Home > Bakuman, Episode Reviews, First Impressions > Bakuman Episode 1 – Everyone Dreaming the Same Dream

Bakuman Episode 1 – Everyone Dreaming the Same Dream

One sign that something has become a self-generating media phenomenon is when it starts producing media about itself. To a certain extent this happens in any shows where otaku play an important role (like Mayoi Neko Overrun!, Durarara!!, or Asobi ni Iku Yo!, to name three we’ve covered on this site), but the next logical step is to cover the actual process of creation. Enter Bakuman (stylized as Bakuman. for no reason I can discern), which is a anime based on a manga … about a pair of manga writers, particularly 9th graders, trying to go professional.

What follows could easily be a self-referential, narcissistic mess, and it’s to the show’s credit that it avoids some of the obvious pitfalls. The craft is not glamorized or glorified, and the problems of making it in a highly competitive field are made very plain. If the series didn’t come from the pens of an already successful writer/artist team, one would almost see bitterness seeping out.

The show starts off with a fake opening based on the manga that Nobuhiro drew. If there's one thing any anime writer worth his salt can do, it's make fun of his own chosen work

Not that the show’s protagonist isn’t resentful: Moritaka Mashiro is a profoundly moody and pensive young teenager, although he does a good job of hiding it from others. He’s not an incredibly good student, and he knows as well as anyone else the unrelenting pressure of the Japanese educational system, which is increasingly stratified as one moves from junior high to senior high to university, and where the best jobs invariably go not to the creative or entrepreneurial but to those with the right credentials.

Moritaka isn’t a good enough student to get those credentials, so he’s hoping for a generic office job (tellingly known in Japan as “salaryman” positions) and just to get by. He’d like to do something with his artistic skills, which are considerable, but is too much of a pessimist to try. The same goes for asking out his crush Miho Azuki, who is pretty and a far better student; the two of them, in his view, might as well be on different planets.

Moritaka's mom might have his best interests at heart, but she's just another weight pressing down on him to fit into a preset mold

Akito Takagi is another gifted student, but he isn’t content to compete in the Japanese Rat Race either. He wants to become a writer, and figures manga is his best entry point. His problem is that he can’t draw, so he tries to recruit Moritaka to help him.

Moritaka isn’t all that interested, and lists all the reasons why manga writing isn’t less cutthroat or difficult than office work. Only popular series get serialized, he notes, and those that don’t stay popular get canceled quickly. Moritaka speaks from experience; his uncle Nobuhiro was a manga writer with a solitary, semi-successful series that was eventually canned, and who never managed to recreate even that modest success. He eventually died “from exhaustion,” but Moritaka suspects suicide.

Even while living, Nobuhiro didn't encourage Moritaka to pursue a career as a manga artist. That goes double now that he's dead

Takagi isn’t one to give up, and has figured out the subject of Moritaka’s crush. Knowing that the one thing that can get even the most recalcitrant teenager to move is the prospect of impressing a crush, he drags his soon-to-be-partner to Azuki’s house, where his own status as an honors student gets him past the mom. He reveals to Moritaka Azuki’s dream of becoming a voice actress, and then talks about his own desire to become a manga writer. Seeing Azuki’s positive reaction to this, Moritaka promptly joins the team.

I will admit that I didn’t quite know to expect from this show. The manga is itself done by a writer/artist team, whose previous collaboration was Death Note. I don’t have time to cover Death Note here (we really should do a review of that series at some point), but suffice to say it was neither a character-driven drama or particularly interested in humanity as whole, save for killing it off. Going from a tense drama/cat-and-mouse story about a master detective trying to pin down a supernaturally-empowered killer, to a coming-of-age story about two otherwise perfectly ordinary 14 year olds, is not exactly an obvious step.

In addition to Death Note, artist Takeshi Obata also worked on Hikaru no Go with another writer. Both works are international successes

Similar things can be said of the adaption. Death Note had the interesting challenge of making a guy writing down names on a page dramatic and exciting, and animation studio Madhouse responded with over-the-top flourishes and ominous Latin chanting to up the excitement. The production here, by J.C. Staff, is decidedly more low-key, and with two veteran directors leading the show, I have to believe that’s deliberate. We’ll see how that translates in the long term; for the moment it seems the series is willing to let the characters and story speak for itself. We’ll see if they can make the protagonists laboring over pages interesting.

There’s another potential problem in Azuki. One profound weakness of Death Note was with its characters, whom I tend to regard not so much as characters as archetypes at best and cardboard cutouts at worst. This was particularly bad with Death Note’s female characters, who mainly exist as things to be abused (and like it). Bakuman is light years advanced in this regard, but Azuki is still a cipher at this point. We know she wants to be a voice actress, and that she has a crush on Moritaka. The whys to either are yet to be explained.

Azuki might be a bit too much on the "wish fulfillment" side of the plot, but at least she and the rest of the female cast have comparatively normal character designs

What I don’t think can be explained is what happens next. Moritaka, in the enthusiasm of the moment, blurts out that if he writes a successful series that gets an anime version made, he’ll make sure she gets the lead. Further, they should get married if that happens. This is too much for Azuki, who runs back into the house, but she later tells him through the intercom that she accepts. She adds, though, that the two of them shouldn’t meet until then, and should only communicate through letters and texts.

Now, this happens coincidentally (or not) to mirror how Nobuhiro kept up with his ninth grade crush, so maybe Moritaka will get to succeed where his uncle could not in this field as well. It still seems to come completely out of left field, however, and I don’t see why a girl who has just discovered her crush is reciprocated would want to avoid all contact with the guy in question for years on end. I have the distinct feeling that there’s a  Because The Plot Said So rationale for it all.

I think Moritaka might have trouble with a long-distance relationship if this is how his fantasies turn out

So, obviously, there’s a lot of things about Bakuman that could go wrong. The romance, aside from whether it flops, could drag down the overall narrative; the plotline about making the manga could prove too boring to follow in anime form; Moritaka could go from reasonable angst to annoyingly overdone angst; the adaption could have trouble finding an end point for a still-running manga. As the moment, however, I’m willing to give this series a try.

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