Manga Review: Kitchen Princess

Manga Review: Kitchen Princess

Title: Kitchen Princess キッチンのお姫さま

Mangaka: Kobayashi Miyuki 小林深雪 and Andō Natsumi 安藤 なつみ 

US Publisher: Kodansha USA

Status: Complete.

Level: Secondary. May also work for some upper elementary students.

Reader’s Advisory Tags: Romance, cooking, love triangles, .

Anime: None.

Content Warnings: Some mentions of eating disorders, character death.

Kitchen Princess is what I would consider typical shōjo fare from the early 2000’s. I remember reading it while waiting for a Harry Potter release (I believe it was Half-Blood Prince). I remembered it as being a gentle read, something I could easily blast through. It also taught me a little about cooking.

Kitchen Princess is the story of Kazami Najika, a scrappy orphan who loves to cook because her parents were tremendously talented pastry chefs. She is searching for her “Flan Prince”- a boy who saved her from drowning and showed her how eating something delicious can give a person hope. He leaves her a spoon with the crest for Seika Academy, and Najika’s goal is to go to that school, find him, and make him the “best dessert in the world”. Using her cooking skills and her “perfect sense of taste”, she sets out to do just that.

The story is what I would call a typical early 2000s shōjo. There’s a pure, earnest protagonist who is poorer than everyone else in the school. She’s rejected by everyone because of her class, until her skill (and the hot guys who recognize it from the start) make the others around her recognize her worth. There’s a bully who turns into her best friend, an adult who spends way too much of his time trying to ruin a child’s life for plot reasons, and a love triangle featuring the prince of the school and his gruffer but still loveable brother.

There are a few things that set Kitchen Princess a little apart, though. First off, they kill off one of the love interests about halfway through in an accident. It’s a pretty mercenary way to avoid having Najika choose between the brothers. Honestly, she effectively chooses both without ever cheating on or betraying anyone.

The main thing, the thing that made Kitchen Princess stick in my memory among the many shōjo manga I read in the early 2000s, is the food. There are recipes at the end of every chapter, and they are honestly quite simple and easy to replicate. Food is a symbol of hope and togetherness in the story, a way of transmitting your feelings from one person to another. Every single dish Najika makes is with another person in mind.

So, Kitchen Princess is a series that I have on my school library’s shelves, and I think you should also consider. It’s light, it’s dramatic, and every student I’ve recommended it to has loved it. Fans of K-Drama especially gravitate to it, because the story has all of the same beats as any popular Asian drama.

A note: One thing to know is that there’s a two chapter storyline about a character with an eating disorder. It onsets quickly and is resolved quickly, which is… unrealistic, but actually pretty common for how Japanese media treats mental health. I’ve personally never read a manga that handled eating disorders as more than a temporary state of mind that can be cured by a friend’s understanding. It’s not dissimilar to how American media treats ED, though, so I have a hard time calling out any foreign piece of media that’s effectively following American trends. Just know that the issue is in there.

Review: Fruits Basket

Review: Fruits Basket

Title: Fruits Basketフルーツバスケット

Mangaka: Natsuki Takaya 高屋 奈月

US Publisher: Formerly TokyoPop, now Yen Press

Status: Complete.

Level: Middle School, High School

Reader’s Advisory Tags: Grief, abuse.

Anime: 2001: Funimation, Hulu.

2019: Funimation, Crunchyroll.

Content Warnings: Discussions of mental and physical abuse.

Fruits Basket, commonly referred to as Furuba (フルバ), is one of the most beloved manga of all time. Like Ouran, Furuba is one of my absolute favorite manga series of all time, and one that I think is essential to a good manga collection. I thought now was the time to talk about Furuba because the new anime has just started airing in simulcast, so school librarians may get an influx of requests for it.

The premise of Furuba is initially relatively simple, but the manga has a complexity and undercurrent that really makes for compelling storytelling. It also has one of the most satisfying conclusions I’ve seen in a manga.

