While anime is known, at least outside Japan, for fantastical or futuristic premises, anime isn't considered a genre in its home country, but a medium. It's a way for any kind of story to be told, like stories involving mecha pilots, highly skilled ninjas, super-powered pirates, or ... bakers.
Yakitate!! Japan is a show with an unusual premise, but that doesn't make it any less fun. It's the perfect combination of two of the best food competition shows ever: The Great British Bake-Off and Iron Chef. When Yakitate first appeared in the mid-2000s, the premise might've seemed overly niche to viewers outside Japan, and it never gained the popularity enjoyed by other anime titles. However, the current popularity of food competition shows on channels like Food Network proves that this anime deserves a second look.
Here’s why Yakitate!! Japan is an underrated gem.
A boy and his dreams drive the series.
Kazuma Azuma is a teenager with huge dreams. He falls in love with bread at the age of 6, after he befriends a baker and partakes of his heavenly pastries. However, the bakery ends up a failure, and Kazuma's mentor decides to pack up shop and leave the country. Japan is a pretty hostile environment for anyone who wants to bake bread. In that country, rice is the king carb. After losing his favorite bakery, Kazuma learns to bake on his own, and he wants to create a type of bread (or "pan," as it's called in Japanese) worthy of his home country. To no one's surprise, he calls this elusive bread "Ja-pan."
Did you enjoy that pun? Did you? If you did, then there are sixty-nine episodes chock-full of this type of quality comedy. If you didn’t enjoy that pun, then might I interest you in an anime that's a little less light-hearted? Maybe Attack on Titan? Or Grave of the Fireflies?
Anyway, like any good anime protagonist, Kazuma has a special power that no one else has. His hands are warm. Very warm. So very warm. Warm as b--
Th ... they're just really really warm, okay? His Solar Hands give his dough an extra level of oomph since the higher heat activates the yeast quicker. Or something. Look, the science in this show isn't particularly sound. Like I said, if you don’t like fun, there’s an anime film about children trying to survive post-WWII Japan that you might enjoy instead.
In order to achieve his dream, Kazuma enrolls to work at one of the most prestigious bakeries in the country, Pantasia. But wait! This ain't no ordinary job interview. If Kazuma wants to work at Pantasia, he has to compete with all the other hopefuls vying for the same position. Which means, he needs to up his baking game, and fast.
It’s the animated food competition show you've been waiting for.
You know how, in the original Japanese version of Iron Chef, there was a big, convoluted explanation of why the competition exists? The Chairman of the Gourmet Academy was a dude with an ego the size of Jupiter (and a habit of chomping down on raw bell peppers) who wanted to challenge the culinary world to create innovative dishes the world has never seen before. Remember how wonderfully theatrical that was? Or is it just me? Regardless, Yakitate embraces this campy side of cooking battles to full effect. The contestants aren't just baking bread; they're representing their country and their culture at a level that rivals the Olympics.
The theatricality that made the original Iron Chef so delightful to watch just begs to be animated, and Yakitate fulfills that promise admirably. One host/judge is literally a harlequin guy named Pierrot Bolneze whose penchant for stage magic makes you wonder why he's hosting food competitions and not headlining in Vegas.
But what's a reality show without a few sob stories from contestants? In addition to depicting the baking challenges with resolute flair, Yakitate also gives every other character a backstory and a reason for competing. They're not all out to create Japan's best bread like Kazuma is. Some are seeking redemption for past failures. Others are out to prove that they're the best baker in the world. And, yes, they're not all here to make friends, even though Kazuma is eager for more friendships than rivalries.
He's just that pure.
The bad guys aren't all "bad guys."
Kazuma's chief rival for a position at Pantasia is Kyosuke Kawachi. Kyosuke is everything Kazuma's not. While Kazuma's easy-going, Kyosuke's hot-headed. Kazuma is self-taught, while Kyosuke worked and studied and suffered for years to get close to baking mastery. In the first competition arc, Kyosuke attempts to sabotage Kazuma, but Kazuma's too pure-hearted to stay angry at him. They become, for the rest of the series, co-workers, teammates and friends.
And that's another reason that sets this anime apart from others. The relationships between the characters, even rivals, are allowed to develop and change as the characters get to know each other. Many times, anime shows pit one character against another and that's the extent of their relationship. They're rivals forever. Instead of keeping Kazuma and Kyosuke's interactions one-note, the show keeps them as friends. That's not to say that friends can't also be rivals. Kazuma and Kyosuke encourage each other to get better, and throughout the course of the series, they're often on opposite sides of the kitchen. But at the end of the day, it's always Kazuma who extends a hand of congratulations across the aisle for a job well done.
"The Girl" actually has a decent storyline.
Yakitate isn't a perfect anime, by any means. It still has a few frustrating tropes, but it does its best to subvert them. In Kazuma's circle of friends, there exists one main female character: Tsukino Azusagawa. Like every other character Kazuma meets, Tsukino is a skilled baker with something to prove. That "something" has to do with the future of the Pantasia bakery. She is a granddaughter of the company's founder, but she has to struggle to be acknowledged and accepted because she was born out of wedlock.
Since she's illegitimate, she isn't seen as worthy to take over the company as her two half-sisters are. She's not the shrewdest out of the three, and in fact, she comes off as pretty naive, but she does work hard to be accepted as an heir to the company and its fortune. Tsukino's storyline is a nice change of pace from the constant baking competitions that drive the rest of the series. It's some fine and juicy family drama, especially Tsukino's interactions with her oldest sister, the ruthless and cruel Yukino Azusagawa.
Another trope that Yakitate indulges in is matching up the main male character with the main female character. However, Kazuma and Tsukino's relationship develops over such a long period of time and is such a slow burn that their romance, what exists of it, feels earned. They're not head over heels in love with each other at the very beginning, and it's clear that no matter what their relationship becomes, they're both much more focused on their respective careers than romance. It's a refreshing change of pace from some other anime series which forces the pair together in the very first episode despite the lack of chemistry.
It's wonderfully ridiculous.
Yakitate is the anime equivalent of comfort food. Much like the baked goods that it celebrates, you can partake in it once in awhile for your sugar rush, but you probably shouldn't try to take it in all at once. This is the type of story where the good guys will always win, even after some setbacks. It's a story where the villains can mend their ways, join with the heroes, and the team-up makes sense. It’s a story where the food competitions take center-stage, so if you do decide on marathoning this series, make sure you can get through hours upon hours of shows like Chopped.
Sometimes, it's nice to kick back and watch a show where the end of the world isn't at stake, and the worst that can happen is that the hero loses. That's okay, though, because the hero will just train that much harder for a few episodes before entering his next competition, which he will undoubtedly win.
Much of the show's humor is based around the subverting of expectations. A judge might eye a new pastry with a healthy dose of skepticism, but then after taking a bite, they will suddenly be depicted as being carried off to heaven on the wings of angels. Kazuma's baking is just. That. Good. If you're still on the fence regarding the ridiculousness of the show, here's a scene where Kyosuke has to trust in Kazuma's baking skills to create the best croissant in the world:
And finally, Brad Pitt's in it.
He's in it.
So, back in the late '90s and early '00s, Brad Pitt was the most popular actor in the world, and Yakitate celebrates that period of time by including a character named Brad Kidd, modeled after him.
And the best thing about this?
Brad Kidd has the exact same face.
In every scene.
In the show.
So watch Yakitate!! Japan. If not for the ridiculousness of the baking competitions or the awesome interactions between characters, do it for off-model Brad Pitt.