Summary: Mashiro and Takagi have decided to devote their energies toward a mainstream battle manga, despite their editor advising them against it. Miyoshi continues to insinuate herself between the two as her relationship with Takagi deepens. Meanwhile, Miho starts to see some modest success, but at what cost?
Content Warnings: Lots of jokes about Miyoshi’s big boobs, but not much otherwise.
Remember when I said I liked Miyoshi a lot? And that I was gearing up for her downfall? Well, turns out it took a lot less time than I thought!
The third volume of Bakuman opens with Mashiro and Takagi brainstorming a new concept for their mainstream battle manga they’ve decided to make. Miyoshi remarks on their work ethic, “You guys really are something… How can you be so positive about your chasing your dream?” She tells them about how despite her success at competitive martial arts, she quit in middle school when she discovered how many people were better than her. It’s a relatable enough concept, feeling discouraged and quitting because you feel like you’ll never be the best.
All of the principal characters in Bakuman struggle with being overly competitive perfectionists. However, since Miyoshi is the only one who gives up in the face of all that competition, it feels more like a character failing than a normal, if not ideal response to pressure. Mashiro and Takagi are similarly competitive and disappointed when their short manga comes in third place in Akamaru Jump’s weekly rankings, something most people would consider a major feat. Miyoshi, on the other hand, gave up quickly despite being a strong national competitor among girls her age – a feat few can ever achieve. She also cites having to study for high school entrance exams, a reminder that Takagi chose an easier school than he could have attended for the sake of pursuing his own dream. The moment a major obstacle appeared, Miyoshi folded. It all comes back to “Men have dreams women will never understand.” Miyoshi is too practical to make her dreams come true.
Not that she has the self-awareness to realize that yet. She sighs and says, “I’m so envious of all of you. I wish I had a dream of my own…” but when Takagi suggests she return to karate, she responds, “I’ve had enough of martial arts. I want a more girly dream.” But why? She’s clearly athletic and still enjoys fighting – the first page of the volume is her beating up Takagi for manga research, a page I thoroughly enjoyed. Later, the boys watch her play volleyball, and though the paneling is mostly focused on her shaking breasts (you think she would have the sense to buy a sturdy sports bra), her physical power and determination shine through. So far, the only answers can be found through conjecture. The interpretation that looks solely at the text, treating the characters as rational human beings, is that she is feeling societal pressure to act a certain way to make up for her height, natural physical strength, and straightforward personality. This is underlined by Mashiro and Takagi’s open admiration of Miho, her best friend, who is as dainty and feminine as can be. She believes she must give up on her stereotypically masculine pursuits in order to be noticed and loved by Takagi, who regularly comments on her breasts and her physical power. The other interpretation, which requires looking at the authors’ body of work, is that Ohba and Obata are major sexists who treat Miyoshi as the heel of the group. She is an interloper whose main function is to get between the two male characters, and her every action is intended to push them farther apart.
The latter interpretation is supported farther into the volume, when Takagi and Mashiro are taking a break to search for some inspiration. Miyoshi, meanwhile, decides on her own dream: writing cell phone novels, a popular medium in Japan that never made the leap to the US. She chooses this dream not out of any love of the craft, but rather because she wants one similar to what her friends are going through. She immediately asks Takagi for help writing a novel based on Mashiro and Miho’s relationship, offering to help him write the female characters for his manga in exchange. Mashiro stares on in horror, thinking, “Shujin, you don’t have the time to be helping Miyoshi right now… We can’t have Miyoshi interfering with our manga…”
Mashiro’s disdain for Miyoshi has been a constant since she first became involved in the series, treating her as an intruder on the sacred bond between two men working together on a goal and a distraction to Takagi. The narrative thus far has only supported his treatment of her – her offers of assistance are seen as feminine interference in their quest to write a truly manly manga, a goal they identified in the first volume. When Takagi is supposed to be working on developing a concept for their new manga, Mashiro accidentally catches them kissing while on a date. Later, it turns out that Takagi has been writing the cell phone novels in her stead. Instead of the spunky, pragmatic girl of the previous volume, Miyoshi is now a ditzy hanger-on, a groupie, and a leech on Takagi’s talent and energy. Not even Takagi seems to like her that much; when Mashiro takes exception to him calling Miho their heroine, Takagi cringes and says, “Fine, your heroine. My heroine is Miyoshi… Eh?” The scorn with which both the heroes and the narrative treat Miyoshi is revolting.
But how about Miho, the perfect paragon of feminine modesty? Why, she’s managed to get her first role! How thrilling! Of course, she gets it after all sorts of failed auditions and sexual harassment that happens offscreen as she hides it from her supposed fiance. Her debut comes in Saint Visual Girls’ High School, a late night anime wherein her sole line is confessing her love to another girl. The requirements for the actresses are that they are “under twenty with good looks”. The other girls at the meeting smile eagerly and accept, but Miho hesitates before agreeing. At the actual audition, which is overcrowded with cute teenage girls, the producer takes one look at the room and tells the casting agents that Miho passes. As he walks out the door, the casting agents whisper, “That old letch… But we have to do as he says…” Miho’s success here has nothing to do with her ability as an actress, and everything to do with her cuteness. This is jarring when contrasted with Mashiro and Takagi’s burgeoning success, which is solely due to their hard work, determination, and precocious gifts.
This is not to say Miho herself isn’t working hard – I’m well aware of the physical, emotional, and mental toll that rounds and rounds of auditions and the predatory behavior endemic to the acting industry can have. However, unless the manga intends to make some sort of commentary about the inequality men and women face when striving for their dreams in the entertainment field, it would have been better to show Miho’s journey in parallel to the boys’: one of self-discipline, sacrifice, and determination.
When Mashiro gets the news that Miho has landed a role, he isn’t excited or happy for her, but jealous and insecure. He worries she’ll have a meteoric rise to the top, rather than what he sees as their struggle from the bottom, even though they’re already doing extremely well for high school first-years. It actually makes me a bit glad that they’ve agreed not to see each other. If Mashiro is going to be so snotty and jealous every time Miho gets a bit of success, it would discourage her and she may hold herself back for his benefit.
In the final pages of the volume, Mashiro texts Miho after a fight with Takagi, asking, “Why are you okay with not seeing me?” Upon reading the message, Miho’s face turns contemplative, and the next morning she answers, “Because I want to cherish the promise I made with you about our dream. I’m sure our joy and love will be far larger if we met each other after our dreams come true.” Even as they both struggle with realizing the real world cares nothing about their idealism, they refuse to meet so they can hold up their relationship as one final bastion of purity of ideals. Even when the manga world is disappointing and everything feels like an uphill battle, Miho alone is pure and untouched. Yet again, Bakuman reminds us that Miho’s role in the story is not one of a person, but as a plot device and an idealized figure.