For 2022, I decided to tackle a number of manga that I had not yet read. Some I owned digitally via older Humble Bundles. Others were planned based on recommendations from friends. One of those recommendations was Bakuman—which was from the creators of Death Note. Much like that series, Bakuman is an thrilling manga with a fascinating premise. Unfortunately, the series objectifies its female cast using them more as plot devices than fully realized characters, which compromises the overall quality and enjoyability the work.
Bakuman is a series about the creation of manga that follows Moritaka Mashiro and Akito Takagi over the span of a decade (ages 14 to 24) as they create manga together for Weekly Shonen Jump. The series begins with them outlining their middle school dreams and ends in adulthood with the duo still striving for greatness in manga.
Along the way, a number of different characters are introduced, including love interests, manga competitors, and supporting editorial staff within the manga industry. This cast allows the series to provide the reader with an interesting look into insider aspects of manga creation from a Jump-centric perspective.
Obviously, our manga duo want to succeed in creating the best series they can. However, one of their drivers is Mashiro’s love life. In middle school, Mashiro falls head over heals for fellow student, Miho Azuki, who wants to become a famous voice actress. The couple decide that once they achieve their dream with Mashiro’s manga adapted as an anime starring Azuki, they will get married.
No pressure, right?
The two keep in touch via text throughout the series (spoilers ahead), only coming together in person a handful of times before they finally achieve their dreams. And it is at that moment when, after a ten-year text-based romance, they finally have their first kiss.
Takagi, on the other hand, has no time for romance as the series begins. In middle school, due to miscommunication, he inadvertently tells two different girls (Aiko Iwase and Kaya Miyoshi) that he is dating them. When they are both informed that they are not his girlfriend, Iwase walks off furious. Kaya remains.
She follows Takagi like a lost puppy throughout the series. She shadows his every move and forces herself into his life. No matter how indifferently he acts, Kaya persists. When he is hyper-focused on manga creation, she serves as a “gopher,” running errands. Kaya is more of a roommate and support tool for Takagi than a true partner in their relationship.
And therein lies my biggest problem with the series.
Agency or Objectification?
The female and male members of the cast are not treated the same. Female characters are objectified and instead of receiving character development and plot progression, each is treated as a plot device for the benefit of the male cast members. Even when it appears that they may get some character development, it often regresses into male-centric obsession or usage as a pawn for a male cast member’s story.
Back to Azuki. She forces herself into a competitive field that she had initially not been interested in and avoids jobs in order to protect the relationship she has with Mashiro. Occasionally in the story, Azuki makes it clear that she wants a more personal (i.e. in-person) relationship with Mashiro; he keeps it as text-only. When Mashiro hides things from her, she eventually forgives him even though he never really admits any wrongdoing. While her career improves, her connection with Mashiro and decisions made to benefit him still stifle her overall. When she speaks about her future, she makes it clear that she exists solely to help Mashiro achieve his dream. Her entrances into and out of the plot only serve as motivation for Mashiro to work harder and rarely advance her own narrative.
Tired Female Tropes
Yuriko Aoki is a female manga artist introduced relatively early in the series. She seems independent at first and very focused on her art. Earlier in her career, she won awards for her manga as a solo artist. Later, we see Aoki display a few genuine moments of strength when she slaps Nakai, who tries to force her to date him in exchange for help. However, her overall arc is that of an independent female artist being stripped of her personal agency.
First, it’s by being forced to work with a sexist artist (Nakai) who views her as a romantic prize. Then, when she asks her editor to let her leave to pursue shojo manga, he forces her to write a new series filled with panty shots. Later in the series, she is transformed further into a romantic bargaining chip to convince fellow mangaka Hiramaru to work harder. While the two eventually get together, their relationship is centered entirely on Hiramaru, with Aoki depicted not as a participant in the relationship, but instead objectified as a prize to be won. The core problem with Aoki’s subplot is not simply that it concentrates on a male-dominated field, but that the plot actively disenfranchises its strongest female character to the point where she ends as merely a shell of her original self.
The mistreatment of the female cast doesn’t end there. Iwase is reintroduced using the classic, sexist hysterical woman trope. She returns as an accomplished novelist, but decides to make a sudden career shift into manga due to her obsessive competitiveness with Takagi. Later, she becomes completely focused on winning the approval of all the male figures in her life.
