For a series that’s offered up a fair bit of tension and suspense over its long run, there actually wasn’t a whole lot left for the finale. It was pretty clear what was going to happen this week – the only reason question was how well it was going to be executed. And I can say with complete honestly that JC Staff and Kasai Kenichi delivered the goods with an ending that exceeded my expectations in pretty much every way.
I feel as if Bakuman has been a vastly underrated series these past three seasons, and the anime never seemed to gain much traction with the English-speaking audience even as the manga continued to be very popular. It’s a shame, because in terms of pure character drama I think this has been one of the better anime of recent vintage, and it remains the most comprehensive and balanced look inside the manga industry that’s ever been put forward as far as I’m concerned. Yes, Bakuman is a manga for people who love reading about manga – but just as Touch and Cross Game have special appeal for those who love baseball but ultimately achieve transcendence in the human stories they tell, it’s in chronicling the lives of its characters that Bakuman is at its very best.
I think the major task facing Bakuman in this finale was giving emotional closure to those character arcs. It can be strongly argued that both in personal terms and professional, Mashiro’s story is just beginning; he’s only now achieved the top slot at Shounen Jack (however briefly) and he’s only now living out the reality of his fairy-tale relationship with Azuki. Yet this is arguably the best place to leave things, because Bakuman is a story about how life is the destination and not the journey. In ending, it had to give us a satisfying epilogue for all these characters, because rarely have we seen a story that was so successful as simply being about good people trying to get ahead. If you can’t root for these characters you have a pretty cold heart – yes, there are bakayarou like Miura and corporate hard-asses like Sasaki (who actually comes out looking better in the end than one might have thought) and perhaps least likeable of all, vindictive climbers like Iwase. But mostly it’s a story of people chasing a dream, and the people who help them achieve it.
It’s a long list of things the ending gets right, but I think it has to start with having Mashiro specifically taking the time to thank Kaya for everything she’s done over the years. Without question she’s been the unsung hero of this series, tirelessly supporting the career of Ashirogi Muto and the romance of Mashiro and Azuki while often quite under-appreciated by her own husband. I never felt Mashiro was blind to that, but it was still nice to see it openly acknowledged. Of course she also dutifully steps aside to give Mashiro and Takagi time to connect, and there was have a fittingly awkward guy moment. Those two are the dominant relationship of the series in terms of screen time, and I think – in their own awkward way – they’ve pretty much said everything there is to say to each other over the years. Of all the major pairings in the story, theirs had the least unfinished business, so I think the low-key nature of that scene makes a lot of sense.
There was no way this series was going to end without a shared moment between Mashiro and Kawaguchi Tarou, Uncle Nobuhiro. I’ve said before that there are four Mashiro relationships at the heart of Bakuman (Takagi, Eiji, Nobuhiro and Azuki) and it’s Nobuhiro’s that really acts as the foundation of the story in many ways. It’s strange that two characters who are on-screen so rarely – Nobuhiro and Azuki – are so critical to everything, yet so it is. Nothing could quite top the emotional peak of the Season 2 finale when Mashiro brought the poll results to Nobuhiro’s grave, but this was more than satisfying. It’s a fine line Mashiro has always walked, between living his Uncle’s dreams and his own – but rather than imitation, what Mashiro takes from Nobuhiro is inspiration – and it’s quite affecting to see the way Nobuhiro lives on in his heart, especially at the key moments in his life.
If there was one potential trap for this final episode, it might have been the fact that it seemed destined to showcase the relationship we’d seen the least of on-screen at the expense of those we’d been spending so much time with. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about that until it actually played out, but I was happy with the way it was handled. It’s the Azuki relationship, after all, that has the most unfinished business – and it’s that one that’s always been egging Mashiro forward. I don’t find their romance especially realistic but I’ve always enjoyed the purity of it – the almost complete lack of compromise, even when it defies common sense. It is a fairy-tale romance, perhaps Mashiro’s greatest concession to the memory of his Uncle – but then, he fell in love with Azuki before he ever knew the details of that earlier doomed romance.
In the end I think it boils down to the fact that Mashiro and Azuki are just really nice people who deserve a happy ending. They’ve both worked their asses off and been through a hell of a lot, and it wouldn’t have felt right if their storybook courtship didn’t have storybook ending. I loved the symmetry of Mashiro taking Azuki back to the place where they first spoke (her old house, which he’s obviously bought with the money he borrowed from Takagi – does the romance never end?) and repeating the words he’d said to her on that spot (and driving up in an Italian sports car to fulfil Nobuhiro’s dream was a nice touch – was it borrowed from Hiramaru?). Their kiss is as long-awaited and well-deserved as any we’ve seen for a while, but my favorite part of that scene was when Mashiro broke into a goofy smile when the tension of the moment became too great. Fundamentally they’re the same people they were ten years earlier – and considering how little they’ve spoken to each other over that time, it’s a good sign that each is still the person the other fell in love with.
Another interesting question for the finale – how would it handle the premiere of “Reversi”? Damn well is the answer, with about five minutes of “Reversi” mixed into the middle of the episode. Fittingly Abe Atsushi and Hino Satoshi handle the male leads (as Schwarz and Weiss, respectively) and of course, we know who the female lead is. This chunk of “Reversi” does nothing to dispel the eerie similarities to Death Note (which, when L died, “coincidentally” had about the same number of chapters as “Reversi”) right down to the character designs. As always with Bakuman these internal stories do a wonderful job of making me wish these fictional fictions were “real” fictions – if they want to make a “Reversi” anime, I’ll be first in line. I often wonder if Obata and Ohba ever regretted using up good ideas on fake manga in Bakuman, rather than making a real manga out of them.
In closing, Bakuman gives us what every good finale should – a chance to check in with the characters we’ve spent so much time with over the last three seasons. Hiramaru and Aoki are married (Azuki catches the bouquet, which was exactly what Aoki intended). Eiji is on top, and clearly a little bored with no weekly Ashirogi series to challenge him. Iwase has been passed off again, this time to the hapless Kosugi. Even Nanamine (unseen) has a new series. And then there’s one last meeting with dear, tireless Hattori, so critical to Ashirogi’s success: he tells them that PCP is better than ever, and promises to give their “new work” (hang in there, Eiji) a good read. And finally, Mashiro and Azuki – who despite Mashiro’s “We can’t show that!” protests, do finally get their wedding scene – in the last eyecatch.
As so it ends, with Mashiro promising that he and Takagi will continue to chase their dreams (and interestingly, urging us to “keep watching”), which is only appropriate given what the series has been celebrating for 75 episodes. Bakuman certainly has had it’s ups and downs and the production values have never been off the charts, but it’s still downright criminal just how under-the radar this series is. I’ll miss it a great deal – it’s one of those stories I could go back to every week, where the cast felt like beloved old friends. I would have liked for the pacing to be a little slower this season (who would have believed anyone would be saying that when S1 was airing) but all in all, this was an anime treatment than any long-running manga should be thrilled to have gotten. Bakuman is and always will be a love story – the love of family, the love of a soulmate, of friends, and the love of manga and anime itself. It’s packed more genuine emotion into its three seasons than most series could ever dream of, and for that alone I would be a devoted fan.