The Spring 2019 Manga Guide
What's It About?Akiko is a young schoolgirl who dreams of making it big as a shoujo manga artist, living in the small town of Miyazaki. There's only one problem: Her esteem for herself far outclasses her actual artistic ability. And although she dreams of going to an art college in a big city, her grades aren't much to write home about either. One day, however, her friend convinces her to start taking art classes an hour outside of town.
Akiko agrees due to the cheapness, but soon finds the instructor is unlike any she's ever had before. He's harsh, cruel, yells a great deal and often forces Akiko to draw the same thing over and over again for days until it meets his standards. Akiko initially balks at the military atmosphere, but soon begins to perceive her abilities gradually, bit by bit, improving, along with a surprising kindness underneath the instructor's ruthless demeanor. And just in time too, as college entrance tests are on the horizon and if Akiko wants to achieve her dreams, she must try harder than she ever has in her life. As the school year draws to a close and a new chapter in Akiko's life begins to dawn, will she be able to succeed? Or will her ego ultimately get to the better of her?
Is It Worth Reading?
In many ways, Blank Canvas feels less like what the subtitle claims (“my so-called artist's journey”) and more like Akiko Higashimura's ode to her mentor, a curmudgeony old man who taught her art beginning with her final year in high school. While that's certainly a topic worth exploring, it's also one that's much more personal to the creator than a straight autobiographical piece would be – and because it feels like she's still working out precisely what the man meant to her both as a person and as a student artist, that means that there's an element of reading her diary rather than a story penned for public consumption.
While reading someone's diary certainly has a certain excitement to it, not the least of which is the lure of the forbidden or the gateway into the author's private world, in reality reading someone's journal is kind of a let down. This, it should be stated, is in no way as much of a disappointment as when I unearthed a woman's diary from 1941 in the museum I work in – that turned out to be an exhaustive detailing of which way the wind was blowing and how many times the snow plough went past. But Blank Canvas still requires us to share the same general state of mind as Higashimura when she was both in high school and now as a successful mangaka looking back on those days, and that's something of a patchy proposition at best. On the plus side, she's absolutely a good enough writer and artist to convey much of that clearly, even if you never were burdened with her high school ego or had a particular teacher who turned out to be the best mentor you never asked for. But on the downside, it really helps to have had at least a few similar experiences or at least a theory of education in line with her mentor's, because he can be off-putting and her extreme and unfounded confidence equally so.
If this has an intended audience, I'm inclined to think that it's Higashimura herself. We outsiders can read it and appreciate where she came from and how she got to where she is now, but I felt like I was missing a lot of the nuances that came with the experience. It wasn't as difficult to read as Ada Arnold's 1941 chronicles of the snow plough, but at times it still felt eerily similar in the distance between the author and the reader.
Blank Canvas is solid, a fun and personal chronicle of a girl's coming of age and rise to prominence in the manga industry. It's extremely entertaining and has just enough intelligence and self-reflection to resonate as a lived experience. It's just really, really good.
Though, I'm a little uncomfortable with the framing of Akiko's art classes. The teacher Higashimura depicts here is harsh, berating student's abilities until they're in tears, forcing them to draw the same thing over and over again without letting them know why it's necessary, and even beating on them with a wooden katana. It's framed more as a character quirk than unpleasant behavior. Higashimura herself describes these classes as a turning point in her life, where she stopped coasting on egotism and actually began to apply herself. But in so doing she romanticizes what are toxic, abusive teaching practices. Higashimura might view them in hindsight as necessary to her growth as an artist and person, but this is the kind of educational curriculum that scars people and makes them want to never draw again.
But ultimately, this wasn't enough to ruin the book for me. Maybe it's the book's perspective, where an older Higashimura looks back on her dumb, younger self and goes 'oh god, I really was like that, wasn't I?'. Or maybe it's the quiet pangs of regret that haunt the story (with a tragic end being foreshadowed for her art teacher). Maybe it's just Blank Canvas's authenticity. This is really what rejection feels like (in the form of various college rejections that happen throughout the book), what it feels like to be so, incredibly cocksure only for everything to blow up in your face. And what it feels like to hone your craft. What it feels like to chase your dreams, but not in the idealized, Hollywood way. Instead, in the way where everything is random and your path to success is never set in stone. Either way, though the stakes are small and benign, there is truth here, there is reality.
It's hard to say much about Blank Canvas because, like all great memoirs, what's good about it is self-evident. If you can mine some emotional insight or suss a narrative throughline out of your life, you're pretty much good to go. Such is the case with Blank Canvas: It's compulsively readable but has just enough heft to stick in the mind and be applicable to the lives of those reading its pages. It's well-told, and fun, and pretty. I, for one, cannot wait to discover the strange and wonderful place Akiko Higashimura's life goes next.
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