Besides sequels, the thing i have a complicated love-hate relationship with is live-action adaptations. Because the chance of them falling short is high. However, more often than not, i’m more willing to watch the drama/film version than reading the source material. But then, i’d grumble when i couldn’t grasp what’s going on as a lot of details tend to be skipped. It’s obviously not easy to translate hundreds~thousands of pages into a two-hour feature that not only captures/preserves the essence/feels but also makes sense. Sometimes i think the screenwriters forget that not all movie goers are avid fans of the novels/comics…
Not Bakuman, fortunately.
I was checking it out for the cast — i was intrigued to see Himura Kenshin and Seta Soujiro as BFF, haha — and not the story. I came in with practically no expectation and thus was pleasantly surprised by how good, engaging, and enjoyable it is even with zero knowledge of the manga. It’s easily one of, if not THE, best film adaptation(s) i’ve ever seen, which may seem unfounded given my unfamiliarity with the original series. So, don’t trust me. Watch and decide it for yourself.
Bakuman follows the journey of two highschoolers venturing into the world of professional manga making. Takagi Akito aka Shujin (Kamiki Ryunosuke) is a passionate aspiring mangaka with tons of ideas yet terrible at drawing. Mashiro Moritaka aka Saiko (Sato Takeru) is a curt self-taught artist with a knack of sketching. Spotting the sketches, Shujin suggests that they team up as a writing duo: one comes up with the story, the other draws. Saiko flatly refuses — it’s an unlucrative profession with bleak future — until the subject of his drawings, Azuki Miho (Komatsu Nana) pops up. Shujin mentions her dream to be a seiyuu (voice talent) and proposes a future collaboration plan where she would be the heroine’s voice of the anime based on their piece.
That sounds okay, until Saiko adds another clause to the deal: she’ll marry him when that happens. Heh. Absurdity aside, at least that promise gets him going and quickly sets his target high: Weekly Shonen JUMP. In case the audience isn’t familiar with its popularity or influence, the movie chronicles the half-century history in the opening minutes. It may be overwhelming but you’ll get the gist. Then, we’re briefed on the almost step-by-step process of manga creation and workings, from preparing names (draft storyboard) to approaching potential editors/publishers to the newsroom meeting to decide which manuscripts to publish and which series to be cut.
It’s a long and arduous process, yet everything is expedited here. As first-timers, it takes the pair merely two months to get the hang of creating manga (figuring out the tools to use, page layout and elements, division of labor, etc) and finish the samples. It also takes one phone call to arrange a meeting with a JUMP’s editor, Hattori (Yamada Takayuki), a couple of revisions for their one-shot to qualify for and get recognized at the Tezuka Award, and one rejection before their work is deemed suitable for serialization.
Having their brainchild published is only the beginning of the real fight. Because, then, all of their hard work can go down the drain if the readers do not like it. That’s the period when the series’ longevity is determined by readers’ weekly survey and where their daily life revolves around drawing, drawing, and drawing to meet the weekly deadlines and stay on the Top 10 ranking. Juggling school and writing manga proves to be too hard for them to handle, as they barely have time to sleep (and bathe too, i guess).
As if those things aren’t exhausting enough, they add one more pressure to the pile: competing with fellow highschooler mangaka to reach the top spot. They may pick the wrong opponent because Niizuma Eiji (Sometani Shota) is dubbed a tensai (genius) who’s begun drawing at the age of 6, has strong style, whose piece never falls from the Top 3, and is able to churn out pages after pages easily.
Constant pressure and rivalry finally take the toll on Saiko who collapses at the height of the battle. It’s a horrifying sight, the more since it parallels his uncle’s tragedy. Eight years ago, Kawaguchi Taro dropped dead either due to overworking or shock from hearing that his Bakuman serial got cut. Editor in Chief calls for series’ hiatus until their graduation, but Saiko is determined to not lose to JUMP, the same way his uncle did, despite his debilitating health.
At many points, Bakuman feels like a crash course of Manga 101. However, i think it only scratches the surface. While it gives us essential behind the scenes, the focus is heavily on novice artists that other parties involved in creating and publishing manga aren’t covered. Editors, for instance, seem to have limited role and become rather insignificant once the manuscript is approved by Editor in Chief.
It also gives us a bitter taste/peek into the industry: the fierce competition, crazy workload, tight deadline, insecure job with nearly zero work/life balance. Shujin/Saiko covered in ink smudges looked cool at first, showcasing their enthusiasm and dedication, but in the latter half became a testament to the hellish working conditions. The workload was overwhelming since they drew everything themselves. They couldn’t afford to sympathize with their comrade who was cut off either, as they needed to carry on for the survival of their own series. It doesn’t look pretty, yet i could see the attraction. In fact, i was happy that repeated failures didn’t demoralize them, or make them go after a different dream.
What i disliked was the change of motivation from drawing to realize the duo’s respective end goals to drawing to one-up Niizuma. While i understand the need to stay on the top ranking, writing good stories and engaging the readers appear to come second to defeating Niizuma. It’s hardly a neck-and-neck match, yet the sequence wherein the three fought with literal pens and splashing inks made for a fascinating visual. Manga drawing scenes in this live-action are invariably fun to watch as they’re animated with special effects.
The other part that Bakuman would’ve been better without is the love line. Even as an obvious plot device, Azuki was superfluous and i couldn’t care less about her character. Every time she appeared on screen, i was itching for the fast-forward button. Ugh, this kind of overly sweet and girly female character rubs me the wrong way, and the blank and bland acting only made it worse. If anything, i still don’t get whether she meant what she said to Saiko at the hospital or she merely repeated what the heroine said in the comic. If it’s the former, i couldn’t be happier to note that he continued drawing even without a girl or rival in mind.
Komatsu Nana’s poor performance was regrettable given how good the other actors were. I was expecting Sato Takeru to be the standout, yet i daresay Kamiki Ryunosuke was the star of the movie. He sold Shujin’s otaku-ness convincingly without going overboard. On the other hand, there were moments where Sato’s acting was too cartoonish — he nailed the emotional beats perfectly, though.
At nearly two hours long, Bakuman does feel long. I wish the dramatic arc were shorter and the romantic angle moved faster. But i was thoroughly immersed in its world that i’m considering to read the original to know more about it — though chances are, i may never get around to. That says a lot about it being a solid adaptation. After all, what’s captured here was only a short phase of Shujin/Saiko’s lives as aspiring mangakas; they got their big break but their story doesn’t end here. There’s a long way to go till their brainchild becomes a big hit and adapted into an anime. I may not see it transpiring on screen, but i’m sure they will.
I’m definitely recommending it for anyone who has even the slightest interest in comic books. It’s easy to follow, pretty comical at first, and turns serious for the most part. Comic culture in Japan is serious business. While i can’t guarantee that it’ll surely be right up your alley, i’m positive you’ll be charmed =)
Ah, i later found out that Bakuman was created by the author and illustrator duo who were behind Death Note. Well, that explains why Niizuma gave off a strong L vibe — genius, hunched back, quirky demeanor, baggy long sleeve shirt — only he wore it in black… 😏
Director: Ohne Hitoshi
Production: Toho, 2015
Cast: Sato Takeru, Kamiki Ryunosuke, Komatsu Nana, Sometani Shota, Yamada Takayuki, Kiritani Kenta, Arai Hirofumi, Minagawa Sarutoki, Kudo Kankuro, Franky Lily
Genre: J-movie, Drama Comedy, Slice of Life