Previous Retro Reviews...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO *** KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE *** PRINCESS MONONOKE
- HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE *** NAUSICAA *** CASTLE IN THE SKY *** PORCO ROSSO
- AKIRA Vol. 1 *** Vol. 2 *** Vol. 3 *** Vol. 4 *** Vol. 5 *** Vol. 6 *** TRIGUN Vol. 1
- LITTLE NORSE PRINCE VALIANT *** DRAGONBALL Vol. 1 *** GHOST IN THE SHELL
- MACROSS II *** LUPIN III: THE SECRET OF MAMO *** SPACE ADVENTURE COBRA
This one hits close enough to home that I maybe ought to cite a conflict of interest. BAKUMAN started only a few years ago, too, so doing this “retro review” gets even messier. Well, classifications be damned - - I really wanted to read and discuss this book. I’d say it’s arguably timely since the whole series concluded just recently, but that’s honestly beside the point for me. What’s important is that I’ve got something of a vested interest in the subject matter.
If you’ve paid attention to my byline on every single one of my posts, you’ll know that I write comics professionally when I’m not reviewing anime and manga here. So, as you’d expect, a story about comics creators speaks to my own life experiences far more specifically than all the tales of space pirates, mecha pilots and even generic twenty-somethings covered on this site. Hell, the kids in BAKUMAN (as of this first volume, at least) are seeking to make a manga that’ll be turned into an anime by the time they’re 18, and I technically broke into comics when I was 19 (the technicality being that the artist flaked out even after we’d had a contract worked out with a publisher.)
Honestly, reading this made me feel uncomfortable, and that’s perhaps to its merit. See, I know the book’s supposed to be an informative (but still entertaining and comical) journey through the manga business - - it accomplishes that, rather successfully, for most of its audience. For me specifically, though, it’s an embarrassing and even sobering examination of the often tragic flaws in thinking that can all-too-easily befall comics creators. It’s almost like watching somebody else pick open your scabs in the mirror.
BAKUMAN’s about a duo of smart middle schoolers who become a comics-producing partnership after some harmless blackmail. Mashiro, a dutiful student and budding artist, is essentially pushed into making manga his life’s goal by a classmate, Takagi - - an over-achiever and aspiring writer who knows little about making manga.
Even at age 14, Mashio’s all but sworn off cartooning as a career since he grew up seeing his uncle, a mediocre mangka, work himself to death. However, after Akito gets a hold of a notebook full of Mashiro's pencil portraits and then discovers that the subject of the portraits - - Mashiro’s crush, Azuki - - wants to be an anime voice actress, he pressures his would-be collaborator into confronting this girl he’s loved from afar.
The confrontation actually leads to an unhealthy resolution. After something of a comedy of errors, Mashiro and Azuki promise to marry one day… after their other dreams have come true, though. I imagine that the back-and-forth of their courtship will become the melodramatic intrigue to anchor a series that might otherwise be dryly fixated on shop talk and career planning. However, this volume lets loose a surprise that colors such playful romantic intrigue with a harsh coat of reality - - and it's not actually one of the oft-discussed “gambles” of the manga business.
As it turns out, Mashiro’s uncle and Azuki’s mother had a very similar “courtship.” They exchanged platonic letters for years while he was working on his manga career in the hopes of one day making himself worthy of her. Eventually, she grew tired of waiting and married a businessman (thus bringing Azuki to the world,) while he resigned to a loneliness that implicitly contributed to his death.
The series will most likely tie this romance off eventually with some happy ending where their dreams come true and their years-in-advance marriage plans work out exactly as hoped for. However, it’ll frankly seem as believable as a teenager’s successful plan to keep his hard drug habit manageable and until he quits on a chosen date without any pangs of addiction or withdrawal. And that's not a case of me reading too far into things, here, since the series practically advertises itself as entertainment that doubles as a field guide to some of life’s cold hard truths.
Maybe this all isn’t as tough to wrestle with in Japan. From my time living in Asia, I remember how Japanese children’s fates are sealed early on through those terrifying entrance exams. I also remember how reports of students committing suicide after getting low grades on those exams weren’t uncommon, either. So, maybe all these disquieting notions are just a matter of fact that readers over there are so used to that they'll never let it never their carefree entertainment.
Then again - - maybe these plot points are meant to be this unsettling. This is from the same team behind that unflinchingly nihilistic DEATH NOTE, after all. If that's the case, than BAKUMAN is a far more sophisticated piece of work than I already appreciate it to be.
As I warned, this isn’t a “retro review” so much as a discussion of a work of art from somebody with maybe a little too much skin in the subject matter. Despite these glum rabbit holes it might be you go down into, it really is a top-notch book.