It’s usually good taste to finish a series before you write about it in any detail. But in the case of Bakuman, I’m under some time constraints, probably won’t even own the whole series for another year, and if I did wait until I finished it, there would be way too much to talk about. So consider this a possible part 1, depending on how much the second half of the series give me to talk about, of the lessons Bakuman teaches about how to succeed creatively.
Bakuman is about a two high school friends who decide to make manga at a professional level together, one writing and the other doing the art, and have it serialized in Shounen Jump. Considering it is by two people, one writing and the other doing the art, who have had manga serialized in Shounen Jump, it’s hard not to assume Bakuman is partially autobiographical. Whether it is or isn’t, the whole thing comes off as a how-to guide for the creative part of making manga.
But the advice it gives can be used in all creative arts. The series isn’t limited to manga, just themed around it because, well, what do mangaka know better than manga? And considering the speed of manga publishing, the demanding deadlines, and the immense variety of genres, without too much pretension about what counts as “high art”, manga is perhaps best suited for a creative how-to guide.
So, with that, here are some lessons from Bakuman for creators to take to heart.
Get Multiple Perspectives:
Takagi’s big weakness when writing is his characters, especially women. When Ashirogi start working on Run, Daikatsu Tanto!, they decide to add a female teacher character.
Coincidentally, at the same time, Ko Aoki attempts to write and illustrate an ecchi Shounen manga, A Time of Greenery. Her editor for the series pushes her to include plenty of panty shots, which she obviously struggles with.
Takagi and Aoki end up spending a lot of time talking, trying to explain the male/female perspective to each other. While Aoki still needs help afterwards to master the panty shots, she is able to write a successful Shounen manga, a big change from her Shoujo history. And Takagi, well he gets caught up in some drama that overshadows things for a bit, but presumably he got better at writing female characters.
Study Your Genre:
When Takagi and Mashiro set out to make a detective manga, their editor at the time, Hattori, sends Takagi boxes full of mystery novels to study from. Their next editor, Miura, does the same with gag manga when they set out to make one. Both times, this becomes crucial to Takagi improving his stories and eventually getting them serialized.
If you know your genre, you know what will work and what won’t. Conversely, if you don’t know your genre you’re bound to mess it up. Erased is a great example; a mystery anime that didn’t know how to be a mystery anime. It made the villain way too obvious, got caught up in character drama, and had an unsatisfying ending. It had many good points, but all of those were outside of what it claimed to be, and as a result didn’t end up connecting with the audience as effectively as they should.
Study Good Writing:
When Ashirogi’s first serialized manga, Detective Trap, is struggling in the reader surveys and facing stiff competition from other manga in Weekly Jump, Mashiro and Takagi start thinking of ways to give the series a second wind. One of these is to improve dialogue. Dialogue specifically is important in manga, since the majority of written words are dialogue.
Simply reflecting on your own work isn’t enough to improve your writing. You need to read other people’s writing and learn from it. In the case of manga, the same can apply to the art.
Bakuman treats pandering with some nuance. At the same time as Takagi improves his writing, Ashirogi discuss pandering to try to drag Detective Track out just a little bit longer. The way they and Miura-san (and even the other editors) discuss it, it’s not necessarily distasteful. Pandering is another tool in a creator’s arsenal. Its drawback is, it’s a temporary solution. If a work relies on pandering, and doesn’t have something solid underneath to hold readers’ attention, it won’t last. It’s should only be used as a last resort, to either drag out a series, or carry it across a low point.
Don’t just Do What Your Readers Want:
While pandering has a place, creators shouldn’t just do whatever their readers ask for. Knowing what you readers want is part of the problem. Ashirogi rely on fan mail, but fan mail senders are generally skewed female. Using their input for a Shounen series would be a mistake.
But a subtler problem is whether your readers even know what they want. Miura-san says it frankly, your readers are interested in your ideas.
Think about Who Your Readers are and What They Want:
That being said, you shouldn’t forget who you’re writing for. Every manga artist in Bakuman deals with this at some point. Since they each want to be published in Shounen Jump, they have to make manga suited to the demographic. Ko Akio is a Shoujo artist, so this means a massive change of style for her. Ryu Shizuka’s True Human gets rejected multiple times for having too much objectionable content.
If your story doesn’t work with the demographic you’re targeting, you either have to change your story, or target a different audience
Make Your Characters Move Naturally:
This is a piece of advice Eiji Nizuma gives Ashirogi, and it’s probably the bit that will resonate most with creators. As a creator, two of your top priorities are story and character, but there are times when these can feel at odds; times when advancing the story the way you want means having to force characters to act in an unnatural way. Whether the story or characters should take priority here depends on the work in question, and I don’t think Nizuma is siding with characters.
