Manga Review: The Essence of Being a Muse

Miyuu used to be an aspiring artist. All through high school, she studied hard, practiced her craft, and honed her skills with pencils and brushes, paints and canvases. She sacrificed everything—from her social life to her mother’s approval—in order to give it her all as she prepared for the art school entrance exams. And then she failed. Five years later, she’s in a dead-end job, where she is the butt of too many workplace jokes, and seems only to attract super creepy guys. But at least her Mom approves, right? Is a steady, if meagre, paycheck and parental approval enough, though? Is life just about getting by? Or might there still be a chance for Miyuu to pick up the broken shards of her dreams and become an artist?

Sounds intriguing, right? Well, we thought so! That’s why we decided to do a collaborative review rather than our usual solo ventures over on Readers’ Corner. Did we make the right call? Was this volume worth the team effort? Read on to find out!

Spoilers Ahead. (Skip ahead to the Final Thoughts section to avoid spoilers.)

What’s it All About?

sleepminusminus: Right off the bat, the, well, essence of The Essence of Being a Muse centers on failure and picking up the pieces in the aftermath of broken or unfulfilled dreams. First impressions count, and the very first page introduces Miyuu clutching an exam ticket, overshadowed by a list of exam results posted on the wall. Miyuu failed to make it into art school, and her failure looms over her head throughout the volume, shaping her actions and the way she perceives herself. She dresses along with the latest trends in a desperate attempt to succeed at something. She attends the mixers her mom sets up for her even while doubting she’s marriage material—who would love someone who didn’t make it to college? 

The Essence of Being a Muse asks the question, “What happens after your dreams don’t come true?” What holds us back, and what keeps us pressing forward in the face of failure? How do we find the strength to pick ourselves up and press on, while being true to ourselves at the same time?

claire: It’s quite a point of contrast to other “creative endeavor” series, where we start with the dream and only see relatively minor setbacks along the way to achieving the dream with the help of friends. I’m thinking particularly of Blue Period, the other major fine art series out there at the moment. 

What I appreciate about this story is that it isn’t a “get up, dust yourself off, and try again after failing” kind of story. She’s moved on with her life, or at least tried to, for five whole years, which is a significant proportion of her entire life, as she is only 18 when she fails. I really like that this series is essentially exploring not so much just failure and resilience in the face of setbacks, but rather the loss of a lifelong dream, the attempt to make a life in some other way, and the long, painful, frightening process of deciding to return to that dream, to figure out a way to bring art back into her life. Right now, we don’t know yet whether she will pursue art as a career, following formal education, or whether some other path may open up to her. I’m excited to see where this story of a wannabe “mature student” goes. It’s refreshing in the face of all these high school-aged overachievers.

Twwk: I kind of get the feeling that it’s going to fall in line with some of those more predictable stories, but for now, I’m happy to see how broken everything is, as bad as that sounds! The characters are immature. They act like young people whose growth has been stunted by the challenges in their lives. It feels real. Too many of the series I’ve read or watched present tragedies in the characters’ lives, though the love they’ve experienced growing up helps them overcome. In The Essence of Being a Muse, it feels like the opposite: no significant tragedy except for bad parenting (at least in Miyuu’s case).

Is this Really About Art? The Artist Miyuu Seno

claire: My critique of this volume would be that we get a fair amount of talk about art, but no substantive engagement with it. It’s all tell and no show. I’m not actually clear on why it is that Miyuu wants to paint again, and I suspect that she doesn’t know herself either.

But that in itself is interesting, right? Because we often operate more on instinct than actual rational, clearly articulated motivations. Those teens in manga who are constantly announcing their motivations and goals in life? Yeah, right. I couldn’t do that at their age, and struggle to do so even now, many years hence. So in a sense, although I found Miyuu a bit frustrating due to her vague motivations, she is nevertheless a compelling character in that she captures a kind of zeitgeist, particularly of that age—sometime in the mid-20s—when we’re stuck in the “in-between” phase of life. Although she’s been working since high school, she’s still underachieving and has not yet found her place and purpose in society. In fact, she’s just discovered the opposite: what she thought was the source of purpose in her life (do her job, support her mom and herself)—what she thought would be enough—turned out not to be. Not at all.