Tohru Honda is a young girl who has recently lost her beloved mother in an accident. When her paternal grandfather, her guardian, needs to live with his family while his home is being renovated, he asks her to stay with friends. Not wanting her friends to worry or be put into a difficult spot, Tohru opts to live out of a tent. The land she chooses to stay on turns out to belong to the Sohma family. Yuki Sohma is Tohru’s classmate, and he and his cousin Shigure live in the house on the property. When Tohru’s tent is buried in a landslide, they offer to let her stay in exchange for doing the cooking and cleaning (something they hate and Tohru loves). Tohru’s such a polite young girl they don’t have to worry about her hugging them out of nowhere- something they are desperate to avoid.

It’s all going very smoothly until Kyo Sohma bursts in through the ceiling, demanding to fight Yuki. Tohru goes to stop him, trips, and accidentally embraces him from behind. When she does so, the Sohma family secret is quickly discovered: when hugged by members of the opposite gender, they turn into the animals from the traditional legend of the Chinese Zodiac. Kyo is the cat, the one animal not included in the Zodiac.

Initially, the manga follows Tohru learning more about the Sohmas and their curse. As it progresses, the relationships among the various members are more parsed out, and it becomes clear that the curse isn’t all cute animal transformations and fun. Furuba ultimately is about healing and moving past grief. It’s about connection, both of the past and the future. It’s also a story of chosen families, escaping abuse, and breaking cycles. It’s a story about how bonds can sour, and how people need space to grow.

I’m going to say, emphatically, that Fruits Basket is a must-buy for a school librarian looking to build a collection of manga. It’s sweet and gentle. It can be quite dark, especially in later volumes, but there’s nothing inappropriate. The darkness comes more in the form of emotional torment and manipulation from the character’s pasts, and in the form of heavy doses of romantic angst as one of the boys falls for Tohru. It all ends, though, with healing and understanding. Everyone, even the perpetrator of much of the abuse in the series, breaks free of a cycle born out of misunderstanding and longing in order to build a fresh new future.

Some readers complain that Tohru, the main character, is a “doormat”. But personally, I’ve never interpreted it that way, and the newer translation is much clearer that Tohru’s weakness is that she’s self-sacrificing to a level that is harmful to her. Tohru has to learn to be more selfish as the series progresses. In my teens and twenties, I had a lot of the same traits as Tohru. I was the “mom” of my social circle, and eventually learned that this was not sustainable or healthy. When I originally read the series, it went over my head that I was in a similar mode and that I needed to learn to practice self care. In my reread of the series, the distance I now have helped me realize how similar my younger self was to Tohru, and that I could have possibly pulled some lessons from her progression.

To understand how beloved this series is, I’d like to point out that the new anime is a prestige anime with beautiful animation, simultaneous release in Japanese and English, and screenings in theaters. It’s basically all the otaku community was talking about since the press release that it was going to be released. The first anime was good for 2001, but it came out before many of the reveals of the series happened, so things were animated and voiced incorrectly. It ends well before the resolution of the plot. (We’re now four episodes in, and I have to say that it is absolutely perfect. The amount of care and love the series is getting from the production is wonderful.)

Anime adaptations like the original Fruits Basket are incredibly common. There are many series that you never got an adequate conclusion from if you didn’t go to pick up the manga. It’s very, very rare for a story to get a second shot in animation. It’s becoming slightly more regular, but mostly shōnen titles get that chance (exceptions being Sailor Moon and Here Comes Miss Modern). For so many resources to be put into the new Furuba is pretty big for the industry, and does a lot to value the impact of shōjo. And if anyone would like to ask, I have a list of other anime I think needs a remake- and others I think it would be a crime to touch.

In short, get this manga, if you don’t have it already. Students love it, and it’s a beautiful story. It’s about finding your place and connecting with others. It’s funny, sad, and thought-provoking.

Review: Ouran High School Host Club

Review: Ouran High School Host Club

Title: Ouran High School Host Club / Ōran Kōkō Hosuto Kurabu桜蘭高校ホスト部

Mangaka: Bisco Hatori 葉鳥ビスコ

US Publisher: Viz Media

Status: Complete

Level: High School

Reader’s Advisory Tags: humor, school stories, shoujo, non-binary character

Anime: Funimation, Netflix, Hulu.

Content Warnings: Some light innuendos, occasional comedic violence.

