Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 19th 2010
Moritaka Mashiro is a 14-year-old boy with a dream—a dream of living a perfectly ordinary life. All of that is about to change when he meets Akito Takagi, a smart but eccentric classmate who wants to combine his writing skills with Mashiro's artistic talent to create their very own manga! At first, Mashiro is reluctant to join him, seeing as his own uncle was a manga artist who came up with just one hit series, spent the rest of his life struggling, and died from overwork. But after some carefully planned moves on Takagi's part, Mashiro decides not only to pursue the goal of being a manga-ka, but to go after the girl of his dreams while he's at it. They have the talent, the drive, and (after inheriting Mashiro's uncle's studio) the tools—but can they translate that into artistic success?
With Death Note being the resounding success that it was, everyone figured that Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata would be teaming up again someday. But who would have expected them to team up on something like this?
While Death Note broke the mold of the typical Shonen Jump series with its dark, sometimes-controversial content, Bakuman breaks the mold in an entirely different way. This is a Jump title with no fantastical elements, no supernatural powers or weapons, no absurd gags or willful anachronisms or character gimmicks—just two boys, an art studio, and a dream. Oh, and a beautiful girl to keep that dream alive. Yet it still works because it clings to the traditional shônen ideals of friendship, challenge, and victory, only with our hero wielding a pen instead of a sword. Literally.
Of course, clinging to traditional shônen ideals also means starting the series with a traditional shônen exposition: Mashiro narrates an unexciting self-introduction, goes through the motions of school life, and pines for the lovely but unattainable Miho Azuki. Only when Mashiro and Takagi join forces does the story really begin to take flight (and let's be honest here; the whole thing is basically a stylized account of how Ohba and Obata met). As the protagonists get more involved in the manga-making process, their genuine creative passion shines through: they pay tribute to their favorite Jump titles, dig into the technical side of storytelling and drawing, and share a few inspirational phrases to invigorate one's spirit. It's a how-to manual wrapped in a coming-of-age story, and succeeds at being both entertaining and informative. A couple of surprising plot points involving Mashiro, Azuki, and their respective families also adds some depth where the story might have otherwise been too straightforward.
This is not to say, however, that everything is executed perfectly. If Bakuman reveals the inner workings of Ohba and Obata's creative process, it also shows where their weaknesses lie. Once again Ohba proves to be incapable of writing useful female characters (remember how Death Note's Misa Amane ended up being Light Yagami's personal plaything?); Azuki's far-too-perfect personality makes her little more than an empty-headed pretty face. Then again, it may just be a satirical take on "How 14-Year-Old Boys Perceive the Girls They Like," in which case the shallow characterization makes sense. This volume also falters when it tries to get Takagi romantically involved in the later chapters—he just doesn't seem like the type.
Just as a self-referential "manga about manga" reveals a writer's strengths and weaknesses, it also brings out an artist's idiosyncrasies. For Takeshi Obata this means presenting the lighter side of his character designs, which no longer have to carry the weight of Death Note's melodrama or RalΩGrad's high fantasy. Obata's sharp linework, combined with confident gesture drawing, results in dynamic imagery even when the scene is something as simple as Mashiro chatting on a cell phone. However, there are times when the artist gets too caught up in his own style, and the character designs start to wander off-model or the lines don't land exactly on an ideal curve. The backgrounds and props, however, are still beyond reproach—meticulous photo-referencing and a keen eye for detail keep everything looking picture-perfect. Page layouts are another strong point, with well-defined rectangular panels and black-and-white contrasts helping to maintain visual clarity.
What is especially interesting about this series, though, is that it offers an inside look at how those page layouts are set up. After each chapter comes an omake page showing an excerpt from Ohba's rough-draft storyboard, Obata's reworking of the draft, and then the final product. This provides at least some answers to the question of "How do you know what pictures to put in the boxes?" that vexes many beginning artists. Then comes the question of knowing what words to put in the bubbles, and that is where one should be careful not to take dialogue-writing lessons from Tsugumi Ohba. It's been known since the very first chapter of Death Note that Ohba's writing has a stilted tone to it; even the clear and simple translation in this edition can't save the stiff words coming out of the characters' mouths. (Ironically, the in-depth analysis of storytelling and artistic technique tends to flow more smoothly; clearly Ohba writes best in paragraphs.) Sound effects, which appear only rarely, are completely replaced with English lettering but have little impact on the artwork overall.
"Manga about making manga" has always had a special little niche to itself, from the madness of Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga to the fluff of Comic Party to certain storylines in Genshiken. As a middle-of-the-road Shonen Jump title, Bakuman is one of the most accessible ones yet, with its lively main characters and an inspirational storyline with a number of twists. Yet it still maintains enough technical rigor to help would-be creators get started as well—where else (aside from a how-to guide) are you going to learn the difference between a G-pen and a Kabura nib? This first volume may not be perfectly constructed—some characters are too shallow, some plot points too weak—but it still has plenty of interesting things to say. And besides, we could all use a break from supernaturally powered fighters battling each other with spells and swords.
Overall : B
Story : C
Art : B+
+ Effectively weaves a how-to guide into a coming-of-age narrative, with polished artwork to boot.
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