Saturday, 25 October 2014

Bakuman, Volume 1: Dreams and Reality Review (Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata)

Bakuman is about the universal story of artistic creation, as experienced through two high school boys trying to become manga successes. Like every high school student, Moritaka Mashiro and Akito Takagi are under enormous pressure to achieve high grades to get into a “good” university then onto a “good” job – but both are uneasy with the prospect of becoming faceless, miserable salarymen. 

Mashiro loves to draw and his uncle was a moderately successful manga artist with a gag comic, while Takagi has dreams of becoming a famous manga writer, but he can’t draw. The two eventually team up and set about feverishly creating manga.

This is probably one of the best books I’ve read about the act of creation. And it’s by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the creators of Death Note, so it not only feels genuine but also insightful into what goes into making a hit manga series. Perhaps most importantly, they don’t pull their punches on the reality of what that means.

They throw out stats of how few manga creators make enough money to live off on and how difficult it is for anyone who isn’t a bona fide genius to break through with the element of luck playing a large part in achieving what they’re after. Hence the title of the series: Bakuman: a conflation of Bakuchi Manga or Gambling Manga – you’re gambling when you’re creating because the odds are so heavily stacked against you to succeed but you’re still trying anyway.

But our heroes soldier on regardless of the stats, taking up Mashiro’s now-deceased manga artist uncle’s studio to create. It’s in this space that we see the real behind-the-scenes of a manga series. Boxes and boxes of unused drafts, storyboards, and rejected final pages that his uncle amassed over his short career, highlighting the fact that for every book published, there are at least 10 others that no-one will ever see that the artist had to make before getting accepted.

That and the uncle’s premature death from overwork underscores how much effort goes into creating these comics and what kind of commitment is required to get to the top – essentially sacrificing everything else in order to become good. Bearing in mind our main characters are high schoolers, it’s really refreshing to see a pair of driven, passionate creative young people pursuing their dream in a totally non-cynical way. It’s inspiring and their enthusiasm is infectious.

There is a romance element to the story, besides the romance of artistry, and that’s Mashiro’s crush on Miho Azuki, one of his classmates. But this isn’t a romance manga, and the crush is actually another aspect of the creative process. Because, as anyone who’s written a novel, or done anything creative will know, there’s a love of doing the thing inherent in the creator but sometimes what pushes the artist on and on is the focus of someone you deeply care for, and creating that thing for them. Ie. you’re probably creating something that’ll be seen by more than one person but that one person in your mind is the person you’re creating it for – they symbolically represent the entire audience but you only see that one person in your mind.

Bakuman is maybe the first book I’ve read that actually addresses this aspect of creative drive outright. It’s crudely the same principle of the carrot on the stick for the donkey, with Miho as the carrot that spurs Mashiro, the donkey, onto becoming a manga success. Once he achieves this, she’ll marry him, she says, though Miho sees something in Mashiro and knows she’s got to offer him something to accomplish the thing that’ll make him most happy: becoming a manga artist, not being with her.

Except it’s more than simply getting the carrot (I know I’m labouring this metaphor!) because Mashiro doesn’t know it yet but that’s not the point – in the short term it might seem to be, but the long term goal that he’s not fully aware of yet is what he’s really striving for. Though he needs the possibility of marrying Miho to get him on his way. It’s tricky to explain but I’ve gone through something similar, also at that age, so this book has a lot of resonance for me!

Bakuman Volume 1 has its flaws: Ohba references Death Note far too much in the script – it’s cute at first but gets old fast. Also, to be fair, anyone who’s ever contemplated writing a book/has written a book is likely to be aware that this requires an enormous investment of time and effort, so being told that here is a bit redundant. 

Though you do learn certain things, like that there are numerous reference books totally made up of backgrounds to copy into your comic, and, if you’re a younger reader thinking about taking the plunge, it sets out the challenges ahead of you in a clear, though not necessarily discouraging, way.

The best thing about this comic about creation is that it’s so earnest, optimistic, and exhilarating about creating something, anything, that its likely to spur on anyone who’s thinking about becoming a writer/artist to do it. It totally captures the energy of being a teenager who’s just discovered the joy of art and the boundless possibilities it presents, hardships and all – and then impresses that upon the reader, whatever their age. What a fantastic book!

Bakuman, Volume 1: Dreams and Reality

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