I think that many readers and reviewers have pet genres they like better than others. Some anime and manga reviewers may prefer a moe manga like K-On! compared to a dramatic, violent seinen piece like Gantz. Hopefully, my dear readers, you will have noticed that I prefer slow-moving work that takes its time to fully explore its fictional world and the characters we experience that world through. I am not necessarily averse to other types of manga, and I love a good action flick, but my favorite movie is, and shall forever be Lost in Translation with Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson.
Volunteering to review Bakuman was not that difficult, then. I knew what I was getting myself into, especially since Shonen Jump in Japan was debuting the manga to English speaking countries as it was released in the anthology as part of its 75th anniversary celebration. I had gotten a taste of the “manga about making manga” series from the creators of Death Note, and I was interested to see more. However, I had some reservations when I first read the translation on the Shonen Jump website. Surely the translation was bad – did that character just say “Men have dreams that women will never understand?”
Turns out, that’s exactly what she said.
One of the most interesting things about Bakuman is that it’s written by two manga creators who have done gangbuster work together before with a series that seemed to defy the shonen stereotypes at every turn. Death Note was dark, gritty, oftentimes violent and disturbing, and a really intelligent thriller. It wasn’t exactly something you would expect to come from the pages of Shonen Jump. Bakuman follows the exact same trend, but in a completely different direction. Yet again, the series is distinctly different than the manga you would expect to read in Shonen Jump. Still it is obvious that Bakuman is written for 14-year old boys.
Let me explain.
Bakuman is a story that looks at the world of creating manga from the perspective of a 14-year old boy. The series hits that mark fairly clearly. The main characters are both 14 years old, both go to the same junior high, and both (with a little prodding of the main character) have “BIG SHONEN DREAMS.” What these characters say, and what is said to them is indicative of what a 14-year old thinks about the world. In this way, we see some pretty sexist themes pop up in this series. Case in point; the main female lead, Asuki, essentially only exists to fulfill the romantic dreams of the main character, Moritaka. She is effectively a pretty face and an empty character. Another example; Moritaka’s father allows him to become a manga-ka (manga artist), and when his mother protests, she is given the following line, “Men have dreams that women will never understand.” Moritaka’s partner in manga, Akito, picks a girlfriend that supports his dream, and dismisses a girl who tries to persuade him that he should give up manga and be normal. Asuki agrees to wait forever for Moritaka, emphasizing that she has no will, and the outcomes of his endeavors are what are most important in their budding relationship.
Does that insult me as a 23-year old man? Yes. Quite a-fucking-bit in fact. Would that insult a 14-year old boy? Hell no. This is how he perceives the world. Parental units are always being accused of “not understanding me.” Girls are their to cheer their boyfriends on at sporting events. This is more of that same crap. Whether or not this written with tongue firmly in cheek is another matter. If so, it makes some of the ludicrous statements more palatable, but still, this is the kind of stuff that would make people toss a book into the garbage (I’ve placed manga in file 13 for lesser offenses).
I don’t consider myself a sexist, and I really don’t like the way women are portrayed in this manga. I abhor the parts of the series where these sorts of sexist statements are made. The female characters in Death Note were likewise weak and mainly existed to fulfill the needs of male characters. These admonitions being said, Bakuman is an intriguing slice-of-life story. It hits all the points I want it to, explaining things like how manga series are rated in anthologies, how a manga creator pitches their ideas to a publishing company, how the editing process works, how manga get published, etc. There is a bevy of information, but it’s handled in such a way that it flows along with the story. Tsugumi Ohba also has a knack for writing storylines that don’t feel contrived, and the conflicts that the two male leads get themselves into seem natural and a mere progression as their involvement in the manga creation process grows. The main characters also develop pretty well, despite the female characters being pretty weakly created.
Along with being a good slice-of-life comic, Bakuman is also simultaneously the best illustrated shonen manga currently in print in English. Takeshi Obata has developed as an artist since his manga first started getting published. His progression through Hikaru no Go has made it clear that he has developed his skills immensely, and he is in top form for Bakuman.
At the end of the day, I’m conflicted. I want to recommend Bakuman for its no-holds barred look at the process of manga creation, and for showing a slice-of-life that hasn’t really been illuminated for non-Japanese speaking readers until now. At the same time, I can’t really recommend the series because of its backwards views of women and the weak, sexist writing.
Maybe, in time, we will come to understand whether or not the reservations I have with Bakuman will make the comic unreadable, or will be small stumble in a largely entertaining series. For now, I am willing to withhold total condemnation; whether or not Bakuman makes the grade will have to be determined by future volumes.