Reviews are subjective things. A reviewer is drawing on many things when they write their review. Besides technical things such as story structure, character development and art, a reviewers personal preferences and experiences can affect their feeling about a book. And sometimes, even their gender can make a difference as to whether a book gets a good score or bad. In the following discussions, reviewers Alex Hoffman and Lori Henderson will look at different books and examine the similarities and differences they have over each of them.
Bakuman, Volumes 1-4
Written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata
Publsiher: Viz Media
Age Rating: Teen
ISBN: Vol. 1: 978-1421535135, Vol. 2: 978-1421535142, Vol. 3: 978-1421535159, Vol. 4: 978-1421537931
Alexander Hoffman (AH): It looks like our first He Said, She Said was pretty big success, Lori!
Lori Henderson (LH): It does indeed! We even got some ‘likes’, so I guess they really like us!
AH: I wonder if they’ll like us after we discuss this edition’s topic – Bakuman? Let’s find out. If you don’t mind Lori, I can do our introduction.
LH: I yield the keyboard to you.
AH: Bakuman is a comic that focuses on two high-schoolers, Moritaka Mashiro, who enjoys drawing and his classmate, aspiring writer Akito Takagi and their quest to create a hit manga series. Yes, it’s manga about creating manga. Our two main characters take the pseudonym Ashirugi Muto and encounter the challenges and rewards of publishing manga while in high school, while maintaining relationships and making new friends. There’s a bit of a romantic subplot and a LOT of text, all explaining the ins and outs of the Japanese comics machine.
The authors of this series, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, are the creative duo responsible for the mega-hit Death Note, which may be why Bakuman is on such a quick release schedule – currently there are four volumes of Bakuman released in English, all being released on a bimonthly schedule.
LH: I’ve never read Death Note. A preview from the first volume didn’t really appeal to me. However, I love Hikaru no Go, another series by the same duo. I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of their new series, and really wasn’t sure they could make a series about creating manga interesting. I was certainly wrong about that. Though I almost didn’t keep with it after the “infamous” second chapter rant Akito gives about girls. His whole monologue on “what woman should be like” came really close to crossing the line for me.
AH: Wow Lori, you’ve got tough skin! I definitely didn’t like that part of Bakuman at all. It definitely crossed a line for me. I’ve seen a lot of blogger discourse on the second chapter of Bakuman, and much of it was pretty harsh. At Manga Widget, I even tagged my post with the keyword “sexist.” Some bloggers wondered if the comments were meant to be ironic (because it is assumed that the author, Tsugumi Ohba, is a female mangaka), but many were downright outraged by the comments.
People can argue about whether or not Bakuman is sexist, but my point of view is much simpler: I feel like these comments are something that came out of the brain of a 9-14 year old boy. I guess the comments play to that audience, because parents don’t understand, and girls are icky, gross, have cooties, or what have you, and can’t possibly understand MY BIG SHONEN DREAMS. Whether or not this is an intentional foray into the unsavory to focus on the key demographic of Shonen Jump, ironic/wry humor from a female mangaka, or just nastiness, I don’t think it does well for this series, especially when the talk of manga and the inner workings of comics publishing in Japan is so cerebral.
Death Note was much the same way for me – I felt that the female characters were poorly developed and only served the wills of more powerful men. These ladies were all designed to be manipulated and thrown away, which was evident even from the earliest chapters. Hikaru no Go is the one comic that the two have created together that I haven’t followed as thoroughly as possible, but I do remember a very distinct lack of female characters (or good female Go players) in the earlier part of the series’ run.
LH: Growing up with an older brother, and all boys in your neighborhood does tend to toughen your skin a bit, mostly from necessity. I too felt the comments were sexist, but didn’t think about it coming from a tween until someone else mentioned it. While I agree the basic attitude might be from a boy tween’s point of view, I really don’t see Akito’s speech coming out of a pre-teen’s mouth. Perhaps it was meant as a backlash against the large female demographic that has shaped Weekly Jump for the last 10 years or so?
