Reviewby Caitlin Moore,
Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist's Journey
Ever since she was a little girl, the award-winning manga artist Akiko Higashimura wanted to draw shoujo manga. As a high school student in Miyazaki, she enrolled in art classes to prepare for art college entrance exams, and there she met the man she came to call “Sensei”: Kenzou Hidaka. Harsh and bluntly honest, Sensei rules his classroom with an iron fist and tears right through her self-congratulatory ego and laziness. At first, Akiko wants to quit, but desperately needs the extra assistance if she wants to get into art school. Little did she realize that Sensei would become one of the most important, influential figures in her life.
When you look back on your life, do you know who made you who you are? What factors shaped you as a person? What chance meetings have rippled through your life and changed its course? In Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey, Akiko Higashimura reflects not just on her first years as an artist, but on her relationship with her sensei Kenzou Hidaka, the art teacher who frustrated her, infuriated her, taught her, and inspired her.
The story starts with Higashimura, nee Akiko Hayashi, as a lazy high school student. At her Miyazaki high school she gets praised over and over for her art talent, so she figures she can get into art college without much real effort, make her debut as a manga artist while still in college, and easily realize her dreams. When Sensei takes one look at her drawings and declares them crap, she resents him for smashing through her egotism, but keeps going to the art class anyway. Over the years, as she attends college, loses sight of her drive, and eventually makes her manga debut, her relationship with Sensei remains complex but deeply important.
Higashimura has always come off as a rather colorful figure in the author's notes appended to each volume of her manga, but even she pales in comparison to Sensei. He's uncompromising and straightforward, the kind of person who is bluntly honest to the point of near-cruelty, but assumes honesty from everyone around him with unwavering faith and loyalty. He smacks students with a shinai for talking when they should be drawing, but when Akiko fakes being sick to get out of class, he insists on carrying her on his back for the long walk to the bus stop. She depicts his big personality in all its complexity and contradictions, and along with it her complicated feelings for him as well.
She looks back at her younger self considerably less fondly, and even imagines going back in time to smack herself in the face. This is, of course, extremely relatable, since I think most people would do the same given the opportunity. She gets into plenty of goofy shenanigans (she's an art student, after all) but regret tinges much of her self-reflection. She wasted resources and opportunities, took advantage of others, and made foolish, selfish choices over and over. Now as an adult, she can look back with clarity, and doesn't like what she sees.
Higashimura's distinctive art brings her memories to life in a way that would be difficult for words alone to describe. She moves several times in the manga - from the beachside resort town of Miyazaki, Kyushu that she grew up in, to snowbound Kanazawa where she attended college, back to Miyazaki, and finally to the big city vibes of Osaka, which served as her base as a fledgling manga artist. As always, her character art is simple, focused more on gesture and motion than detail. This is perfect for expressing the larger-than-life personalities she represents, particularly Sensei. A hyper-detailed drawing of an old man wouldn't create the same impression as Higashimura's emphasis on how he moves, how he talks, how he emotes. She only has one photo of him, which she includes at the end of volume 5, but he is instantly recognizable based just on her art. There are even some delightful little touches in the art of the manga. When she talks about her childhood art, she includes examples of the big-headed, sparkly-eyed, off-model drawings she was sure were masterpieces. When she talks to her editor, U-oka on the phone, she draws him in the style of various manga artists that he worked with, including Ai Yazawa's style when the magazine changed from Bouquet to Cookie, which NANA ran in. Even in a true story, Higashimura's quirky, referential style of humor comes delightfully through.
From starting art classes with Sensei to her growing success as a manga artist, the section of her life Higashimura shares with us through Blank Canvas does follow something resembling a narrative arc. She meets Sensei and grows and changes through a series of challenges and struggles. She hits a low point after graduating - when she can't find steady work in art and instead ends up in a call center, she decides to take drastic action to change things and starts drawing manga in her remaining spare time, in the way only someone young and energetic can. Eventually, she makes her debut, becomes successful, and starts down the road to become the blockbuster josei artist she's known as today. In a more artfully constructed story, Akiko would have realized how important Sensei is to her, and treat him with real appreciation. But life is a series of gradual revelations that occur over a period of time, and the wistful regret she expresses from the very first chapter comes to pass. Young Akiko takes Sensei for granted, and is even embarrassed by him and his unconventional, eccentric personality. She refuses to answer the phone when he calls, and moves back to Osaka even when she knows he doesn't have much time left.
There are parts of Akiko's life and relationship with Sensei that haven't aged well. Sensei is a strict teacher, to the point of smacking his students with a shinai if they talk and berating even small children. Seeing things like this in nonfiction instead of fiction can be discomfiting - you want the truth, and for her to scold him retroactively would be jarring moralizing. Same goes for her work habits in her youth - she worked herself to the point of exhaustion every night, barely sleeping, in order to make her manga debut. She points out that now, in her late 30's, she needs to sleep at least eight hours, but she speaks fondly of her impossible stamina in her 20's. It's uncomfortably reflective of the kind of expectations that burn out and cause health problems in manga artists even now, and can be read as her handwaving inhumane work conditions. I wouldn't ask her to lie, but there's a kind of dissonance reading such straightforward representations of negative conditions.
Blank Canvas can be a tough read. Akiko makes terrible, selfish choices, struggles with burnout, and is the picture of self-centered youth. Chances are, the final volume will make you cry - I know I did, sobs that tore out of a place deep within me. It made me think of the people who shaped me who I never got a chance to see, to tell them how important they were to me before they died. While the story may be unique to Higashimura, the feelings behind it are common and relatable, and I encourage everyone give it a read.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : A
+ Honest, unromanticized depiction of Higashimura's young life; art is excellent as always; will probably make you cry; I want to be best friends with Akiko Higashimura
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