October 25, 2018

Bakuman (the context)

You write what you know.

So writers write books about writing. And about writers. So Stephen King wrote Misery and The Shining and Bag of Bones. And On Writing. And so Hollywood makes movies about making Hollywood movies. And so we get Singing in the Rain and La La Land.

Television dramas love writers. And so we have Richard Castle and Robin Masters (whom we never see) and Temperance Brennan, and, of course, John Watson. Along with all the frustrated writers who show up alive and dead on the the Law & Order franchise.

These tropes hold in Japan too, though with a few necessary tweaks. Publishing contracts are so standardized that the job of the literary agent only exists in a very narrow niche. A writer deals with the publisher through an editor, so that is where the conflicts will arise.

Such as the combative relationship between Shigure Sohma and his editor in Fruits Basket.

And unlike the North American market, manga, anime, and (especially of late) light novels are far more dominant players in the popular culture. So we can expect that there will be manga about writing manga and anime about making anime. Along with light novels about writers writing light novels.

The light novel, to clarify, is essentially a young adult novella that

incorporates elements from anime, manga, video games, fan art and fan fiction. It is character and dialogue-driven, replete with provocative illustrations and heavily reliant upon the viral energy of the Internet, where many of the stories get their start.

In the writing-about-writing category, the light novel recently got a moment in the sun with Eromanga Sensei. It is not a serious series, sort of as if Fast Times at Ridgemont High had been written by nerdy writers about nerdy writers who write bestsellers in high school.

High school student Masamune Izumi writes light novels of an—ahem—provocative nature. His kid sister, who goes by the nom de plume of "Eromanga Sensei," is the illustrator. Masamune is brainstorming a new series when the reigning teenage queen of the light novel moves in next door.

Realism is hardly the intent. Still, it makes several pertinent points about the mechanics of the trade. We see the cubicles used by editors to conference with their writers (no agents, remember) and observe how contests are run to recruit new talent and test established talent against the competition.

The light novel as a cultural trend-setter is a fairly recent phenomenon so we should see more stories like this in the future.

Anime has been ascendant for longer and so has been talking about itself for longer. The parody anime that parodies other anime is a thriving genre. Anime about making anime include Animation Runner Kuromi (about the frenetic life of a producer) and Girlish Number (about voice actors).

And then there's Shirobako, which sets the bar so high it exists in a category of its own. Over two cours, Shirobako closely documents the production of two anime series, while throwing in so many inside jokes about the major players in the business that you'll need a reference manual.

Manga reaches even further back. Rather like minor league baseball, an entire industry has built up around the amateur manga artist. Comic Party and Genshiken, for example, focus on the doujinshi market and the goal of selling at Comiket, the largest fan convention in the world.

Manga about manga professionals tend to emphasize the chaotic and financially unstable process of running a manga publication, as in Mangirl, or the comically weird juxtaposition of the mangaka's personality and the genre he specializes in.

The best illustration of the latter may be Yasuko and Kenji. After their parents are killed in an accident, Kenji, the hard-core leader of a biker gang, quits to take care of his kid sister Yasuko. To make ends meet, he and a couple of his associates draw a fluffy girl's romance manga.

American manga and anime fans are probably more familiar with Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun. From all outward appearances, Umetaro Nozaki is a straight-laced high school student. Unbeknownst to all but a select few of his classmates, he writes a romance manga under a girl's pen name.

As the story begins, Umetaro Nozaki is already an established mangaka with an popular series. The focus is on the ongoing production of the manga and his developing relationship with Chiyo, who approached him at school hoping for a date but ended up getting drafted as one of his assistants.

Highly recommended. But if you want to learn about the manga writing and publishing business from the ground up, from start to finish, the one series that rises to the level of Shirobako in its attention to detail is Bakuman. More about this groundbreaking series next week.

Related links

Bakuman (the review)
Bakuman (the future)
Bakuman (the anime)
Eromanga Sensei
Girlish Number
Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun

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