Saturday, April 18, 2020

Blank Canvas volume 4 - now we know the heartbreak (Manga Review)

A young woman with art supplies in a red coat next to a flowering tree
Blank Canvas vol. 4 - 8/10 (*see full scoring rubric below)

Blank Canvas volume 4 (Seven Seas) continues the memoir of mangaka Akiko Higashimura as her career begins taking off. I love her work and it is amazing to read her manga memoir. All the subtle regret and fear that's been behind the scenes comes to the fore in this volume at its final page cliffhanger. Knowing that this is her real life makes it all the more poignant. I'm hooked, and sad, and sympathetic, and it's totally got me emotionally invested.

My only minor complaint with this volume, is that it did a lot more telling than showing. That's been a structure for the whole series, but it seemed a bit more prevalent in this volume. It's still well worth reading though.

In volume 4, Akiko has made her debut and begun to have periodic one-shots published. However, her sensei at her high-school art studio is still making her work for him while she's also trying to hold down her full-time customer service job. Finding time for manga in that brutal schedule is tough, and so sensei has her do her work in his studio while she's teaching some of his students.

Unfortunately, many of those students don't end up getting into art schools, and Akiko is beginning to see the need to move away from Miyazaki. She meets fellow mangaka, Ishida Takumi, at a holiday party for her publisher. As a result, Akiko formulates a plan to move to Osaka, leaving sensei behind. However, she can't quite tell him that she thinks the move is permanent.

In Osaka, Akiko not only publishes regularly, but has the opportunity to learn by assisting Takumi-sensei. Her career is taking off, she is loving the personal freedom, until...Well, I'm not going to spoil this, because this is the crux, the fulcrum, for the entire memoir. We've sensed something bad lurking in the shadows of this story since volume one, and we now finally know what that sadness is. It's heartbreaking to finally know, even if it was sort of expected. That this is a real story, about real people, makes it that much more affecting.

There are really powerful messages about regret in this volume. About how we never seem to take stock while things are good or how when we're young, we don't think about where other people are in their lives and their journeys. Again, I don't want to spoil it for you, so I'm being circumspect.

On the other side, Higashimura-sensei is always so self-effacing and funny in how she tells her own story. My favorite moment was when she was describing a chance she had to write a story purely for her own pleasure, not what an editor wanted, and then looked back on it now.

She describes that story as: "The girl is me - but minus twenty pounds and with slightly more personality! Fine, she's basically me! And they meet in a small town by the ocean, but it's like a stylish shoujo manga where they just pine for each other, and there's angst and ennui and fleeting looooooove!!" And oh god, I recognized myself and my own writing in this and just had to laugh. But you know, you write your own fantasies and this is exactly (other than that it was a hetero relationship) what I like to read and write! She even comments that: "In retrospect, I don't see why anyone would want to read this." Well, Higashimura-sensei, I do! I do.

The art is, intentionally I think, less refined than her work in Princess Jellyfish or Tokyo Tarareba Girls, but not in a bad way. It has all those series' hallmarks with some very lose, cartoony moments, accurate and realistic moments, and hyper detailed scenes as well. Higashimura-sensei has such a unique style, that it's instantly recognizable and fits the emotional balance her stories strike between comedy, real-life, and the instability of people's emotional minds. It's charming and fits perfectly. I'm imagining that you're reading this series for much the same reason I did, a memoir about a favorite mangaka, and so you already like the unique art style.

Volume 4 is really important in that it finally reveals the emotional center of this memoir. Like many memoirs do, this memoir only covers a very specific period of time, and so finding that emotional core is critical (ie, it's a memoir not an autobiography). We've seen hints of what's coming in the prior volumes, well, now we know the central "conflict." The question will be how it resolves over the rest of the volumes. Sadly I imagine, melancholy probably too, with heartbreak and regret along the way, but also learning to be an adult and live with your choices, and getting away from the binary of "good choice/bad choice." Blank Canvas volume 4 is a critical step in this series, with lots to appreciate. It gets a strong 8/10.

  • Story interesting (0-10): 8 - yeah, it really covers so much, growing up, the manga industry, the interpersonal relationship between Higashimura and her high-school art teacher.
  • Characters interesting (0-10): 7 - pretty much there are only two that matter, Higashimura and her sensei and while we know her well, and love her fallibility and self-effacement, we never really know what's going on in his head. That becomes heartbreaking at the end of this volume.
  • Quality prose/writing (0-10): 6 - it's emotionally strong and insightful, but it was very "telly" and not very "showy" in this volume, similar to the others, but more so maybe because of how much plot needed to happen.
  • Emotionally plausible (0-10): 9 - devastatingly so.
BASIC SCORE (avg.): 7.5/10

  • Emotional insight/depth (0-5): 1 - there were some real frank moments here, but they are also hinting at a lot more to come in future volumes.
  • True LGBTQ+ representation (0-5): 0
  • Female agency (0-5): 0 - not exactly the point, but Higashimura is setting out on her own life journey at every step.
  • Character growth/change (0-5): 2 - Akiko makes some decisions to push her career forward.
  • Quality art (0-5): 0 - I love it, but only in the way that it is Higashimura's and supports her stories so much, it isn't actually my favorite style at all. So no bonus points.
BONUS POINTS (sum/8): +.5

  • Homophobic/transphobic (0-5): 0
  • Misogynistic (0-5): 0
  • Fan service (0-5): 0
  • Child/adult relationship (0-5): 0
  • Exploitative (0-5): 0
PENALTY POINTS (-sum/2): -0



Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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