There is also manga assistant Natsumi Kato, who is introduced as an artistic gold digger. While she has a strong appreciation for and love of manga, her purpose for entering the manga industry is primarily to find an artistic man for herself. As Kato works for male manga artists, she grows attracted to them purely on the basis of their art, regardless of any other characteristic or even their personal relationship.
Female Reduction Weakens the Plot
Time and again, these female characters are objectified as plot tools or prizes for the male characters. The Bechdel Test fails in every single encounter with these female cast members. This tragic writing removes any personal agency for them and denies these characters the opportunities to have their own personalities, stories, or ideas.
Frankly, it is awful for each of them, but also for us as readers.
Aoki is introduced as a strong, capable mangaka equal in skill and storytelling ability to the remaining cast. Her objectification and transformation into a plot device betray that introduction and deprive the readers of interesting interactions. At one point, she works with an entirely female staff, which was such a great opportunity to show women in the field. Instead, it gets reduced to a group of women making panty-shot manga that gets side-lined relatively quickly because, frankly, it’s not even what they want to do. This reduction of Aoki also weakens Hiramaru’s sub-plot as his narrative shifts from being one of a reluctant mangaka to that of a man driven by blind lust for Aoki, with a sexist editor egging him on.
Kaya and Takagi pair up early into the story. This provides a unique opportunity to present a married couple balancing their art and relationship. But instead, we are shown a heavy imbalance where Takagi ignores Kaya for days on end and she shrugs it off as the silent, dutiful wife. She serves Takagi and Mashiro hand and foot as they work, rarely receiving acknowledgement and when she does, it is often from outside of her marriage. This plot decision is such a missed opportunity for more evocative storytelling.
The reduction of the female cast also prevents us from seeing any real, compelling romantic subplot. Aoki and Himaru’s romance is laughably shallow. Kaya’s relationship with Takagi is more of servant to master than anything with emotional depth.
Azuki and Mashiro’s relationship could have been interesting. A decision to make the relationship long-term and wait until adulthood could have been written in a moving manner. However, the treatment of Azuki as an object whose decisions were never made for herself rendered this relationship both unbelievable and, frankly, boring. While the cast constantly points to Azuki and Mashiro’s relationship as lovely and pure, it falls flat for me as a reader, since the affection displayed often feels forced, fake, or non-existent. This is not to say one cannot fall in love with someone through letters; but it is to say that in this case, the relationship via text was weak and uninteresting.
Women are Equal Image Bearers
While I know there are some out there who use the Bible as a cudgel, the Bible is very clear on a few things. One is that women are equal image bearers of the Lord. In Genesis, it says that the Lord made all humanity of all genders in His image. In Galatians, Paul reminds his readers that in Christ there is no division by gender, but that all are equal in the Christ Jesus. In a previous post entitled, “Living Tools,” I addressed this better than I can think to now, when I wrote:
The Bible does not tell us that merely men were created in God’s image. It never tells us that some humans are more equal than others. The Bible does not differentiate between color, race, or gender. As Paul later reminds us (Galatians 3:28), there should be no division or treatment of some as greater than the other.
Thus neither male nor female are created to be more God-like than the other. While the Bible may speak to different roles within the church or the family, this does nothing to diminish the equality we all share before God.
All people of all genders are equally worthy of life.
All people of all genders are to be treated with love and compassion.
All people of all genders are equally human.
If those of all genders are equal image bearers of the Lord and there should be no division in the Lord by gender, and female stories are as equally important as male stories. The Bible is also clear that women can and should have many roles. The Bible displays women as warriors, evangelists, leaders, lovers, and mothers. All these roles are important and all provide rich, important stories.
There’s a reason Deborah was the Judge who saved Israel and that Jael was the one who gave the killing blow to the enemy king.
There’s a reason that Esther and Ruth’s lives are included in such detail in the Bible.
There’s a reason that Christ first appeared to women after He was resurrected.
Female stories matter. To disregard women or treat them as mere objects betrays the God I worship who loves all people of all genders equally as well as the Messiah who gave His life for us all.
Bakuman does not treat its female characters as equal image bearers. They are written as tools to progress the plot of the male characters. While overall, some of the shonen competition manga trope moments are great, the narrative becomes bogged down by its mistreatment of its female cast.
They all deserved better.