Continuing our Behind The Scenes month here, we next turn our attention to the world of manga. As you guys know, most anime begin as manga adaptations, so spending a week with the world of manga only seems right.
I’ll grant, I know very little of the world of manga, or rather, I knew very little before this show. It’s a pretty intense job, as it turns out, and the connection between the anime industry and manga industry is a lot more complex than I thought.
Beginning in 2010, Bakuman is a three season series with a whopping 75 episodes, which is a lot for a series that isn’t an ongoing shonen style story. Done by J.C. Staff, the same studio behind shows like Azumanga Daioh, Shakugan no Shana, DanMachi, and Flying Witch, just to name a few, it’s based on a manga of the same name created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the same team behind Death Note.
So, yeah, the Death Note guys wrote a slice of life story about the manga industry. Sometimes, ya just gotta change gears.
The story of Bakuman follows 9th grader Moritaka Mashiro, a lethargic kid with a real talent for art, as he meets Akito Takagi, a brilliant and hard working student with a passion for writing. Takagi wants to create manga, despite all the other opportunities he has in life, but Mashiro’s uncle was a manga creator, and died young from overworking himself, so Mashriro initially declines Takagi’s offer to team up.
Deciding to get underhanded, Takagi learns that Mashiro has a massive crush on fellow student Miho Azuki, as well as Azuki’s desire to become a seiyu. Using both of these things, he manages to convince Mashiro to team up with him, but gets a bit of a surprise when Mashiro spontaneously asks Azuki to marry him after they both make it in their respective industries. Even more surprising is that she agrees, on the condition they don’t see each other until they have succeeded.
Despite the rather odd circumstances, Takagi has gotten what he wanted, and Mashiro teams up with him. Mashiro’s grandfather has kept his son’s studio all these years, and gives Mashiro the keys to it, giving the new duo a place to work. With everything they need at the ready, they set out to get published in Weekly Shonen Jump, first with a one shot, then with serialization of a story that can be adapted to an anime, which Azuki can voice act in as the main female lead.
From there, the show more or less becomes two different stories, one of which is excellent, while the other is… well.. kinda half baked.
The first side, the world of manga, is fascinating. Not just in how the whole industry works, but in the role editors play in working with manga creators to get the best out of them and the stories they craft. Since Ohba and Obata have a lot of experience with that, they tell this side with a lot of authority, even basing many of the extended cast on real people they worked with and around in the industry.
Mashiro and Takagi meet a fair number of eccentric personalities, as well, from rival manga creator Eiji Nizuma, who is considered a prodigy, despite his extremely bizarre behavior and personality, to Shinta Fukuda, who borderlines on being a thug in terms of personality, but is a genuinely talented writer. With each meeting, the duo learns a bit more about not just writing, but art, develop friendships with their rivals, and build a strong support network among writers and artists.
All of which matters, as the show also explores the frequent friction that exists between the editorial staff and the writers they work with. Manga is a highly competitive industry, not just for the creators, but for the editors as well, all of whom want to be handling highly successful works. Sometimes, they push their writers too hard, and that support network is how creators manage the stress, deal with deadlines, and keep from breaking under the pressure.
Bakuman makes it clear that even when creators consider themselves rivals, they do so in the way that means they always push each other to be better, to reach higher, and surpass their own belief in their limits. They will frequently pitch in and help each other out when times get hard, and look to each other for inspiration when they aren’t sure how to continue.
This goes for the editorial staff as well. Their rivalries are mostly friendly, as they all want the magazine to thrive, which it can only do by having a lot of popular works. This doesn’t stop them from pushing each other, and themselves, as well as their creators, to the limit, however, and sometimes the stress gets to be too much, leading editors to make rash decisions, or do things that put their job on the line in order to get an edge on the others in the office.
Nor is just being popular in the magazine itself important. Collected volume sales matter, as does the holy grail of getting an anime adaptation, which grans access to a whole new demographic of potential fans that just being a manga artist alone doesn’t. Which means that from the very concept of a story, creators and editors seek to build something that stands a good chance of being adapted, which can boost collected volume sales, and generate revenue that keeps the magazine that employs them all afloat.
Basically, it’s a hell of a competitive industry, where a single failure can pretty much end a career. All of which is presented as being exactly as brutal as it is. The weekly rankings, done by readers, dominates the thoughts of both creators and editors, since being the editor of a popular story can lead to promotions, and maybe even the editor in chief job one day.
