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.)

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