You’re right about Hikaru no Go not having a lot of female characters through it’s first eleven volumes, but I don’t think girls were really interested in Go until the manga/anime made it popular again in Japan, so I don’t see that as an issue. I am seeing a trend in Bakuman that may reflect the same use of female characters as you describe in Death Note. We see very little of Miho through these first four volumes, and never what she’s thinking, though I do like the behind-the-scenes view of voice acting. Miyoshi, Akito’s girlfriend, has changed her dream from wanting to write like Akito to completely supporting Akito and Moritaka. But, then again, this can and does happen in relationships, so it’s not a done deal yet.
AH: I wonder if Miyoshi is just the fanservice for this story. The only independent thing she does is karate/boxing, which is pretty cool, but she has to have Miyoshi write her novels after she decides to do that. The change in dream is realistic, because those things happen in relationships like you mentioned, but in this case it is still the same “men are better than women” crap that’s been happening this entire series, so I can’t say that I’m too thrilled with the change.
The love story between Miho and Moritaka also bugs me, because Miho is super excited just to go along with Moritaka’s dreams and just “wait forever” for him. To me, that’s another instance of degrading female characters – of course she will wait for Moritaka, that’s just the way things are done, etc. etc. So all of this sexist writing was a pretty big hurdle to jump over to continue reading the series for me.
When I first read Bakuman, it was through the Shonen Jump anniversary celebration – they had translated some chapters you could read on their website, I think this was back in 2009, and I didn’t know a whole lot about how Japan would do translations for an English audience, so I was able to get through the first chapters by believing that what all the characters were saying was merely a bad translation. As it got later in the series, there are some stronger female characters, one of whom was introduced in volume four. Things get a little more complicated for the main characters in volume five, so it should be interesting to see if the story manages to correct course (I’m not holding my breath here).
I don’t know that Bakuman can ever really redeem itself for the first two volumes, but it is a pretty addicting read, for all the comics industry information. I like the idea of this “meta” story about guys writing comics, and the details about how comics are ranked and chosen for publication are all pretty interesting. Lori, what draws you to this series?
LH: For me, it’s all the information about how a manga is created. All of the details about how a story board is made, how Weekly Jump is run and how stories are chosen to run in the magazine, these are the things that keep me coming back to Bakuman. I know this is what makes the story wordy, but I really find it fascinating. They give so much information and detail about the industry, that I can forgive or just ignore all the other problems with the story and characters just so I can find out more.
AH: I admit that the information about the comics industry in Japan is appealing. I was really intrigued by the way that Japanese publishers run the comics industry, and the minutia of manga publishing is really interesting. If you are looking at Bakuman from an enthusiast’s perspective, only interested in the content regarding the publishing practices of Shueisha and possibly other publishers, then this is a great manga for you. I admit that I keep purchasing Bakuman to read this content. But that doesn’t mean I’m happy with the way the female characters are written. I keep hoping that things are going to change, but like I said previously, I’m not betting on it.
LH: Yeah, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that either. I find, in regard to the characters, I do want to cheer on Akito and Moritaka. Not because I like them so much, but because they are trying to hard, and do have a lot going against them, and I can’t help wanting to see the underdogs succeed. In the first volume Moritaka constantly goes on about how becoming a successful mangaka is really a gamble. I really liked that the difficulty wasn’t whitewashed in anyway, and through volume 4, we see just how much work has to go into creating good stories and characters. Moritaka has to constantly practice his drawing, and Akito has to do a lot of research to come up with the plots and characters. Just following the shonen battle manga formula isn’t going to get you a good story. I’m really glad they showed that as well. I think it’s more than just the depth that they go into the industry that interesting, but also seeing it in practice with Moritaka and Akito makes it more than just a lecture.
AH: I can’t deny that Bakuman has that classic underdog feel of shonen manga, and it does do a lot of pacing things right. The slice-of-life aspects of this title definitely make it more of a book that I would enjoy reading, so it does have that going for it. Still I doubt I would ever suggest Bakuman to anyone; I think that the series is too much of a guilty read for me, and I think that there is much better shonen out there.
LH: I would recommend Bakuman to those fans who (like me), have grown tired of the usual shonen battle manga, and want something different. It keeps all the elements of competition and need to grow with out all the drawn out fights and tournaments. I don’t feel as guilty as you about reading it, and if taken with a grain (or teaspoon) of salt, I think it’s still a good, fun read.