up into something resembling a plot. Both the series' shtick — the food — and the trials of life at an exclusive academy seem like afterthoughts of each other, with the focus wavering uncertainly between both.

Good food might make people smile, as Najika says, but it couldn't save this half-baked school adventure.