Bakuman is the story of how a pair of friends become successful comic book creators in the cutthroat Japanese manga industry. 14-year-old Moritaka Mashiro loves drawing, and he's pretty dang good at it. Although Mashiro once harbored dreams of making manga, his family knows firsthand that the comics industry isn't exactly kind to "mangaka," or manga creators. Moritaka's uncle, Nobuhiro, was a mangaka who never quite matched the initial success of his first work. After a string of canceled titles, he fell ill and died. His family believes that stress and overwork sent Nobuhiro to an early grave, and Moritaka is wary of following in his uncle's tragic footsteps.
Mashiro doesn't stop drawing and soon gains the attention of his classmate, Akito Takagi. Akito's the top student in his class, and his grades could win him a spot in any university he wants. His future is assured: an excellent college education and a good-paying job. But Akito, in the grand tradition of anime heroes with impossible dreams which seem like ridiculously bad ideas to anyone else, wants to write the best manga story ever. He asks to partner up with Mashiro to create a manga that's good enough to appear in Shonen Jack, the most popular manga magazine in Japan. Shonen Jack (loosely based on the real-life manga magazine Shonen Jump) boasts over 2 million issues in circulation every week. Akito's hubris re-ignites Mashiro's passion for drawing and they embark on their journey together.
This being an anime, however, the journey is dramatically rocky, with explorations into friendship, creativity and, less successfully, romance. Yes, although these two friends are giving it their all and pushing themselves to become the best mangakas the world has ever seen, they still find the time to each woo the girl of their dreams ... and this is where the anime begins to ring hollow. Bakuman is unparalleled in showcasing the triumphs and tragedies behind creativity and collaboration but it falls disappointingly flat when it comes to romance and its female characters.
First off, let's look at what Bakuman does right. While some of the details are exaggerated for dramatic purposes, the show is arguably the best primer on how the comic industry works in Japan. Each issue of Shonen Jack contains an average of eight titles and any given issue is about as thick as a phone book. With such a wide variety of stories, readers don't necessarily go through issues from cover to cover. They might just get the magazine for one or two titles and skip over the rest. Creators are constantly battling their peers for an audience, and reader surveys are a major way in which the publishers measure popularity. Each manga title lives or dies according to how many people score it as their favorite. This lends a competitive aspect to the anime as Mashiro and Akito struggle to find the balance between what's popular and what's true to their shared vision of a perfect manga.
The anime also demonstrates the importance of a good editor. A mangaka can have the best idea in the world, but without an experienced editor, the comic could just be a rambling mess. While Mashiro and Akito are avid fans of manga and have read a lot of it, it's up to their editor, Akira Hattori, to steer their creativity into making something that appeals to Shonen Jack's readers. There's even an entire story arc devoted to Mashiro and Akito switching editors, and while their new editor is closer in age to them, it turns out that experience matters much more than a sense of camaraderie. Their new editor offers suggestions on how to make their manga more popular, but in doing so, Mashiro and Akito sacrifice a little bit of their integrity for the sake of reader votes. When diehard fans of the mangaka duo start complaining about the title's new direction, Mashiro and Akito realize that it's not enough to just appeal to the masses. Bakuman is about finding an audience for your own work, not just trying every single popular thing in existence and hoping that something sticks.
Bakuman also includes a neuroatypical character who isn't punished for being different, which is rare in anime shows. Eiji Nizuma is a teenage mangaka with an incredible amount of talent and drive. He writes and draws his manga solo, and for every idea that he gets published, he has ten others just waiting in the wings. He's the epitome of the hard-working, reliable artist, the sort of person that every editor dreams of working with. There's some evidence that Eiji is on the autistic spectrum. His social skills aren't great, and he outright ignores people if they speak with him while he's drawing. He makes noises and moves around constantly as he draws, which can be construed as types of autistic behaviors. He's uninterested in conversation if the subject isn't manga. But despite his eccentricities, the show never makes Eiji into the evil antagonist. He's simply a fellow mangaka, a rival -- and, most importantly, a friend. Eiji's artistic eye and knack for well-written stories are impeccable, and Mashiro and Akito go to Eiji for advice more often than any of their other fellow creators. It's Eiji's passion for the crafting of manga that defines him, not his strangeness.
Despite the great views of the manga industry and the inner lives of creators, Bakuman begins to falter when it comes to depicting romance, which turns out ham-fisted and bizarrely chaste. Mashiro has always harbored a crush on his childhood classmate, Miho Azuki, but he never admitted it to her. He has never spoken to her, and apart from a few longing glances in the middle of class, he has barely even interacted with her. This changes on the day Mashiro teams up with Akito to make manga. Mashiro goes to Miho's house and, in true Say Anything/Love Actually/any other rom-com fashion, he declares his love for Miho and also shares his dream: once he becomes a successful manga creator, he wants to marry Miho.
Remember that he and Miho have barely spoken more than a few words to each other since they were kids.
Remember that Mashiro’s never mentioned his interest in Miho before this.
Somehow, Miho thinks this is charming. In reality, this is kind of gross and stalker-ish. At the very least, Miho does reciprocate interest in Mashiro, despite them never really talking to each other before. Miho mentions a dream of her own: she wants to become a successful anime voice actress. So, Mashiro and Miho make a pact. They will marry each other when they're successful in their chosen careers: Mashiro in manga and Miho in voice acting. And, in the most bizarre of decisions, they agree to keep up with the charade of not interacting with each other until they reach the heights of success, because starting up a relationship right now would distract them from their dreams, or something. It takes them nearly a year to decide that texting each other is okay and within the non-interaction rules. On the one hand, aiming for a career goal is important and the fewer distractions, the better. On the other hand, YOU DON’T EVEN WANNA HOLD HANDS WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? it's slightly unrealistic to expect two teenagers to keep on with this charade of a relationship.
