House of 1000 Manga
by Jason Thompson,
Few artists “live the dream” of becoming a professional when they're still a teenager. When I was a kid I dreamed of being a horror author and debuting my first book of stories at age 18 like my then-favorite writer Ramsey Campbell, but I figured if that failed, I could always have my first bestseller at age 25 like Stephen King. Bakuman, with its teen heroes who become manga superstars when they're still in high school, is basically as much a fantasy as everything else in Shonen Jump. The road to being a comic artist is long and hard with lots of detours: the kind of detours that might be too much of a downer for a shonen manga or a shojo manga. But it makes an incredible josei (women's) manga in Kakukaku Shikajika.
Kakukaku Shikajika is the story of Akiko Higashimura, better known as the creator of Princess Jellyfish. It really is her story, too: it's openly autobiographical. “My name is Akiko Higashimura, and I'm a mangaka,” she tells us in the first chapter. “I was born in 1975. I was divorced, and I live alone with my son.” There's no author stands-in here: starting from her present-day studio where her young son plays while the assistants help with the comic, Higashimura takes us back to her past, when she was a girl reading shojo manga in the boonies of Miyazaki Prefecture in Kyushu. A fan of Ribon magazine, young Akiko is inspired by many artists: Akemi Matsunae’s stylish girls in frills and ribbons, Yoshimi Uchida’s beautiful art, Sakumi Yoshino’s delicate plantlife. She joins her elementary school manga club, and at age 12 she is CONVINCED her manga “Crazy Detective Story” will be accepted by a major magazine and become the bestselling thing ever. (Higashimura's childhood sketches shown in Kakukaku should reassure any artist that, no matter how bad they are, they might become a professional someday.)
By middle school, Akiko's plan has solidified: she'll (1) go to art college (2) debut as a manga artist while still in school and (3) get married to Etsushi Toyokawa after he stars in the live-action version of her manga. In short, she's like many aspiring artists: completely convinced of her own awesomeness, reinforced by her immediate circle of family and friends and her too-nice high school art teacher who all tell her she's great. Then one day, her fellow artist friend Futami tells her about something unusual: a mysterious art teacher, Kenzou Hidaka, who lives an hour's bus ride away. Since Futami is taking lessons there, Akiko decides to go too, and she brings her best drawings to Hidaka's place, a tiny rural classroom full of paintings and reproductions of Classical busts. She's so sure she'll be praised, her biggest worry is that the other students will feel bad. But Hidaka looks from drawing to drawing dismissively. “This sucks…this sucks too,” he says. “All of these are bad!”
And thus she meets her mentor, the most important person in her artistic life. Hidaka-sensei is a grouchy, kendo-instructor bachelor type who forces his students to work hard, making one student draw a tissue box over and over FOR YEARS until he gets the perspective right. He teaches kids, adults and the elderly, and he's hard on everyone regardless of age or sex (“Put more spirit into it, idiot!”). He even whacks his students with a shinai, a bamboo sword, when they draw badly. (When Akiko revisits Hidaka-sensei years later he's put away the shinai: “Some parents complained, so I had to stop using it,” he says.)
Hidaka-sensei tells Akiko to come to class five days a week—sometimes four hours a day—and keep coming back until she's made 100 drawings. Akiko is shocked at first, even a little mad, but she accepts the challenge. More than an honest critic and a strict disciplinarian, she soon discovers that Hidaka-sensei is a good teacher who truly cares about his students; he carries her to the bus stop when she tells him she has a tummy ache, he makes tea and food for his students, he gives her academic advice (though he's not so good at that). Hidaka-sensei's advice and support is what turns Akiko into an artist.
Time passes and soon Akiko graduates from high school…and then everything changes again. Deciding that her mediocre grades make it pointless to apply to a top school like Tokyo University, Aichi or Musashino, she eventually gets into Kanazawa College of Art, far away from her hometown. (She never considers Osaka University of Arts, but being 14 years younger, she wouldn't have crossed paths with Kazuhiko Shimamoto anyway.) At first homesick in college in the distant, snowy city, she soon learns to love it: live models! New opportunities! New friends! But Akiko is too smart for her own good, the teachers grade generously, and soon she realizes she can just drift through classes without really working. She can't say no when people invite her out partying, so she becomes a slacker, turning in half-assed drawings at the last minute, reading more manga than she draws. Half the time when she mixes a palette to make a painting, she abandons it and lets the paint go dry. Her years of college are her least artistically productive time of her entire life: “thus began my four years of Hell.”
