Definite spoilers ahead! I’m talking stuff from even the last chapter here!
If you were to go back to my Top Yuri List, you’d see what I had to say about Morinaga Milk. To quote, I dubbed her the “Queen of Yuri.” Since she did make Girl Friends (which needs no introduction) and Kuchibiru Tameiki Sakurairo (Lips, Sigh, Cherry Blossom-Color) (check my list for why I think it’s my personal favorite yuri manga of all time), her legacy is far and wide, and deserves the less-than-humble title I bestowed upon her. As you can tell, I am a fan of her works. She perfectly captures that longing and nostalgic feeling that can only come from reading yuri, and any drama she decides to stir within her manga is handled decently enough to not fully disrupt the flow of story, and rather aids in character development and depicting the struggle of being a gay girl in a shoujo manga world. She knows exactly what I’m looking for in yuri. To say she had an influence on my own original yuri works (a not so subtle plug) is a bit of an understatement.
However, more than enough people have been gushing over those two aforementioned series for years, unfortunately overshadowing her other works. (I admit I do a bit of that in this review as well.) As such, I’ll be instead talking about one of Milk’s more recent runs, The Secret Recipe. Featured by the now-defunct Tsubomi Yuri Anthology Magazine, this manga ran from 2009 to what I believe 2014, with seventeen chapters total. Short, sweet, and the flavorful yuri Milk delivers is as delicious as you’d expect. Even if it does taste a little too familiar. Now that I’m done with the food puns for now, let’s sink our teeth into The Secret Recipe! (Sorry.)
The Secret Recipe features genki girl Wakatsuki Chihiro and a-bit-of-a-pushover Horikawa Yuuko, the president of the school cooking club. Between the both of them, the story follows their developing relationship and the yuri shenanigans that can apparently happen within a cooking club. At first glance, their character designs and dynamic are very similar to Mari and Akko of Girl Friends and Nana and Hitomi of Kuchibiru Tameiki Sakurairo. The reserved, dark haired girl paired up with the energetic and scatterbrained light haired girl. Maybe a bit closer to Girl Friends regarding Wakatsuki and Yuuko’s relationship dynamic, so readers familiar with Milk’s work will see the similarities rather quickly. Milk herself says she really likes dark haired bob cut types. Luckily, our two leads here do differentiate themselves enough to feel like their own fleshed out characters to follow. For one, Yuuko is a lot more tough on Wakatsuki, being her senior and all, and Wakatsuki is a lot more willing to tease Yuuko. By having one half of our couple as an upperclassman rather than both in the same grade, the dynamic is already different than what we’d initially expect, and adds a layer of depth between the two characters. With Yuuko’s smaller stature and meeker nature, Wakatsuki feels more comfortable in getting close to her President and teasing her, ultimately lighting the candle of yuri that these two will eventually share under a well-cooked dinner. Where was I again?
For starters, let’s look at the art. Usually it’s the first thing people notice about a manga anyways. Milk’s shoujo-classical influenced style is still present, though with some definite improvements. Even the very first page of the manga pops right out to showcase Milk’s jump in quality… along with some other things.
Big eyes, soft lines, bubbles and glows, the classic shoujo aesthetic is all here. If there was one thing The Secret Recipe has Girl Friends beat in, it’s the art. The art in Girl Friends isn’t bad, but those early chapters definitely had some occasional Clannad-esque eyes and faces that could instill fear deep into a man’s soul. Here, there’s definite improvements in every aspect of her art, even aiding in flow of sequential storytelling. Her art also improved in providing comedy as well, Milk not afraid to distort her characters’ faces for humorous reactions. The character designs, while a tad derivative and a bit of a reskin, still manage to be unique enough. My favorite part of Yuuko’s design are her glasses and hairpin combo. As a person who rocks the same combo, even a similar hairstyle, it’s personally nice to see.
Regarding the story and writing, it stands well on its own, but those already familiar with Milk’s work may feel a sense of “been there, done that.” In fact, having read it multiple times for both review and pleasure, it does feels like Girl Friends on fast forward. It starts with Wakatsuki already having feelings for her club president, and a large focus on the drama is Wakatsuki’s dealing of the situation and her own emotions. If you don’t like the dimwitted, energetic girl types (and there are some I’m not fond of), you might not be too happy with the large emotional focus on Wakatsuki. Personally I found her harmless enough. With that being said, how the story flows is certainly something we’ve seen before. Girl likes girl, thinks it’s wrong to do so, tries and fails to push the other girl away, drama ensues as both girls deal with this communication, or lack thereof. Girl Friends was somewhat split into two parts; one focusing on Mari’s developing feelings for Akko, and vice versa. The Secret Recipe operates similarly, in the sense that there’s only one part with Wakatsuki’s feelings for Yuuko. Yuuko does get her focus eventually, but by this point in the story it becomes a bit rushed and underdeveloped, it just kind of happens. Some could argue that it’s just very subtle, but Yuuko’s final push to realize her feelings is definitely rushed a bit. But considering this Morinaga Milk we’re talking about here, even if it is a familiar formula, she does it so well. If you let it, you’ll probably be as engrossed in Wakatsuki and Yuuko’s tale as you were with Mari and Akko’s, or Nana and Hitomi’s. And if you like shorter and compact stories, you might be all the more enthralled. I apologize for making so many comparisons between The Secret Recipe and Girl Friends, especially since I made the point of the latter’s legacy on yuri, but because of said legacy, it can’t be helped.
