You know summer is here when a swarm of Asian films are being reviewed on Movie Buzzers thanks to the New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts festival being held back to back. With NYAFF officially over it’s time to focus on Japan Cuts, a festival that delivers on their promise of showcasing some of the best film Japan has to offer. With 2016 marking their 10th anniversary, I’m expecting some big things from the festival and, if Hitoshi One’s Bakuman is any indication of the quality of this year’s festival, you’re going to want to buy your tickets now before all the screenings sell out.
Based on a manga of the same name, Bakuman follows passionate high schoolers Saiko (Takeru Satoh) and Shujin (Ryunosuke Kamiki), two guys who have one desire in life, to make it into the most popular and influential manga magazine in Japan, Shonen Jump. Saiko is the artist while Shujin is the writer. The two make a dynamic pair and soon surprise one of the young editors at Shonen Jump with their first manga story. While not perfect, they set off to refine their work and attempt to win a top prize in a competition, battling against other artists in an effort to sell a weekly manga story to Shonen Jump. In order to do so they focus their efforts on trying to beat another high schooler who is considered a manga genius and receive approval from the chief editor, the same editor who Saiko’s famous uncle used to work for.
Similar to Miike’s Ace Attorney adaptation, Bakuman came out of nowhere and blew me away. Within the first five minutes I was in love with the film and the feeling never let up. One’s film is frenetic yet focused, comical but touching and, without a doubt, an overwhelming and inspiring crowd-pleaser that can win anyone with a heart over.
What I found to be the most amazing part of Bakuman was that while it seemed like a conventional story, every time you thought it would go the easy route, the story went in a slightly different direction making it so much more rewarding to watch. Closely linked to the story progression is the pacing of the film, it’s wonderfully fast for a good chunk of the feature and that’s what keeps the audience on its toes. As an example, the guys team up within the first few minutes and after a hilarious exchange with Saiko’s love interest Azuki (Nana Komatsu), the film blasts off like a rocket because of how eager they are to get started. There’s always something they are working towards and we can’t help but pull for them every time. In a weird way, this is Rocky for artists and writers.
The one aspect of the film that I think some will find bothersome are the montages. There are quite a few of them but the main issue is that they are fairly long. These scenes are used to show the progress of the manga drawing/writing and, while I agree they probably could have been shortened, I loved every second of each of them. The reason I enjoyed them so much is because the music was great (thanks to the energetic soundtrack by rock band Sakanaction) and the brilliant use of CG and motion graphics that invaded the screen. When the guys would draw or have ideas, we would see their art flicker in their eyes, fly off the paper and move up the walls and across the room. There is even a manga drawing battle which was a very creative approach to show off the competition between Saiko, Shujin and their high school competitor Niizuma (Shota Sometani).
Bakuman has quickly risen to become one of my favorite films of 2016. I honestly still can’t believe how much I enjoyed it. After being disappointed by most of the films I saw at NYAFF, this was such a pleasant surprise. Hitoshi One’s film expertly mixes all the ingredients you need for a fun movie outing and somehow manages to keep a conventional narrative unpredictable. The theme throughout the film (and the motto of Shonen Jump) is “friendship, struggle, triumph,” and it couldn’t be truer with this awesome new film from Japan.
Bakuman screens at the Japan Society on July 17th at 7pm.