You've probably watched enough DVD 'Making of' features to have a fair idea of the process that goes into the creation of an anime series or an animated feature film. What most people don't realise however is that in Japan the process to anime series usually starts a long way back before the first storyboards or scripts are drafted, since most anime is based on what has already been a tried and tested success as a manga comic book series. Even if you are an avid manga reader however, you're probably unaware of the lengthy and complicated process, or indeed the amount of the effort that goes into the creation of a successful long-running manga series.
Bakuman is an anime series (based on a successful manga evidently) about the creative process from manga to anime of a successful series and it offers a fascinating insight into this hugely competitive and potentially very lucrative industry in Japan. That's all well and good, but in order to involve the viewer Bakuman also needs to be entertaining in its own right and have a story. Thankfully, although it can be a little repetitive and follow a familiar path towards a conclusion that is not going to hold any great surprises (it wouldn't give you much insight if the young manga creators fell at the first hurdle here and just gave up), the series manages to be entertaining through the very fact that this is such a rich subject in a fascinating world with very unique set of rules and plenty of personalities.
As far as the story goes in Bakuman though, you have to expect a humble beginnings story of blind ambition and naked talent leading on a plot trajectory (with the obligatory few setbacks along the way) to the creation of a successful manga and anime series. By the end of the first season you won't be surprised to find that the young creators are half-way towards achieving that goal, but its not so much the end result that's important here as the path to get there, how the characters react to the setbacks that come their way and whether they do it on their own terms or according to the established formula demanded by the industry.
This evidently is the crux of the matter as it is in any creative arts enterprise that is there to entertain and make money, and it seems that not only is the manga/anime industry typical in this respect, it's possibly even more restrictive than most. In order to be successful, the aspiring manga writer must have a serial published in one of the big anthologies, and to have a running series it needs to conform to audience expectations. If you want published in a shonen magazine for example (adventure comics for boys), you need to have a powerful hero and plenty of action. Originality is rare and not encouraged, true genius is even rarer, and only 0.001% of manga created is ever successful, but every once in a while a Dragonball, a One Piece, a Naruto or a Bleach beats the odds to make it all worthwhile. In the process however, these series just set a new standard against which all other efforts are going to be judged.
The process by which two middle-school students in Bakuman attempt to break into the industry is fascinating then for any otaku. Inevitably it involves much rewriting and redrafting, the development of one-shots, selection for competitions, having your work rated and judged through reader polls and being subject to editorial input and selection. The pressures and the standards expected can end the career of a mangaka very quickly indeed, and if you're lucky you might just end up as an assistant background artist to a more successful creator. If you're going to really care to watch Bakuman through 25 episodes of Series One alone however, you're going to need to care about the creators here and their ambitions. On paper however, that's not terribly promising.
For 15 year-old Mashiro Moritaka, the inspiration is his uncle, a former mangaka who achieved some measure of success, but who ended up dying from stress and overwork without really making a lasting impact on the industry. Even worse, he failed in his goal to win the love of his life. Manga is in Moritaka's DNA then. He doesn't want to end up like his uncle, but has likewise set himself an almost impossible goal. Even at this age, he's crazy in love with a girl in his class, Azuki, and incredibly she's agreed that she will wait until he has a created a successful anime series and marry him, by which time she also hopes to be a successful anime voice actress. Moritaka obviously wants to achieve this goal before leaving High School and is fortunate to meet Akito Takagi, a high-flying student who also dreams of being a mangaka and has many ideas and great writing talent.
That's still a pretty tall order for two students with no experience in the industry and, if I'm honest, the romantic love story that it all hangs on is rather soppy and idealised. With such a subject - an anime based on a manga about the development of a manga to an an anime series - Bakuman could be clever and self-referential or even just have fun with the conventions, but there's no FLCL-like self-knowing parody, references and madness here. The plot in Bakuman follows a fairly straight linear path. Somehow however, even though you know exactly where it's all going, Bakuman proves to be an entirely compelling series that has you flicking straight to the next episode and then the next.
What keeps you involved in Bakuman, beyond the eye-opening insight into the manga industry, is indeed the characters and the creative process. As idealistic as it might seem, one can recognise that it really does take not just drive and talent, but the ability to adapt and bounce back after setbacks in order to succeed. On a plotting level, the series throws dilemmas at our young creators regularly that makes their response interesting, but even the personal romantic storyline raises relevant issues. Life experience may not be essential to be a successful manga writer (the wayward talent of 'Crow' writer Eiji Niizuma here has no other life and simply lives manga, but provides an interesting contrast to the writing team here), but it's what undoubtedly will prove to be important in the longer term as real motivation, inspiration and lasting success.
Bakuman: Season 1 is released on DVD only by Manga Entertainment. The set contains the complete twenty-five episodes of the first series on six dual-layer DVD-9 discs. Prepared for Manga Entertainment by Kazè, the set is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
Whether Bakuman would benefit from a High Definition release is questionable, but on DVD the image quality is exceptionally good. There's little to worry about other than the occasional colour banding issues, but even those are rarely eliminated by HD transfers.
What's perhaps more of an issue is that there's only one audio option here and that's the original Japanese audio track in Dolby Digital 2.0. There is no English dub, which is not a problem for me personally, but I know it can be a deal-breaker for some anime fans. The audio track is absolutely fine, the voice-acting good, the sound clear and resonant. No technical problems whatsoever.
As there's only one audio track though and the disc is authored by Kazè with the usual lockdowns, that means that you have fixed English subtitles on this release. They are white though, so that's one good thing. Unfortunately, the translation and the grammar isn't always entirely accurate. There are no major howlers and it's fairly easy to pick up exactly what was meant, but typos and grammatical mistakes are relatively frequent - you'll find a couple in each episode. It's a relatively minor concern, but it should really have been picked up and corrected.
There are no significant extras on this release, which is a pity, as I'd have loved to hear the creators compare their own experience of creating a series that opens up the workings of the manga and anime industry. What you do have is one or two opening and closings on each disc, some with karaoke subtitles and even some openings and closings created for the invented anime series that feature here.
With its setting in the manga and anime industry, Bakuman has a subject that will certainly appeal to anyone who loves anime, and it is does indeed provide an eye-opening insight into the vast and complex workings of the Japanese entertainment industry. If it's going to work on its own terms however and be a success in its own right, Bakuman needs to follow the advice that it gives to its own characters and thankfully there is depth and substance in how it blends the personal story, the creative drive and the industry story together. I have little doubt that the creators will achieve their goals in Season Two, but like this first season, there's a lot to be gained along the way.