Review: Kitchen Princess, vols. 1-5

Kitchen Princess, vol. 1Kitchen Princess, vols. 1-5
Art by Natsumi Ando
Story by Miyuki Kobayashi
Rated T, ages 13+
Del Rey, $10.95

Kitchen Princess is an entertaining shoujo soap opera that centers on the connection between emotions and food. It doesn’t exactly break new ground, but the characters are likeable, and it’s fun to watch the heroine, Najika, rattle the pans as she solves everyone’s problems with food.

Keep your shoujo manga cliche bingo card handy when you read volume 1, though. Is the heroine a plucky orphan? Check! Do the other girls in her snooty school-for-high-achievers pick on her? Check! Do the two hottest guys in the school come to her rescue and subsequently become attracted to her? Check! Are those two guys brothers? Check! Feuding brothers? Bingo!

The plot hinges on another hoary manga cliché, the search for the mystery boy. Back when Najika was a little girl, mourning her parents’ recent death, a little boy came along and comforted her, giving her his tub of flan. “When you eat something good, you smile,” he told her, setting the tone for the entire series. Then he disappeared, leaving behind a spoon bearing the crest of Seika Academy as the only clue to his identity. Grasping at the flimsiest of straws, Najika gets herself admitted to Seika Academy so she can find him.

Like all the students in her class, Najika has a special talent: absolute taste, the gustatory equivalent of perfect pitch. She can identify the ingredients in any dish and replicate a recipe perfectly, often using inferior ingredients (which is seldom possible in real life). The other students don’t think this is much of a talent, but the aforementioned hot brothers, Daichi and Sora, soon realize the benefits of having a friend who is a good cook. In one of those only-in-shoujo-manga situations, Sora is both a student at Seika Academy and the principal, and one of the curious things about this book is the way he handles his dual role with regard to Najika.

Najika gets a job at a decrepit campus café run by Fujita, a dedicated slacker who spends most of his time reading the paper, cigarette dangling from his mouth. With her culinary talent and plenty of old-fashioned elbow grease, Najika transforms the place into the best restaurant in town. Of course a classmate whose father is on the school board tries to get the diner shut down (double bingo!), but Najika conquers all with her delicious sandwiches.

Despite the pileup of off-the-shelf plot devices in the first volume, Kitchen Princess works pretty well. Most of the stories involve using food to solve a problem, and the inevitable cooking competition emerges in several different guises, but Najika’s solution to a rival’s eating disorder is unorthodox from a culinary as well as a psychological point of view. The byplay between the brothers is also interesting, and a sharp plot twist in volume 5 turns the whole story upside down. Because Najika is sweet, unselfish, and very good at one thing, she is the most boring person in the book. The other major characters all bring a bit more depth to their roles.

And how is the food? Not stunning. The recipes lean heavily toward sweets, and most of them aren’t that unusual. Nor is it visually dazzling. In fact, most of the food doesn’t look all that great; it’s over-toned and just dies on the page. But this manga is less about culinary artistry than the connection between what we eat and how we feel. Najika’s real genius lies in the way she adapts her recipes to suit someone else’s unique needs. She’s an artist who uses food to manipulate emotion, not to amaze her enemies.

The art in Kitchen Princess never rises above average. Artist Matsumi Ando crowds the panels onto the page, often using black borders instead of white space, and applies toning and patterns with a heavy hand. The characters look different from the front, but they all have the same profile, with an oddly Gallic-looking nose. And it seems like a lot of space is given over to close-ups of Najika looking big-eyed and dopey.

The uniform cover design of these books makes them look a bit boring, and it’s unfortunate that Del Rey didn’t print the first few pages of each volume in color, as the converted pages look particularly dark and grey. (In fairness to Del Rey, these pages often aren’t available from the licensor.) On the plus side, each volume includes recipes and translator’s notes.

