I don’t believe I’ve ever despised a comic book quite so much as I despise Bakuman.
But then I’ve never encountered another comic book quite so ugly as Bakuman.. Certainly I’ve never run into one as inimical to art. Not that it’s upfront about any of this. Between Tsugumi Ohba’s penchant for intricate, convoluted and character-driven plotting and the fluid, super-charged pop aesthetic of Takeshi Obata’s pencils, it’s easy to be tricked into thinking that the series is one of the few works that actively celebrates the creative life.
Even when the heroes, artist Moritaka Mashiro and writer Takagi Akito, leave their ten-year high-school reunion with the revelation that they’ve spent so much time creating comics that they have no social life, no memories, no connection to their families and nothing to show for all of that time but the volumes of work they’ve made, the creators find a way to make it inspiring.
“Do you think we’re completely burning ourselves up?” Akito asks; “Yeah,” Mashiro replies, but where others might find a thought like that troubling, he goes on to explain, “We’re doing our best…we may not have a typical young person’s life, but we’re leading a typical manga artist’s life of writing and inking!” And on the surface that’s all to the good: passion is indispensable for artists. There’s not a single great work that’s been made by the half-hearted.
The problem is that Mashiro and Takagi’s passions aren’t actually directed toward art. They focus on making comics, sure, but only as the means to other ends. Mashiro’s made a deal with class beauty Azuki Miho that, should his comic be adapted into an anime they’ll get married. And Takagi is gunning to become the most celebrated author in Japan, which naturally means making his comic the most popular one in Shonen Jumps, the country’s most popular comics magazine. What they make to achieve these ends is totally incidental.
At no point do the boys actually sit down and discuss what, exactly, they want their work to accomplish on a thematic level orwhat human concerns are at the heart of their stories. The story arcs they’re penning only matter in so much as they hit the story beats thought proper by one of the staff of harried editors. The emotions of the characters they’re writing are only important in so much as they make a particular scene appealing. Art in the world of Bakuman. is purely product. Only one character in the entire series discusses the idea that comics might be made for something other than popularity, but he’s a talentless hack who’s only revealed to be bitter because his own art never earns him, a strawman thrown up by the authors to defend their own ugly philosophy.
I suppose that’s just to be expected, though. Bakuman. is a shallow story told by shallow creators who lack the talent necessary to tell great work. Their characters are platitude spouting cliches when they aren’t so one-dimensional they seem like elements of the background; their plots are overly complicated to no great end and atrociously paced; they have no sense of what makes for meaningful drama and not a single interesting idea to explore. Bakuman. is simply their cynical mission statement, a desperate attempt to exonerate themselves at the cost of an entire form.