Bookwalker Manga Sampler

Bookwalker is one of the few digital manga sites of recent years that could be considered a success.  It started merely as a digital spinoff for Kadokawa with only a barely localized site and a handful of titles to its name.  These days they've got partnerships with Viz, Seven Seas, Yen Press, and other notable manga publishers and their digital manga offerings represent one of the biggest and most diverse selections to be found.  While digging around in their library, I found a trio of food-themed manga that practically begged to be examined for our most literal Manga Sampler yet.

Bookwalker Manga Sampler: Ekiben Hitoritabi, Shiawase Restaurant & Seiwa High School Bento Club!


Daisuke spends his days running a busy bento shop with his wife, but he longs to take some time to explore his two favorite things: old trains and ekiben, the regionally-specific bento boxes sold on many Japanese rail lines.  For his anniversary, his wife gives him a rail ticket and an opportunity to do just that.  Thus, Daisuke begins his culinary adventure across Japan as he makes many pretty new friends, sees new sites, rides all sorts of trains, and enjoys all sorts of good food along the way.

This is the sort of manga that you could only find on a digital site.  It's not only targeted towards older men, but it's practically laser-focused on its two very dorky pursuits.  Often, it can start to feel like a lecture as Daisuke rattles off all sorts of trivia about old Japanese trains and every aspect of his meal to whatever grateful soul comes across his way.  In spite of that, I found this manga weirdly compelling.  Maybe it's just the sheer novelty of something so unusual, maybe it's my own deep and abiding love of food manga, but I couldn't help but keep reading this manga...even if I did tend to skim over the more railroad-intensive parts.  It's certainly not the art that keeps me reading.  It's perfectly serviceable, but between the scenery, the trains, and the nigh-photorealistic food there's a lot of rotoscoping going on.  The characters are all fairly attractive adults, but it's a style you couldn't get from a lot of other, equally down-to-earth seinen works like this.

It helps that while he's kind of an idealized version of the target audience, Daisuke is a friendly and engaging guy.  He never comes off as a know-it-all oppressing others with his superior knowledge, but instead as an enthusiast who simply can't help but share his own passions with others.  It's just terribly convenient that those who seem to need Daisuke's influence the most just happen to be pretty young women.  It's also rather convenient that none of them happen to know that much about trains, the Japanese countryside, or the details of Japanese cuisine, thus making them the perfect empty vessels in which Daisuke can pour his knowledge.  Thankfully, the series never crosses the line into infidelity.  The girls usually end up smitten, but Daisuke never crosses the line into infidelity.  That's for the best, as it would spoil what is otherwise a very laid-back, very dorky, yet weirdly entertaining ride of a manga.  RATING: 7/10


From a young age, Yamazu was determined to keep his father's dream alive by recreating the fine French cuisine he was known for.  He's determined to refine every component of his father's restaurant into a five-star experience from the ingredients down to the clientele.  That's why he is so endlessly frustrated by the fact that his customers seem to prefer the more homely dishes made by his stepmother, Yuko.  Is it the fact that she mixes fine ingredients into her homestyle dishes?  Is it that she serves everyone who comes in their door, regardless of their circumstances?  Or is that she's simply better at understanding what her customers truly need?

Shiwase Restaurant is obviously a family drama, but at times it feels like a softer, gentler take on the sorts of culinary-themed tournament manga occupied by works like Food Wars.  The big difference is that the competition isn't fueled by the promise of any formal prize or recognition.  Instead it's driven by Yamazu's emotional maturation, and it's by far the most successful and fascinating drama in the whole book.  The individual stories of the patrons are all fairly maudlin and predictable, but creator Masaharu Nakanishi manages to get across what Yamazu's real issues are without having to club the reader over the head with them.  He doesn't have to explain how Yamazu has clearly not come to terms with his father's death or needs to put his pride in check; instead, he conveys it through how rigidly Yamazu clings to his father's recipes and memory or how callously he treats everyone in his life, be it his stepmother, his girlfriend, or his patrons.  He captures Yamazu's personality in a way that's quite vivid, even if in practice it means that most readers will want to punch Yamazu in the face quite frequently.

If anyone comes off as unrealistic, it's Yuko.  She's so impossibly sweet, patient, and empathetic that it verges on saintliness.  She's never shown to have a moment's doubt or frustration, no matter how often she has to deal with surprise customers, a shortage of ingredients, or an ungrateful stepson.  Her unnatural calm makes her a good foil to Yamazu's hotheadedness, and the exchanges they have about cuisine and their family are what give this manga substance.  That's more than can be said for the customers, all of whom have sob stories that sometimes verge upon the ridiculous and all of whom come to terms with them through a good meal.  The artwork is nothing special on a technical level, but Nakanishi's character designs have a weirdly shonen-esque style that's rather unexpected in a sentimental work like this.  This kind of story normally features sedate, run-of-the-mill seinen designs or safe and unremarkable shoujo stylings, not the sort of Toriyama and Togashi-inspired folk that populate these pages.  On the other hand, that's almost perfectly consistent with the genre-mashing going on in the manga as a whole.  It's a work where sentimental sob stories can exists alongside culinary manga minutiae and shonen-style character art, and it manages to come together into an intriguing, if not superb whole  RATING: 6/10


Sayako Mikami is the eldest of 10 children in an impoverished family, so most days her only substantial meal comes from the bakery where she works.  Her nose leads her to the culinary campus of her school, as well as to a bento club run by a handful of handsome, rich young men.  They take Sayoko on as their taste tester, but over time her keen sense of taste and her big heart makes her their secret weapon against their equally posh competitors.

It's not often that I say this, but this is a manga that would genuinely benefit from being wackier.  It starts off wild, but it loses whatever flavor it has as Sayoko starts to bond with her clubmates.  Sayoko herself is like so many reverse harem protagonists: kind but bland.  Her only distinguishing characteristics are her extreme poverty and her endless appetite.  The former is forgotten once the club starts to feed her consistently, and the latter is driven into the ground as an endlessly lame gag.  That's still more than can be said for the boys around her.  If it weren't for the different hairstyles and heights, I wouldn't have been able to tell most of them apart.  The only one I could distinguish was Kamui, and that was simply because he was the one with such a mother complex that he dresses up as her at home.  You just don't forget something THAT creepy.

It doesn't fare much better as a food manga than it does as a reverse harem.  The contests aren't so much about the food onto itself as it is an excuse for the competing clubs to do a lot of metaphorical dick measuring.  They all use the fanciest of fancy ingredients, but they're all indifferently drawn and Sayoko always ends up favoring her own clubs because the secret ingredient is love or some other such nonsense.  It's not just the food that looks bad, though.  Everything on the page is drawn in the most mediocre manner, and it'll be forgotten the moment you swipe to the next page.  It's a paint-by-numbers effort from beginning to end, and it's not even worth a look as a curiosity.  RATING: 1/10.

Next time will take things back to Crunchyroll, where dozens more manga are simply waiting to be sampled, including a few new fresh flavors.  Here's hoping that next time will bring us a more interesting selection of titles.


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