Sometimes you need a break from the stress and the angst of shounen manga. Sometimes you need something so sugary sweet it melts in your mouth like a delicious caramel. Amongst the high drama and action-packed worlds we’ve been exploring of late (like Attack on Titan and WataMote), we needed something sweet and cheery. Kitchen Princess fills that void nicely, with appealing character designs, comfortable narrative tropes and a ton of delicious treats. The first Kitchen Princess omnibus collects volumes one and two of Miyuki Kobayashi’s charming shoujo manga, injecting a bit of its own special magic here and there to keep things fresh.
Najika Kazami is a young girl from Hokkaido looking to start life anew at Seika Academy, following in the footsteps of her famous pastry chef parents. Najika has a phenomenal penchant for cooking, and can recreate a dish exactly by simply tasting it. Though she isn’t attending the academy for prestigious reasons alone — she’s looking for a mysterious “Flan Prince” who saved her from drowning in Hokkaido when she was a young girl. She has no name or real appearance to work from, only a mysterious silver spoon to go by. It ultimately leads her to Seika Academy, from where she continues her search to thank the “prince” for his kindness and saving her life. In true shoujo manga fashion, wacky hijinks ensue.
Najika’s first day at Seika Academy reveals the resident “mean girl” who isn’t quite comfortable with her own cooking ability or personality as a whole, so she picks on other girls who might encroach upon her childhood friends. But that’s not all our heroine has to be concerned with. She also has to look out for the rest of the pack. As a poorer girl from the country Najika, she is subject to haughty treatment by other students, jealousy and plenty of general cattiness, since the sons of the school’s director, Sora and Daichi Kitazawa, take a liking to her almost immediately. The older brother, Sora, is elegant and chivalrous, while the younger Daichi has an obvious chip on his shoulder.
It’s clear that the two brothers begin to care deeply for Najika and want to see her happy, so their actions and responses to her shenanigans do ultimately become predictable. These are tropes deeply ingrained in the genre, with gorgeous bishounen taking a shine to a “country bumpkin” with a heart of gold. And while you can pretty much begin to guess at what will unfold from chapter to chapter, there’s a warmth in Kitchen Princess that keeps you turning pages. How will Najika deal with a pastry competition where she must outperform a master chef? How can she get along with a girl who outright hates her guts? And will she actually find her Flan Prince at Seika Academy or is she doomed to continue searching her entire life for a man she may never get to meet?
I found myself yearning for the next volume at the end of this one, despite feeling as though I were indulging in a bit of a guilty pleasure throughout. The wholesome stories, the naivete of youth and the “pure of heart” feelings exhibited by Najika herself felt too good to be true, but it was an engaging escape I willingly lost myself in. Though nearly every aspect of Kobayashi’s tale is strictly by-the-book when it comes to manga for young girls, I was still thoroughly entranced by its sheer ability to keep earnest in a world where absolutely none of this subject matter could unfold in a believable manner.
Kitchen Princess doesn’t rely on a large cast to tell its story, instead centering around the very likable (but clumsy) Najika Kazami, the plucky young girl from Hokkaido who just can’t tell when people are deliberately being hateful to her on purpose or are genuinely trying to make friends. The academy director’s sons Sora and Daichi Kitazawa run the gamut between tsundere and classic bishounen, with Sora easily the one to root for early on. Daichi is callous, rough around the edges for seemingly no reason, then displaying intense kindness when it’s least expected. Sora is an older, more gentlemanly type who can usually be counted on to treat Najika like the “princess” she is, but you also get a whiff of a more sinister tone to him. Is he hiding something? If so, why?
Lesser characters like Najika’s family, classmates, and the small run-down cafe owner are interesting enough to want to hear more about their origins, but the only player close to the role of antagonist currently is Akane Kishida, a gorgeous young model who can’t stand Najika stealing all the attention from her — namely, that of Daichi’s. It pushes her to succumb to an eating disorder, working hard to become a top model so she can outshine her “nemesis.” Akane certainly isn’t in any way likable throughout these two volumes, but I surmise she’ll soon change her tune since Najika was able to “prove” herself in ways Akane couldn’t deny.
Kodansha Comics’ adaptation of Kobayashi’s work is excellent and on par with other Del Rey manga releases, with translation notes at the back of the book and honorifics intact. Dialogue flowed smoothly, if a little saccharine for my tastes, but read well. It’s quite simplistic, however, and may be a great fit with younger readers just getting into manga for this reason.
Natsumi Ando’s work strikingly resembles Arina Tanemura’s (Full Moon wo Sagashite, Kamikaze Kaito Jeanne) in many ways, so Kitchen Princess ended up with lush, romantic panels and plenty of soft shading and dreamy setups. At many points, however, it was a bit difficult to tell Sora and Daichi apart aside from the permanent scowl etched across Daichi’s face. I did enjoy the lavish depictions of Najika’s many dishes, however, as they made me just as hungry for her “cooked with love” originals as the cast in the story.
Kitchen Princess is a fluffy yet sweet piece of shoujo magic that manages to tell an interesting story while sticking close to many of the genre tropes found elsewhere. With that said, though, it’s warm, familiar and comforting in ways that so many series aimed at young women are not. I’m looking forward to seeing Najika’s story unfold, and I’m hoping very much it continues down the same path it has so far. Plus, those dishes look super yummy.
Publisher: Kodansha Comics