One of the most appealing things about the first volume of Satomi U‘s Beauty and the Feast is that it is not a romance. There’s no hint of anything inappropriate going on between sixteen-year-old high school student Shohei and twenty-eight-year-old widow Shuko – rather it’s like Sweetness & Lightning in its themes of food bringing people together, and there’s a distinctly familial feel to the relationship that the two are forging. While this may not remain the case (and when Shohei’s grown up, twelve years isn’t insurmountable), for this book any romance is strictly between the characters and food, and there’s something very nice about that.
Food as a human link isn’t an uncommon theme in literature as a whole, so it isn’t a surprise that there are so many manga about cooking and eating. This story takes for its premise that feeding someone is in itself rewarding and can become the catalyst for a better outlook on life. The protagonist is Shuko Yakumo, a young widow who, for whatever reason, isn’t working outside the home. We’re not sure how long ago her husband died (or even that it is her husband who died for much of the book, back copy notwithstanding, since it isn’t explicitly said until close to the final chapter), but it’s clear that she’s still mourning him deeply. Mostly this comes across as a loss of interest in life – she seems to have just one close friend whom she doesn’t get to see often and spends most of her days inside the apartment, where she keeps incense burning by her husband’s photo constantly. She gives the impression of being stuck, unable to take any real steps forward, backward, or sideways.
All of this changes when a high school first-year moves into the apartment next door. Shohei Yamato has recently started school in a distant town because of its baseball program (and his scholarship to it), and because there was no room in the dorms, he ended up living on his own. Shuko is only moderately interested in her new neighbor until she makes too much rice and decides to offer him some onigiri; when he snarfs them down in record time and she gets a peek into his disaster of a kitchen, Shuko decides almost on the spur of the moment to offer to cook for him. Shohei’s surprised but willing, and thus every night after practice he begins coming to her apartment for dinner.
One of the interesting things to note is that while Shuko enjoys cooking for Shohei and watching him eat, she almost never eats with him. We don’t know why this is – the only meal they technically share is when they have a picnic – but it suggests that for her the joy isn’t in the eating or the sharing of meals, but in getting to do something for someone else. She’s not a foodie in the sense that she loves food for its own sake; rather she’s got a deep-seated investment in doing something good for someone else because it gives her a reason to get up in the morning and go out. Shohei may be getting something physically nutritious out of the arrangement, but for Shuko the nourishment is entirely emotional.
Not that Shohei doesn’t get anything beyond a full belly from the meals. While we don’t see much, if any, of the story from his point of view, Shuko is sufficiently curious about his life to ask him questions and to walk by the school to watch him practice. As such, she learns that despite having a nuclear family (two parents and a younger sister), he’s rarely had the chance to eat with them due to his practice and his parents’ work schedules conflicting; in fact, he doesn’t even get fresh rice most of the time, instead eating frozen or boil-in-bag. Now that he’s on his own, things are even less familial, especially since he’s one of, if not the only, team members not living in the dorm with its cafeteria. Eating is just a thing he has to do, so having Shuko cook for him and sit with him while he eats, getting up to give him seconds or thirds and thinking about his nutritional needs as well as his tastes, is a totally new experience for him. It’s the fabled family life he hasn’t had for years, if he ever had it, and that may be helping to both ground him and to take the sting out of his particularly harsh coach’s words.
There is a bit of a stumble towards the end of the volume when Shohei’s childhood friend Rui enters the scene. Rui is absolutely obsessed with baseball and is in fact the person who got Shohei playing in the first place. She has plans for her life – and his – and is frustrated with his unwillingness to comply with them. Yes, he’s at the school she wanted them to go to and yes, he’s on the baseball team, but he steadfastly refuses to date her, and she’s not buying his (legitimate) excuse that he wants to focus on his sport, not to mention how dating’s not allowed by the coach anyway. She’s hardly a new type of character, but she is annoying and stands to become downright obnoxious if she continues in the same vein. On the other hand, she’s a good foil to Shuko, who is equally considering her own needs and Shohei’s, while Rui is completely selfish in her pursuits.
As it stands in this volume, Beauty and the Feast is a story about two people who are both missing something in their lives coming together to make things better. The protagonists’ age gap doesn’t seem to be an issue right now because it’s not a romance, and if the people aren’t drawn hugely well – there’s at least one scene where it’s hard to tell how legs attach to torsos – the food looks perfectly yummy. It’s a sweet start to what looks like a nice story.