Up until about a year and a half ago, I had never read manga, and had never had any inclination to do so. Despite my love of Japanese culture and anime (to a certain extent, anyway), manga just never appealed to me, and I don’t know if I can really put my finger on why. I may have associated it with otaku culture and thought manga was only for…you know, those people. People who are obsessive and greasy. The kinds of people who yell 4chan memes IRL and who give you hugs even though you don’t know them and who are liable to break into a memorized soliloquy from their favorite anime in a public setting just for the attention.
That may very well have been a part of it, but a bigger part was, I think, that I was lazy and if I wanted to know the story, “I’ll just watch the anime.” And this very mindset is ultimately what drove me to manga at all — after having watched Kare Kano and being let down (at the time) by it’s kinda-sorta non-ending, I decided I had to dive into the manga if I wanted closure. And since then, I’ve been reading manga off and on for almost two years.
Now when I say “off and on”, I absolutely mean it. I will get into obsessive periods of a few weeks where I devour what I can, but those periods usually end rather abruptly as I get distracted by other hobbies and I just find that manga gets pushed to the side while my time is used up in other ways. Unlike anime, of which I usually will watch at least an episode a day without fail, manga never made its way into my regular schedule. Knowing this, I usually search for shorter manga that I can make my way through in a week or less, because I know that if I get into a longer series it’s just going to get cut off in the middle as soon as I mentally check out, or I’m going to force my way through it over the course of several weeks and it will feel like a chore by the end.
This vicious and, I admit it, unfortunate thought process is what led me to Kakukaku Shikajika. While browsing MAL’s Top Manga page, I scrolled past this and the cover caught my attention (as did the “5 volumes / 34 chapters” — short enough for me to get through in a few days!). I skimmed the description and thought, yeah, this is nice, exactly the kind of thing I’m going for. I love slice of life stories like this, and I tend to like the shoujo/josei manga and anime that I’ve seen, so why not?
Kakukaku Shikajika is an autobiography which follows the mangaka, Higashimura Akiko, starting at the end of her high school life. Her dream is to be a manga author, and although she has talent she never applies herself. She begins attending an art class led by Kenzou Hidaka, an eccentric, pushy, and extremely critical teacher. The story follows her through her last year of high school, into college and beyond, up to the current day as she’s writing this manga.
As someone who has read very little manga, I feel out of my depth in trying to review this. With my anime reviews, even though I haven’t seen nearly as much anime as pretty much all of my anime-loving friends, I feel pretty confident that I know what I’m talking about most of the time, having spent the better part of the last 10 years deeply involved in an anime-centric community. I’ve become familiar with what’s popular and why, I’ve learned the names of studios and even individual artists within the anime community, and I feel like I have enough authority on the subject to formulate my own opinions about shows I watch in comparison to what I’ve seen and, even more broadly, what I know through osmosis about series I haven’t seen.
With manga, the situation couldn’t be more different. Although some of my anime knowledge translates smoothly to the manga side of things, in reality there are way more things I’m not aware of, and this makes me somewhat nervous to publish this review. Although the history of manga and anime are intertwined, I feel like there’s a lot more depth and history when it comes to manga of which I am completely unaware. I also think manga reflects current styles and trends in Japanese youth culture more than anime ever does, and I’m woefully ignorant of these things and I feel like stories like this can go over my head as a result. There’s almost more subtlety in the way the art communicates things that I miss (for example, I just learned today on Wikipedia that what Westerners think of as thought bubbles in comic books or graphic novels can actually be a character whispering in manga — whoosh).
With that said, Kakukaku Shikajika couldn’t have been a better manga for someone like me. Due to its autobiographical nature, the mangaka is constantly interacting with the reader. Her story is often — often — interrupted by her own thoughts and explanations, although rather than derailing the mood or interrupting the flow, this ends up making the manga much more intimate. It feels like a conversation, rather than a story on paper. But more than that, for someone like me who is entirely ignorant of a lot of Japanese cultural mores, Higashimura’s interjections help clarify things that I wouldn’t have understood. She details things like how entrance exams are structured (or were, when she was taking them in the ’90s), or the actual process of putting together a page of manga. Rather than assuming the reader knows these things, she lays it out — usually right in the middle of something else. The manga has a very “train of thought” feel to it, and it’s not always linear, but it never feels obtuse.