Akito has no such qualms with his girlfriend, Kaya Mihoshi. They continue with their relationship as Akito works on his manga career, and initially Kaya's inspired to get into writing herself. Fiction you can read with a phone app is a thing in Japan, and Kaya manages to get an online publishing deal with Akito's help as her unofficial editor. She writes and releases one novel, which is fairly popular, and then this part of her life is never mentioned in the show again. Once Mashiro and Akito gain popularity in the manga world, Kaya somehow completely forgets that she has a successful career of her own and becomes the default cheerleader for the guys. She's the perfect office assistant, cleaning up scrapped pages after all-night work sessions and making tea when the guys need it.
And the worst part of that is, she doesn't get paid for it.
The guys feel guilty about it at first because, you know, she's doing all this work for them for free. When they get a pay raise from their publisher, they actively ponder whether they should pay Kaya for all she does for them. But Kaya shakes off any concerns because, at this point of the story, she and Akito are engaged and it's part of her duties as his future wife.
So much barf.
I suppose there's nothing inherently wrong with Kaya's choice, but it's profoundly disappointing when a young woman gives up on her career for a guy. Plus, Miho is essentially 'saving herself' for Mashiro by focusing on her career as well, and sometimes it's hard to root for a couple of guys who aren't supportive of their partners. There's a sexist streak underlying the narrative. Focus on the manga and eventually the women will be your just reward.
Bakuman isn't too kind to its female characters in general. Aiko Iwase was Akito's academic rival in high school and they battled constantly to be the top student in class. They meet again years later and she's grown to be a bitter shrew of a young woman. Aiko's debut novel was a smash hit, but she can't let go of the fact that the only person she found worthy of being a rival in high school has debased himself by becoming a mangaka. She's determined to become a manga writer as well, just to put Akito back in his place. However, it's revealed that she's had a crush on Akito since school and wanted to impress him enough so that he'd go out with her.
Um ... gross.
Aiko's introduction to the manga industry is nothing short of cringeworthy. When she's assigned a male editor, she openly flirts with him and calls him the new man in her life. She doesn't seem to understand that men and women can have professional relationships without those relationships transforming into romance. Aiko's taught a harsh lesson when her old editor quits, finding it impossible to work with her, and her new editor has neither the time nor patience to deal with romantic nonsense. She does, eventually, become a popular manga writer, but only after she puts away her dreams of mixing romance and work. It seems that only the male characters are allowed to do that in any capacity.
This brings us to perhaps the most complex female character in the entire show: Yuriko Aoki, who is a manga creator who arguably gets the best romantic arc. Or at least the one that’s the least cringeworthy.
Yuriko's quiet demeanor and fashionable looks catch the eye of Takuro Nakai, a manga assistant at Shonen Jack. Takuro is ... schlubby, but he's portrayed as the typical 'nice guy.' Although he struggles with speaking with women, he is completely smitten with Yuriko. They collaborate on a manga together, and while Takuro enjoys the time he spends with the girl of his dreams, the manga itself isn't as popular as expected. Yuriko wants to work with another artist, and her rejection sends Takuro into a weird spiral of shame and inept Say Anything references (what is it with this anime and Say Anything?). Takuro parks himself in the children's playground outside of Yuriko's apartment and draws, determined to show that he's still the perfect artist for her manga.
Days pass, and he doesn't leave his park picnic table.
One night there's a snowstorm in Tokyo and Takuro nearly freezes to death while still in the midst of proving that he's the best artist for Yuriko's manga. She eventually brings him an umbrella out of a sense of pity and likely a lot of guilt as well. She takes him back as her artist, and initially Takuro is relieved. But their series is canceled and they part ways. Yuriko comes up with a new series and she asks Takuro to be her artist again. Buoyed by his first success with Yuriko (this is where I think he assumes they've passed first base), Takuro becomes bold and reckless and has a request for her before he accepts. He demands -- not asks, not requests -- that she become his girlfriend.
Yuriko rejects him and slaps him and moves on. Takuro takes his battered ego and his sexist ass and leaves Tokyo.
Yuriko meets up with another young mangaka named Kazuya Hiramaru, who is also immediately smitten with her (she has a high smitten ability). He tries to do everything right because he knows what happened to the other guy. He doesn't push his agenda at all. He makes sure that she's interested in him before he continues on with his advances. Their dates are pretty normal -- going out for coffee or a nice meal and other innocuous things. It's clear that Kazuya is meant to be 'the one' because everything he does is the exact opposite of what Takuro did. He asks permission and doesn't throw tantrums when things don't go his way.
But Kazuya also has a gigantic portrait of Yuriko hanging above his workspace. You know, to inspire him.
This is not creepy at all. *
* Please note that this is HELLA creepy.
Yes, the portrait does eventually go away once their relationship grows serious, but the fact that it exists in the first place is still hella creepy.
So, while Bakuman excels in showing how difficult it can be to make it in the competitive manga industry, it completely misses the mark when it comes to the romantic relationships between the characters. It should have been perfect. The manga industry aspect is top-notch, dramatic, intriguing and involving, and it's easy for a viewer to get caught up in the narrative. Will they or won't they have the most popular manga in Shonen Jack? But the romantic aspects of the narrative disappoint and frustrate to no end. Perhaps Bakuman's mangakas (Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata) might have caved into some pressures of their own when creating these idealized and off-putting romantic relationships? Maybe it's a case of wishful thinking on their part. If you're a manga creator, you really can have it all.
Unless you're a woman.