ANIME & MANGA - Review
14:19 - 12th July 2013, by David West

Bakuman - Season 1

Moritaka Mashiro is resigned to a life of convention and boredom, and he's only 14. Working his way steadily but unremarkably through middle school, Moritaka simply doesn't know what he wants to do with the rest of his life, until the day his bright classmate Akita Takagi announces that he wants Moritaka to help him become a professional mangaka.

Akita has seen a drawing Moritaka did of a girl in their class, Miho Azuki, on whom he has a huge but very secret crush. It's that single drawing that convinces Akita that Moritaka is the artist he has been searching for to help his plan become reality. When Moritaka is slow to jump onboard his bandwagon, Akita tricks him into going to visit Miho's house, where they announce their plan to become manga stars to the unsuspecting girl. It turns out Miho wants to become a professional anime voice actress, and, in the heat of the moment, Moritaka makes an unusual proposition - if their dreams come true and they both become successful in their chosen fields, will Miho marry him?

Anyone expecting another Death Note from the imaginations of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata will be surprised by Bakuman. The deadly mind games of Death Note, with its questions about the morality of murder, are entirely absent from Bakuman, which instead grapples with the challenge of two teenagers trying to get their first break in the manga industry. So life and death are not quite such pressing concerns. The story has two principal strands. The first involves Moritaka and Akita trying to master their craft and struggling to create a manga good enough for publication. The second strand, which is the less developed of the pair, concerns Moritaka's romance with Miho, and Akito's relationship with Miyoshi, another girl in their class.

The handling of the romance between Moritaka and Miho is clumsy and often contrived. Ohba and Obata have never had much interest in strong female characters and their male-centric world view is prevalent here. Miho is mainly there to be the goal that drives Moritaka to pursue his dream. While she has ambitions of her own, she is pushed way into the background thanks to a plot device where the two decide not to see each other until after they have both become successful. There is not much emotional depth to their connection, given that the very first time they actually speak to each other, they decide to get married. It could be argued that their instant infatuation reflects the impetuosity of youthful love, but it does not excuse the dramatic weakness of this plot strand. Akita's relationship with Miyoshi lacks the grand gestures of the Moritaka / Miho dynamic, but once again, Miyoshi is strictly a background character who seems content to support the boys in their quest for manga fame with no apparent desires of her own besides wanting to be Akita's girlfriend. If anything, she is shown to be a potential distraction for Akita, when he should be working on new manga concepts. The only character who ever really questions Moritaka's decision to devote all his time to manga is his mother, but she is put in her place by his dad, who tells her, "Men have dreams that a woman wouldn't understand." Apparently someone needs to drag Ohba and Obata into the 21st century.

Romance aside, the series generally avoids melodrama as Moritaka and Akita set about trying to create a manga that will appeal to their editor, Hattori, at Shonen Jack magazine. The screenplays focus squarely on revealing the ways that the manga industry finds new talent and the hoops creators have to jump through if they want to succeed. This can mean that it is not always very visually dynamic - scenes of editors discussing submissions are not the stuff of high drama. Directors Noriaki Akitaya and Kenichi Kasai try to inject more energy into these sequences by filling the soundtrack with rock guitars to give the scenes a greater sense of propulsion. Obstacles arise in every episode, but are typically quickly resolved, and it can feel at times that everything is going rather too smoothly for the protagonists. The most obvious example of this is the way a fully stocked art studio falls straight into Moritaka's lap. Convenient doesn't begin to describe it.

They find a rival in Eiji Nizuma, a teenage manga prodigy who is well on his way to having his work serialised despite his youth. It gives Moritaka someone to measure himself against, but it is not as compelling as Light versus L in Death Note. For a start, Nizuma is not interested in competing against anyone, he simply creates manga for the sheer love of it. Sadly, that is something lacking in the two lead characters - any sense of joy in the act of creation. Their approach is so workmanlike that it does make you wonder why they've chosen manga rather than a more conventional career. Nizuma's character has some parallels with L in that they are both eccentric geniuses with limited social skills. Nizuma can appear to be borderline autistic in his more extreme moments, but that seems unintentional.

The English dub is generally good although there are some awkward phrasings to make the dialogue fit the actions on screen. Akita seems just a little goofier in the anime than he was in the manga but otherwise the translation from page to screen is extremely faithful to the source. Animation and art are solid if never particularly dazzling.

Just as Moritaka and Akita take a very measured approach to making manga, so Bakuman can feel slightly calculated where it should be passionate. The two leads are likeable if earnest, while the girls really need much more personality. For artists everywhere, Bakuman offers everything you ever wanted to know about becoming manga stars but were afraid to ask.
SCORE: 3.5/5
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