"It's 11 pm and this is a residential area.
But... this is unmistakably a bakery..."
Ito, Vol. 1 - Antique Bakery
Antique Bakery is a 4 volume graphic novel manga series published by Digital Manga Publishing and written and illustrated by Fumi Yoshinaga. Published in English between May 2005 and May 2006, it was originally printed in its native Japanese in 2000 Shinshokan Co., Ltd. In 2002, it received the Kodansha Manga Award in the category of "Shojo." It is mostly a drama, but has a lot of comic and humor elements to it. It's popularity and success prompted a TV drama and separate anime adaptation in its native Japan and a movie version in Korea.
At first glance, the series seems like a standard girl's yaoi series -- opening with Yusuke Ono, one of the main characters, confessing his love for another male lead, Keiichiro Tachibana. However, the similarities dissolve in the introduction scene when, shortly after, Tachibana rejects the love struck Ono with the words "I'm so grossed out it makes me wanna puke! Hurry up and die, you homo!!" This preamble sets up the world that makes up Antique Bakery. In a short series of flashbacks, we are given the various historical threads that would one day meet again at the title bakery, woven into a complex mat. A champion boxer is told he has to leave the ring. A junior high student wades through the the hostile corridors admiring the strength of one of her classmates. Years later, these people meet up again older and different. It is here, at the bakery, where they and the rest of the cast deal with their pasts and learn how to live - surrounded by the many delicious pastries they produce.
"I also highly recommend the strawberries-and-white-chocolate mousse.
The strawberry compote filling will melt in your mouth as the genoise soaked in lime syrup
sings in perfect harmony with the milky flavor of the white chocolate mousse."
Tachibana, Vol. 1 - Antique Bakery
At the heart of it all, overcoming the past is what Antique Bakery is about -- though the scuffle between Ono and Tachibana is only a side note in the character's history, everyone that comes to work at the bakery deal with their pasts and traumas. Antique Bakery is about the characters and how they grow out of what they were and into something more. Tachibana deals with overcoming a trauma that leaves him unable to find satisfaction or success in business or love. Ono deals with memories of his mother and the phobia of women that has left in him. His apprentice, Eji Kanda, is an ex-champion level boxer with a thuggish background trying to find a place he belongs after an injury takes him out of the ring and a love of baked goods takes him into baking. Finally, Chikage Kobayakawa is Tachibana's childhood friend who's unable to do anything properly besides serve Tachibana, but remains the most inherently pure and innocent character in the cast. This cast fills the space of the bakery, which has its own sense of growth as the characters struggle to make it a success.
"This sherry glass for the water alone must be worth 50,000 yen.
If it were me, I'd never set it out for a customer."
Urushihara, Vol. 1 - Antique Bakery
It is often the contrasts between the characters that draw us into the story and makes us wonder more about them as well as adding some needed humor to the story. We see Tachibana's borderline lecherous behavior towards women conflict with Ono's fear of females, Ono's inherent seductive charm nearly undermine Kobayakawa's innocent purity, and Eji's street tough past rub up against his more straitlaced work companions. As we get more fully into the story, we start wondering more about how this all came to be -- Why did Ono, now a world class pastry chef, enter the bakery world when he doesn't like baking? How did Eji, an orphaned street thug turned champion boxer, get such a taste for high class baked goods? Why did Tachibana, a man who says all baked goods just "taste like sugar," open a bakery? Together, the foils within the cast draw out aspects that make the reader want to dig deeper into these little quirks that reveal deep roots.
"From your right, the chocolat orangé - sponge cake that has been thoroughly doused
with orange juice and liqueur, wrapped around a slightly bittersweet chocolate mousse.
Then we have the tarte citron, a delectably sour lemon cream wrapped in a shell of sablé.
Lastly, we have the bavarois-style cake with western pears."
Tachibana, Vol. 1 - Antique Bakery
Antique Bakery is notable for its unusual breaking of genre. Namely, the graphic novel treats its sole gay character in a realistic manner. Most manga and Japanese media in general use homosexuality in two ways: as an oddly idealistic and ritualized kind of relationship that almost neuters the people within it or in a comedic manner. While the media of Japan, much like the media of America, is becoming better with the topic, the average depiction is still problematic. Here, we see not a gay character, but a character who is gay but has other attributes and issues they are trying to deal with. It further breaks the mold by adding touches of realism to it -- in the course of the series, we see Ono go out to gay bars, go on dates, break up with guys, and ask guys out. In other words, he is a rounded person in his 30s, not the typical flowery high schooler that we typically see drawn as a gay male in Japanese girl's comics. Ono is a character -- his sexuality is not the center of the story, and his sexuality is used to round him out rather than flatten him, as is often the case for gay characters in America and in Japan.
Overall, Yoshinaga's story of four people, their past, and the bakery they care for is a well balanced character driven story that tries, more than anything, to depict people we can care about and grow with. As the characters struggle with their own pasts, the reader is made to care deeply about it as they unravel more and more about each character in turn and figure out the quirks that so define them. It has an earnest realism to it that most of the translated manga that is brought over from Japan lack, balanced well by a savvy sense of humor. It is, however, something you don't want to read on an empty stomach.