I don’t really care that much for food manga, as popular as they seem to be these days, mostly because I’m a vegetarian, so the majority of the food that appears in their pages is utterly unappealing to me. I’m not one of those vegetarians who eats fake meat because she misses eating meat. When I see people eat meat, it’s like watching someone eat cardboard. I mean, sure? You can if you want? But it’s not actually food? So there’s pretty much nothing enticing for me about someone waxing poetic about the delights of pig fat in a bowl of ramen or something. If someone ever did a vegetarian food manga, maybe I’d feel differently about the genre. But until a book like that lands in my hands, I will remain heartily indifferent. (Ironically, I translate a food manga, and I have learned so much more than I ever wanted to know about cooking meat and seafood. Before I started translating this series, I actually was a reader of it but only for the relationship between Kenji and Shiro. I would just flip past the cooking pages. But now, I read them in the greatest of detail and watch videos on how to prepare squid…)
In contrast, I love coffee manga! There aren’t that many of them, which is a damned shame because I would read the hell out of more. For me, the best of the coffee manga is maybe the first one I ever read, Kohi Mo Ippai by Naoto Yamakawa. Just story after story of people taking the time and effort to make coffee and then sit down and enjoy it. There’s just something so relaxing about watching someone take a break like that. And there are so many little stories that weave themselves around the act of making and drinking coffee, of sitting in a café. It’s slice-of-life with a fixed centre: the cup of coffee.
Emi Yokoi appears to take it one step further at first in Café de Coffee o. The first three stories all involve the same café, with the protagonists of each having minor interactions with the protagonists of the others. In “Terako Onna”, a woman realizes that night in the bath that she spent the entire day walking around with pieces of cod roe stuck to her face and no one said a thing to her about it. She takes this to mean that no one actually looks at her face and gets a little funky with her eyebrows the next day when she heads to a café for coffee and roll cake. There she spots a nervous-looking man, the protagonist of “Kozukaicho”, and an older gentleman who flushes bright red when he takes a look at her, the protagonist of “Cleopatra no Mayuge”. So I assumed that all the stories would revolve around these crossing paths at this one café, which I loved. I am really interested in the way our lives intersect and we don’t even notice it.
But then she takes a hard left at story No. 4, “Marriage”, and we’re in an office working late. The last two in the office share a coffee break one night and then get in the habit of it, getting really into making delicious coffee, to the point where they’re mostly working late to hang out and read coffee magazines together. “Miss Bender no Tabi” follows this burgeoning relationship from the perspective of a vending machine talking to a can of coffee. Yes, really. And then “Nodate wa Ikaga?” moves the vending machine out to the countryside, leading us to our setting for the next two stories. Masako moves back to her family’s home in the middle of nowhere and reconnects with a favourite aunt over a hike and tea ceremony in the great outdoors.
Like this, Yokoi leads us through little worlds of coffee and small gatherings, each lasting for two or three stories before we move onto the next. So we see a girl ranting to her friend over drink bar drinks at a family restaurant in “Kashimashi Girls”, and then getting stuck in a public toilet stall in “Help Me!” while the friend goes on a date in “Inishiekei Tanbo”. And then in “San Jiji Manga Dokokai”, one of the more warmly funny pieces, three old men get together to draw manga at the community centre in the hot summer. One of the old men gets critiques from his 9-year-old grandson, and it is as adorable as it sounds.
We circle back in later stories to most of these characters again, creating a feeling of interconnectedness throughout the entire volume, even if not all of the stories are connected to each other. It feels a bit like the cover image in way. We circle in and out from the lives of the various characters, seeing their different coffee breaks, their different interactions with each other. So that it feels like the stories are interacting with each other to create a larger whole.
Yokoi’s art style changes somewhat from the first three stories, making me wonder about when the stories were first published. It feels like there’s a gap in time between the first three and the rest. Her linework gets heavier in the later stories, and characters and backgrounds have more presence on the page. The early stories feel a bit lighter in comparison, like she hadn’t really settled on her style yet. I definitely like the sharper outlines of the later stories, though. And her pacing and panelling is solid as hell. Given that this appears to be her debut collection, I was surprised at how skilled she is at building a page. But a little digging turns up the fact that she used to work under the name Emi Watanabe and has been working as an illustrator and manga artist since 1993. So no wonder she seems so confident on these pages.
Café de is coffee manga at its finest. People doing stuff and having coffee while they do. Some people are coffee nerds, but most of them just enjoy the breathing space of sitting down with a cup of the stuff. And each story is at most twenty pages long, making them perfect to digest in a single sitting over, perhaps, a coffee break.