Bakuman is one of the few weekly shonen series that’s devoid of intense, bloody battles and characters with fantastical super powers. Rather, Bakuman tackles the shonen theme of plucky young boys trying to achieve their goals in a more realistic setting. Instead of wanting to become hokage or “King of the Pirates,” our heroes simply want to become manga-ka…
Like their previous work, Death Note, the manga-ka duo of Takeshi Obata and Tsugumi Ohba also set Bakuman in real world Japan, starring characters that don’t engage in out-of-this world battles with nasty villains on a daily basis. But that’s where the similarities between the two end. While Death Note is extremely dark and virtually devoid of humor, revolves around mysteries, and has a surprisingly immoral protagonist, Bakuman is light, frequently funny, and revolves around the realistic aspirations of its cast of “normal,” likable characters.
Bakuman’s basic premise is about two high school boys, Moritaka Mashiro and Akito Takagi, who decide to team up and realize their dream of becoming manga-ka and being serialized in Shonen Jack (obviously based on Shonen Jump in which Bakuman is serialized). Such a story might sound boring if not for the way Bakuman utilizes it. Since it’s about the boys creating manga, we get to see a lot of the interesting inner workings of the shonen manga industry, mostly through their editor, Hattori, and various other Shonen Jack staff. I’m sure at least some of what we learn about Shonen Jack operations in Bakuman holds true for the real Shonen Jump.
In addition to this fascinating insider’s look at how manga is serialized, Bakuman also has a lot of suspense. It’s not the “life and death” suspense we see in most shonen series, Death Note included, but more real life suspense such as “will their latest manga idea be accepted?” or “will they win the Golden Future Cup?” There are many episodes in the series where the boys submit a name or chapter of a manga and wait in utter suspense for Hattori to tell them the outcome. These scenes were done very well as I felt like I was right there with them in that atmosphere of excitement and apprehension.
Which brings us to another thing that Bakuman has going for it – a cast of fun characters. For most shonen series, even if you’re not that attached to the characters, you could still enjoy the show for all the cool fights and powers. But Bakuman’s appeal comes pretty strictly from whether you care about the goals of the protagonists and whether they’ll succeed or not. I really couldn’t find anything unlikable about Moritaka and Akito. They’re both determined, well-mannered guys who have distinct personalities despite the fact that there’s only one significant instance of friction between them. And even when they did have this falling out, they didn’t show immaturity or hostility, unlike many other shonen characters I’ve seen in similar situations. Moritaka is more cautious and serious while Akito is more laid-back and outgoing, but they both have that fiery shonen spirit of never giving up, which they put into manga instead of beating bad guys.
Bakuman’s two main female characters – Miho, Moritaka’s girlfriend whom he vows to marry after becoming a true manga-ka while she makes it her goal to become a seiyuu and do a voice for the anime version of his manga, and Kaya, Miho’s best friend and Akito’s eventual girlfriend who later starts acting as assistant to the boys while they work. Like with Death Note, I’ve heard complaints about Bakuman being sexist. While I can understand this sentiment with Death Note, I can’t see it in Bakuman – even though Miho comes off as shy and submissive, she’s obviously intelligent and determined in her goal of becoming a seiyuu and keeping her mutual vow with Moritaka despite not seeing him. And Kaya is very outspoken and helps everyone because she wants to and not because she’s told to. Just because the girls don’t have extremely active roles in the story doesn’t make it sexist.
As the episodes go by, more characters are introduced, particularly rival manga-ka for our heroes, starting with the bizarre genius Eiji Nizuma (Bakuman’s version of Death Note’s L). Later on we’re introduced to Fukuda, who makes very shonen-ish manga, Nakai, an older aspiring manga-ka who keeps trying despite failures, and Aoki, a snobby female manga-ka whom Nakai is head over heels for. I enjoyed seeing all their contrasting personalities and manga styles reflect each other. The Shonen Jack staff aren’t all that developed, at least not yet. The one we see the most of, Hattori, is pretty bland but at least there’s nothing bad about him.
I’ve heard complaints that the anime version of Bakuman dragged on at many points and grew boring after a strong start. I personally didn’t get this feeling at all. I felt the pacing was fine and that the series kept getting better and better. There are a lot of dialogue-heavy parts, but that’s due to the nature of the story. J.C. Staff did well with the pacing of this still ongoing series, and from what I’ve heard, didn’t change anything major from the original manga. They didn’t provide stellar animation for Bakuman, but it’s good enough, and for a series that doesn’t have action or breathtaking visuals, it’s not necessary. For an opening, Bakuman has a gentle, pretty song called “Blue Bird,” quite contrasting to the fast-paced shonen openings I’m used to. The first ending is a catchy little song, while the second didn’t catch my fancy.
In conclusions, don’t let the relationship to Death Note or the Shonen Jump label give you preconceptions about Bakuman. It’s a unique shonen series, or even a unique anime in general. It’s never dark or violent, and fluctuates between being light, touching, suspenseful, interesting and fun, while continually advancing its endearing plot. I look forward to seeing what lies ahead for our manga-ka in season 2!