What Did You Eat Yesterday? (Vol 1-2)

Fumi Yoshinaga is a mangaka with a lot of interests. She started out doing short BL works in the mid 1990s, and her fine artwork and sensitive, nuanced characters distinguished her even then as a promising talent. She made good on that promise when she broke into the mainstream with the slice-of-life series Antique Bakery and the historical drama Ooku. Since then, she's amassed a small collection of BL, josei, and seinen works, many of which are defined by complicated adult relationships and by the prevalence of food. Her latest series, What Did You Eat Yesterday?, is a sort of amalgamation of her previous works. Like Antique Bakery, it's a slice-of-life series. Like her semi-autobiographical work Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me Happy, it's a series that's all about the preparation and appreciation of good food. Like her many BL works, it prominently features a gay couple. Despite all the similarities What Did You Eat Yesterday? has with her previous works, it's still a fresh and interesting story in its own right.

This series is about Shiro Kakei and Kenji Yabuki. The two men have been in a committed relationship for a number of years, and the both of them enjoy a cozy home life accented by a lot of great food, thanks to Shiro's skill in the kitchen. There isn't any particular overarching story arc, but instead we follow these two through the big and small conflicts that come their way at work and home. Already we're dealing with something that we don't often see in manga: a long-standing, committed gay relationship. Most BL and BL-themed works focus on the passionate beginnings of a relationship, culminating in a confession of love, which may or may not be followed by sex. We don't see a lot of characters like Shiro and Kenji in manga. We don't see gay men who could accurately be described as acting like an old married couple. They don't have to worry about if the other guy is in love with them or struggle with their sexuality.They have much more important things like coworkers and family and household budgets to worry about.

While Shiro and Kenji are a comfortable and loving couple, they are far from perfect people and that makes them interesting. Kenji has always been more open with his sexuality, and as he is a hairdresser by trade he doesn't have to worry so much about discussing his homelife and relationship with others. Despite his comfort with Shiro, he's also the one who still struggles with jealousy. He tends to fret if Shiro jokingly suggests that a client of his might have been attractive, and he dislikes the fact that Shiro gets his bread from his ex-girlfriend's bakery down the street. Still, he's mostly an easy-going person. He's perfectly content with himself, his life, and especially with Shiro's good cooking. He's even willing and able to help Shiro a little, whenever possible.

Shiro is by far the more neurotic of the two. He's intensely private when it comes to his sexuality and relationship. It's not that he's in denial, considering that he's been dating Kenji for three years, he has exclusively dated men since college, and has come out to his immediate family and a few friends. It's just that he doesn't want to deal with the drama of coming out to others, considering how his parents have reacted to the news. His mother spent years working through every sort of religious sect to find a way to change her son. Even now, she thinks she's supporting him by going to gender disorder support groups and gets visibly nervous if Shiro suggests the idea of Kenji visiting them. His father just lives on in senile ignorance, kindly asking what kind of girl Shiro would like. 

It's quite understandable why Shiro would want to avoid talking about such things with his coworkers at the law office, his clients, or anyone else he meets. He would much rather focus on helping his clients or planning out that day's menu. At least with those, he can work his way through the necessary steps and keep control of things so that he can bring it to a satisfactory end. He also like to assert control through strict budgeting - Shiro is always plotting his meals around the good deals he finds, and he is a master at making a lot of frugal yet high-quality meals and sides. Shiro is uptight on the job or at his parents' home, but with Kenji he gets to relax and joke a little, and he always has an appreciative audience for his cooking. Shiro and Kenji are almost perfect opposites, but their personalities compliment one another well enough to create a rather harmonious whole, even if Shiro's neuroses means that he tends to get a lot more story focus than Kenji.

It's nice to see a manga deal with the fact that life as a gay man in Japan isn't always an easy one, and that coming out doesn't turn the world into sunshine and roses. While homosexuality is perfectly legal in Japan, it is still considered a taboo subject to many. Gay men in Japan cannot legally marry or adopt, and since few places have anti-discrimination laws, there is still some risk of those in professional fields being denied promotions or losing their jobs if they publicly come out as gay. Many people of older generations still see homosexuality as the result of personal failings in their children or themselves as parents. It can be seen as a source of shame or cause to disown a child. Even those who try to be understanding often operate under a lot of misconceptions because most people have only seen gay men on the TV, usually in the form of campy queens played for comedy. Add on top of all the pressure that comes from a society that values having children to carry on traditions, to care for and financially support their elders in their old age, and to combat a declining birth rate. Thus, you can better understand why Shiro feels more pressure about hiding his sexuality at work than Kenji does. You can better understand they have to be so frugal, because saving for retirement is crucial when you won't have kids to support you. You can even understand why it was such a big deal for these two to move in together, as that's essentially the equivalent of a marriage proposal for them. I can appreciate that Yoshinaga was willing to address such issues here, and that she can do so without clubbing it into the reader's head. The story never pauses for a lecture on gay rights like an afterschool special. Instead, it weaves these issues into the fabric of the story, letting them inform the thoughts and actions of its characters without having them overshadow the generally pleasant and casual tone of the story.

You cannot discount the importance of food to this story. Hell, the cooking portions easily take up half of each volume. Yoshinaga has never been shy about her love of food in her previous works, and here she demonstrates that love in the meticulousness of Shiro's inner monologue as he makes each dish. The steps he takes are so detailed that had Yoshinaga included more specific measurements, you could easily use this manga as a cookbook. A reader's enjoyment of these sections will depend a lot on how much they like cooking in general, but even these portions help to inform the reader about Shiro. We see the self-satisfaction he gets from the orderliness and control he maintains in the kitchen, as well as that obtained from getting good deals on good food. That same frugality even leads him to make friends with a fellow bargain-minded housewife, and she serves as both inspiration for new meals as well as a friend with whom Shiro can share some of his troubles. We see a wide variety of meals at Shiro and Kenji's table, ranging from traditional Japanese fare to Western meals like lasagna or German potato salad or Chinese dishes like mapo doufu. I must stress that this is not the manga to read while hungry. You will get cravings, and if you're anything like me, you will start brainstorming how to turn these pages into workable recipes. 

"Slice-of-life" is a genre that has gotten a bad reputation in recent years. A lot of "moe" series have co-opted the term to justify Story #963 about cute girls doing cute things, possibly as part of some cute school club. What Did You Eat Yesterday? feels a lot more like a true slice-of-life, a portrait into the lives of people not unlike a lot of older readers. It's not a completely aimless story, but it's also one that is more than content to soak in the coziness of Shiro and Kenji's lives. Most of the chapters are about some everyday interaction or some part of their backstories, and it ultimately ties into whatever meals Shiro makes that day. Does the story strike a perfect balance between the food and people around it? For the most part, I would say that it does. It's certainly true for the first volume, while the second volume sometimes gets a little too lost in Shiro's culinary processes for its own good. Of course, the ultimate appeal of the series depends on the reader enjoying one or both of these elements, and I could easily see a lot of younger readers being turned off by the lack of story arcs, the lack of drama and sex in Shiro and Kenji's life, or by their own disinterest in cooking. Those that are more open to quieter, more thoughtful fare will find that What Did You Eat Yesterday? is a manga that truly understands the little pleasures of adult life, be it the joy of a good recipe, the quiet thrill of a good bargain, or the comfort of enjoying a tasty meal with the person you love.


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