UMAMI #5 by Ken Niimura
With a huge doses of fun and a good amount of character interaction, UMAMI #5 is a fantastic manga-inspired story from one of the most expressive artists in the business. Looking for a story that mixes food with adventure? Then look no further than UMAMI!
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Have you heard of UMAMI? No, I’m not talking about that mysterious fifth taste bud. I’m talking about the new comic book series from writer/artist Ken Niimura. Chances are you probably haven’t, which is a real shame. J.M. Ken Niimura made his name as the artist for the ever-popular I KILL GIANTS. Now a resident of Japan, Niimura has slipped into his own storytelling prospects, which has led to the brilliant UMAMI #5.

Apparently, cooking comics are really big in Japan. With such a unique manga art style, UMAMI has snuck onto shelves, exciting fans with protagonists Uma and Ami. With so much danger filling their journey, though, will they ever reach the Capital City in UMAMI #5?

Uma and Ami have survived a lot on their journey. Together, they have battled giant birds and thwarted people-eating bandits. They have recently discovered, though, that something is destroying towns on the road to the Capital City. What’s worse is that this destruction eradicates the population’s supply of salt. Being a low-tech civilization, these cities cannot preserve their meats long enough to survive without salt.

Uma, though, doesn’t believe this destruction comes from natural phenomenon. When the same destruction came to her home, Uma swears she saw a giant monster behind it all. Ami doesn’t believe her travel partner, but when more and more cities fall under siege, she may have to change her tune.

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Lots of Missing Salt

UMAMI #5, Page 1. Courtesy of Panel Syndicate

UMAMI #5 is a really fun comic book. It isn’t particularly deep, by any means. The quest for salt doesn’t quite match the Fellowship’s journey to Mordor in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. However, Niimura does quite a lot with such a simple recipe. He manages to elicit a lot of really strong emotions from the start, and that works really well to make the reader care about his plot. The opening flashback, where Uma sees her home devastated by a giant monster, is shocking and heartwrenching. I really felt for the character in that instant, and immediately, I wanted to see what happened next. That type of connection isn’t formed easily, but Niimura makes it look easy here.

What impresses me about UMAMI #5 isn’t the grand scale of its events. In fact, this story stays very close to our characters from the beginning. Niimura doesn’t do any massive action sequences in this issue. And yet I never felt my interest deteriorating. Niimura manages to put a lot of importance on minor events. The cooking scene near the end carries a lot of surprising but potent tension.

Also, Niimura has a great knack for pacing. There are certain sequences where, in the midst of travel, there is no dialogue. We see grand sweeping views of the landscape, and we understand that a lot of time has paced canonically. However, we aren’t forced to sit through unnecessary interlude moments for a story quickly nearing its final act.

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Building Bonds

UMAMI #5, Page 2. Courtesy of Panel Syndicate

I feel like UMAMI #5 suffers a bit in its characterization. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t work on all fronts. As I mentioned, the opening flashback gives real motivation to Uma’s journey. I still feel like we don’t quite get to see our characters much as individuals in this issue. UMAMI #4 focused solely on the strengths of Uma and Ami on their own in beautiful fashion. However, this issue doesn’t go quite far enough to make them that unique.

What UMAMI #5 does perfectly, though, is show these two characters finally working as a team. Up until this issue, they’ve spent much of their time unhappily together. Well, Ami has been unhappy, believing Uma to be a burden. Uma, on the other hand, is a bubbling font of positivity at all times. However, UMAMI #5 has them on much better terms. Ami has started to respect Uma’s skills as a chef.

Uma isn’t a culinary expert, and by no means does she cook tasty food. Uma’s food is useful, though, as ropes or glue or other tools. They each have their own individual strengths, and they way the pair work together in this issue really stands out compared to the previous.

Expressively Cute

UMAMI #5, Page 3. Courtesy of Panel Syndicate.

One of the shining lights of Image Comics’ I KILL GIANTS is Ken Niimura’s unique manga-like style. It has a much more cartoony feel than true manga, but the influences are definitely there. UMAMI #5 looks nothing like I KILL GIANTS but in a brilliant way. UMAMI is a far less serious story than I KILL GIANTS. That story is based on a very grounded and realistic place of profound grief. UMAMI, meanwhile, has a girl dressed in a chicken suit who is on a fetch quest for salt. This story has a few serious moments, but overall, it simply has a much lighter tone. This means that Niimura had to adapt his style, and I have to say that I am in love with its simplicity.

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While the manga influences are apparent in UMAMI #5, I also see a lot of similarities to stories like CALVIN AND HOBBES. This gives the art a noticeably cute aesthetic, with dot eyes and the opportunity for a lot of fun details. On the first page, for instance, Uma is seen standing next to a random chicken.

With a more detailed style, this would simply come across as too silly. Here, though, it only makes sense. I also appreciated Niimura’s sense of detailing throughout. He uses a light hand on this aspect, but the details he does add give UMAMI #5 a brilliant sense of energy and speed. This energy creates a lot of intrigue that the lack of color omits.

Final Thoughts: UMAMI #5

Some readers may not take to UMAMI #5’s cute, fun aesthetic. There aren’t any truly intense action scenes, and there certainly aren’t any magical superpowers. However, UMAMI #5 has loads and loads of character. In a medium filled with explosions and superheroes, it’s nice to just slow down and breath the fresh air sometimes.

This narrative has a very fun and relaxing feel to it, which works well because Niimura focuses intently on the strong plot. This is a story about two women coming together in a cooking master-team, and the moments between these characters make this narrative stand out.

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