Summary: Moritaka Mashiro likes to draw, but it’s not what he considers his defining trait. After his uncle, a formerly-popular mangaka, died of overwork trying to replicate his own success, Moritaka never really considered art a serious endeavor. One thing he does take seriously, however, is his crush on his cute classmate Miho Azuki. When the smartest boy in his class, Akito Takagi, finds a sketch Moritaka drew of Azuki, he suggests they team up to create manga together. Moritaka has misgivings at first – trying to break into the field is too big a gamble – but before he knows it, the two grow determined to get their manga into the popular Jump magazine.
Content warnings: a whole lot of sexism, but nothing worse than that
Would I recommend it: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA no
Note: I apologize for the quality of the images – I took pictures of the book using my phone
I’ll be honest here – I did not go into Bakuman in good faith. I started it knowing full well about Ohba and Obata’s disdain for women. The series is well-loved and critically acclaimed enough that I’m sure that there’s plenty to like about it, but since I am specifically taking aim at the parts that frustrate and anger me, I’m pretty much blind to those elements. No, I read Bakuman expecting to hate it and, shockingly, was correct.
There’s a lot of ways for media to be sexist. Objectification and male gaze are constant sources of irritation even in otherwise good series; and with some series it’s as simple as forgetting women exist beyond decorations and failing to give them a role to play in the story. I wouldn’t describe any of these as actively misogynist so much as thoughtless adherence to pre-established tropes and expectations. That’s what makes it frustrating that it’s as prevalent as it is. That also has the side effect of making it shocking to come across a series that doesn’t just ignore or marginalize women, but treats them with active scorn. That’s why when I read the first volume of Bakuman, by the same writer/artist team as Death Note, I was taken aback by its naked misogyny.
Some months ago, a former Studio Ghibli producer came under fire for saying, “Women tend to be more realistic and manage day-to-day lives very well. Men on the other hand tend to be more idealistic – and fantasy films need that idealistic approach.” Bakuman holds this attitude not just as an opinion of the characters but an undeniable fact. Take for example, the patriarchal decision-making process of Moritaka Mashiro’s parents: when Moritaka wants to do something or needs advice, he asks his mother, who asks his father, and then relays to him the answer. She has little power in her own household, acting only as a messenger between the men. “I’ve never really had a serious conversation with my father,” narrates Moritaka, but that same father is the one who makes all the most important decisions. It idealizes the idea of the father as the distant patriarch who hands down decisions from on high, while the blame goes to the messenger – his mother. On the other hand, it seems to me that the system is in place simply so that a single exchange can take place. When Moritaka tells his mother he wants to draw manga, she tells him immediately, “No,” confident that her husband will agree. However, when Mr. Mashiro arrives home, it only takes a few minutes for his wife to come to Moritaka’s room. With a resigned, sad expression, she delivers her husband’s decision: “Let him do it. Men have dreams that women will never be able to understand.” In Bakuman’s worldview, women are dull and prosaic, incapable of achieving or even understanding true ambition or idealism.
And as far as Bakuman is concerned, that’s a good thing. One of the series’ main subplots is the romance between Moritaka and Miho. Miho is cute and sweet, but average in every other way. She dreams of being a voice actress, a popular goal for young women, and gets average grades. According to Takagi, this makes her the smartest girl in class, reasoning that, “Azuki naturally knows that a girl should be graceful and polite and because she is a girl, she should be earnest about things and get good grades. She knows by instinct that a girl won’t look cute if she’s overly smart.” He cites her family’s large home as proof that she comes from exceptional stock, and thus is herself exceptional, even though there’s nothing to make her stand out. She wants to be a voice actress specifically because it’s a common goal, and that she “doesn’t feel any pressure like [they] do about the future,” and that even after she’s married, she’ll be graceful and polite. That speech is one of the most commonly-cited examples of Bakuman’s sexism, and it’s abundantly clear why. His list of qualities that are ideal in a girl – being graceful and polite, not too smart, and generally unremarkable beyond being cute and demure by “instinct” – is dehumanizing and archaic. Adding insult to injury, he contrasts Miho with Iwase, the girl in their class with the best grades: “Iwase is pretty good-looking, but she’s not very likable, is she? She’s the smartest girl in class grade-wise, but I don’t like how she takes pride in that. That’s why I actually think she’s really dumb.” The message comes through loud and clear: girls who have ambition, who work harder than men, who worry about their future, who in short do not center their entire lives around training to fulfill the “good wife and wise mother” ideal, are wasting their time and thus are dumb, no matter how intelligent or capable they may be. This speech is reinforced when Miho is talking to her friend Miyoshi, and they discuss how Iwase isn’t popular with the boys. Despite her good looks and intelligence, she’s “snobby” and unlikable. Because she doesn’t put effort into being cute and approachable, she’s undateable.
Not only is Miho an insulting yamato nadeshiko cipher, the relationship between her and Moritaka reflects an authorial obsession with purity. When Moritaka and Takagi visit her house to talk about their dreams, they decide to intertwine their goals: the boys will write a successful manga, and Miho will star in the anime adaptation. Inspired by his uncle’s letter-writing romance with a former classmate that ultimately went nowhere because of their mutual reluctance to confess their feelings, Moritaka proposes that they get married if both their dreams come true. Miho turns red and runs back into her house, and Moritaka begins to beat himself up when proposing when he’s not even in high school. However, Miho begins to talk to them through the intercom and accepts, but makes Moritaka agree not to see her until they’ve both fulfilled their goals. Supposedly, it’s to make sure neither of them becomes distracted; however, they are in effect putting their relationship into stasis. They’re only 14; they have so much growing and maturing to do, it’s impossible to tell whether they’ll be compatible by the time they reach adulthood. They’ve never actually dated or shared their innermost secrets – Moritaka didn’t find out about Miho’s dream until a few days ago, and third-hand. It’s not totally unbelievable that a pair of junior high school kids would make an agreement like this, but the writers seem just as fooled as the characters that they are in love rather than simple infatuation, swept away by the moment. No one expresses doubt about the healthiness of such a relationship or arrangement, and Miho’s mother, who turns out to be Moritaka’s uncle’s former letter-writing companion who married another man (and just happens to be another perfect specimen of feminine beauty and charm), gives them her blessing. It’s a forced situation engineered so that Moritaka can go on idealizing Miho and treating her as a goal without Ohba and Obata ever having to actually write her like a human being. By holding each other at arm’s length, they are spared the work of having to get to know each other. What’s more, Miho’s purity and innocence, so essential to her characterization as the perfect young woman, will not be violated until the two marry. This allows not only Moritaka, but also readers who identify with him, to keep her on a pedestal.
A common defense of Bakuman’s treatment of women is that the views of the characters don’t automatically align with those of the creators. That’s true, but unless the text goes out of its way to refute their views, it’s a flimsy excuse at best. Maybe they will be proven wrong and get to know women who are just as ambitious and capable of themselves. However, given the series’ reputation for sexism, I doubt that will come to pass. We have nineteen more volumes get through, so only time will tell.