Unlike Girl Friends though, The Secret Recipe’s story is more about the chase than it is the prize, or treat. We don’t get a mutual confession and barely a glimpse of these two as a couple until the last half of the very last chapter. As I’ve mentioned before, I love stories that explore past the confession, so to see The Secret Recipe not fully delve into it, especially with what we got in Girl Friends, it was nothing short of a shame. Nevertheless, I still felt my heart tug when they finally did get together. It was nice to see Wakatsuki and Yuuko be a couple, although sadly brief as it was.
Being a yuri story though, it isn’t without its characteristic drama and misunderstandings, and that can definitely make (see Girl Friends for umpteenth time) or break (see Citrus) a manga. Luckily Milk knows what she is doing, the drama here driving the story, and not betraying the characters’ personality and motivations. We understand why Wakatsuki thinks she shouldn’t be around the President, because that idea is aligned with her thought process as a character and what has happened to and around her to make her come to that conclusion. We as an audience think, and know, it’s dumb reasoning, but Wakatsuki is a dumb character, so it makes sense to her, and as such we accept it anyways. And that’s just one example of how the drama and tension is handled in this manga; if you can read an entire story wrought with misunderstandings with minimal groaning or face-palming, and instead adding depth and an interest to keep reading, the story is doing its job.
To quickly touch on the humor, it’s light yet subtle. We’re not reading some next-level comedy à la Yuru Yuri, but when it hits it’s pretty good.
Where The Secret Recipe does shine in is it’s setting of a cooking club. It might not be initially something you could shake a stick (or whisk, or spoon, or ladle… sorry) at, but the very idea of two girls falling in love through and by means of cooking and food imagery/motif, it sets my heart aflutter. When I found out how the title itself relates to Wakatsuki and Yuuko’s relationship, it hit me by surprise and left my heart a doki-doki mess. Embarrassing sentiment aside, the girls’ setting within a cooking club sets it apart for Milk’s previous series sufficiently enough to provide its own distinct and enjoyable tone and personality. It is not simply just the ‘Girl Friends with cooking’ manga that some may originally think. Although in many cases it is.
Within Six Flags amusement parks, there exists a rollercoaster called Batman: The Ride, modeled after Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). It features vertical loops, zero-G rolls, wingovers, all for that classic rollercoaster high speed intensity worthy of its superhero namesake. In fact, it was the world’s first inverted roller coaster (the ones where to track is above you, legs freely swinging) earning the coveted “Coaster Landmark” status by the American Coaster Enthusiast society. Deep in the heart of Texas, in SeaWorld San Antonio, there exists The Great White. It’s a clone of the aforementioned Batman: The Ride, meaning the layout of the tracks between the two are exactly the same, a few differences notwithstanding. It’s smaller in footage than its parent coaster, so while the track is the same, the runtime and speed are both shorter and faster respectively. Some proclaim the original’s run is better, with higher peaks and lower dips and more time to enjoy it properly, while others argue the shorter run and faster pace of the clone allows for a more intense and gripping experience, achieving those same peaks and dips while using the appeal of the original to create something new. It’s not completely wrong to want to compare the two, especially considering their shared lineage, but one must also understand that both are unique experiences on their own, independent of each other.
Get where I’m going yet?
In many regards Girl Friends and The Secret Recipe have a similar connection. The Secret Recipe, very clearly running along a similar narrative flow as Girl Friends, manages to find its own identity and personality to set it apart. The question now is, which does one prefer? If you had to twist my arm, Girl Friends tells the classic yuri story better and hits the right appeals for me in an emotional sense. It’s simply that good. But reading The Secret Recipe shows any doubters that Morinaga Milk still has it. It’s her …And Justice for All to Girl Friends’s Master of Puppets. On its own, it’s a great manga worthy of any self-respecting yuri fan. Even if it’s Milk running through the motions, her yuri is still undeniably her yuri. Sugary and delicious. And when she hits her stride, she runs like no other. Like Milk’s previous works; a must read. If I had to give a score, it’d be 8 sweet cakes out of 10 chocolate hearts. That’s cute and sweet enough for anyone.
Alright Yuri Nation denizens, sorry for my review being a little late this month, I hope you can forgive me. Please tell me what you thought about both this manga and this review down in the comments. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to learn how to cook for myself. Maybe find the kitchen along the way.
(Post-review writing process note: I actually just finished Sono Hanabira 5, and I’ve been wanting to talk about it, and 3 also, for a while now. So if you want… yeah. Sound off about that in the comments too.)