Reviewby Carlo Santos, Feb 22nd 2012
Moritaka Mashiro and Akito Takagi began their manga careers 5 years ago as students—and now that they already have one series to their credit, they're learning just how hard it is to succeed in the business. With their new series, Vroom! Daihatsu Tanto, they'll be taking on the gag genre for the first time. And that's not the only challenge they face: a literary rival from Takagi's high school days, Aiko Iwase, has entered the manga field to prove her skills. Takagi's girlfriend Kaya is also keeping him busy as they make plans to get married. Meanwhile, eccentric artist Eiji Nizuma keeps pushing Mashiro and Takagi to do better. Although Tanto manages to stay popular in its first few chapters of serialization, Mashiro has his doubts. Is comedy really the right genre for Mashiro and Takagi to maximize their talents ... or are they headed down the wrong path?
Volume 9 of Bakuman dispenses some invaluable career advice to all the aspiring manga artists out there. No, not the pre-scripted "how to break into the industry" advice that all the pros can regurgitate on cue (that's what the earlier volumes are for), but something even more crucial to a young artist's career: Once you've actually broken in, how do you stay creatively focused and keep up with the competition?
That dilemma is what fuels the drama of this volume, especially in the later chapters. It also reflects how the storyline has matured: no longer are we looking at wide-eyed kids striving to achieve their dreams, but young adults dealing with real-world problems while trying to keep that dream alive. If this were early Bakuman, the boys would be dancing with joy over getting Tanto serialized, and that would be the end of it. But as outside pressures start to mount, the storyline morphs into something far more compelling: it isn't just about creating Tanto, but about out-ranking wunderkind creators like Iwase and Nizuma; it's about Takagi struggling creatively as he tries to come up with new gags; it's even about Takagi getting parental approval to marry Kaya. (That last one results in a chapter where Kaya's father turns out to have been the best friend of Mashiro's manga-ka uncle. These improbable coincidences are getting ridiculous, but it does make for an interesting flashback.)
The last few chapters is where the real payoff arrives: as Tanto continues to slip in the ratings, Mashiro and Takagi get confrontational with each other, their editors, and finally the entire upper management of Shonen Jump. With strong outbursts coming from all sides of the table—speeches about professionalism, creative potential, and striving to be the best—it's as action-packed as Bakuman gets. Making it even better is the big gamble that Mashiro and Takagi decide to take when all is said and done.
This dramatic buildup still has its flaws, though; the early chapters of Volume 9 fall victim to the usual churning and grinding where Mashiro, Takagi, and all their manga-ka buddies are forever chatting about survey results and checking up on everyone else's work. During times like these, it's as if the storyline is happy to entrench itself in the dull status quo of "Working hard on manga! Got to get the next chapter out!" Certain side characters also fail to get fully involved: the love of Mashiro's life, Miho, only ever pops up when he needs emotional support, and idiosyncratic creators like Iwase and Aoki (the shoujo specialist who decided to stick with Jump) briefly spice up the conversation, only to step out of the picture a few pages later. And is there ever going to be a point to the subplot about hikikomori genius Shizuka?
The level of confidence and detail in Takeshi Obata's art remains strongly consistent even as the storyline shifts from one mood to another. Where other artists might skimp on backgrounds because "it's just a dialogue scene," Obata fills in all the spots, re-creating the clutter of a manga studio for added ambience. Even during moments of idle chatter, the characters' expressions tell the tale: wide eyes, facial contortions, and comical grimaces. This becomes especially effective during the later chapters, where over-the-top emoting and gesturing achieve the intensity needed to make these scenes work—Mashiro may just be making a phone call, but he does it with his whole body, letting the emotion pour out of him. In addition, visual clarity is rarely a problem: the sharp lines and neatly placed tones and highlights make the characters' actions easy to follow no matter what the situation.
Clarity is an entirely different issue, however, when it comes to dialogue and the sheer quantity of it. The wordy text of Bakuman has always been a problem, and finding a place for all of it is what ruins many of the page layouts. It's hard to get into the visual aspect of the series—the wildly gesturing characters, the brief glimpses at the manga they're working on—when the action is half-obscured by speech bubbles. Admittedly, some aspects of the industry do have to be explained in detail, but there are also just as many lines where the characters are making idle comments that could easily be cut out. On the plus side, the wall of words is somewhat more tolerable in this volume because of the compelling storyline—it's actually fun to read stuff out loud when Mashiro and editor Hattori really get into it. The translation also flows with conversational ease, capturing the strong emotions and sometimes-sarcastic humor that comes with the series' ups and downs.
Through the first few chapters, this volume of Bakuman may not seem all that impressive: just the usual crowd of manga writers and artists joshing with each other, boasting about who's going to get the top survey rankings and how hard they're all working. But it improves dramatically as the tension escalates in the second half, with Mashiro and Takagi facing a creative slump, looking over their shoulders at their peers, and finally deciding to take a do-or-die gamble. The distinctive, detailed artwork brings this situation to life, especially as the main characters let their feelings out in words and actions. If Tsugumi Ohba could ever learn to stop being so wordy, this might be the perfectly constructed "How to get into Shonen Jump" manual. But as it is, Bakuman still contains some pretty useful career advice.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Emotions flare up and useful advice is dispensed in this volume's compelling second half, while the confident artwork continues to shine.
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