Bakuman vol. 1 – Tsugumi Ohba

3 out of 5

I loved Death Note. I loved the anime; I loved the manga. They’re not without some issues – the latter, allowing more room for indulgence, moreso – and there’s definitely a try-hard barrier to entry to the story, but once you get onto the wavelength in which everything in the tale is intentionally over-the-top, it becomes easier to believe / accept some of those issues are purposeful offshoots of that.

Because I’m way late to the game, as I was finishing Death Note, I was able to start Platinum End, by the same team. There are some immediate comparisons to be made between the two, but the latter has enough of a twist on the former to still be of interest, and the setup seemingly allowed more room for having actual characters, and not maudlin heroes and villains. Unfortunately, given that room, writer Tsugumi Ohba and artist Takeshi Obata seemed to give in to an awful lot of fan service, and not in a way that felt as excusable as part of the story as it could have been in Death Note, and… the characters were fairly crappy. Simple-minded. Sexist. Every now and then, an element would come to the fore that gave me some hope that this was possibly purposeful again – where DN was about extremes, Platinum End’s focus on “normal” kids foisted in to some similar extremes was maybe being used to explore the effect this might have on their black-and-white mindsets.

I was hoping Bakuman might throw some light on the matter, showing the connective tissue between the two titles and helping to “clarify:” can Obha write? Is he sexist?

Ohba can write – Bakuman is pretty exciting, despite its non-fantastic premise vs. the fantasy of the other two mentioned titles – but… he’s also probably majorly sexist, and it made it incredibly difficult to take Bakuman seriously. I suppose I could brush some of this off as cultural – gender norms in Japanese society – and there are, as in Platinum, some moments that suggest there might be some commentary on teens’ mentalities wended in here, but it’s not quite open-ended enough to support that, and using societal norms as an excuse draws into question why there are plenty of manga that don’t detail to the reader how women are more likeable if they pretend to not be smart; or how it’s “cute” for a boy to start dictating in his mind what he wants his crush to look like when they’re married.

Bakuman is about two middle schoolers – soon to be high schoolers – pledging to become professional manga artists by the time they’re 18. It’s partly a passion for the material, but for artist Moritaka Mashiro, it’s also to fulfill a pledge he makes to his aforementioned crush: he’ll publish, she’ll become the voice actress for the anime, and then they’ll be married. The “I’m doing this for a girl” motivation is fine; that’s an acceptable trope, and when Ohba’s writing the teenaged I-like-you-do-you-like-me bits, it is cute. And when aspiring writer Akito Takagi is amping Moritaka up to work with him, and the two start doing the research and work to put together their first pitch to Jump magazine, Bakuman is gripping, fun stuff. The references to the two reading Death Note are a bit winky, but it also sort of lays clear that we’re getting bald-faced opinions and representations of what it takes to work on manga, and the “behind the scenes” nature of that, plus our lead duo’s eagerness, is a great read. It’s also awesome to see Obata working in a more cartoonish fashion than his detailed work on his other Ohba projects – he definitely handles both styles well, but having more room for expressiveness in this title looks wonderful, as rendered via his skills.

But about a third of this weighed down by the other bullshit – by reinforcing inherent sexism, and tossing off crap lines about what mothers should be, and how girls should act, and what makes manly men, and etcetera. It’s not a good look, and it very much spoils what’s otherwise a good time.

Because I was such a fan of Death Note, I went all in on Bakuman – I have the whole set to read, and I will. In a way, I’m thankful, because it’s already settled my internal debate on the troubling themes in Ohba’s work, though I do remain hopeful that some future volumes of Bakuman won’t hit so many hard stops where I shake my head in disbelief at what the writer has written.