November 01, 2018

Bakuman (the review)

Bakuman was created by two best-selling mangaka, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. So it is only natural that the protagonists of their manga about writing manga should also be a writer/illustrator team.

We first meet Moritaka Mashiro and Akito Takagi in the ninth grade. Observing Moritaka's talents as an artist, Akito approaches him and proposes they team up to create manga.

Akito doesn't pluck this idea out of thin air. Nobuhiro Mashiro, Moritaka's uncle, was a mangaka with one published series and an anime adaptation to his credit. Then he literally worked himself to death trying to write another. "I'm not a mangaka," he often said with a wry grin. "I'm a gambler."

Moritaka's parents aren't eager for him to follow in his uncle's footsteps. Akito is also taking a leap. He is the school's top academic performer. Top academic performers aspire to attend Tokyo University, not become mangaka (this class conflict later gets its own story arc).

Helping Moritaka make up his mind is Miho Azuki, the girl he longs for from afar (or from across the classroom or from the adjacent desk).

With a helpful push from Akito, she reveals to Moritaka that she wants to become a voice actor. Moritaka promises to write a manga that will get made into an anime and Miho will star in it. Goofy, yes, but hardly out of sync with the mindset of a couple of ninth graders.

Taking place at arm's length, though, their romance is not terribly consequential in story terms. Rather like Gilbert in Anne of the Island, Miho remains mostly off-screen as Moritaka's muse.

A more emotionally compelling narrative follows the blossoming friendship between Akito and Kaya Miyoshi, Miho's classmate. They squabble like Anne and Gilbert from the first two Green Gables books. The blue-collar Kaya doesn't aspire to a whole lot, other than being with Akito.

But Kaya's down-to-earth nature keeps Akito and Moritaka and the studio on an even keel. Her relationship with Akito matures in a positive direction. It gives the series much of its heart and warmth. The series could have used more Kaya. And Miho needn't have been quite so absent.

The story does start with a few cheats. Moritaka's grandfather lends Moritaka the use of Nobuhiro's studio. Hisashi Sasaki, the managing editor at Shonen Jack, worked with Nobuhiro. So he knows Moritaka, though doesn't do him any favors, other than giving him a fair shot.

A fair shot at Shonen Jack, née Shonen Jump. From the start, Moritaka and Akito aim for the top.

Shonen Jump is the best-selling manga magazine in Japan. At its height during the mid-1980s, it sold a staggering 6.5 million copies a week. Though demographic changes have cut deeply into those numbers, Shonen Jump still boasts a weekly circulation of two million.

In the anime adaptation, the magazine is called Shonen Jack and the publisher is called Yueisha instead of Shueisha. The posters of One Piece and Naruto decorating the lobby walls make it clear what publication they're referring to.

Shonen Jump has a sister publication called Next, where up and coming manga artists can test out their talent. So does Shonen Jack.

One of Moritaka and Akito's submissions ends up on the desk of Akira Hattori. The junior editors at the magazine sort through the submissions to find mangaka with promise. The careers of the editors depend on how well they can develop a mangaka's career and sustain a successful series.

After asking for revisions, Hattori enters the manuscript in an upcoming contest at Next. These contests are another way of recruiting and judging new talent. Moritaka and Akito do well and are invited to submit a one-shot to the prestigious Tezuka Award at the main magazine.

They don't make the final cut but Hattori is sufficiently impressed to ask for more submissions.

In a highly iterative process that any old-school freelance writer is familiar with, they revise and resubmit, revise and resubmit until they get an acceptance. This process takes months, even years. So the the series often makes big jumps in the timeline from episode to episode.

Once they have established their bona fides as artist and writer, they are invited to submit a one-shot that could be serialized. Essentially a pilot episode.

Everything published in Shonen Jack gets rated. A steady stream of reader surveys are compiled twice weekly into spreadsheets. If a one-shot with serialization prospects delivers good ratings, the editor petitions his senior editor to present it at a serialization meeting.

But every new series means an existing one must be canceled. As the managing editor likes to say, "If you write a good manga, you will get published. But not necessarily by us."

While working on their projects and waiting for the thumbs up or thumbs down, mangaka often free-lance as assistants. The pressures of turning out two-dozen finished pages every week is such that, once serialized, a mangaka depends on assistants to do the inking and background work.

Eiji Niizuma is a boy genius, the same age as Moritaka and Akito. The managing editor personally recruited him to write for Shonen Jack. When we first meet Niizuma, he is a bundle of ticks and idiosyncrasies, a sort of artistic Sheldon Cooper after a dozen shots of espresso.

But he proves to be a great asset, both as a rival and a friend, with a keen eye for what works and what doesn't (though he's not very good at explaining why). During his short stint as Niizuma's assistant, Moritaka meets several of the other key players in the series (his competition).

