I’ll be very honest – I had some serious reservations once it became clear which way this episode was headed. Bakuman set itself a pretty high hurdle to leap with the public audition storyline, and to say I was skeptical would be an understatement. It seemed like a reach from a narrative standpoint and a bad idea from a real-world standpoint. But as I’ve said many times, Bakuman is remarkable in that it can outstrip almost any action series for thrills and suspense despite being a realistic story of two guys trying to make it in the manga business. And somehow, the episode pulled it off.
Why did this seemingly contrived and somewhat far-fetched storyline work so well in such a grounded series? Well, again, emotional honesty for starters. Bakuman is so transparently and obviously the product of the real feelings of its creators that it carries an authenticity that goes far beyond simply not having magic or giant robots. I think they’ve built up so much credibility now that I’m willing to forgive a lot – but even more than that, the execution of the audition sequence was so strong (here again the presence of a stalwart director like Kasai Kenichi really pays dividends) that I didn’t need to rely on that. It worked on its own terms.
Then there’s the matter (ironically) of some very interesting casting. For the role of the “Reversi” anime director JC Staff got Ebara Masahi (Hideyoshi from Hyouge Mono, Van Hohenheim, Alastor among many, many iconic roles). He instantly brings a gravity and presence to that minor role that’s so crucial to this little drama. And then there was the choice of Hirano Fumi (Keito from Tsuritama) to play Gouda, the veteran seiyuu competing against Azuki for the role of Naho. The notion of having a 57 year-old actress play the role of an actress trying out for the role of a high-schooler is fascinating on so many levels – hilariously self-referential, cuttingly satirical, and very witty. And I have to give it up the wonderful Hirano-san – when she launched into her Naho voice, it really felt as if 30 years (I can’t quite give her 40) dropped off her.
From the beginning, I thought the public audition was a bad idea – both by Ohba and Obata, and by Ebara-sensei. The whole Azuki-Reversi scenario had the feel of a no-win situation, despite Azuki’s Hail-Mary pass of going for complete honesty on her radio show. No matter what happened most of the public would inevitably decide she was given the role based on her relationship with Mashiro (and they wouldn’t be completely wrong). Frankly I didn’t see any way out of this that wouldn’t taint Mashiro and Azuki’s happy ending, and Ebara-sensei’s public audition scheme felt like a cheap publicity stunt that would only make things worse, if anything.
So what happened? Well, in addition to a dynamic among the 20 contestants that was much more interesting than anticipated, I think the fact is that Bakuman figured out the only possible way this could possibly work without feeling like a complete asspull – they had Azuki win over the audience for exactly the right reason. It isn’t simply that Azuki knows “Reversi” better than anyone – it’s that Naho is Azuki. That’s why Azuki should be the one to play her irrespective of her connections – she understands the role in a fundamental way no one else ever could. Like all Ashirogi’s female leads, Naho is a love letter from Mashiro to Azuki. And so her factual familiarity played a role, in her catching the Weiss/Schwarz mistake in the script. And her innate familiarity played a role, because she brought out the depth in the character the way none of the other candidates did. So when she won by a landslide (among 191,228 votes cast!) it didn’t seem cheap or contrived – instead, it seemed like the only possible outcome.
Contrary to the title – “The Right Way to End” – episode 24 is not the finale, but the penultimate episode. I think at this point it’s pretty clear where things are going to end up. “Reversi” is clearly a very good and popular manga already, and the Azuki Miho controversy has provided it a gargantuan PR boost – it’s going to be a hit. More than in almost any other series, Bakuman comes down to simply wanting the characters to get their happy ending. The main characters are, almost to a fault, really nice people who’ve earned it through their hard work and their loyalty to each other. Takagi and Kaya’s unending love and support for Mashiro is every bit as powerful as the romance angle (with either couple) but it’s fitting that we should close with the storybook “and they lived happily ever after” ending for the fairy tale romance of Mashiro and Azuki. They, too, win you over with their sheer niceness and their remarkable dedication to each other and the silly but endearing fantasy they’ve built together. Even realistic anime can have their storybook endings sometimes, if they’ve earned them.