Leave it to Kaya-chan to sum up Master Eiji in a nutshell – “He’s almost too cool.”
I think this episode sums up the genius of Bakuman as well as any in the series, among three or four eps I could say that about. What Ohba and Obata have done with this series is distill the essence of great shounen manga – call it martial spirit or whatever you like – into a series about drawing shounen manga. That’s insanely clever if you stop and think about it – I wish I’d been a fly on the wall when Ohba (presumably it was him) came up with it.
While Mashiro and Takagi are the central relationship of Bakuman and Mashiro and Miho are the storybook romance, in a very real sense Bakuman’s two most important relationships are the one between Mahiro and his Uncle and between Mahiro and Eiji Niizuma. The first one is the spiritual wellspring from which the entire series flows, and the latter embodies everything that the series stands for. Mahiro and Eiji are martial spirit incarnate – the whole “battle between men” ideal in its most admirable form. Respect. Friendship. Genius. And a desire to beat the crap out of the other at what they do best, and to do so without shortcuts or cheating. It’s certainly an idealistic and even fantastical world view, but if shounen manga can’t be idealistic and fantastical what can?
We’ve seen a lot of Eiji being cool over 68 episodes of Bakuman, but this was probably his apex as a character. In addition to being almost too cool, as Kaya rightly describes him, we get to see his human side in a way we really haven’t seen it before. The first telling moment of the episode came as Hattori II realized the true epic nature of what Eiji was pulling off, and came around to the same realization I did – he really wanted Eiji to win, even if it meant ending “Crow”. What finer goal for a mangaka than to rank first 20 weeks in a row and end your series exactly the way you’d want? There was no way I could root against him, even with Ashirogi being the opponent and pulling off what was undeniably their finest work with “PCP”. The surprising part was that it could do no better than a tie for 2nd with “Giri”, though it did come within 17 votes of “Crow”. I think it’s pretty clear that this represents the high-water mark for “PCP” creatively – they gave it their best shot, and fell short of “Crow”. No shame there, as so did everyone else – but from a dramatic standpoint in Bakuman terms there’s really nowhere left for “PCP” to go. It would be a hollow victory to rank first with “Crow” finished, and this doesn’t seem like the work that’s going to make Mashiro’s dream of an anime come true.
While it was very cool seeing “PCP” brought to life in some of the most extended “animated manga” segments of the series, make no mistake – this episode was really a celebration of Eiji as a character. In the first place, his sheer creative powers are almost beyond belief. He’s already written a one-shot (purely for his own entertainment) about heroes based on the periodic table, and oh-by-the-way he has a longer series called “Space Cockroach” that he’s written “in his free time between doing “Crow” and “Natural”. Not only does Hattori B find it “just as good as Crow, or better”, but Eiji guesses that if compiled it would be “about 30 volumes worth”. There really are people like this in the world, though they’re the creative equivalent of Gon & Killua when it comes to Nen, but we've rarely seen them brought to life in such an entertaining fashion.
I think my favorite part of the episode was seeing Eiji in a different light, though. His excitement at the notion of traveling the world, and his sincere gratitude at seeing that most of the other mangaka had written him congratulatory messages for his final chapter (how like him not to even notice until Fukuda called). He makes the rounds thanking everyone for pushing him to be even better on his final challenge with “Crow”, saving Ashirogi for last – but one senses that he never had the slightest doubt he’d win. The thing about Eiji is that he’s neither arrogant not falsely humble – he simply knows he’s great, and goes about the business of proving it. When he tells Mashiro just what his friendship and rivalry has meant, you know he means every word – because Eiji doesn’t say anything that’s not straight to the point. We haven’t had much sense of Eiji as a lonely figure because he seems very content, but this was a reminder that as a singular talent with unlimited drive, he really is alone – and it was even worse for him before he came to Tokyo. You sense that Eiji would like to become friends with Ashirogi and the others in a more traditional sense as well, but it’s simply not in is nature – as Mashiro says about his manga, he’s best when he works alone.
I think Eiji is kind of a sad character, in a way – he never seems quite connected to the rest of the world. It’s only rarely that we see that he might just wish for something different, and this was one of those rare occasions – yet he’s also as professional as they come, and undeniably derives genuine happiness from the work he excels at and the challenge of his rivals. It seems as if only Mashiro and Eiji truly understand each other in this sense, and that’s why Eiji only considers Ashirogi a true rival with a chance to one day unseat him. Whether it will happen in the series I don’t know – I think it might just be a better story if it comes down to Ashirogi continuing the eternal chase – but either way, it’s one of the great relationships in shounen manga.