Dreams are wonderful things that give us a reason for getting out of bed when coffee isn’t cutting it, and for Moritaka Mashiro, he dreams of drawing a manga that’s adapted into an anime, with his junior high crush, Miho Azuki, voicing the heroine. Pairing up with Akito Takagi, who has his own dream of hitting it big with a manga he writes, they form a writer-artist duo under the pen name Muto Ashigori and don’t waste a second jumping into the world of the manga industry.
I’ve discussed Bakuman before, briefly comparing it to another untidy collage of words and phrases and referring to it as “excellent.” I stand by that adjective choice, because even when not beside a trash heap, Bakuman is a glorifying example of how to make a manga, and I mean that in more than one way. The trademark of this series is how it educates the reader on the inner workings of the manga industry, from getting started to dealing with cancellation, and it does it all organically, too, the lessons unfolding through conversations and scenes rather than a floating square speaking directly to the reader. It can get bogged down with words, but it never feels like the characters are taking a vocabularic detour to make one point.
There’s a lot more to the manga industry than making manga, getting published, and getting paid, and it’s amazing how much nuance in methodology there is when approaching storyboards, drawing, or any stage of the art form. Just as an example, Mashiro and Takagi split their responsibilities where the latter drafts the storyboards and the former follows them, but later on they learn of a method where the writer simply writes out some lines of prose and the artist, based on how they imagine the scene, draft the storyboards themselves. The results are much more imaginative, riveting panels which improve the overall quality, and this is just one technique of many artists use to ensure the work they’re putting forth is their best possible. Bakuman pays only the highest expense when showing us all the nooks and crannies, ins and outs of getting the manga from your head onto paper.
This being a manga about making manga, there’re a ton of fictional stories this piece of fiction details, and every now then it treats us by giving us a glimpse at what the mangaka are making, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that some of these manga are more thrilling than the manga they’re in, and I’m not saying that as a knock against Bakuman. There’s a work midway through called Classroom of Truth about a high school classroom that becomes a godlike entity’s toy chest, and he/she/it/they declare that anyone who performs a certain action will die, with the objective being to clear all of the assigned tasks, but it’s only the last person left alive at the end who will regain their freedom. We watch as the teacher and classmates vanish into nothingness, leaving behind their final thoughts, thoughts which reveal that their final words were a lie.
The Classroom of Truth is sharply written, and once it has its fat fingers around you, it ceases to let go, and we get to see a sizable chunk of this supernatural thriller before pulling back to the real world of Takagi and Mashiro. That story within a story was so on-edge-of-my-beanbag terrific that my heart dropped into my tailbone when I didn’t get to see how it continued.
A lot of the in-manga manga are like this. We see just enough for context on what it is the characters are discussing, and often just that tiny glimpse is enough to get you salivating for what comes next, especially when everybody’s circled round singing its praises. But what’s equally as impressive is the skill in versatility on display whenever one of these teases pops up. The artwork looks like it really was drawn by the in-story characters rather than the actual artist who sat behind the desk. I find that that much more impressive when you consider how subpar the artwork seems at first blush.
Your typical shonen manga is drawn with the thick lines of a G-pen, but despite Mashiro explaining this at the series’s start, the characters of Bakuman themselves are assembled with thin, scratchy lines. They often have simplified frames, especially as the series goes on, from what were overtly detailed clothing folds and hair strands. Characters definitely look better at the end of the series, as the artist got a handle on their models, but perhaps he got a little too good, because the manga has moments of horror when it shows a flashback of a character’s debut panel.
A manga doesn’t make itself, so it’s duck soup to deduce that there’s a human responsible for the ink on a page. A plethora of attitudes, personalities, and levels of success in the industry permeate the chapters, and the manga explores them through its diverse cast of bit parts. Shinta Fukuda started off as an assistant before striking out on his own. Ko Aoki previously wrote and illustrated for a shojo magazine but jumped ship to shonen due to that genre welcoming fantasy stories better. Aiko Iwase is similar, being an award-winning novelist who takes up manga writing. Kazuya Hiramaru is a bona fide genius whose first crack at making a manga winds up being a smash hit. Et al.
There’re plenty of other artists and assistants whose time on stage comes and goes, but the one stretching their arms in the limelight the highest is Eiji Nizuma.
Right from the start Nizuma is built up as nothing less than a manga prodigy, an eccentric so in love with the medium he stuffs feather sweepers down his neckline and exclaims onomatopoeias with every swipe of his pen. He even has an atomically precise intuition, able to predict the ranking of a manga and the identity and potential behind its mangaka just by reading a chapter. Where Mashiro and Takagi hope to someday roll their snowball into a moon, Nizuma is a blizzard that rolls in and parks itself for an extended stay.
Mashiro and Takagi’s never-ending rivalry with Nizuma is the conflict central through the series’s twenty-volume run, but orbiting those binary stars is the solar system of intra- and interpersonal affrays of the artists and editors who are, this manga reminds us, human beings struggling against their own shortcomings and outside adversity.
Referring to my earlier list, Fukuda grows dissatisfied with his debut series and starts one up to his standards. Aoki looks down her nose at others because of her talent, and Iwase is, again, similar, thumbing her nose at those she deems inferior. But at the same time, Iwase puts her best foot forward because she seeks outside validation, even going so far as attempting to seduce her editor because he recognizes her for her talent. Hiramaru is one of the more sympathetic of the side cast, being an untold talent at manga but who actually hates making it. The only reason he doesn’t call it quits is because his editor, sly dog he is, keeps stringing him along, week after week, because his series rakes in the dough.
The editors aren’t glistening balls of sunshine, either. Most of them tend to hang out in the background, where they stay the same character at the end they were at the beginning, but one who does receive significant growth is the boys’ first editor, Goro Miura.
Mashiro warns Takagi early into their mangaka ventures how the editors at a publisher are a mixed basket. Some of them, like Akira Hattori, will bend over backwards for their mangaka and offer up suggestions to help them make the most out of the stories they want to tell. And then there’re editors like Goro Miura. When he comes onto the scene, he has exactly one goal, and that’s to be in charge of a gag manga. He enjoys a good laugh as much as the next fool, but he’s not a risk-taker. He’s done extensive research into what keeps a manga in the magazine, and his observation is that gag manga, even though they don’t chart that high, run with a premium life insurance plan, doing just well enough that their titles never come up when it’s time to dust off the cancellation guillotine. His focus first and foremost is keeping a serialization pumping, and editing a gag manga is his surefire method for doing so. The boys have no intention of writing a gag manga, even if it’s a guaranteed centenarian, so they and Miura frequently clash.
Bakuman does a wonderful job at taking its players from point A to point D, both as artists and as human beings, but it does have one glaring flaw, which is that as soon as a character’s arc is done with, the series drops them, and we hardly hear from them again, if at all. I get there’s nowhere else to go once you reach the top of a mountain, but I would like to have seen how the characters live now that they’re mountaineering experts.
Bakuman is a tad misleading with how much glitter and sparkles it casts on the manga industry, and it’s naive when it comes to the dreams we may come up with when we’re young, but it’s nothing if not genuine. It’s every bit informative as it is entertaining, and its volumes go the extra step in revealing manga production by showing at the end of each chapter the storyboard the writer made and how the artist took that and made it not dull. I would’ve liked to have gotten a little more out of it, but it circles around to end on a fantastic note, and I don’t know how to end this recommendation other than by saying it’s a top-rank read.