Two years after I declared Shidare Hotaru the best female anime character of 2016, I’ve finally read all 11 volumes of her manga, Dagashi Kashi. Now, it’s time for a full review of this eccentric and wonderful series about Japanese snack nostalgia and the thirstiness of youth
Shikada Kokonotsu is a small-town high school boy who dreams of drawing manga professionally, but his dad wants him to take over the family business—a shop that sells dagashi, a category of Japanese snacks that are made to be cheap so that kids can afford them with their small allowances. One day, the vivacious heiress to the Shidare snack company, Shidare Hotaru, arrives at their store with a mission: to recruit Kononotsu’s dad to her family’s company. However, in order to do that, Kokonotsu needs to take over their shop. Thus, Hotaru takes it upon herself to convince Kokonotsu to embrace the dagashi passion in his blood by making daily visits and challenging Kokonotsu in various snack-related ways.
I love reading reactions to Dagashi Kashi because of how it seems to frustrate many anime and manga fans. At first, it seems to be a fanservice-heavy rom-com/harem work with a veneer of Japanese snack nostalgia, only to quickly reveal itself as the opposite. Sure, Dagashi Kashi is filled with attractive and powerfully charismatic girls, but it’s their passionate and humorous interactions over the snacks themselves (as well as the history lessons provided) that are the true backbone to this series. This might not be what others want out of Dagashi Kashi, but it’s exactly what won me over.
One can hardly call Dagashi Kashi an ultra-complex manga, but it’s endlessly entertaining, and its characters memorable and fully realized. Hotaru is the lynchpin of the series, a whirling dervish of intensity, passion, and mild misfortune, but every character carries their weight in making it a delightful comedy. For example, Endou Saya, a childhood friend who harbors a secret crush on Kokonotsu, is a perfect “normie” character—someone who only has a casual connection to dagashi but rounds out the main cast as a result. Every time a new character is introduced, they also quickly endear themselves. The key example is an employment-challenged character named Owari Hajime, who shows up when Hotaru vanishes for a brief period. While the hole Hotaru creates in her absence can’t be filled by anyonese (a plot point in the series), Hajime differentiates herself by being this adult who’s both more mature than the kids around her yet ill-equipped for the real world.
The humor comes across to me as a kind of manzai battle royal. While manzai comedy classically involves one boke (buffoon) and one tsukkomi (straight man), the classifications are modular within the context of Dagashi Kashi. Most of the time, Kokonotsu is the one who’s reacting to characters’ shenanigans, be it Hotaru, his best friend Tou, or even his dad. But sometimes, Kokonotsu lets himself be carried away by Hotaru’s dagashi antics, and it’s up to Saya or even Hajime to call him out on it. However, Kokonotsu’s casual reactions can be completely disarming to her, which puts her out of the driver’s seat, so to speak. The humor is sort of like a cross between Lucky Star and Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei, and if that doesn’t quite make sense, it’s because Dagashi Kashi is kind of its own thing in the end.
Another interesting aspect of the series is that it’s a very different experience reading it compared to a Japanese audience. For many who grew up in Japan, dagashi are just a part of life, and part of the appeal of Dagashi Kashi is that it’s a trip down memory lane. For foreigners like me, however, it’s more about discovering a little-explored aspect of Japanese culture. In that regard, I love learning all this dagashi trivia, and there’s plenty to go around. In fact, the series can be so information-dense that it’s sometimes hard to believe that Dagashi Kashi chapters are generally only eight pages.
It’s hard to decide which chapters are my personal favorites, but a few stand out upon reflection. First, there are a couple that are meant to celebrate the announcement of the anime (seasons 1 and 2), and they’re intentionally drawn to be dynamic and action-packed, as if to challenge the animators to do something about it. Second, there’s a chapter that features Snickers, of all things. It lets a non-Japanese reader like me sort of get the nostalgic experience that’s expected from Dagashi Kashi. (As an aside, Hotaru actually presents Snickers as an ideal emergency survival food due to its high sugar, fat, and calorie content.) Third, there’s one about red bean ice cream bars. Hotaru, for some reason, essentially asks which would win in a fight: a red bean bar in the summer or a red bean bar in the winter? The question is as nonsensical in the story as it is in this paragraph, and that’s what makes it great.
With a series like Dagashi Kashi, it can be difficult to see how the series ends or whether it’s satisfying. I will say that I enjoy the conclusion, but it more or less resolves in an open-ended fashion. While it’s not entirely ambiguous, be it in romance or the pursuit of dreams, it feel as if the message of Dagashi Kashi is that these characters are still young and have their entire lives ahead of them. In other words, even as the manga finishes, the characters are capable of doing so much more. It’s a nice message to end on, and an appropriate way to send Hotaru, Kokonotsu, and the rest of the crew off.
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