Despite its flaws, Kitchen Princess is a good read, good enough that I ended up plowing through all five volumes at once on a Saturday afternoon when I was supposed to be doing other things. It’s definitely a good choice for escapist reading, but watch your insulin levels—the sweetness, both figurative and literal, can be a bit much.

(This review is partially based on complimentary copies supplied by the publisher.)

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  1. I agree 100% with you. I’ve checked out a few reviews for this manga, and most people say it’s rather boring, or cliche, and such.

    But I think it’s pretty good. It’s a sweet story that makes you feel warm and everything’s going to be alright. Simplistic, not groundbreaking, but it’s like comfort-food. That’s another reason why I like this series. None of the recipes are dazzling, the art is alright, but the context that introduces you to the food she’s making makes you feel like her food is actually very good and meaningful to the person she’s cooking it for.

  2. That’s exactly right, Miki—it’s like comfort food. And that’s mostly what she cooks, too.

  3. …Where do you guys get these manga books?? I thought that they are still trying to translate it??? Is there a website that lets you guys read it online, but translated though?? Please give me a reply!

  4. Hi Mongo,

    They are all available in bookstores or via Amazon. Volume 6 just came out.

  5. Yeah I haven’t read the series but I hear it’s goo I want to read it but my library only has book 1 out right now!

  6. i tottaly loved this series. but sometimes i think it gets a little over the top. i just can’t wait until volume nine comes out!

  7. has anyone read to volume seven?

  8. i just think sometimes, for najika to revive people, she cooks. that’s all she does

  9. ive only read to volume 4 and i think its great.and im so excited to read volume 5 even though my library only has volumes 1-4 im waiting till they call me!

  10. dude i havent read volume five yet either and i cant wait til my library calls 2

  11. I really love this series. When I read volume 6, I couldn’t stop crying. The story does involve too many closeups of Najika, but it is a cute series. It’s also a very good read if you like food and cooking! ^^

  12. When I read volume 6, I couldn’t stop crying. The story does involve too many closeups of Najika, but it is a cute series. It’s also a very good read if you like food and cooking! ^^

  13. i love the book and find it very intresting!! but i personally dont think its boring at all cause if it was i would stop reading it.

  14. The plot is basically Candy Candy meets the Iron Chef but she’s the one that wins in the end. It’s boring and predictable, the main character doesn;t grow at all and it’s more fun to watch the supporting character grow around her.

  15. TUBAmonster says

    I loved this series, but whoever wrote this review is FREAKING HILARIOUS! I just couldn’t stop laughing! It is quite predictable and sometimes even borders on over-dramatic and boring, but I think that’s why everyone reads fairy tales, isn’t it? So they know what will happen in the end! Even though we criticize, people do love predictable, unchanging love stories. :)

  16. YES! Thank you TUBAmonster. I LOVE this story, it is some predictable and over the top in some places and I DO get tired of Najika saving ppl by cooking (come on) but over all it’s a great fairytale fantasy love story. I love how in the last volume (or maybe #9) one character basically called Najika Cinderella.. i.e. a kitchen Princess. It was MEANT to be like that.. yet there is so much death in the series you wouldn’t think ppl would feel this was predictable or badly done. Also I LOVE how the author hooked up cooking to fix many things, just the way she thinks about others all the time and is self-less is such a huge benefit of reading this story, in light of one’s own life. I should write about it more on my blog but I do have a list of the recipes and similar recipes of the dishes on there. I love this series and wish there was more. Is there really only 10?!

  17. I don’t know what you guys are talking about! It is SO not boring! There is only a few predictable parts like the cooking contests, but Sora dying, I DID NOT see that coming!! I actually cried! It was so surprising to see Sora in the cafe, but then it was some other guy, but who thinks these things up?! Well the author, of course, but you know what I mean! And when I found out that Sora is not her flan prince, wow, I almost screamed and cryed at the same time! But I didn’t, though! But anyways, it was a really great manga and I loved it!