I’m very biased about Ouran High School Host Club. It is one of my favorite manga of all time, and one that I have the entire set of on my library shelf. I think it’s a masterpiece of the genre, and I’m not alone in thinking so. So, I just want to be clear: this review is totally biased and driven by a profound love.

Ouran is the tale of Fujioka Haruhi, a scholarship student at Ouran High School. Ouran is a prestigious school for the ridiculously rich, which Haruhi is attending to pursue her dream of being a lawyer like her late mother. One day, struggling to find a quiet place to study, Haruhi stumbles across the Host Club: a group of affluent boys who run a club where they entertain young ladies of the school with nothing better to do. Because of Haruhi’s sloppy clothes (she can’t afford the uniform) and haircut (a neighborhood kid stuck gum in her hair, so she cut it out), she appears to be a nerdy boy to the members of the Host Club. When she accidentally breaks an expensive vase, she finds herself in debt- and is forced to do menial tasks for the club. It isn’t until the end of the chapter, after a makeover which gives her the appearance of a cute boy, that the reader and the members of the Host Club are made aware that Haruhi is a girl. What follows, over the next eight volumes, is a farcical comedy of errors and ultimately heartwarming tale of expanding horizons. The Host Club struggles to keep Haruhi to themselves, and Haruhi struggles to understand the boys of the Host Club.

What makes Ouran so unique is the characterization of Haruhi and the various members. Haruhi is actually a very sensible and intelligent character, and sees herself as essentially androgynous. It’s very easy to argue that Haruhi is nonbinary. Her father is a trans woman, proclaiming that he is in fact bi (I use “he/him” for Ranka because those are the pronouns used in the text), and that Haruhi’s mother was the only woman he would ever love. Crossdressing is not unusual as a plot point in shoujo manga. Another classic, Hana Kimi, features a girl crossdressing in order to enter an all boys’ school. What makes Haruhi unique is that her androgynous personality is what throws her into the situation. She’s not a girly girl hiding out to have access to this harem of dudes- in fact, most of the time, she finds them slightly annoying.

Viz Media.

Haruhi is a character who is honest, straightforward, and determined. While all of the male characters inevitably fall in love with her, it makes sense that they would. She gives these rich boys a lot of levity, and understands them in all their idiosyncrasies. She’s the only character allowed to see them outside of their performances.

Each of the boys has a unique personality. Suoh Tamaki is the president of the Host Club, an earnest but dense character with narcissistic tendencies (he’s highly lovable despite being a bit of an idiot). Ohtori Kyoya is the vice president, and the person actually pulling the strings. His strategic maneuvering seems sinister but ultimately has positive goals. Hitachiin Kaoru and Hikaru are twins who are incredibly close and mischievous (there are many similarities between them and the Weasley twins). Haninozuka Mitsukuni (aka “Hunny”) appears to be a cute little boy, but is in fact a senior with killer martial arts skills. Morinozuka Takashi (aka “Mori”) is a quiet and strong young man who waits upon Hunny (their relationship is a callback to traditional Japanese tropes of servitude among samurai). Each boy has an interesting backstory and personality, and expectations are regularly subverted by the text.

Ouran also does a lot of playing with tropes of the genre, and is a direct send up of female otaku culture. The series is a playground of feminine fantasy, while also making clear how ridiculous some of those fantasies can be. The story also blossoms across the eighteen volumes, into a sweet love story and a tale of human connection. Haruhi does eventually fall for one of these boys, but in a genuine way that never sacrifices her personal goals for herself. The ridiculous scenarios are hilarious, and the artwork is gorgeous. Hatori is a master of facial expression, and has a delicate hand. Every illustration is lush and detailed. Images from Ouran are permanently etched into my mind.

I can promise that if you buy this series, it will circulate and that it’s worthy of circulating. Ouran is a classic of the genre and has a lot of meaning for many fans of manga. When I put our set out, I had multiple students thank me for it. It’s an 18-volume series, and it can be cost prohibitive to actually buy for yourself.

I’ll add that the anime is also considered a classic, and is well done. It’s not perfect, and I’m not a fan of how the series wrapped up (it went completely off script from the original manga), but it’s still very good. With Fruits Basket getting a full story animation this year (we’ll talk about Fruits Basket soon), I’m hoping that Ouran may be due for a full story animation as well.