High school kids dream big dreams, and in Japan one of the biggest is to be a successful manga artist. The financial rewards for a hit manga published in a national magazine and sold in paperback editions are substantial. And the accompanying recognition and power — with adoring fans pleading for autographs and editors begging for your next masterpiece — must seem intoxicating to a would-be mangaka (manga artist) doodling in the margins of his biology textbook.
One of those manga-besotted kids is Mashiro Moritaka aka Saiko (Takeru Sato), the teenage hero of Hitoshi One’s buddy comedy “Bakuman,” who surreptitiously draws portraits of pretty classmate Azuki (Nana Komatsu). But Saiko knows how tough the manga game is: His uncle (Kankuro Kudo) was a struggling artist who, after making it into the biggest manga magazine, the real-life publication “Weekly Shonen Jump,” died of overwork. Though talented, Saiko has no intention of following in his footsteps.
Then that talent is discovered by Akito Takagi aka Shujin (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a loquacious classmate with a gift for storytelling. Shujin proposes that they team up to assault the citadel of professional mangadom, with Shujin writing and Saiko illustrating. Saiko resists until he receives unexpected encouragement from Azuki. Their inner fires alight, and Saiko and Shujin start the race to manga fame and fortune. Their ultimate goal: “Weekly Shonen Jump.”
Based on a manga published in — of course — “Weekly Shonen Jump,” “Bakuman” begins as the usual sort of zero-to-hero teen comedy, with frenzied performances from the two male principals. (By contrast, newcomer Komatsu plays Azuki as a cool, self-aware teenage goddess who can send Saiko into a dither with a bat of her eyelashes.)
As director of the hit 2011 romantic comedy “Moteki” (“Love Strikes!”) and the 2013 indie ensemble drama “Koi no Uzu” (“Be My Baby”), One is that rare combination: a perfectionist craftsman with a unbridled imagination. In everything from his finely calibrated script, which departs significantly from the original manga, to the film’s meticulous art direction, which includes an exact recreation of the stupendously messy real offices of “Weekly Shonen Jump,” One raises “Bakuman” far above the standard for local mainstream entertainment — which, admittedly, is not that high.
He also takes “Bakuman” beyond its predictable story arc of trials and triumph into territory both realistically gritty (or inky, given the usual state of Saiko’s drawing hand) and surreally nightmarish.
After making repeated revisions to satisfy a supportive editorial flunky (Takayuki Yamada), the boys win a “Weekly Shonen Jump” contest for newcomers — but this victory is only the beginning. Other winning contestants, including a teen prodigy (Shota Sometani), are fighting for a coveted spot in the magazine. And the god-like senior editor (Lily Franky) who will ultimately decide their fate is, Saiko believes, responsible for his uncle’s untimely death.
To satisfy fans, I suppose, “Bakuman” embraces some of the original manga’s melodramatic plot tropes. But the film’s fantasy sequences, such as a duel Saiko and Shujin fight with the prodigy using gigantic pens and battling manga frames, comment on those tropes with sly humor and dazzling CGI imagery.
Meanwhile, the film’s visual phantasmagoria illuminates the inner source of Saiko’s creativity in all its fluent beauty and dark terror — starting with his fear of ending up like his uncle.
Is success worth the sacrifice? The film warns that making it as a manga pro is a life-or-death quest, though it celebrates the camaraderie of the artists (all guys, I’m afraid) who survive the editorial baptism of fire. And, as we see in one poignant scene, it’s all for kids flipping through comics in a convenience store. But that’s how the dream continues.