Saturday, September 6, 2014

Review: Bakuman volumes 14-15

In volume 14 Bakuman. has blundered further into what always has been nefarious territory for the underdog shounen sports ilk: what happens if the protagonist in the question is no longer an underdog? Bakuman. has so far handled the duo's rivals well, with the right touches of comic and human, making them the actual interesting characters in the series, more so than Takagi and Mashiro. But then it decides to introduce a true villain, new mangaka Nanamine who has a strange creative process. He culls opinions from the Internet to determine the plot of his manga, a "dark," barely suitable for Jump, fearsome project.

The problems this little twist reveals of Bakuman. are myriads. First of all, Bakuman. has never been halfway decent with its manga within the manga, and has largely avoided showing this fault by offering very quick peeks. The problem is that the some-fifteen pages provided for Nanamine's new manga are painfully mediocre: there's clumsy exposition and rushed pacing and exaggerated expressions almost right out of 80s shoujo manga. (There is also the matter of conflating attractiveness with moral integrity, but perhaps that's only par for the course.) These pages supposedly demonstrate Nanamine's talents and intelligence--his only saving grace from the egomaniac he proves to be in later chapters--but if this is Bakuman.'s showing not telling, I'd rather it just tells.

The second problem this development makes devastatingly clear is that Bakuman. has said very little of value about manga and about writing, despite being a manga about manga. It has paid lip service to perseverance and creativity, to be sure, but it falters in harrier conversations like the validity of writing by committee and really, I mean really, challenging the publishers. If I have it right, in fact, the major conflict has been the mangaka wanting to work themselves to death and the editors not enabling that behavior. Anyway, both Ashirogi and the writing team of Bakuman. itself are two-person collaborations, plus some odd assistants, but what of constructing the plot by consulting with 50 different egos with a shaky driver seat? The project falls apart. Bakuman. makes it clear that the collaboration has been able to yield positive results, but is the idea inherently self-destructive, or is it Nanamine's own failing? It seems curious that by-committee creative process comes into so much scrutiny considering doujinshi's long tradition of writing circles and Bakuman.'s good track record with mangaka's contribution to each other's work.

Third problem: Bakuman's touch and go character work. On the one hand Bakuman. has a number of amusing sidekicks and rivals, on the other, there's the milquetoast protagonists and the blatant archetypes. It's clear, you know, that Mashiro and Takagi are supposed to be the readers' ciphers--they're in high school, they're mild-mannered boys, bam, half the demographic of Shounen Jump. The trade-off is perennial: There has to be absolutely nothing spectacular about them for it to be an effective cipher, ergo, no character work.

But, you may interject, there's that confession Mashiro made to Azuki in the first chapter. Wasn't that adorable? Wasn't that sweet what absolute romantics they are? Actually, it was something I hoped Bakuman. would grow out of. Think about it, the relationship that would be at the heart of the story has no foundation, no reason, and no chemistry--and that's supposed to be Mashiro's motivation! The only thing audacious about that first chapter is how lazy the writing is.

But, you may protest, Mashiro and Takagi are totally not cardboard stand-ins like those ecchi guys. Oh yeah? They are high school boys who want to write a manga instead of getting laid. Can't draw? You're the Takagi? Can't write? You're the Mashiro. Takagi and Mashiro are stripped of specifics to the point of having no personality. Consider this: can you name anything they do, not things that happen to them, what they do, that showcase their personality? IN FACT, how does any of their backstory affect their creative decisions? All of their output is what high school boys think would be dark and edgy to write about.

Dark-and-edgy in quotation marks is all the Ashirogi brand ever was. The manga inside the manga are premises, not real stories. Their first ever project was about how you can sell your mind for money: ooh, corruption, dark! Ooh, dystopia! Can you actually tell me what's interesting about the moral quandaries we're presented with here? Can you even identify those moral quandaries? Their magnum opus was about a disaffected but observant boy?!?!?! What the fuck how--how can you possibly cater more to your demographics? And to bring it back to these volumes, Nanamine's new manga is a Battle Royale-inspired fantasy where an omnipresent force kills schoolchildren who lie? The people who lie just happen to be the bullies and the hypocritical jerks? And the "extreme and interesting" ideas about a boy not wanting to die a virgin so he forces a girl into the bathroom? They're just textbook definition of dark-and-edgy tryhard. "Morally ambiguous, psychological battle manga"? "Lays bare man's ugliness"? Blergh, it's a contrived situation, stupid. Even Takagi said it, there's little to none character work, and honestly, if you want to say something grand about human nature, you have to begin with something specific. Specific characters, with specific circumstances. Ashirogi gave the manga a 3 out of five for "Originality and Characterization," and 5 for story. The problem is that those are not separate categories, and if they are, characterization should be all that matters.

