by Jack Virnich
On Sunday, July 17th I was fortunate enough to engross myself in Japan Cuts for an entire day and delve into the world of new Japanese Cinema. I had chosen to attend on this particular day, during my short trip to New York City, for two reasons: Bakuman, and the New Anime Vanguard Spotlight. Bakuman is the live action version of a manga constructed by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata who are the authors of Death Note. The story revolves around two high school students, Moritaka Mashiro and Akito Tagaki, who are attempting to enter the manga industry. Bakuman was the second to last showing of the day, followed directly by the new animation series. It was the precise ordering of these two segments which piqued my interest in the first place. I found it fitting that the two should be paired together. I grew up reading manga and watching anime, and this relationship had culminated with Bakuman. In fact, it was the height of my adolescent experience with the genre. It was fitting that I watched the live action version of this manga-ka (manga artist) centered manga, and then followed it with a series of cutting edge animation, pushing against the norms of the culture.
In many ways these two cinematic pieces couldn’t be in greater opposition. Bakuman, to anyone who is familiar with the film’s history, seems to be folding in upon itself, while the Vanguard Spotlight was bursting from the seams of the screen. Bakuman is undoubtedly hilariously inspiring and uplifting, just as I remember my experience with manga as a child to be. Yet as an adult, the film reinforces what I have learned retrospectively from the genre: the stories within manga and anime, and their cinematic counterparts, call upon the reader to inquire into their own passions and their ability to work towards them. Yet this purpose is muddled by how overdone the industry has become. The film both intentionally and unintentionally represents the over saturation of one of the most prominent industries in Japan. Scenes from the film depict our two young high school manga-ka fervently working away while panels of their own comics fly around them. The shelves of their studio contain countless volumes and, as they turn in their weekly submissions, they walk past posters and tables portraying the very same issues. Interestingly enough, this disturbingly beautiful oversaturation is one of the film’s strongest points.
As a genre, manga has become extremely self-referential and formulaic and, as a result, so has animation. Bakuman would likely be extremely inaccessible to someone who was unaware of these qualities; despite this, it is still a fun movie for those who aren’t. Those who are well versed in the industry will enjoy the countless references and hyperbolized reality that the film creates surrounding these comics. However, the film seems to go beyond even this. The manga utilizes the very same tropes that the industry has become famous for in order to display the construction of manga. The movie takes this a step further by standing to represent the manga industry’s invasion of the live action cinematic realm. This is an industry that has grown to encompass three visual mediums and the watcher is painfully aware of this. Regardless, viewers who have not grown up around manga will be drawn to the film’s stunning and consistent aesthetics and vibrant characters. The film adaption does an outstanding job of highlighting the relationships between these characters in a manner that the manga never could. Due to the length of its plot, Bakuman as a manga falls short, as all manga do, in the realm of its characters. As the Movie portrays, manga is an industry built around continuity and here in lies its fatal flaw: the characters are merely a vehicle used by the manga-ka to stretch the story to its extrema. The film, however, does have an end – one that makes the time spent with the characters more precious and interesting.
One of the most intriguing of these characters is Miho Azuki, Moritaka’s love interest. This love story is immediately tied to the primary plot as Moritaka and Miho promise to marry only once Moritaka’s manga has been turned into an anime and Miho is the voice actress. In this manner the connection between animation and manga becomes central to the plot of the story. The love and happiness of these two young characters is staked entirely on animation, just as it is for all of the struggling manga-ka in modern Japan. It is difficult to determine whether or not this is an intentional statement by the creators of the manga, regardless, the image of struggling artists across the archipelago is difficult to remove from the mind.
This connection remained in my mind as the screen went black and the master of ceremonies stepped out to announce the beginning of the new animation series. A huge array of works from artists including, Onohana, Sawako Kabuki, Mirai Mizue, Masanobu Hiroka, Atsushi Wada, Yoko Yuki and Ryo Hirano were displayed. Each piece was amazing -- works fighting tirelessly against the shadow of the industry that had been presented merely minutes before them. Age of Obscure by Onohana and Mirai Mizue initiated the series, a surrealist display of shapes and colors moving about the screen to music by Twoth. The form’s displayed in this four minute piece oversaturated not with the structure of Bakuman and its industry, but with a chaotic and stunningly meaningless defiance. Onohana’s next piece, Ouch, Chou Chou, deals with issues such as depression, bullying, suicide, and conformity. A cabbage who is obsessed with peeling things enters her friend pea’s mind for another surrealist experience. The animation is breathtaking, and the brief twelve minutes leave you completely satisfied by your strange lack of resolution, one that is mirrored in our two young manga-ka’s struggle to achieve and maintain serialization. Atsushi Wada’s The Great White Rabbit builds upon this feeling of the unresolvable with its initial quote, “If you believe in the Rabbit, it means you will believe in anything. If you don’t believe in the Rabbit, it means that you wouldn’t believe anything.” In the film, a line of little boys seem to pay a form of Sisyphean homage to the Rabbit. Their reverence is depicted as absurd and insidiously pointless. Conjured up within me were feelings that the reverence we pay to the things that seem to be greater than us is obligatory and difficult to escape from, regardless of how aware we are off it. Just as I had been desperately excited to see Bakuman and have my own veneration for the industry fulfilled through viewing it.
The segments from the spotlight that affected me the most were two by Sawako Kabuki, MASTER BLASTER and Don’t tell Mom. These show toony shorts depict what the Japan Society referred to as “Coital Psychedelia” in the festival program. In both videos, lustful amalgamous shapes, of varying degrees of human likeness, fly around the screen as countless orifices consume such shapes over and over again. MASTER BLASTER seemed to focus more on the animation of an endless cycle of consumption. A phallic male character and a more normally animated woman morph from shape to shape as they continuously interact with one another. Don’t tell Mom gave more attention to the lyrics of its show toon with the opening and repeated phrase “keep it a secret from your mother”, in addition to repeated references to the sexual power of a bicycle seat. These two filmic experiences yield borderline harrowing experiences reinforced by an overdose of hilariousness and melodic enjoyment. They are both brilliant and deserve repeated re-watch as you are swept away by their short durations. While both of these shorts leave the viewer futilely contemplating the whole of humanity’s relationship with sex, after just viewing Bakuman another thought occurred to me. These shorts, pursuing their titular vanguard purpose, were just as much about the animation industry. The shapes of Sawako Kabuki seem to represent the manga that Moritaka and Akito create to please a lustful Japanese graphic industry.
Jack Virnich is a long time Japanophile and horror-buff. He is currently a rising sophomore at Stanford University and a double major in History and Film Studies.
Age of Obscure. Dir. Mirai Mizue and Onohara. 2015. Film.
Bakuman. Dir. Hitoshi One. Perf. Takeru Satoh and Ryunosuke Kamiki. 2015. Film.
Don't Tell Mom. Dir. Sawako Kabuki. 2015. Film.
MASTER BLASTER. Dir. Sawako Kabuki. 2014. Film.
Ouch, Chou Chou. Dir. Onohara. 2016. Film.
The Great Rabbit. Dir. Atsushi Wada. 2012. Film.