For reasons of his own, Keiichiro Tachibana, the 30-ish scion of a wealthy family, decides to quit his boring job and open a French pastry shop. His family gives him start-up money and find him the best pastry chef available: Yusuke Ono, a seemingly mousy gay man whose "demonic charm" has caused male co-workers (gay or straight) at his previous jobs to fall in love with him, resulting in fights, suicide attempts, and divorces. The shop's workforce soon expands to include pastry apprentice Eiji Kanda, a former straw-weight boxer, and waiter/errand-boy Chikage Kobayakawa, a Tachibana family retainer whose height and good looks are exceeded only by his dimwittedness and naivete.
The action of the manga focusses not only on the stories - past and present - of the four men, but also on those of the people who patronize the shop. To me, it most resembles to film Tampopo, which similarly centered on a noodle shop run by a young widow, but also covered a multitude of other little side stories. The interactions among the four shop workers keep things hopping: Tachibana, a would-be bon vivant and ladies' man, never seems to get anywhere with any of the ladies he pursues. He also seems to have a dark secret gnawing at his psyche. Ono, on the other hand, is all too successful at picking up men - yet he's nothing but a fantastic teacher to young Eiji, who in some ways has the most worldly background of the four, and who turns out to have a surprising talent for pastries. Chikage is all but useless at any task he tries to accomplish - yet his extreme sweetness of character and good looks have a definite effect on those who work with him. And all around them are little soap operas and comedies and mysteries, acted out by those who come to the shop.
This is not a series for someone seeking adventures (although there are a couple of fist fights) or huge dramas or even a lot of romance. It's for the most part a gentle little human comedy with a generous dose of food porn (the descriptions of the pastries and other foods served at the shop are amazing). However, it does have some serious adult themes: in addition to Ono's busy sex life (from which we are shown vignettes - nothing pornographic, but it's obvious what's happening), there's an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the possibility of an abortion as a solution, a single woman who gets pregnant with no strings attached because she wants a child so badly, a frank but heavily "bleeped" discussion of straight sexual practices, a nine-year-old girl who's a very early bloomer physically (but her situation is discussed from the point of view of child-rearing practices rather than sexuality), and ultimately, child abuse and murder. But overall, I found it rather appealing and a nice change of pace. Unfortunately, these four volumes seem to be all there is.
The situation of Ono and Chikage is one of the strangest little ethical dilemmas I've encountered in a long time. Ono, thank God, quickly realizes that he can't treat Chikage like most of the guys who tickle his fancy. And yet eventually mangaka Yoshinaga very rightly throws this back in the reader's face, albeit with gentle humor: Chikage, despite his inability to even care for himself properly beyond the basics, is a sexual being too. I'm wondering whether this is ever going to be explored further: Chikage's looks still turn Ono's crank, and Chikage doesn't seem to be completely averse to the idea. Yet would the fairly sophisticated Ono ever be happy with such a simple lover? It's all terribly interesting and rather sad.
Tachibana's situation is still unresolved at the end of vol. 4. Although he has caused the arrest of one child molester/murderer, it certainly looks like the man who nearly caused him, 25 years ago, to meet the fate of the recent victims is right in the neighborhood - and as yet unrecognized by Tachibana. Yoshinaga seems to be linking the resolution of this situation to Tachibana's love life. His awful Lothario act is a painful contrast to his rather amazing caretaking abilities (as demonstrated with Chikage and Kaedeko) ... will he ever realize that he'd be more successful if women saw that side of him?
Finally, the situation with Sakurako, Kaedeko, and Chikage really plucked at my heartstring - even though I wondered whether a 9-year-old would really still refer to herself in the third person like that. (Maybe this is meant to be just more evidence of her backwardness.) It was also hilariously funny, as we find out that Tachibana can change diapers, and watch Ono nearly pass out when he listens to Sakurako's crude discussion of the facts of feminine puberty. The ending was cute but sad. And I really wish Sakurako would stop smoking ... .
Thanks to rachelmanija for recommending this!