The manga Bakuman is about two young manga artists (Takagi the writer, Mashiro the artist) who work their way up through the manga industry at it’s top selling publication- Weekly Shonen Jump. Written by two veteran manga creators, it’s a masterpiece on many levels, and at its core it’s both a critque of the industry and a how-to for those who want to become future manga artists. Another way to describe it is if Scott McCloud made his incredible Understanding Comics as a story about a young pair of creators working their way up through the ladder at Marvel Comics instead of in textbook form.
In chapter 8 of Bakuman (“Carrot and Stick”) there is a scene where the two young heroes first meet their editor Akira Hattori, and he tells them that there are two types of manga creators- “the Genius type” and “the Calculating type”. The Genius is the natural creator who draws comics they love and because of their natural talent and passion for their subject matter is able to come up with a hit manga that blows the audience away. The Calculator, on the other hand, looks at it from the audience’s point of view and tries to make something that will appeal to the greatest number of people regardless of their actual feelings about the subject matter.
In a lot of ways, through Hattori the creators are talking about classic writer dichotomy – the Pantser who makes it up as they go along and the Plotter who plans it all out – just taken to an extreme. And, of course, in reality just like that classic writer dichotomy, it’s rare for any writer to be a Genius/Pantser or Calculator/Plotter alone as almost all creators are some mix of the two extremes. Even a Panster will usually at least think about what will appeal to their audience, and a Plotter will generally pick subject matter they’re naturally attracted to and passionate about to some degree. (Few people are good at writing things they honestly hate or dislike, especially if they have any choice.)
As a result, it’s uncommon that you can look at any work and say “that was created by a Genius” or “that was created by a Calculator,” because after all, any work is normally a mix of the two and it’s hard to tell how much of each is involved. There are, however, exceptions to this, and one of those exceptions is something I came across on Netflix a few weeks back when I was looking for something to watch which I exercised- an anime called HUNTER X HUNTER (2011).
Hunter x Hunter is a manga/anime about a stubborn 12 year old boy named Gon who leaves his home village to become a Hunter- a person who travels the world seeking whatever it is they’ve chosen to seek. In his pseudo-modern fantasy world, there are Treasure Hunters, Monster Hunters, Bounty Hunters, Delicacy Hunters, and many other kinds, who brave dangers to find their targets. All of them, however, much first pass the Hunter Exam, which is where the story starts, and get a Hunter License that gives them free access to the world and status as members of the elite. Gon’s (missing) father was one of these great men, and through following his footsteps, Gon hopes to find him and experience the world himself.
Hunter x Hunter (2011, because it’s the second attempt to animate the Hunter x Hunter manga), which can also be read as “Hunter Hunter,” is perhaps the most calculated anime/manga I have ever seen in 20+ years of anime fandom. It started in 1998, and it’s like someone took all the popular elements of the hit manga of the previous two decades, disected them, and then based on extremely careful analysis produced the most planned piece of storytelling I’ve ever seen. I’m not just talking characters and plot elements, I’m talking story, pacing, backgrounds- you name it, there is not a single original element in this story- none. It’s like they had a computer analyze the history of manga and this was the end product.
Yet, and this goes to the skill of the creator Yoshihiro Togashi (creator of the also hit anime/manga YuYu Hakusho back in the 1980’s) I don’t mean that it’s unoriginal in a bad way. In fact, for what it is, it’s actually very well done, and in fact is almost perfect in a textbook sort of way. Whereas most manga are a rough exercise in creative serial pantsing, with the creators only thinking a few chapters ahead, Hunter x Hunter is extremely well plotted and thought out. Everything happens at a carefully measured pace, everything is introduced at exactly the right time in the right way. The humor is in the right spots, the chapters all end on cliffhangers of sorts, and there’s no sense of it being rushed, it’s a piece of art without a line or comma out of place.
Well, calling it a piece of “art” might be pushing it, it’s really a machine designed for maximum appeal and marketing potential. And, like any machine, there’s a certain cold, mechanical nature to it that keeps it from being in the same class as stories like Naurto, One Piece, and even Bleach, which are also top series from the same era. The creator definitely reaches to those levels, but he doesn’t quite make it because of the calculated nature of it all. It’s like Hattori says in that Bakuman chapter- the Calculator has the greatest potential for a hit and long-term success, but they don’t have the same potential as the Genius has for creating a true smash hit story that excites the audience.
In any case, I’d definitely recommend Hunter x Hunter (2011) as a watch, whether just to enjoy it as a well-told story, or to take it apart as a creator and see how the whole thing was so well put together. Either way, it’s time well spent.