The process of creating a manga is explored in a pretty detailed fashion, as well, from the writing, to the story-boarding, to the final product that is given to the editor. Success makes things even more difficult, since now you have to keep producing quality every week, so assistants need to be brought in, all of whom want their own shot at being a mangaka, and can disappear overnight if they manage to get serialization, creating a revolving door where talent may not always meet the needs of the mangaka.
Health issues can bring a popular manga to an end, as can any number of things, including parental outrage when Mashiro and Takagi’s highly successful manga Perfect Crime Party ends up on the receiving end of complaints that it inspires children to engage in criminal behavior. While the duo have the support of the editorial staff, this still manages to threaten their success, and they have to find a way to respond, without it looking like a response.
Like I said, it’s a fascinating look inside the world of manga, and for that, the show is well worth a watch. It’s the other half that kind of drags the story down. The life story of the characters.
It isn’t that it’s bad, or anything. The show is about making a successful manga, so that gets the focus, and that’s fine. It’s just that a lot of what happens in the roughly ten years the story covers doesn’t quite gel, and comes off as convenient.
The romance plot between Mashiro and Akagi, for example. While the idea of not seeing each other, in order to stay focused on their careers, and only getting married after they succeed is romantic as hell, in reality, it’s kind of dumb. Like, really dumb. Who does that? How do you know you aren’t idealizing this person, and that once married, you are going to find out they are not at all who you thought? Like, they could eat brussel sprouts, or have some other disgusting habit you can’t stand to live with. Maybe they chew with their mouth open. Or have some fetish that freaks you out. You don’t know, because you don’t actually know them.
There’s a reason people date, ya know.
On the other side of that, however, is Takagi’s relationship with Miyoshi, his high school girlfriend whom he later marries. While that’s all well and good, and Miyoshi is a fun character, I never really got the sense the two were actually in love with each other. There was just no real development of their character arcs on that side. They liked each other, started dating, and got married, cause… I dunno. It all just sort of happened, in order to have something else happening in the story.
Granted, a lot of folks won’t be bothered by this, but it bugged me, because if you are going to tell me two characters are in love, I want to know why. What was it that made them fall in love with each other? Why are they dedicated? What makes them cherish each other? Bakuman never really explores any of this, in any of its romantic pairings. Love is a thing that happens for no apparent reason.
Mostly to guys though, cause most women are heartless witches that have no feelings. Or, rather, that’s how it often seems in this show.
To be fair, the show has a large cast of women, who are also mangaka. It just leans a bit too heavily on cliches where they are concerned, however. Ko Aoki, for example, is distrustful of men, though the reason is always kinda vague, and at first, she’s just written as a sort of arrogant bitch. She gets better characterization later on, but not always in the right ways, as she often gets used as a means to get another manga artist, the notoriously lazy Hismaru, to work due to his crush on her. For some reason, she ends up trusting and marrying him.
Now, in Aoki’s defense, I will say that how she is often treated would be a good reason for her attitude. One of her assistants, Nankai, frequently comes on to her, and at one point, refuses to work with her unless she becomes his girlfriend, for which he gets slapped. Which he should be. That’s a shit move. It’s that afterward, more attention is paid to Nanki, and his feelings, than to Aoki, and the fact that he just asked her to whore herself for his help. That’s kinda shitty, guys.
Aiko Iwase, another major female character, spends a lot of years being pissed at Takagi because he chose Miyoshi over her. Turns out, she thought they were dating, for some incredibly stupid reason that someone of her intelligence should never have assumed, and is so resentful that she eventually becomes a mangaka just to be better at it than Takagi, thinking he’ll dump Miyoshi for her when she outdoes him. Which is stupid, and Iwase is presented as being highly intelligent. When Takagi marries Miyoshi, she gets even pissier and starts coming on to her editor, who is really not comfortable with it and gets another editor assigned to handle her, which makes her even pissier again.
There’s no in defense this time. Iwase is just written as a bitch. For no reason. It’s disconcerting, and weird. Which isn’t to say that people like her don’t exist. They do. I just don’t see what her purpose in the story was. She’s never a real foil, not for Miyoshi or Takagi, and contributes very little beyond being mean to everyone when they don’t fawn on her. It’s poor writing of a character that could have been excellent.
Probably the least developed character in the show, however, is Miho Azuki, the supposedly leading woman. The show goes frequently goes a ton of episodes before remembering she exists and checking in on her. We rarely ever see her thoughts, much less why she wants to be a seiyu. She just does, for story reasons, to motivate Mashiro. She’s almost a piece of furniture, and even the women mangaka get more development than her.
