Saturday, July 16, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: Bakuman

The teen Manga-creating manga characters Moritaka Mashiro and Akito Takagi are so popular, one of their fictional series has been novelized in real life (under their own pseudonym, of course). They are young, but the competitive atmosphere of Shonen Jump magazine will not cut them any breaks. In fact, it might be particularly hard on them when they develop an intense rivalry with another high school phenom. However, they have love and friendship on their side and that counts for a lot in Hitoshi One’s winning adaptation of Bakuman (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

If you know your manga, you will pick up on plenty of in-references in the live-action Bakuman. If not, you will still come to appreciate what it took for the original manga series (co-written by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the creators of Death Note) to thrive at Shonen Jump. For series to continue at the manga magazine, they must rank highly in the weekly readers’ survey, which falls somewhere between American Idol voters and The Hunger Games in its unforgiving brutality. Nobody understands this better than Mashiro. He saw how the system broke his beloved late uncle, who maintained a long-running Shonen Jump series.

Despite his uncle’s fate, Mashiro still has a deep love for manga. He also has talent. When aspiring manga writer Takagi notices his skills, he suggests they team up and go pro. Initially, Mashiro is reluctant, but when he discovers his class crush Miho Azuki has started pursuing a career as an anime voice-over artist, he fully commits to the manga dream. He and Azuki are both so awkward whenever they try to talk, the communication is decidedly strained, but she more-or-less offers to marry Mashiro when she finally lands a leading part in the anime adaptation of his manga series. This is motivation. So is beating the arrogant and freakishly anti-social Eiji Niizuma, Shonen Jump’s teen sensation currently ensconced at #2 in Shonen Jump’s internal standings.

Bakuman might just be the best film about comic and manga artist perhaps ever. It certainly lays a beat-down on Chasing Amy. There is comedy and there is romance, but the tone is sort of like The Great Passage reconceived for the manga world. Bakuman (in all its incarnations) is also often ruthlessly frank in its depiction of Shonen Jump’s inner editorial workings. It is a bit surprising the magazine allowed so much sausage-making to be exposed to public view, but it seems when you are riding high in the ratings, you can get away with anything.

Co-leads Takeru Satoh and Ryunosuke Kamiki have terrific geeky underdog chemistry together, transcending the obvious easy stereotypes. Nana Komatsu just seems to glide through the film on gossamer wings, sort of like the more innocent and endearing analog of her title character in The World of Kanako. Kenta Kiritani, Hirofumi Arai, Sarutoki Minagawa, and Takayuki Yamada nicely flesh out the film as the lads’ friendly manga colleagues and their editor, Akira Hattori. Shota Sometani is also weirdly effective as their squirrely nemesis, Niizuma. However, Lily Franky really supplies the film’s X-factor with his wonderfully subtle turn as Sasaki, the dreaded editor-in-chief.

Bakuman is an absolutely terrific film that avoids every anticipated rom-com cliché, yet still ends on a wildly crowd-pleasing note. It celebrates ambition and artistic integrity, while vividly portraying the potential costs of both. Most importantly, it has a big heart and a fanboy’s enthusiasm. Very highly recommended, Bakuman screens tomorrow (7/17) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts 2016.