Bad For You

Two from Digital Manga Publishing

Some of the best pleasures in life are guilty ones, as just about any manga fan can probably attest. Digital Manga Publishing recently released two titles that fall skillfully into that category.

I’ll be damned if I know why I find Atsushi Kaneko’s Bambi and her Pink Gun so hypnotic. It’s got a brutal, dimwitted protagonist and indulges in the kind of ultra-violence that usually makes me avert my eyes. But hypnotic it is, in all of its ruthless excess.

Bambi is a teen-aged killing machine. She’s kidnapped a mysterious child for unseen figures known only as “the Old Men.” As a result, she’s the subject of a “search notice,” offering a princely sum of money for anyone who can eliminate Bambi and retrieve the little boy unharmed. The 500 million yen bounty puts just about every murderer and thug in Japan on Bambi’s trail, hoping for easy money. You could almost feel sorry for her pursuers if they weren’t so repulsive.

Bambi doesn’t come off much better. Foul-mouthed and bad-tempered, she seems to run entirely on instinct. She dispatches the people hunting her with ruthless efficiency, though she doesn’t seem to take any particular pleasure in violence. She isn’t a sadist, and she seems to have some semblance of a moral code that prevents her from killing anyone who doesn’t try to kill her first.

To call Bambi an arrested adolescent might be giving her a little too much credit. She’s more of an arrested pre-schooler, given to fits of temper and self-indulgence. She leads a largely needs-based existence, stealing food, shelter, and transportation. And her repartee (“Me Bambi!”) leaves a lot to be desired.

Despite her pink hair and matching weaponry, there’s nothing cute about her. She’s grubby, and her young face is almost always twisted into a scowl. Pampi, the child she’s stolen, is unpleasant in his own way. Silent and sullen, he gobbles down junk food at every opportunity. Even the frequent bursts of gunplay aren’t enough to distract him from his own appetites.

The reluctance to sentimentalize their youth and apparent lost innocence is probably the saving grace of the story. If Kaneko had gone for irony – the bubbly teen murderess and her cuddly charge – the manga might have been hideously coy. The manga takes its cues from its title character, blasting forward without any apparent self-awareness. Kaneko avoids the kind of artificial gravitas that can poison a story like this. There’s no moaning over the kind of world that could create a girl Bambi, just a grimy picture of what that world is like.

That isn’t to say Bambi is lacking in repellent material. The violence is constant, and I don’t think anyone could successfully argue that Kaneko doesn’t glamorize it. Some of Bambi’s adversaries are just professionals going for a payoff. Others are satisfying deeper, more predatory impulses. Worst of the bunch is grotesque pop star Gabba King, who uses his celebrity to indulge in truly revolting sexual sadism. His scenes aren’t for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

As the story unfolds, something odd happens. Bambi generates an unusual (and limited) kind of sympathy, not simply because she looks good in comparison to the people who oppose her. (Just about anyone would, so that’s hardly a compliment.) As a character, she’s coherent, purposeful, and magnetic. In a later chapter, another character says with utter sincerity, “Bambi really is a good girl.” To my surprise, I found myself nodding in agreement.

Bambi and her Pink Gun is the manga equivalent of a shark. You can’t really blame it for what it is, though you can shudder with distaste as it takes a chunk out of the occasional swimmer. And you can’t help but admire its efficiency of purpose and skill in execution, though you don’t feel particularly good about yourself for doing so.

After the bloody misanthropy of Bambi, I was more than ready for a different kind of excess. Fortunately, Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery was handy to offer something sweet to cleanse the palate.

When you think about it, yaoi manga-ka and pastry chefs have similar aims. Both try to combine familiar ingredients into something satisfying, indulgent, and surprising, and both are focused on delicacy and beauty of presentation. Yoshinaga’s story of gorgeous men making glorious sweets is indulgence on top of indulgence.

A new bakery has opened up in a quiet residential neighborhood. It’s owned by Tachibana, who left a successful business career to try his hand at entrepreneurship. Gifted pastry chef Ono creates beautiful, delicious confections for eager customers. Tachibana is straight, and Ono is gay.

But Ono isn’t just gay. In spite of his unassuming appearance, he’s “a gay of demonic charm,” drawing the passionate attentions of men of every sexual orientation. His uncontrollable allure has left his career in something of a shambles, with obsessive love affairs disrupting workplace after workplace.

Fortunately, Tachibana seems to be the only man who can resist Ono. In high school, Tachibana brutally rejected Ono’s advances, and Tachibana’s apparent immunity to demonic gay charm helps Ono happily settle into the kitchen of Antique Bakery. (Having not been born yesterday, I won’t put any money on the shelf life of that state of affairs.)

They’re joined by apprentice pastry chef Eiji Kanda, a promising boxer who had to quit due to a pair of detached retinas. (He left the ring before he could take too many blows to his cute face, happily enough.) While Eiji isn’t attracted to Ono, he worships his superior’s way with sweets. Eiji views Tachibana with amusingly churlish contempt, more concerned with culinary artistry than sales.

They make for a funny, nicely blended trio. Tachibana is suave and cocky, Ono is reserved but alluring, and Eiji is goofy and bursting with youthful enthusiasm. They’re joined by an interesting group of customers with their own concerns and tastes. Two women, former schoolmates who admired each other from a distance, reunite over scones and sandwiches. An older gentleman conceals his love for a well-made sweet from his wife and son.

The first volume is a gentle, almost meandering introduction to the bakery and the people who populate it. If it’s a bit slow to start, it’s very charming and often funny. It’s also undeniably beautiful to look at. Yoshinaga lavishes equal attention on the treats and the men who make them. Backgrounds are a bit minimal, but richly expressive faces fill the frames. Compositions favor characters in profile, talking over a table at the bakery or comparing notes in the kitchen. It accentuates their interactions nicely. And she has a charming way with the chibi moments that are sprinkled through the pages.

I do hope the narrative momentum picks up in future volumes. Sweets are nice, but they’re best when they’re the grace note in a more balanced diet. I don’t doubt that Yoshinaga has it in her to offer a fuller menu of comedy, drama, and beautiful visuals, though. I’ll happily revisit Antique Bakery.