First is Shinta Fukuda. Cocky and brash, a rebel in search of a cause, he appoints himself the leader of the new recruits. He aspires to write gritty urban dramas.

In his mid-thirties, Takuro Nakai is the oldest in their circle. He is the most technically proficient artist but hasn't ever been serialized. As each year passes, the odds grow longer and he grows more desperate, a desperation that has produced several self-destructive behavioral quirks.

He eventually teams up with Ko Aoki, who comes to Shonen Jack from the shojo manga side. (The real Shueisha publishes over a dozen manga magazines in all genres.) They get the green light for a series. The question is whether Nakai can hold his personal life together in the meantime.

Although working in utterly unlike genres, Fukuda and Aoki exemplify an important point that Bakuman makes about popular art. In dramas about "artists," the market-driven demands of the audience and the imposition of editorial constraints are typically cast as the bad guys.

In Bakuman they are the unavoidable—and not necessarily unwelcome—reality.

The immense popularity of Shonen Jump pulls in readers of all ages. But the shonen (少年) in Shonen Jump means "boy," the target audience being between ten and fifteen years old. "Fan service" is fine but no nudity. Action is emphasized but the violence can't get gory.

Fukuda could easily write for a seinen magazine, aimed at older teens and college students.

Takao Saito, for example, has been writing Golgo 13 for fifty years. A gritty series about a professional hitman, Golgo 13 runs in Big Comic, a seinen manga magazine. A circulation of 300,000 is nothing to sneeze at. But it is one-sixth that of Young Jump.

Aoki could easily write for one of Yueisha's shojo (少女) magazines. But the most popular shojo manga also have circulations in the mid-six figures. Getting published in Shonen Jump means reaching the biggest audience possible. It also means hewing to the magazine's editorial guidelines.

So her fantasy series must have more vivid action sequences and her romance series must have more fan service. In one of the funnier arcs, Fukuda takes it upon himself to tutor Aoki about how to appeal to the prurient interests of twelve-year-old boys (without outraging their parents).

These compromises are a constant. Action-oriented "battle manga" are the most popular. A mid-list "gag manga" has the most reliable staying power. But Akito turns out to excel at a Rod Serling approach, writing stories with a surreal or paranormal edge that are layered with social commentary.

At first, Hattori suggests that being "the best of the rest" isn't a bad place to end up. Except Moritaka and Akito want to compete at the top with Eiji Niizuma (everything's a competition in a shonen series). In the process, they give every genre a shot, frequently fail, and start over.

But this is a melodrama and not a documentary. They do finally find the success they are looking for. And their editors are there every step of the way. I can't think of another drama series about the arts that gives the lowly editors so big a role and makes them the good guys to boot.

And gives them so many smart things to say about what makes a story successful.

The original Bakuman was published in 176 chapters over four years. The anime ran for 75 episodes in three seasons on NHK Educational television. The art and animation can't match that of a dozen-episode cour from Kyoto Animation. But this is a series where the ideas matter more.

With so much material to generate, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata often fall back on a problem-of-the-week approach to creating drama. While predictable, this is actually a great advantage of the series.

As a result, we get a crash course in every kind of manga, every issue, conflict, and editorial decision that arises in the manga publishing business. The constant search for new ideas, the stress of weekly ratings, the business decisions that go into making a manga into an anime.

And, yes, all those dysfunctional mangaka.

For example, Kazuya Hiramaru, who abruptly quits his job as a salaryman to write a surreal Dilbert-like gag manga about an otter in a business suit. Only to discover, to his horror, that he's abandoned one rat race to join another where the rats have to run even faster.

"At least when I was a salaryman I had weekends off!" he complains to his editor. But poor Hiramaru is cursed to be a talented and popular—if lazy and unmotivated—mangaka. So his Svengalian editor will stop at nothing to trick, coerce, and manipulate him into making his deadlines.

Hiramaru isn't exaggerating too much. As Shuho Sato documents in Manga Poverty, simply breaking even can take a mangaka years. Those assistants get paid out of the mangaka's page-rates. So turning a profit depends on how fast the mangaka can run his production line.

Sure, there will always be writers who produce best-sellers right out of the box and rake in millions. And I certainly enjoy following the adventures of the Richard Castles and Temperance Brennans, who somehow find the time to solve murder mysteries in between writing yet another best-seller.

But back in the real world, commercially successful art requires more work, discipline, single-minded determination, and, yes, creativity than most of us are capable of. Along with a large dose of luck. Which makes me all the more appreciative of those who can pull it off.

Related posts

Bakuman (the context)
Bakuman (the future)
Bakuman (the anime)
Manga economics
The teen manga artist
Manga circulation in Japan
The manga development cycle

Labels: , , , , , , ,