I recently finished reading Bakuman, a manga written and illustrated by Tsugumi Ohba. Tsugumi Ohba is probably best known for his previous work however, Death Note. It’ll probably come as a surprise to anime and manga fans that I’ve never actually read Death Note, despite it being one of the most popular series’ in recent memory. And it’s not the non-mainstream nature of the manga that puts me off of it because I enjoy a lot of movies, television shows, novels and other forms of media that are anything but mainstream. And in theory, I like the idea of the plot about the book giving power to the one who writes in it. To many writers, whether it’s of short stories, novels, comic books or an alternative form of literature, the concept of the word as having a powerful effect on the world is attractive.
It could be that a notebook that causes people to die feels a little too intentionally dark for my liking. I have no problem with the darkness of the work itself but more that the notebook could really have been used for anything and ‘power of word’ would be conveyed adequately. In this case, however, I think Tsugumi pushing the story to be darker than it needed to be, at least at first. Of course, you can take that with a pinch of salt, since I haven’t read the manga or watched the anime so those are only my perceptions based on what I’ve heard about it. I should point out that plenty of my friends watch it so I have many advocates for the show in my life.
But if you didn’t know that Tsugumi wrote Death Note, you’d probably have never guessed from the style of Bakuman. Both in art and tonally, the work feels completely different, which is really a testament to his ability as both an illustrator and a writer. Bakuman feels very light hearted and jovial, even when the characters are at their wits end trying to bang out another manuscript. Yet, it shares some themes with Death Note, most notably that the main characters are very creative and aiming to affect the world and their own lives through expression of their ideals. The characters are repeatedly shown to raise their spirits and become more determined and by doing so rally to come out on top and somehow exceed all expectations.
So, here’s the story if you don’t know: aimless student Moritaka Mashiro is confronted by a proposal by the ambitious, Akito Takagi. Takagi is a writer and wants to join with Mashiro’s artistic talents in order to create a manga that can be published in Weekly Shōnen Jump. Mashiro initially disagrees due to personal issues regarding his uncle who was also a mangaka. In a ploy by Takagi, it is revealed that Mashiro’s crush, Miho Azuki dreams of being a voice actress. They make a pact that they won’t see each other until their dreams come true, at which point they’ll marry.
It’s all very romantic and idealistic. In fact, I’d argue that Bakuman excels in the romance area far more so than it does when the mangaka’s are meant to be competing. Part of this stems from the fact that most of the time, it was simply that the characters would give each other a rousing speech and then sit at a desk and draw. It’s the equivalent of watching Goku power up to Super Saiyan 3 and then filing his taxes. Tsugumi does break this trend every so often by having Takagi struggle to come up with an interesting story or putting Mashiro near death through overwork. It’s a legitimate concern consider it killed his uncle but there’s only so many times the characters can worry about Mashiro going to hospital or being able to handle an increased work load.
On the other hand, the romance is quite refreshing. Reading about Mashiro and Azuki having to defy various odds so that their dreams could come true was extremely heart-warming at the best of times. The two characters rarely see each other except for a few select occasions and don’t even have their first kiss until the final page of the entire series at the tender age of 24. Though the series certainly has its moments where it’s lacking, seeing the characters keeping themselves pure and striving towards a shared dream is something to be admired.
One idea that appears continuously throughout the series is the concept of a story that is non-mainstream and yet mainstream. Basically, it seems to be a story that incorporates the dark, brutality of indie stories but isn’t so dangerous as to be off-putting to mainstream readers and must draw upon the popular battle manga style. Both the protagonists and the rival come up with a series that fits the bill simultaneously. While it seemed somewhat contrived for both to come up with a similar idea at the same time, I actually think that Bakuman itself fit the bill better than either of the imaginary series’. It’s not a standard battle manga, because there is very little hand-to-hand combat but there are constant fights between the illustrators and writers. And it does so without being dark and disturbing too.
I suppose that it simply makes sense for a series that is going to be so blatantly meta as to be about a mangaka writing a manga that the work would end up commenting on itself. It also comments on, or seems to at least, Death Note, especially when one character reflects that his manga was born from the one idea ‘if you lie, you die’. Death Note also feels like it was born from one simple idea whereas the concept behind Bakuman appears much more complex. In the end, what appealed to me most in this manga were the characters and the relationships, the same things which drew me to my favourite manga, Strawberry 100%. In comparison, Bakuman has practically no fan service but it doesn’t really need it. To use fan service would really cheapen the pure love between the romantic interests.
So, would I recommend it?