However, I will say that when the time comes, and she is auditioning for the leading female role in Mashiro and Takagi’s first anime adaptation, she freaking crushes it, and all her competition. All without having to look at the script, because she has memorized the manga itself. That is, hands down, her best scene, and it doesn’t show up until the very end, but it is exceptionally well done. Just wish I could have known her as more than an object of affection viewed from afar for the rest of the show.
It isn’t just the women who get this, either. Kazuya Hiramaru, a salaryman who one day quits his job to write manga, and surprisingly succeeds at it to the point his first serialized work gets an anime adaptation, is actually just a slacker who doesn’t want to work. Most of his time on screen is of the comic relief variety, as he exaggerates everything in the extreme. He’s pretty much a wasted character, who does little but make you roll your eyes at his absurd behavior.
Now, a lot of this is quibbles, I admit. The show is meant to revolve around the manga industry side, so taking time out to fully explore the wider cast and develop them out as people, rather than cliches, would have probably added a good 75 more episodes to the show. Still, these are the weak points of the show, and it’s only fair I mention them, because they do exist.
Which just means that Bakuman, as a viewing experience, is going to differ greatly from one person to the next. Some folks won’t be bothered by all this, while others will find it impossible to stay with because of them. It’s just one of those shows that’s going to have a wide variety of opinions on it, depending on the viewer. That happens.
In terms of animation, Bakuman is solid, if nothing exceptional. J.C. Staff has a bit of reputation when it comes to adapting manga for being faithful, so some of this comes down to trying to handle that. Takeshi Obata has a very distinct art style, and trying to be faithful to that while not looking too similar to Death Note is not an easy thing to do. It creates an odd result however, where anime adaptations of manga within the show look better than the show itself.
That, and people sometimes close one eye while they talk. Which was kinda weird.
The character designs, on the other hand, were all pretty good. While it is clearly Obata’s work, every character you meet, and you meet a lot of them, are unique and easy to remember due to their designs. Miyoshi was a standout in my mind, with the kind of character deign that makes her instantly identifiable, even in a crowd. So, that was pretty awesome.
All three seasons were directed by Kenichi Kasai, and his does a solid job of basically bringing the manga to anime. When he seeks to capture the heart and emotion of a scene, you get a bit better view of his real talent, however he is constrained somewhat by the limits he is under to present a faithful adaptation. Considering this was the same guy who directed Honey & Clover, you could even say his direction was muted by comparison. Which isn’t bad, mind you. He handles everything with a strong hand, and knows just what we need to see. If anything, it’s the source material that is lacking, and he just makes the best of it.
The script was handled by a genuine powerhouse of the industry, however. None other than Reiko Yoshida herself was brought in to handle the writing, and if you don’t know who she is, then I am seriously worried about you right now. I mean, it’s Reiko freaking Yoshida we’re talking about here.
Oh. Damn. Sorry. It’s a writer thing.
Anyway, Reiko Yoshida handled the script work for shows like Jing: King of Bandits, Scrapped Princess, Gad Guard, Romeo x Juliet (based on her own manga, by the way), Girls und Panzer, Ghost Hunt, D. Gray-man, and Castle Town Dandelion, just to name a few. She was also the creator and writer for Tokyo Mew Mew, the manga. So, yeah, as a writer, I get excited when I see her name. The lady is a badass when it comes to writing, after all.
With Bakuman, like the director, she is somewhat constrained by the need for faithful adaptation, but you can still feel her hand on the keyboard. There’s a vitality to it all, especially the dialogue, that steps things up from the manga just that tiny bit. Not enough to make it different, but enough that you know she was there.
The music is decent enough, though I’m not sure who handled it, or if it was multiple people. The openings for each season are generally very nice, and while they don’t really sell the manga side of things, so much as they do the romance aspect, they are the kind you don’t mind watching every episode. The rest of the score does a decent job of not getting in the way, though I can’t honestly say there was any particular piece that stands out in mind now. Which isn’t bad, as I tend to remember really bad music as well as I do really good music.
Overall, Bakuman is a fascinating look inside the world of manga, that is somewhat held back from truly being a great series by the half baked approach taken to some of the characters and romantic plots. Still, if you really want to know more about the manga industry, this show will certainly be an educational experience, and for that, it is worth the watch.
Next week, we wrap up Behind The Scenes Month with Shirobako.