I was living in Japan during the height of the Death Note boom. My students would come in imitating L in their seats during class and would pull out their copies of the manga in the lobby as they were waiting for class to start. A bilingual student and I often talked about manga, anime, and light novels in class because I openly talked about how I liked them to get my students to talk to me. One of the best decisions I ever made because the students didn't feel embarrassed telling me their favorite series and characters. Since most of their favorites were mainstream hits like Naruto, One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Bleach it was easy for me to jump, pun unintended, into a conversation with them. So when I confessed to never having read Death Note I got gasps and numerous remarks about how I HAD to read it. Needless to say I did, and that was where I was introduced to the glory that is the Obata-Oba mangaka duo.
It is always the sophomore effort that gets the most scrutiny from fans and critics. People can pull out an amazing work and get lucky with the popularity, but it actually takes skill to pull out that same popularity with a different idea and setting without failing to the hype and the inevitable comparison. Bakuman is a one series wonderland. I'm not sure how else to describe how amazingly wonderful and enjoyable this manga is. Not only was it a genius move by the veteran manga duo of Obata and Oba, it celebrates everything that fans enjoy about manga. This manga is compelling, funny, relatable, and with a large cast of entertaining and wonderful characters. A plot filled with suspense, comedy, tension, intrigue, and romance brings all of those characters and that world to life in a way that I have yet to see in a Weekly Jump manga series.
Last year, I read the book Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society by Sharon Kinsella for a paper where she spent 6 month interviewing editors and researching the history of manga. Written in the 90s, the book was very helpful in looking at the aspects of how manga has been used as a political tool and how manga has been used to look into such topics as business, history, and economics. It is very well written and it has nothing to do with pornography or the X rated manga like the title implies. If only the world she had described had been similar to the world of Shueisha in Bakuman the book would have been much more entertaining, but the factual picture that the book delivers would be interesting to any manga reader or scholar.
What I got out of the Kinsella book was a strong image or how cut-throat the manga industry can be and is. She described the "hot boxing" method publishers and editors use when trying to keep their mangaka on a deadline; which we can see in Bakuman though it is never actually called that. While there is an unspoken but understood glossing of certain details in the manga, I felt that they both painted a rather similar picture of Japanese manga publishing.
We have to admit that Bakuman was a success not only because it was a good manga about manga, but it was a successful slice-of-life manga as well. For me, it is really hard to create a successful slice-of-life manga without the life being something that readers would find appealing and yet really know nothing about. For example, Beck is not only a great manga about music, it is also a slice-of-life view of all those musicians who are trying to make it big or just trying to express themselves through their music. We as manga fans are very interested in how the people making manga live, but fans, especially foreign ones, wouldn't have the slightest idea of what that life could possibly be like. This allows us to suspend disbelief and fall into a turn it into a kind of fantasy world that allows us to just accept the world we are reading ourselves into instead of getting annoyed at any inconsistencies between what is actually believable and what isn't.
As I was reading I tried to think about how many shōnen slice-of-life manga I had read and enjoyed when I honestly couldn't think of any. They are usually bundled together with sports and turn into complete sports manga by the end of it. Yet Bakuman, while being primarily about the manga world, really connects to the audience to how these mangaka live their daily lives and how the slowly create their own worlds within the modern Japanese society that they live it. The scene that showcases this perfectly is when Saiko heads to his class reunion and is surrounded by his classmates who are throwing questions at him one after the other and then leave him when it becomes apparent that his life really isn't as glamorous as they think it is. Saiko feels isolated and then realizes how he and Shujin live in a completely separate world from their classmates.
Having the reader truly be walking around with these characters not only gave them a better understanding of those characters, but it also gives readers a much better understanding of the ins and outs and the manga publishing world. We as readers and fans have a very unrealistic idea of how people in the public eye live their lives. Like in the scene I described above, Japanese readers all think that successful mangaka live a glamorous lifestyle and don't understand the amount of time, effort, and stress that comes with being in publishing. I've heard that publishing parties in New York are similar. You're as good as your last book and if it flopped, than your time is over. Failure is unforgivable and not tolerated. Saiko's uncle and the later older mangaka are the representations of this fact and I appreciated that realism as a reader.
That was the real selling point for this manga for me. The realism that I was shown through the plot and the characters made it much easier for me to really believe that this story could be real. It can be rare for a shōnen to showcase any kind of realism in their manga because the audience they are targeting just doesn't require it in their entertainment. As an adult reader who enjoys shōnen manga, I have tried very hard to accept this fact of the genre I like, but sometimes it's hard. Sometimes it's just too much for me to suspend my disbelief or I find myself very over young peoples problems; which is probably the reason why I don't find many shojō manga that I like.
Realism and characters are how this manga distinguishes itself from other Weekly Jump manga. Lets be honest, Niizuma Eiji is by far the best character in this manga and might be one of the best Jump characters ever created. He is himself through the whole series and is unembarrassed about how involved his brain is in manga, a walking intercontextual bowl of wonderful sayings that automatically connects the reader to not only him as a character, but to the manga world ingeneral. Fans love to be able to pick up those pieces of whit and feel accomplished just understanding the reference even if they never actually came up with it themselves. Niizuma was a pillar of comedy with his social awkwardness and he was also the ideal that actually pushed and continued to push Saiko and Shujin. He wasn't just a placeholder, he actually actively pursued and engaged in a rivalry as well as understanding his own strengths and weaknesses as a mangaka. In the end, he was a true rival and not a stepping stone in Ashirogi Muto's manga career. After reading Eyeshield 21 and how many characters were just placeholders for "perfection" I was relieved and happy to see Eiji's characterization didn't follow that same cold fate.
I will be honest, I think this is one of the best manga I have ever read. Everything came together for me and I will be buying all the volumes I can. Read this manga.