Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 5th 2012
Moritaka Mashiro and Akito Takagi are the artist and writer behind pen name Muto Ashirogi, hoping to succeed as manga creators in Shonen Jump. Their next goal is a do-or-die proposition: surpass rival artist Eiji Nizuma in the weekly Jump rankings, or quit the magazine forever! Mashiro and Takagi believe they have a hit on their hands with their new series PCP ("Perfect Crime Party"), but as the hype settles down, they find themselves still lagging behind Nizuma. And that's not their only problem: Mashiro's girlfriend Miho faces a conflict of interest when she's chosen for a voice-acting role in the anime version of Nizuma's series +Natural, while the writer of +Natural—an ambitious former classmate—threatens to crush Takagi and Mashiro's dreams. The intrepid duo devises new ways to step up the quality of their manga ... but is it enough to top Nizuma's own artistic brilliance?
"There are no limits to art … and that's the fun of it." These are the wise words of Moritaka Mashiro in Bakuman, and he's not just saying it to sound cool—the events of Volume 11 actually prove it. Coming up with names, planning out story arcs, and springing surprises on the reader—it's not just about following a formula, but trying to come up with something unique before anyone else does. With bright personalities like Takagi and Mashiro bouncing ideas off each other, it really is fun to witness their creativity in action, and the competitive aspect of weekly rankings adds to the thrill.
Now that the "Ashirogi duo" have won their bid for a new series, this volume gets down to the real core of making manga, even more so than when the boys were still mastering the basics. The storyline doesn't miss any details—it even spends an full chapter just on titles and character names, analyzing Takagi and Mashiro's choices for the premise of PCP. Later on, it's Mashiro's artwork that gets a level-up, with tips that any artist can use and real-life examples like Bleach and One Piece helping to make the point. Story planning gets its moment in the spotlight too, and you'd think it would be boring reading someone else's description of a plot—but seeing Takagi's ingenuity bubble over, while studying why his idea works, makes it a fun intellectual exercise.
But this volume is more than just a how-to book—it's abuzz with competitive spirit too, as Takagi and Mashiro constantly watch their weekly rankings. The thrill of placing No. 1, or the struggle of keeping up with a rival, are just as exciting as in a sports or fighting series. Indeed, it's their position on the charts that motivates the creative decisions mentioned above: Why learn how to plan a suspenseful story arc? Because the boys want to beat Nizuma. Why study the finer points of visual composition? Again, because they want to beat Nizuma. In fact, Nizuma's own actions as a mad genius also provide valuable insights, like why it is (or isn't) a good idea to try the "wordless storytelling" trick.
Once again, however, the storyline falters whenever it turns to personal relationships. The subplot about Miho's potential voice acting job comes and goes with no real impact on the story, aside from a "romantic gesture" on Mashiro's part that comes off as awkward rather than gentlemanly. Of course, this is in addition to the usual eye-rolling about how unrealistic and naïve their relationship is. ("Let's not kiss until our dreams come true" is one saccharine line that should never be said again.) The portrayal of rival writer Iwase as a vengeful, cackling villain also rings hollow; it doesn't make sense for such an exaggerated personality to exist in a semi-realistic world.
Realism and attention to detail isn't only something that applies to the manga-industry advice given in this volume. It also shows in the backgrounds of Takeshi Obata's art—whether inside the artist's studio or editor's office, there are always piles of books and paperwork, adding to the ambience of the characters' lifestyles. The character designs, too, reveal Obata's skillful touch: crisp, delicate lines, distinct facial features and body types, and plenty of dramatic gestures. Yes, it's possible to have big action poses in a manga about the publishing business—just look at Takagi and Mashiro celebrating their first-week ranking, or the two of them trying to convince their editor of a certain idea. There's also artistic variety in the occasional manga-within-manga excerpts—Mashiro's concept sketches, Nizuma's virtuosic style, and images scanned from real-life Jump series. But even with all these efforts to create visual interest, the pages are often still dominated by Bakuman's most troublesome aspect: dialogue.
"Lots of dialogue is okay as long as it's interesting," says Takagi in one scene, and there are times when this volume proves him right. When artists and editors are analyzing the elements of manga, it's easy to become drawn into their conversation—a fun Socratic process where characters and audience alike learn something new. But too often, the story is cluttered with useless verbal padding: Takagi and Mashiro planning out their daily schedule, or arguing back and forth about Miho's potential role, which all bog down the pacing. The final chapter, however, proves that words alone can be a powerful storytelling tool in manga. As Takagi explains his new story idea, he reveals multiple layers of wordplay—which of course is no easy task for a translator. Thankfully, the Japanese puns and puzzles are kept as they are and explained thoroughly, resulting in a finale that will thrill readers not because of fancy art or a wicked plot twist, but simply because Tsugumi Ohba is really good with words.
There's one more piece of advice that Bakuman teaches, but it's a bit more subtle than the rest. For the first time in the series, almost all of Mashiro and Takagi's creative decisions come as a result of their own ingenuity, rather than a mentor's suggestions. When their own editor mentions it in a later chapter, it stands out as one of the most satisfying feats of character development in the whole series—a gradual climb to independence that's been happening since Chapter 1. Being able to spot one's own weaknesses, and knowing how to improve on them, is a skill that doesn't just apply to art or writing: it applies to any skill, hobby, or profession. In that respect, Bakuman isn't just a specialized, semi-fictional documentary—it's got something universal to say. Sometimes it takes too many words to say it, but the in-depth discussions, the thrill of competition, and skilled artwork make it a story still worth getting into.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Combines manga advice and analysis with the competitive thrill of the action genre—all topped off with polished visuals.
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