Japanese Film Festival 2015 Film Review: Bakuman (Japan, 2015)

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I look forward to the Japanese Film Festival’s stop in Brisbane each year like I look forward to a holiday – and it feels like a holiday, escaping into the best of Japanese cinema and immersing yourself in the stories, scenes and sense of humour that you won’t find in film anywhere else in the world. This year’s opening flick, the comedy-drama Bakuman, follows two high school students determined to make it big in manga, their target the number 1 spot on weekly manga omnibus Shonen Jump’s readership poll. By merit of being the opening film, and starring Rurouni Kenshin duo Takeru Satoh and Ryunosuke Kamiki, I knew this would be an excellent film, but it still managed to surprise and charm me with its innovative approach to storytelling.

Like most good Japanese cinema, Bakuman is based on a manga series that actually was published in Shonen Jump from 2008 to 2012. Unlike most of those manga adaptations, Bakuman watches like a manga. Shots have been framed to mimic the points of view favoured by manga artists, with plenty of close shots to express emotion mixed with indistinct backgrounds and exaggerated action scenes, and each shot has been carefully timed to match the length of time a reader’s eye would linger on a panel in a comic. The result is a fast-paced, thrilling and engaging film that leaves you feeling as though you were part of it – the same way you feel a little lost after you finish reading a great manga. ‘What do I do now?’

I’m a sucker for great characters, and Bakuman has them in droves: the goofy yet driven artist Moritaka Mashiro (Takeru Satoh), motivated by a crush on a pretty girl at school; the enthusiastic Akito Takagi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a kid full of stories but without the artistic skills to tell them on his own; the incredible supporting cast’s ragtag bunch of manga creators – a gangster Pachinko host, a chubby chef, a money-obsessed sociopath, all vying for the life of their stories at Shonen Jump; and the phenomenally presented nemesis Eiji Niizuma (Shota Sometani) – the cocky manga prodigy with a bad attitude, because no Shonen manga is complete without a great bad guy.

One standout scene was the battle-cum-montage fight sequence between team Moritaka-Akito and rival Eiji. The artists battled with manga fountain pens and ink, becoming manga samurai as they fought to beat each other in the reader polls week after week, visually exciting and completely at home in the manga-film yet still effectively communicating the passing of several weeks in the film’s timeline.

Despite the manga-style feel, in some ways Bakuman took on a converse edge of reality that’s often lacking in cinema – as Moritaka and Akito lose themselves in their work they become disheveled and smeared with ink, but not in the glamorous way screens so often present. Moritaka exhibits obvious signs of burnout and exhaustion, and his obsession with besting Eiji becomes unhealthy. I love that Akito’s teenage skin worsens with his ink-smeared, sleep-deprived, poorly-nourished lifestyle, but at no point is it mentioned or made fun of – a refreshing change from the Hollywood ‘nerd’ stereotype of acne and glasses rendering a character slightly less than human.

When a film is set to reflect a manga, how do you approach music? Exactly the way Bakuman offers it – unassuming, clean and complementary. Largely electronic, the music is similar to that of a video game, enhancing the emotion without distracting from the story.

Fresh from its Japanese release on October 3, Bakuman is a film that will appeal to almost anyone – witty, silly, inspiring and fun. With the inherent lessons of perseverance, and originality, it’s a film you’ll walk away from smiling, and maybe with the motivation to try that new thing or start that new project.

Review score:  FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Catch the Japanese Film Festival in Adelaide October 30 – November 8, Sydney November 5 – 15 and Melbourne November 26 – December 6.

Visit Japanese Film Festival for more information and session times.