Weekly Shounen Jump is probably the most well-known manga magazine to Westerners. It has spawned many of our favourite shounen series from Dragonball and Naruto to Slam Dunk and Sket Dance, but have you ever wondered what it takes to earn a prestigious slot in this behemoth publication?
Takagi and Mashiro are two middle school students who have never spoken until one day the former approaches his classmate with an offer. Having seen his impressive drawing skills, the enthusiastic teen asks Mashiro to team up with him and create manga together. Though he initially declines, the unwilling boy soon reconsiders when they make a promise with aspiring voice actress, Azuki. As the object of the artistic lad’s affections, they all decide that when the duo succeed in having their manga become an anime, Azuki will voice the heroine and will marry Mashiro. Bakuman then follows the duo who, under the pen name of Ashirogi Muto, begin their mission to become published authors in Shounen Jack (quite why the anime changes Jump to Jack I have no idea, especially considering the amount of name-dropping when it comes to other franchises).
Since it only covers the first four volumes of the manga, this first season of Bakuman merely scratches the surface of Ashirogi Muto’s journey. There’s no doubt that a lot happens to the duo as they work on submission after submission, but being the early stages of their career, the process can get very monotonous. Despite slight differences in each arc, the basic formula of working with their editor, Hattori, to ready a manuscript for competition with other rookie mangaka can get a little repetitive. Ultimately, the amount of mileage you will get out of this depends entirely upon how interesting you find the setting. Those who salivate at learning about the inner workings of a popular manga magazine will lap up every new challenge that Mashiro and Takagi face, as each time they progress, the series unearths more about the road to serialisation. Conversely, anyone who wants a quick fix will likely find this series long-winded; but then again, those desiring immediate gratification and an unreasonably speedy progression through the ranks are watching the wrong series.
Although primarily shounen, Bakuman isn’t your typical mainstream show. As such it’s possible for those who aren’t fans of the genre to enjoy it – even with the overwhelming name-dropping of existing Jump hits. Certainly, those with a love for Naruto, Bleach, One Piece and Dragonball will get more enjoyment from seeing posters decorating the editors’ office at Jack or spotting volumes of the manga piled up in Mashiro’s studio. Similarly, some of the more nerdy discussion between the central pair when it comes to their favourite manga may go over the heads of anyone unfamiliar with them, but this isn’t such a huge deficit as to completely detract from any possible enjoyment. I for one am wholly unfamiliar with Ashita no Joe and have very limited experience with the Dragonball franchise, but still don’t feel completely lost when Takagi and Mashiro begin referencing them.
With J.C. Staff at the helm of the much-anticipated anime adaptation, you’d expect some pretty damn good animation. Luckily, the studio delivers fluid movement and great attention to detail. Certainly, the area where the visuals succeed most is in the settings. In particular, the care that’s gone into Mashiro’s studio is spectacular. Rows of manga line the walls, each with recognisable spines so if you look closely you can identify which series is which or point and go “Oh look, there’s a Luffy!”. With more piles of manga on desks and boxed figurines on shelves, there’s always something to look for in the backgrounds, which all adds to the fun – though I wouldn’t suggest playing a drinking game every time you spot an existing franchise you recognise or you’d soon be comatose!
There are some truly butt-ugly hairstyles in this series, particularly when it comes to the women of the Azuki household. However, despite the rigidly straight fringes and chunky, lolloping ringlets, the rest of the character designs work well. There’s a more lifelike approach to the facial layouts than witnessed other shounen shows, and by utilising a more subdued drawing style the series seems more realistic than fantastical. Likewise, even without wacky hair colours and gravity-defying ‘dos each individual has their own unique attribute to make them easily recognisable, from Mashiro’s hair antenna and Takagi’s glasses to Hattori’s sausage lips and Yujiro’s "afro".
No matter how many times I hear it, the opening track, “Blue Bird” is unforgivably corny. Although the song fits with the tone of Mashiro and Azuki’s sappy love affair, their romance takes a back seat to the real Shounen Jack-y action making the cheesy opening seem a little out of place.
Bakuman’s voice cast performs well throughout, but for me the star is Nobuhiko Okamoto as Eiji. Okamoto dives headfirst into the role of the genius mangaka, perfectly portraying Eiji’s odd mannerisms. With ease he flips between the childish, light-hearted kid who just wants to draw and the serious and ambitious man who wants to beat his rivals. Equally, Okamoto displays great skill with the plethora of bizarre sound effects he conveys as Eiji works from “SHA-KIIIN!”s to sounds of crows cawing.
As with the story, this season of Bakuman only touches on its cast of characters and what we learn of them is only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. That being said, the two central protagonists develop reasonably as they embark on their quest to become published mangaka. Starting out as fairly typical disenchanted youths, they meander through life with no direction or interest, but when they team up, their inner fires are ignited and their enthusiasm begins to burn bright. The duo then evolves with every success and failure that comes their way as they face up to their own weaknesses and how to overcome them. The narrative easily facilitates this development and actually demands that this maturation happen for the pair to progress, thus creating a far more realistic and engaging storyline.
Despite the pleasing development of the main duo, it’s the quirky secondary cast members that hog the limelight and create a wholly diverse set of personalities. In particular, teenage prodigy, Eiji, generates plenty of interest. With his eccentric behaviour and tunnel vision when it comes to drawing contrasting with his “Manga-Yoda” like insights into what will and won’t become popular in Jump, it’s hard not to be captivated by the bizarre individual. Rough-around-the-edges Fukuda also proves to be another appealing personality. With a brash demeanour and short temper more akin to that of a delinquent he could be easy to dismiss as just another character stereotype. However, his ultimate sense of fairness and his friendship with the other rookies makes him far more compelling to watch.
For anyone with an interest in the behind-the-scenes workings of a large manga publication, and particularly when it comes to the shounen genre, I can’t recommend Bakuman enough. I know that I certainly can’t wait for the next season to begin so that I can re-immerse myself in the lives of Ashirogi Muto, their rivals, and the world of Shounen Jack.
Moritaka Mashiro feels as if life is passing him by; with no dreams or motivation, he trudges through day-to-day life. One day, after leaving his notebook behind, he returns to school and finds the smartest guy in class, Takagi, waiting for him. Takagi is happy to return the book, but on the condition that Mashiro agrees to become a mangaka with him. Though Mashiro initially declines, he soon reconsiders when he discovers that the girl he likes, Azuki, dreams of becoming a voice actress. And after promising that she can have the lead role if their manga is ever adapted into an anime, he suggests that they get married once they are both successful! Shockingly, she agrees to the proposal and Mashiro and Takagi embark on their quest to become manga artists.
While I like a variety of different genres, if you give me comedy or slice of life, I'm bound to be happy – and if it's dark humour, all the better! I'll review whatever takes my fancy at the time, and whether you agree or disagree with my opinions, feel free to drop me a line.