4 out of 5
There’s a moment in volume 13 of Bakuman when, in the midst of something resembling an argument between Kaya and Takagi, Mashiro turns to the former, asks her opinion without any prior couching or coaching, and… respects it. Thinks on what she says, acknowledges what she’s said, and responds in kind. It suddenly feels like the moments of indirect and direct sexism that’ve popped up throughout Bakuman have been “worth” it, for this one moment of equality.
Of course, that sucks. That sucks that that might encapsulate the ridiculous give and take that might exist on a larger, ongoing scale for women (or any race or gender that has to deal with such encoded imbalances), in which one little dribble of goodness is so rewarding that it may make us forget what came before… (And here I sigh, because I start the next sentence with “but”) But, whether it’s Ohba trying to address his own writerly shortcomings, or actually trying to address the series’ problems, or trying to show character growth by making this another maturing of his casts’ collective awareness, it was still a great moment. It could’ve been a great more-than-that if he didn’t just move the fuck past it and not address it again thereafter – Takagi doesn’t apologize for ridiculous behavior that he could’ve very easily informed his wife about, and instead, when he explains his motivations, it’s all hunky dory.
To Ohba’s (sigh again) credit, if you aren’t tracking his own awareness flubs, and just accept all of this at face value, this stuff makes “sense” within the context of everyone’s behaviors, and when Takagi comes clean and Kaya and Miho are full-on in support of Muto Ashirogi’s progress – which takes a positive bump due to this event – it’s admittedly heart-warming, seeing everyone come together as a team. This is still part of the evolution in maturity we’ve seen, and I’m admittedly making a mountain out of the above because I’ve been focusing on these elements. Though I would say it somewhat resolves that this isn’t all subversive commentary – it’s populist entertainment with broadly defined characters. And it’s really good at doing that. “Broadly” seems dismissive of the growth I’ve mentioned – which definitely exists – but I more mean it in the sense that Takagi and Mashiro are generalized “good” dudes, just as Kaya and Miho are generalized “nice” girls. And then within those generalizations, Ohba has worked to flesh them out very effectively as we’ve gone on; they are growing up, albeit within those generalized confines.
This is a lot of backhanded compliment and fronthanded criticism for a volume that I felt was really successful overall, tracking another milestone in the Muto Ashirogi relationship: learning to grow as individuals, and understanding that that strengthens the partnership. That is also paralleled in each of the romantic relationships, which is what I think Ohba was getting at with the whole Kaya thing. If we suck out any deeper character study, it works. And if we focus on the creative side of things, it admittedly really works – Mashiro pushes himself to get to Eiji’s levels of being able to work on his own series, and two series at once; Takagi pushes himself to make the series he’s working on with Shiratori as good as it can be on its own terms, throwing himself into its relative realism vs. PCP’s more fantastic premise. Meanwhile, a special of one-shots at Jump is determined to focus on romance, leading to all of our featured mangaka’s and manga partnerships offering up their own takes on the genre, which unsettles the balance of talents we’ve heretofore seen. Also: Hiramaru’s character arc uses his outlandishness to good effect, fleshing out his interaction with Aoki beyond a joke.
All of this is really strong, and really entertaining, with the caveat (sigh again, again) that you ignore some subtext.