Sigh. Ashirogi didn't identify the real reason why Classroom is unpublishable in the end. It's not that the main character dies, it's that students have been dropping like flies since the first pages without any meditation on the story's part on their death. It's that reading it, I feel dirty, because what are readers but the omnipresent voice delivering death sentences from a box from high above? Bakuman. tries to make the story intellectual but behind it, there's an obvious and heinous sadistic glee that is the furthest thing from an earnest investigation into human nature.

Why was it sadistic? Many manga and shows I like kill characters all the time. The difference is they make us care about the characters first. In Nanamine's manga the teacher who dies first wants to kill his student so that he is the last one standing. The class president who dies shortly after is pathetic and manipulative and looks like a frog. Their deaths are meaningless in a way that deaths shouldn't be. It's gauche. It's clumsy. It borders on sociopathic. It's also creatively bankrupt.

Look, if you want a truly non-mainstream, anti-Jump manga, you write about loneliness and depression, not this. If you want to make a statement about human nature, you write a really human character in the freaking first place. Characterization is the cornerstone of writing and it's only from the specific and the intimate that you can say something universal, you goddamn asshole. Like, the fact that these new writers become younger and younger, starting out at 15 and 16 and shit, it's not inspiring or reassuring. It just means that they're more likely to be clueless manchildren with no empathy. Bakuman. certainly is portraying one such asshole, why doesn't it see sheer immaturity and lack of life experience and consequently anything meaningful to say as part of the issue?

Time stamp: I wrote a huge part of this post back in--I don't know, back when Bakuman. hasn't ended its run yet. I've since finished reading the manga and Jesus fucking Christ, all the the back half is mired in this unfortunate bullshit about writing the best manga in the world, OMG. That's not the poi--you can't even do it like that--I can't even--you gauge it by volume sales WTF THAT'S NOT HOW YOU DO IT. Okay it's true that many of the best manga were also the most popular in their time, like Touch, or Fullmetal Alchemist, but keep in mind that One Piece outsells both of them combined and that Detective Conan is on its last, practically nonexistent creative leg. But this is not a conversation you're even having, so, yeah.

And I should have known, honestly, because in the Ashirogi versus Nizuma Eiji competition what other metrics were they going to use? I had hoped they would come into a realization in the course of it, but you know, sigh. This is really the fundamental problem of running a manga about manga writing on Shounen Jump, because even as Bakuman. attempts to challenge what was okay for the magazine to print, it can't help but chronicle a traditional shounen rivalry in the middle of itself--a rivalry that is not at all fit for its subject matter, and Bakuman.,obviously out of its depth, finally resorts to traditional tropes to handle the non-traditional rivalry. Which is a fucking terrible idea. Instead of confidently making a statement about writing, Bakuman. betrays an insecurity about its own identity: What does it mean that I am published on Shounen Jump? Am I dark and edgy enough? Important enough? How on Earth do I judge that? Does my having zero life experience impede my ability to write a meaningful relationship?

(Okay that last one was--whatever.)

Anime break: From the New World

Watching From the New World is a bit like watching my twelve-year-old cousin argue: He’s talking about completely inane things gathered haphazardly from the stuff he’s seen on TV, neither he nor I have any idea where this is all going, and he expects to be taken seriously.

Frankly, it’s not interesting to talk about From the New World at all, in my opinion, but the anime is Exhibit A of Why You Need to Do Your Work. A.k.a., execution is everything. That is to say, all the cool, dramatic moments that the twelve-year-old remembers from the TV show and tries to imitate? They all need build-up. If you want to have a tournament in episode two, for example, you need to have already built it up to death all the way from episode negative three, which is why you can’t have a tournament in episode two unless you are set in 300 B.C.E Rome, at which point your show is called Spartacus. Anyway, the lame tournament in episode two of From the New World makes this mistake. It has zero build-up, zero stakes, all the while our main characters are absolutely, unironically dead serious about the outcome. If I knew why I had to care about this maybe I would have overlooked the requisite, utterly blah strategies and cheating in the matches but as it stands, I am going to talk about the requisite, utterly blah strategies and cheating in the matches, and how it’s emblematic of why this anime fails and of my pet peeve with fiction in general.

The problem is this: the second episode of From the New World doesn’t see all the build-up that ordinarily goes into fight sequences, it only knows to imitate the major scenes and the plot twists. In the episode, the main characters run around yelling and battling, discover that another team is cheating, and ultimately they emerge triumphant by exploiting a loophole in the rules because they’re just so smart. These are all staple beats of shounen manga tournaments. So what’s different?