In short, it's an embarrassingly accurate description of my (and many of my friends’) experience in art school. (Academy of Art in San Francisco, I'm looking at you.) Chika Umino's Honey and Clover made art school seem like a place of wonder and romance, but in the more cynical Kakukaku Shikajika it's more like a place where middle- and upper-class parents blow nine million yen to let their kids goof off, get drunk and smoke cigarettes for four years. Futami gets bored and drops out. Akiko stays in school, but just barely. The closest she gets to drawing manga is working at a used bookstore, a BookOff-style place. As graduation nears (in the late ‘90s, one of the worst periods of Japan's recession), she halfheartedly applies for jobs as an art teacher, only to end up right back where she started: living at her parents’ house and going to Hidaka-sensei's art class. Her parents, having spent millions of yen on her education, are not thrilled. (“This was before the term NEET was invented,” Higashimura tells us.) Soon her father pressures her to get a real job working at a call center.
And then, all the way in volume 3, midway through the 5-volume series, is when Higashimura gets to the part we're really waiting for: the manga. After frittering away her college years…in her darkest days of being an office worker, when she's more exhausted and frustrated than ever…that’s when Hayashi/Higashimura starts drawing manga and submitting stories to the shojo manga Bouquet. “When you're hopelessly worn out…when you've been driven to their limits with stress both physically and mentally…that's when you're able to take their first steps towards your dream!” At age 22, it's now or never: she finally begins the arduous path to becoming a professional manga artist. And at first, she doesn't dare tell her parents or even her sensei: she doesn't want to disappoint them, because back then, just 15 years ago (Higashimura tells us), drawing manga was a much less respectable job than today.
Since the actual manga part doesn't show up till midway through, this is a manga about many types of art-making. In contrast to Bakuman which was more about storytelling and plot than drawing (probably because it was written by a non-artist), Kakukaku Shikajika focuses on the drawing process: artistic development through a million brushstrokes, one stroke at a time. By forcing her to draw fast, without thinking, Hidaka-sensei pushes Akiko past her creative block. (In one scene she draws from a mirror: “Don't think about it. Just draw what you see.”) The process of drawing must be unconscious, must be vigorous, the intent must flow from hand to paper without second-guessing from the brain.
But although the drawings themselves may be unconscious, the storytelling definitely isn't; Higashimura looks back on her early days with a mixture of nostalgia and self-reflection, noticing how things have changed. One of the ways this manga follows real life is that people don't appear fully formed, accompanied by their little theme song/theme mood, never really changing: instead, characters evolve and change. Ima-chan, introduced as a 1990s high school delinquent with pompadour hair like Kuwabara in YuYu Hakusho, shows unexpected talent in a mandatory art assignment, and with Akiko's encouragement he majors in art at Tama University and eventually goes to study in Spain. OTOH, Kaneko, an oil painter at Kanazawa University, invites girls over to eat instant curry in his tiny apartment with no furniture; at a college reunion 18 years later, Higashimura sees Kaneko again, and he's still an aspiring oil painter, still wearing the same ratty clothes. And then there's her first real boyfriend, Nishimura, whom she first admires as a frequent customer at the used manga store. (She modeled all her male manga characters on him.) Nishimura is a few grades below Akiko, so when she graduates and has to move back home, they promise to have a long-distance relationship. Perhaps most of all, though, Akiko thinks about her sensei, the kind of teacher any artist would be lucky to have, even if they don't appreciate it until it's too late.
Looking back on it all, the thirtysomething Higashimura criticizes herself, comments on manga and life, and asks herself how she got here. As readers we get to share the whole experience, watching with that voyeuristic fascination that always comes with autobiographical stories. Neither a “look at this screwed up artist” train wreck like Disappearance Diary nor a “YEAAAHHHH MANGAAAA!” fantasy like Bakuman, this is a great story with great artwork. (The backgrounds are unusually good: the story is grounded by its beautiful drawings of Miyazaki Prefecture's forests and farmland and sea). At only 5 volumes in length, it'd be a great choice for any American manga publisher to pick up. The English-language manga world needs a great story about a female mangaka. Of course, there's always the amazing Dramacon.
Like drawing? Like manga? Like tabletop games? If you like any of these things, check out my Kickstarter for Mangaka: The Fast & Furious Game of Drawing Comics!
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