story by Tsugumi Ohba; art by Takeshi Obata; adapted by Tetsuichiro Miyaki
published by Viz; $9.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Akito Takagi is 14 years old and dreams of being a manga writer. However, he’s not a good artist, so he needs one as a partner. Moritaka Mashiro is Akito’s classmate and a gifted artist. He wanted to be a manga artist until he saw his uncle work himself to death in that job. After much arm twisting, Akito convinces Moritaka to join him. Together, they seek to become successful manga creators (called mangaka).
Bakuman is a fortuitous release for Viz. In June of this year, Viz and 35 other publishers formed a coalition to combat the problem of scanlations. Just this week, manga author Yana Toboso (Black Butler) spoke out against illegal downloads of manga and anime. Part of the debate surrounding scanlations is a discussion of the hardships that mangaka face. It has become painfully evident that there is a part of manga fandom that doesn’t know how the Japanese publishing system works or what it’s really like to be a mangaka. Now Viz has a series that claims to tell the truth about how manga is created and the life mangaka live.
The first page of the book quotes Obata, “There’s no fantasy in this series, so I feel a bit nervous about it.” Let’s be honest, that’s not entirely true. Few, if any, mangaka begin by being given a rent-free studio, all the needed supplies and equipment, and a comprehensive library of manga and reference material. Akito and Moritaka are starting out well ahead of the average mangaka. This plot device gets us past having to watch our fledgling mangaka slowly amassing supplies and begging their parents for pens, screentones, paper, ink, etc. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we’re getting an honest, no-holds-barred look at being a mangaka.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of realism in the series. At the beginning, Moritaka informs Akito that only one in a hundred thousand will ever be a ‘successful’ manga creator. By successful, Moritako means a mangaka who is free of financial worry. Most artists and writers are living paycheck to paycheck, like the rest of the world, and that’s only if they have a series currently being published. While they are pitching a series, they don’t get paid. Even if a mangaka has a successful manga series that gets adopted into a successful anime, he won’t make enough money to last a lifetime.
At this point, Ohba and Obata make reference to their successful manga series Death Note. Ohba quotes himself as saying the money from Death Note will only last him five years. That’s a sobering fact when you consider that Death Note was a successful manga that was adapted into a successful anime, had three live-action films made, has a series of light novels, had three video games, plus Viz is getting ready to release a new deluxe edition of the manga. And let’s not forget all the merchandise sales. Even a global bestseller like Death Note is no guarantee of financial security.
Ohba and Obtata also give real lessons in the craft of creating a manga. Since Moitako learned a lot watching his uncle work, he serves as Akito’s mentor. Through Moitako’s tutorage we learn: the difference between using a G-Pen nib and a Kabura nib, what a storyboard is, what the role of an editor is, that not all editors are good, etc. We discover there are various visual reference books available to artists for creating backgrounds such as office interiors, street scenes, and forests. Creating professional quality manga is a complex and demanding enterprise. To be successful means putting in more than just 40 hours a week.
Bakuman is being published in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine, and it feels like Ohba and Obata are trying to fit a slice-of-life series into the Shonen Jump formula. Our protagonists are young men with great potential who seek to conquer the world of manga. Before them are many obstacles they will have to overcome. Each challenge will force them to improve their skills and achieve a new level of mastery. Is this beginning to sound familiar? The plotline could be used to describe Dragonball, Bleach, or Naruto. The problem is the authors are trying to create an exciting tale about the tedium of being a mangaka. Unfortunately, this takes away from the sense of realism they wanted to create. It makes the events of the series feel overhyped, like an infomercial that is trying too hard to sell you another ‘life-changing’ kitchen toy.
There is also the little matter of Akito’s four-page discussion about two of his female classmates. Akito is voicing the traditional understanding of women and their social roles in Japanese society. Basically, he thinks that women should seek to be wives and mothers. He uses this lens to analyze the motivations of his classmates. Needless to say, this won’t sit well with female American readers.
However, I have a hard time taking Akito seriously. First, he is only 14. I understand the authors writing the manga are adult men, but they are putting these words in the mouth of a very young man who has never been in a serious relationship himself. Second, this is very early in the series. There is no indication that Akito’s opinion is set in stone and will be the way that the manga itself will portray its female characters. I’m holding off any final opinion for a couple more volumes to give Ohba and Obata time to do more character development.
Obata’s art is gorgeous as always. I’ve yet to read any manga Obata has drawn that isn’t visually exceptional. The lines are crisp and sharp. The panels and pages flow well and are easy to read. There are lots of gorgeous details. I continue to encourage any artist to study his pages to learn how to do comics right. My only complaint is the character designs are very similar to those used in Death Note, so my first thought when I saw Akito was, “Hey, it’s Light with glasses.” But that’s a miniscule complaint at best.
When I heard the creators of Death Note had a new manga out, I was very excited. Unfortunately, the false sense of dramatic tension really soured Bakuman for me. I was hoping for something a bit more realistic. For people not as worried about realism, this is a good introduction to Japanese publishing and what it takes to get published. Honestly, I have no impedance to pick up the second volume, so I let this series pass by.