First of all, if you want strategy, go back and rewatch that Kakashi versus Team 7 fight in the first couple of episodes in Naruto. This may surprise you, but shounen manga and anime are really shockingly good at writing effective fight sequences and strategy—so good, that it seems deceptively effortless. On paper it seems Naruto isn't doing anything drastically different from From the New WorldNaruto inhabits a world where ninjutsus and chakras are real, and in From the New World, people command telekinesis. Both anime are fantastical, but Naruto succeeds where From the New World doesn’t because From the New World does not establish itself as fundamentally a fighting show, rather, it is a dystopian mystery. The tournament in the second episode is tonally fucking weird in the first place. Also, the goal and the rules of Naruto’s fights are not merely clearly defined, they’re intuitive. There’s no cognitive overhead in order to understand them. From the New World has characters control attackers and defenders in order to roll a large ball into a large hole, over an earthy, grassy terrain, which can’t be tampered with, and one of the attackers can’t be attacked…which, you’ve already lost me. It’s not that the rules are incomprehensible, it’s that they’re too specific and there’s no time for viewers to get used to them, to feel out the confines and the intricacies of them, to make it earned when the main characters figure out how to sidestep the letters of the rules.

It makes the main characters’ strategic victory very silly. They solve a problem, sure, but it is a problem for which viewers are given no parameters and no context. The characters were never in a bind because the viewers did not know what bound them, what they had to work with within those bounds. I’ll say this right now, the strategy that they come up with is unspeakably dumb, made ever sillier by the dramatic music and the extreme close-ups of the characters’ faces that we don’t see the top half of. All of which, by the way, are played completely straight. Why so serious? Actually, we are not privy to that information. We actually have no idea what the stakes of the tournament are. Every emotional beat in this episode is false, unearned, and the five minutes of strategy in it is profoundly stupid. If you want a good laugh, in fact, just watch the first two episodes of this show and prepare for your jaw to be consistently slack, gaped in What-the-Shit-Is-This amazement.

Spoiler, it doesn’t get better. There’s an info dump delivered in the next few episode via a library that can talk. Let me reiterate. A library that can talk. We’re treated to a ten-minute segment of the history of how the telekinesis gene has destroyed the world, during which our main characters violently scream about how they can’t take it anymore. Look, if you spend the entirety of your running time on the uneasiness Saki has about her world, then you don’t fucking make her hysterical when her doubts are confirmed, okay? But you got to do what you got to do, right? I mean, the characters are only obviously meant to be our cardboard stand-in.

By this point, From the New World has demonstrated itself utterly incapable of nuanced storytelling, which sadly is what it fucking needs if it wants to take on the subject matter. There are pseudo-slaved creatures in this show’s universe, called queerats, and the show has them be barbaric, dumb, conniving, and then ultimately redeemed by being self-sacrificial? Are you fucking kidding me? There’s, by the way, another prolonged and painful stab at strategy in the five to seven stretch of episodes, which I chose not to write about because I checked out in the middle of it and I would kill myself if I had to watch it again.
Something happens in episode eight though, which actually requires some backstory.

You see, the only reason I had been able to make it to episode eight was because I was promised some hot boy on boy action, which apparently made some fanboys go bonkers and makes me go “Yes, please.” I waited, and I waited, and I was skeptical because there’s been zero romantic tension and/or chemistry between any of the boys so far but then again, the same is true with all of the characters, so I waited some more, until episode eight.

In episode eight, Satoru, the hot-headed boy, gets together with Shu, the shy one, and Saki, our main character herself, gets with Maria. It all is framed though, as a phase. There’s been no tension because they were always meant to break up. At least that’s how I read it. Shu is actually in love with Saki, who is in “unrequited” love with Shu while stringing Maria on, and in the end all the pairings are heterosexual.
At this point I rage-quit.

It’s frustrating, with a show like this one. It thinks it’s so clever, so it doesn’t explain the universe and some parts of the show is very confusing, but we already know that the show is dumb because it takes pains to drive home some spectacularly vapid reasoning that only a twelve-year-old would have deemed clever. We know better than to watch it and expect anything, but as with all twelve-year-olds, the show has some seeds of some worthwhile ideas, approximated from what it has seen its betters accomplish, but this is pale imitation formed from flash and bang, not stemmed from any true understanding. I know what the show is going for, but what the show actually does is not remotely how to go about doing it. And seriously, I don’t trust a twelve-year-old with complex genetic modification politics.

P.S. There's some unbelievably, comically bad animation in episode 5 or 6, stuck between a good color pallette and an amazing ending sequence so, yeah, mood whiplash seems to be this show's default mode.