26. Bakuman is the story of two middle school students gaining a purpose in life and how that purpose transformed their lives for the better. I love the concept, and I love how something so supposedly uninteresting was able to become such a gripping story. This is art at its best -- when it surpasses expectations and treads virgin soil.
There have been many genres in anime that have succeeded in the past, fighting series, romances, magical girl stories, and sports series -- but never before has there been a story about getting a job. But that is the entirety of Bakuman. The two main characters, one a writer and the other an illustrator, are trying to get a job as manga artists. To do this, they need to get serialized by Shueisha, Japan's leading manga publisher. But this requires their story be good enough to sell to the public, and good enough to beat all of their competitors who would also like to be published. A job that demanding doesn't just require a credential, or a training school, it requires absolute talent, absolute dedication, and absolute determination. This is the job of jobs, it's not for the faint hearted. Only true heroes could achieve such a task. And the whole story of the series is about the effort they had to put in to their work before they landed that job. The last episode is the congratulatory phone call they receive that they've been serialized, but the process of How they got there is the wonder and the beauty of the story.
Bakuman isn't just about what it takes to be a manga artist or get published, it also shows that aiming for the top of anything makes you a better person. The two male leads were in no way losers before they started on their task, they probably could have succeeded in some other sector of the workplace, and in any event could have just attended school normally and not aimed for anything. But by taking on such a challenging task, they had to call upon more of their hidden resources than regular life ever calls upon. Then they had to cultivate those resources, so that they were strong enough to carry on. Now that they were working on something they cared about, they could work three times as hard as when they did anything else before in their life. The people around them noticed the changes, and due to it, they both landed girlfriends who admire their dedication to their jobs and their talented results. Not only do they work hard, but they keep making progress, which should be appealing to any girl. The idea that applying yourself to something, instead of someone, is the best way to land a girl, is very solid. Girls don't need sweet words, they need guys they can depend on, and a dependable guy has to work hard and produce results.
It's a little more complicated, because many guys will only start to work hard once they're doing it for the girl they love, so a girl should be willing to take a chance on a guy if she thinks she sees something of value hidden inside him. But in any case, these guys get more than a job from their hard work, they also get an entirely fulfilled life, with wife and kids all lined up in the future. They can also be proud of themselves as they see the results of their labor take shape right in front of them, and they make new friends by interacting with other manga artists, that they'd never have met had they never started working on manga themselves. Work has so many advantages! Money, status, friends, girlfriends, the pride of accomplishment and the joy derived from the stories you yourself created. But how hard a road to succeed at this, the best possible job ever! The rewards and the difficulties are certainly evenly matched. We're happy for the main characters who succeeded, but the agony of defeat is also there -- the illustrator's uncle died while still young because he couldn't keep it up, even though he had been a successful manga-ka, he eventually ran out of good ideas and was fired, and then materially and spiritually wasted away, losing everything he had once gained. It's hard. The job is too hard for practically anyone.
Bakuman season 2 has already been promised to us. Even so, all the lessons, all the joys and pains, of the series were already conveyed in the first season. I'm not sure what more of the same could add to the story, though it should still be entertaining just to watch the characters I like go about their daily lives. Bakuman was innovative, and it covered an entire field of subjects most series don't touch (except Clannad, that also covered Okazaki's working life -- but it's okay to 'only be as good as Clannad.') It's a shame the art and music were nothing special, and the whole story was basically carried on the back of its plot. If I were to point to why the series can't be ranked higher, it's because the story doesn't ever really make you 'feel' anything. Since it's an anime about normal life, it's hard to get worked up about anything. When I think of stories like Gurrenn Lagann, or Fairy Tail, or Code Geass, there's lives and even planets at stake, and people full of passion throwing themselves at each other. Bakuman doesn't have any of that, and without it, a story feels like a pale shadow. Unlike Clannad or Kanon, no one dies, and no one loses anything important to them. There's nothing particularly funny, like would happen in Working, or deep, like the philosophical struggles in Madoka or Index. There's just something missing in a story about daily life. Washed out.
Maybe this is why the genre is so underpopulated. ;). But when it's done right, it still deserves a high place in the pantheon.