Because of this, I actually ended up learning quite a bit about the manga industry and how it works, and what it actually looks like to be a mangaka. This has never been a dream of mine or anything, even less so after reading Kakukaku Shikajika, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating to read about. People will always point to Bakuman as the penultimate “manga about writing a manga”, and maybe deservedly so — I don’t know, I haven’t read it. But I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t have quite the same feel as this one does, even if only because this one actually happened.
Let’s take it farther though, because Higashimura’s style of storytelling is only half of what makes this great — the other half is the story itself. It’s worth mentioning here that there are surprisingly few autobiographical manga out there. I don’t know why this is, for the life of me; perhaps manga publishers are unwilling to waste space on people writing everyday stories about themselves, or maybe there aren’t any manga authors out there who have had lives worth writing about. All I know is that after reading this, I wish there were more, because it’s these kinds of stories that fascinate me so much.
In the end this is a coming-of-age story, and there are lots of those out there, in manga, anime, or otherwise, but this one stuck out to me because reading through this, you get to experience emotions from the author herself, in as close to an unfiltered light as I think I’ve ever come. With art, that’s the best kind of presentation. Seeing the mangaka’s actual feelings and reflections as they are, not covered up or fictionalized — of course, I have no way to prove that Higashimura didn’t do this, but I suspect that if she did it was minimal at best.
We see all the things you’d expect to see in a late teenager and early 20s college student — the stress, the joy, the partying, the romance, the stress, the drinking, the stress, the drinking…but what connects it all, besides one key character that is at the foundation of Higashimura’s choices, whether she realizes it herself or not, is those times when she, as the author, breaks the fourth wall and provides reflections on herself as she relives these experiences. Her too-late realizations, her full-on self-critcism, her disgust at her younger self’s actions, words, and ambitions…these all come from the heart of someone who has lived with too much regret, who desperately wants to go back and fix things but knows that time doesn’t work that way.
Importantly, I see myself in Higashimura more than I wish I did. This manga resonated with me on a deep level. I see myself in her high school and college years — more than able to do the work but totally unwilling to apply myself. I see myself in her relationship with her Sensei — more than aware that there are those out there who love me, but not willing to spend time with them. I see myself in her general attitude about talent — waiting for the world to fall on my lap, but not wanting to do the work to get it. Time after time, page after page, I was slapped across the face and a voice in my head kept screaming, “THIS IS YOU! YOU DO THIS AND THIS AND THIS! WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO CHANGE?? WHAT DOES IT TAKE??” I don’t know yet…maybe this was it.
All that said, if there’s any point at all where Kakukaku Shikajika failed to completely impress me, it was the art. I’ve read a couple manga now that have totally blown me away in terms of the art style (Akira and Suiiki, mainly), and Kakukaku was really not that impressive in comparison. To be fair, it told a completely different kind of story than either of those, and for manga (or anime for that matter) like this, really beautiful art is definitely not a necessity. Higashimura’s art is consistent, but boring for the most part.
Still, some of the settings are quite beautiful, and I won’t deny that the art helped contribute a lot to the aching sense of nostalgia that permeates every panel of this manga. There are also several portions where Higashimura uses negative space masterfully, and is able to convey silence and reflective thinking stunningly. I would also say that, especially given her training as she describes it in the story, she’s good at making interesting compositions, even if her technique is somewhat plain.
Fiction seeps into my life, and then it seeps out again. I’m hoping against hope that this doesn’t happen in the case of Kakukaku Shikajika. This has the potential to be a life-changing manga, and I don’t say that with any sort of sarcasm or irony attached. As one manga fan to (presumably) another — make it a top priority to read Kakukaku. It’s something you absolutely will not regret
Personal value: 10/10