I think what he means is, your characters, from their foundation, should be set in such a way that their natural progression melds harmoniously with the story. Your characters should be such that letting them move on their own is bound to create a compelling story. That’s hard, and there are bound to be times where the author has to step in to nudge things one way or another, but if you have strong characters to start with, a strong story should emerge from them.
This is something almost every character has been doing. Each major artist in Bakuman has worked on at least two important works. And each one contributes to them improving. Partially it’s just the practice they get; with the possible exception of Run, Daihatsu Tanto!, every new task Mashiro takes on seems to drastically improve his art. But we can see their perspective on their own work, and their understanding of what makes good manga, change with each new success or failure. Especially when they try a radically different genre or style.
How to Deal with a Confrontational Editor:
This is one I have no experience with, but I trust Bakuman. Once Trap is serialized, Ashirogi are forced to change editors from the sage-like Hattori-san, to goofball Miura-san. Miura-san likes gag manga, and when Trap gets cancelled, he thinks the boys should focus only on making a gag manga. Mashiro and Takagi, however, feel their talents lay elsewhere.
Fighting with Miura-san doesn’t change any minds. Miura-san’s other artist asks for a change of editor, only to get a lecture from the Chief Editor of Jump. Ultimately, the best move Ashirogi make is trying to prove Miura wrong by creating three manga at once, one a gag series and the other two in genres the boys feel better more comfortable with, and showing him what the absolute best of their work looks like.
The best response an artist can have to any challenge is to try to create the best work they can.
Rivalry and Competition:
This is at the core of Bakuman. The reason Ashirogi strive to be such great manga artists isn’t just because it’s their dream to get an anime. If that were all, they could have a stuck to a mediocre manga series, like Tanto, and got a mediocre anime series from it. I’m watching Kanon while I’m writing this, and that’s proof any crap with a few good points can get an anime. And if their goal was just to create a great manga, they would have settled at The World is all about Money and Intelligence.
But their goal was to surpass Eiji Niizuma. That’s why they wanted to make something mainstream. That’s why they made manga of so many different genres. And that’s why they weren’t satisfied with anything, and never gave up.
Even if they do surpass Eiji (again, I’m only about halfway through), their goal will never end, because Eiji will try to take his title back. The rivalry never ends, so it’s kept both Ashirogi and Eiji on their toes, putting out the best work they can throughout their manga career.
And it doesn’t stop at Eiji. Every member of Team Fukuda is a rival, and is competitive in a different way. In fact, every manga artist in Jump is a potential rival. It’s by caring so much about the work of others that Ashirogi continue to push themselves.
You Need Basic Social Skills:
This one’s a little different, but to succeed in any field, you need to engage with people. Ryu Shizuka, creator of True Human, couldn’t get serialized in Jump despite making something the editors agreed was quite good. One of the issues was that his manga was too violent and controversial, and was better suited to a Seinen magazine. But there was also the issue that he wouldn’t even show up to the Jump office or meet his editor in person. It took time before he was ready to have assistants, and I can’t imagine him dealing with fan mail.
Ryu Shizuka was only introduced recently, and his story hasn’t gotten much attention yet, but there is a lot more to explore. A creator has be unique, and to some extent weird. But a professional creator, a consistent creator, also has to be well adjusted. I get the impression Bakuman agrees with this, and hope they’ll explore it further.
Don’t be Afraid to Quit:
There’s an irony creators face that, when a project isn’t working, that’s when it’s hardest to quit. You feel like it’s your fault for not being good enough, and if you hope to create anything again you just have to get over it. Once you’ve sunken a lot of time and energy into a project, it feels like a waste to stop, even if it’s not going anywhere.
But some project are just ill-conceived, or too broken to fix. If a project isn’t working, sometimes you just have to put it aside. It wasn’t a waste; every effort made at creating something it valuable and helps you grow. But it’s not the most efficient use of your time to continue it once it’s clearly not going anywhere. Or sometimes it’s best to put it aside and work on other things for a while.
For Ashirogi, this was Tanto. It wasn’t a mistake to make a gag manga. In fact, their very next series relied on Takagi’s sense of humour. But they were right to quite when they realized it wasn’t what they should be creating; that it wasn’t worth banging their heads on the wall to push out new chapters of mediocre gag manga.
And there’re some of Bakuman’s advice for creators. The list ended up being quite long, but that’s what you get from creators’ perspectives on creating. I left a number of things out for being too obvious, but I’m sure there’s plenty of good advice that I overlooked.
As a bonus, one tip from Kill la Kill…
Don’t Lose Your Way