by Faye Hopper,

act-age Volume 1

act-age Volume 1
Kei Yonagi wants to be an actress. A fine dream, but easier said than done. Between having to navigate the trials of poverty, care for her younger brother and sister after their father abandoned them and their mother died, and attend high school, Yonagi already has a lot on her plate. This doesn't even factor in the cutthroat, cruel world of entertainment. It would be even harder if Yonagi weren't an acting prodigy. But Yonagi has mastered method acting—the ability to evoke one's real life emotions and history in the performance of a character—through simply observing performances in her favorite movies and is able to tap into emotions in a way few actors can. In one of her auditions, her talents catch the eye of acclaimed director Sumiji Kuroyama. Kuroyama has been on the look-out for just such an uncut gem for a dream project, and against the urgings of the powerful head of his talent agency, Arisa Hoshi (who believes that Yonagi's method acting, if not managed properly, could destroy her), recruits her to his personal company. He finds her auditions and commercials, all in a bid to help her learn and become the best actress she can be. Yonagi's everyday struggles are about to be supplanted for the tribulations of the worlds of film, theater, and acting. Is she prepared? Will she succeed? Or will the warnings of the Arisa Hoshi come to pass, and her raw, untamed emotions tear her apart?

I first read act-age when it debuted in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump. I remember being quite enamored with the premise (I love shonen battle manga, I love movies, and I was in theater in high school), and yet, not being very taken by the series itself. Its art didn't click with me, I didn't get what it was going for with its characters, and I felt it didn't do enough with its core acting conceit. But, even still, it stuck with me. Moments from it played again and again in my mind, and I would find myself wondering, whenever I checked the Jump app, how the series had progressed, what its current arc was. This is my third time reading act-age's initial arc (the second time was for a podcast), and despite my initial misgivings, I now like it a lot. I think it's a unique spin on the Jump manga formula (in terms of premise, in terms of the struggles of its main cast, and who the people at its center are) with characters I like, its deep, abiding passion for and understanding of its central subject and surprising realism.

In re-reading act-age, what I was most struck by was the series' understanding of acting not just as a craft but as a means of character development. The world of acting is not just a great basis for a battle manga because it's a unique riff on shonen convention, but because it's a profession in which improving one's craft is often paired with real, personal growth; discovering new sides of yourself and becoming more comfortable with yourself, in order to better embody your character. Yonagi is a supreme talent, able to cry on command and steal scenes, but even that is not enough. Only being able to draw from her real-life experiences for her performances is limiting, as she can only play herself and what she has seen, what she would do, and in a key scene of the volume (and one of its best chapters) this causes her to deviate from what the script calls for and fundamentally change the story of the scene, something that is almost always explicitly forbade.

In this, we are shown two things: who Yonagi is as a person (she's the kind of person who would never stand to see an innocent child cut down in the street, as the scene asks her to do), and what she's currently unable to do as an actor (create an emotional distance between who she is as a person and who she is as her character). This last aspect isn't just something that is true of how she acts but is true of her as a person. She does have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy, something shown when she describes to another actor how she's able to disappear and become another person whenever she's sad, and how the other actor is alarmed when they hear this. This shortcoming is something that she needs to work past to both improve her acting and become a more well-rounded person.

In act-age and in life, these two things, craft and selfhood, are always interrelated. This is a series about how Yonagi is growing not just as an actor, but growing as a human being, learning about who she is and connecting with other people as she works with them. It's this rock-solid emotional core that allows act-age to have a depth of character work not often seen in Jump manga.

But what makes the series sing is how it fills out its world with realistic, human authenticity. I am struck and shocked by how Yonagi is navigating the hardships of poverty, and not a glamorized, shonen version of it, either. The first chapter shows her fretting over bills she can't pay, not knowing where her family's next meal will come from, only able to find solace in the escapism movies offer. Moments like when she receives her paycheck for her first commercial, and her first thought being ‘We have enough money to eat’ feels honest and authentic to what the realities of these conditions are (and let's also not forget Yonagi is one of the few female protagonists of any manga in the magazine). This isn't the only thing in the book that feels interested in being true-to-life in a radical way, either. From Yonagi's disconnected and brusque relationship with her absent father—refusing to address the reasons for why he left like a wound that hurts to the touch, going so far as to never use the money he sends them—to how even Yonagi's incredible talents aren't enough to book her parts, the manga is always emphasizing everyday, if harsh, truths. act-age is, in a lot of ways, a classic rags-to-riches sports narrative down to Kuroyama being an unconventional coach willing to push Yonagi hard who still, underneath all the hard-edged bluster and quirkiness, cares about her well-being. It's in these realistic, emotionally authentic details where it really becomes something unique and special.

act-age does have execution issues, however. While the book excels at lavishly illustrating its big, set piece moments like Yonagi staring down an imaginary dog during an audition and the image of her falling through a whirlwind of celluloid to illustrate her depth of acting understanding come to mind, it's more casual, interstitial bits of moving the plot forward often feel like they're lacking energy and the same artistic care. This leads to a good chunk of the volume being a lot less engaging as a result. And while I like a lot of the series' realism, act-age isn't terribly interested in interrogating the systemic causes of its more harsh, unfair conditions. Yonagi's poverty is never structurally framed as more than a jumping-off point for her presumed later success. While her rise is shown, in part, as something that can shake the world of acting to its foundation (this is evidenced by the irritation Kuroyama shows towards his co-workers when they begin to cast without having seen the actor's audition, and Asira Hoshi's fear of Yonagi partly coming from a desire to preserve the status quo of her industry), we never see the ways in which this occurs, how Yonagi's specific brand of emotionally raw method acting stands counter to the industry's focus on stardom and image, or why the industry values those things over genuine artistic expression. Though I recognize this is only a first volume, and the series has yet to lay all its card on the table. This disinterest in the roots of unfair structural hardships could become a problem in later volumes considering how cutthroat and exploitative the entertainment industry really is. Those insidious aspects shouldn't be accepted as unchangeable givens.

There's a tendency in Jump manga to abandon the emotional core that started the series in favor of a comfortable, if same-y and sterile, routine. How many Jump series have you read where a compelling, moving introductory arc was completely subsumed by standard, chapter-spanning fights and no real character progression? But what's special about act-age is that, because of the already emotional, interior nature of its central thematic subject, the characters and their feelings are always at the center of the story. Yonagi will always be growing as an actor and a person, because to act is to dig deep into the primordial soup of our emotions and bring them to the fore, and do it along with other actors, other people you connect with, as part of a broader recipe of art. For these reasons and so many others, I like act-age more every time I read it. I am extremely excited to see how Yonagi hones her craft and how the bizarre world of acting reacts to her next.

Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : B

+ A unique battle manga that leverages acting for great interiority and character development; surprising realism rounds out the traditional sports manga structure with compelling emotional authenticity
Despite setpiece highlights, the lack of energy put into transitional plot scenes leaves some of the book feeling unengaging; lack of adressal of the more exploitative aspects of the entertainment industry could lead to problems

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Production Info:
Story: Tatsuya Matsuki
Art: Shiro Usazaki

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