Bakuman is back on its home turf with episode, and it really shows.
This is an arc that really shows off everything that Bakuman does so beautifully, yet it’s also a very interesting twist on old patterns. There have been few series over the last couple of years that have been able to summon up so much pure “shout at the screen” rooting interest in me, and deliver such perfectly executed cliffhangers. And there have been few characters who can influence events in the way Eiji does, by the sheer force of his talent and personality. In that sense, this challenge is as classic as Bakuman gets.
But the interesting twist for me is, this time I’m rooting against Ashirogi Muto for the first time, and pretty intensely too. It’s not that Takagi and Mashiro are doing anything wrong, but I’m 100% behind Niizuma here. I don’t want to see his amazing accomplishment – first place for 14 weeks in a row – foiled at the last by PCP. And I agree with the notion that he should be free to end Crow in a blaze of glory if he wants – and what a raging inferno this would be. He’s already fulfilled his commitment to Sasaki and then some, and foiled all challengers in the process – I think it would be a sad thing if all that were to be set aside at the last moment, even at the hands of the heroes of the series.
That’s very good storytelling – to give us the protagonists on the verge of achieving one of their greatest dreams, yet inspire (at least one) of us to root against them doing it. It all boils down, I think, to the way Eiji represents the ideals that Bakuman espouses so well – for him, the stronger his opponents are and the more they challenge him, the better he likes it. It’s pure (pardon me for calling up this term again) “martial spirit” – that Japanese notion that’s at the very heart of shounen manga. Just by the sheer force of his will, Niizuma has uplifted the quality of the magazine by inspiring all of the other authors and the editors to try and beat him. And so far, they haven’t.
Of course, in the end, it would have to come down to Ashirogi and Eiji duking it out. One by one the others fired and fell back – Takahama (nice to see him doing so well after Miura tried so hard to destroy his career) and Fukuda with their full cover-page color spreads and special arcs being the greatest threats. As is so often the case when it comes to Ashirogi, it’s Mashiro who has the greater field of vision than Takagi – when it comes to thinking of grand concepts in the world of manga, he truly possesses a greater sense than his writing partner. With his notion of an anti-hero character planted in mind, Takagi can then go ahead and do what he does best – figure out the details – and thus is born
The upshot of all this, in fact, may not be in beating Eiji but in field-testing the big idea behind Ashirogi’s next project, the much-touted “unorthodox battle manga” – the one that I suspect will get Ashirogi their #1 ranking and their anime at last. Mashiro is 100% right that it would be pointless to try and unseat Niizuma with anything conventional, because he’s unbeatable on that turf – but that’s both Niizuma’s great strength and weakness. His manga are conventional battle manga, a perfect fit for Jack, but if something truly different comes along that’s good enough, it can make even Niizuma’s work look ordinary. That;s why he respects and admires Ashirogi so much, because he sees in them the potential to do just that – and as a manga fan, more than anything I think he just wants to be able to read the manga that’s good enough to make his own work pale in comparison.
I like the fact that this episode took the time to show us the editors debating the merits of what Eiji is trying to do – even tossing the term “corporate stooge” into the mix – though I wish it had gone into that debate with even more depth. It’s interesting to wonder where we go from here, with 11 episodes left to go. Obviously this arc will end next week or the week after, either with Ashirogi winning the challenge or not. If indeed they do and Eiji is forced to continue Crow, that would seem to make his character arc somewhat anti-climactic (which is why I suspect that won’t happen). If Eiji wins, we get to focus on what he comes up with as a follow-up for Crow. And of course there’s Ashirogi and how they finish PCP and follow up with whatever’s next – it would seem we’re in a rush to beat the clock on that one, because that’s a storyline that seems as if it could easily take up most of a season.