Twwk: This was really an engaging part of the story for me. I’m bought into Miyuu as a character who really doesn’t know what she wants. I honestly don’t even know if she really wants to be an artist. Have you ever been so lost that you hold onto something that gave you happiness or security even though it’s not necessarily a part of you anymore? I get the feeling that this is where Miyuu is, though for her it may magically work out that her security blanket is also her purpose. Either way, there’s no doubt that she doesn’t quite comprehend the complexities of life yet and needs to discover a more nuanced view of adulthood. 

sleepminusminus: As one of those twenty-or-so-year-olds who’s stuck in that “in-between” phase of life, I found myself connecting with Miyuu’s journey here. Miyuu wants to find out who she really is—her purpose in society, like you mentioned, Claire, but also her value as a person apart from what her mother and other people say. “I just want to try to find a way to like myself,” she muses halfway through the volume, and so far, art is that way. But will art continue to provide a path forward for Miyuu, or will she discover it’s a dead end? She doesn’t know, but she’s willing to try it out and see how far it takes her.

And I love the honesty of that portrayal! Being an adult isn’t about finding that magical spark that gives your life purpose and riding it until the sun goes down. No, it’s more like driving a fixer-upper with a sketchy history that you’ve wrung from the local used car dealership. There’s times where it’s smooth sailing, but most of the time you’re sputtering along, trying out parts to see what works, stuck at the repair shop for days when the engine gives out. It’s exhausting, mundane, and a little disorienting. And we could have a conversation about how society pushes growing adults out into the world with grandiose expectations of success, only for them to be disappointed when it doesn’t work out that way. But The Essence of Being a Muse isn’t trying to do that. It’s just trying to depict what it looks like to stumble and limp (and fail!) your way onward to a more fulfilling, meaningful, purposeful life. And at that, it succeeds.

Who is the Muse? (Also, We Need to Talk About Kairi…and Mom)

claire: I was pleasantly surprised that the muse of the title is not, in fact, the young woman on the cover, who is instead the artist, Miyuu. But this begs the question, who is the muse? And is that a love triangle I see on the horizon? I sincerely hope it is not, because I found Kairi Nabeshima to be despicable on a level that is nearing irredeemability, even as someone with a soft spot for tsunderes and the “misunderstood misanthrope” type. For now, I’m siding with the white cat in the extra, who turns up its nose at him. 

That said, I was glad to see that Miyuu has enough self-respect to call Nabeshima out on his rude behavior and establish clear boundaries with him even while she’s struggling with self-esteem. You go, girl. 

sleepminusminus: Kairi gives me shivers just reading about him. I get a feeling that the author wants us to sympathize with his inability to be vulnerable or act on his better desires, but when that gets to the point of minimizing the hurt he causes Miyuu, I’m out.

Twwk: Oh, Kairi. He reminds me of so many young men that age who have this misplaced self-confidence and who don’t mind destroying people to get what they want (which means sex mostly).  But he has a conscience too, one that he’s pushing to the side. I have to admit, I’m pulling for him—not as a love interest for Miyuu, but for him to reach a point of transformation. 

Speaking of despicable characters, I wonder how important a role Miyuu’s mother will have in future volumes. Does she just function as an impetus to move the story forward? Or will she be a more constant presence in the tale? The latter would be a more interesting choice to me as long as we see her grow as well. I’m not sure I can take much more of her abuse toward Miyuu.

Final Thoughts:

claire: For a series about painting, the art itself is a bit of a mixed bag: the backgrounds are strong, while the faces are a tad wonky at times. Yet, the looser, more sketchy style used at key moments in the story is really vivid and compelling. I’m looking forward to seeing mangaka Aya Fumino consolidate her visual language in coming volumes.

All in all, I am intrigued! The series is poised to avoid a number of tropes, which gives it a fresh feel, but the burgeoning love triangle could steer it back into predictable territory quite quickly. I really hope that “art” isn’t just the setting for another love triangle story, and right now, I can’t quite tell which way it’s going to go.

Twwk: I feel exactly the same. Is this series going to be amazing? Terrible? Average? Who knows?!

sleepminusminus: I guess we’ll have to find out next time! (Cue game show music…)

The Essence of Being a Muse is published by Yen Press.

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