Manga is a tough business, where success is measured in sales and the unforgiving rankings of fan polls. It has been the undoing of better artists than Shinji. However, he learns when artists are true to themselves, their art will be true to them in Masanao Kawajiri’s remarkable 20-minute animated short film A Japanese Boy Who Draws, which had its North American premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.
As a boy, Shinji was almost tragically average, but a mutual love of drawing led to a fast friendship with Maseru Abe. Although the particulars are never concretely established, Abe has some kind of developmental disability. Regardless, drawing sessions with him are great fun. Alas, as Shinji grows older and his sketching prowess improves, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable socializing with Abe.
Eventually, Shinji moves to Tokyo where he finds some initial recognition as a mangaka, but lasting success proves elusive. As the years pass, he gets by doing work-for-hire on tacky franchises, instead of his own stories. He hardly ever thought of Abe, but his old friend also continued drawing.
A Japanese Boy is a wonderfully inventive film, visually rendered in a way that constantly evolves to reflect Shinji’s artistic progression. It starts out resembling a child’s simplistic hand-paintings, segues into cheerfully chunky animation suitable for youngsters, and proceeds into increasingly sophisticated manga and anime styles, before reaching a stark black-and-white live action cinematography (set off by dramatic splashes of color).
Aesthetically, Kawajiri’s film is a joy to behold, but even more importantly, his story is deeply touching and somewhat surprisingly ironic. Yet, there are no forced happy endings or indulgences in saccharine sentimentality to detract or distract from the film’s many merits. Although the tone is somewhat different, A Japanese Boy would make a great companion short for the live action Bakuman.
This is just a great film. It ought to become a mainstay of the next round of Reel Abilities regional film festivals, but it might be too hip for their programmers. Regardless, it should make manga fans swoon. Very highly recommended, A Japanese Boy Who Draws had its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia.