Writer’s anime – unblocking the block

The Withering FlameDraft Two of “The Withering Flame” is now happily done, and I finally have a little time to rest and write the blog.

There was a point earlier this year where things didn’t seem going in that direction at all. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I had a hard time starting with this book, struggling through a long and arduous writer’s block all through the summer and autumn.

Out of several things I tried to break through it, there was one that helped the most, and it’s something I hadn’t tried in years – watching some anime. I used to be a serious anime and manga fan a long time ago – not quite otaku level, but I did watch a lot. It’s been quite a while since I watched a full new series; I lost track of what was going on; after a few years of binge watching, like any pop-culture genre, it all got a bit samey.

But then, while mindlessly browsing YouTube for “inspiration”, I stumbled upon two new series that got me hooked – and, eventually, helped me break out of the stupor. Their subjects were similar: slice of life shows about struggling artists. Even the titles sound almost the same – Barakamon and Bakuman.

59321[1]Barakamon

Barakamon is a fantastic series; a true gem of an anime, calm, with all the whimsical, summery lightness of Yotsuba&! It’s a tale of a calligrapher overcoming an artist’s block – so obviously, a story close to my heart. Barakamon is, quite rightly, widely praised for its characters, art and smooth pacing. It’s a short series – only twelve episodes; as such, it doesn’t suffer from the common anime problems, like fillers and over-the-top plot complications. It’s a simple, straightforward story: the main character moves to a remote southern island, to find inspiration far away from the big city crowds – but the true inspiration comes to him not from self-imposed solitude, but from interactions with the local villagers.

The series relies on child characters, so it was easy to make it either too sweet, or too annoying, but the writers manage to steer clear of either of the obstacles. The script is an exercise in life-like moderation. There are teenagers here, but no angst. There are good friendships, but they are not overbearing. Even the ending nears perfection, breaking through the common cliches and expectations.

Twelve episodes is a quick watch, and it’s all on YouTube, so do yourselves a favour and try it out.

BakumanBakuman_Vol_1_Cover[1]

I actually ended up reading the manga, rather than watching the anime of Bakuman. It seemed fitting: after all, this is a manga about writing a manga.

If this sounds a bit meta, that’s not even the start of it. Bakuman is a shonen battle manga about writing shonen battle mangas, written by the masters of the genre – the authors behind Death Note and Hikaru no Go; so when they set out to show what it takes to create a #1 series, you can take their word for it – these guys know what they’re talking about.

I did say that it’s a battle manga… The battle element comes from the publishing system used by manga magazines like Shonen Jump: weekly rankings and ratings are the key to having your series continued or cancelled. Every issue of Jump is a new battle, every new mangaka is a potential enemy.

This is all fairly interesting, but it’s not what makes Bakuman the perfect series for breaking out of a writer’s block. It’s the passion all the characters show for their work. The mangaka’s life is, by all possible measures, a terrible one. No sleep, no holidays, pushing the deadlines, constant need to be on the top of one’s game… in a faint hope that you’ll be the one guy or girl out of the struggling hundreds to make the big time. A failure is unforgivable – and, often, irreversible. And yet, they keep doing it, just for the sake of creating art and telling stories.

The manga is not without its flaws. Unlike Barakamon, Bakuman is a long and winding series, and it tends to get rambling at times. The cast of characters is mind-bogglingly vast, the plot arcs at times get ridiculously complex and unrealistic. The romance plot is far too romantic and sugary for my liking – although, to their credit, the authors don’t stray from showing the sexism prevalent in the entertainment industry. But all that is insignificant compared to the sheer force of inspiration emanating from the pages, a force that makes you want to drop everything and start drawing/writing/composing that long forgotten piece of art you had lost all hope for.

There are 176 chapters of the manga available as scanlations, and three seasons of anime. Even if you stick to manga, you will want to watch at least bits of the anime, to see how the “shows within the shows” are brought to life – the fake openings are better than most real ones I’ve seen lately 🙂

Girls with bows.

Bookcovers_556x313[1]A wind is sweeping through British publishing world, a wind of change. The “Let Books Be Books” campaign to stop differentiating children’s books by gender is well on its way, with the likes of The Independent and Waterstones standing firmly on the side of progress.

The arguments don’t need to be repeated here: it should be plainly obvious that the gender separation is an absurd notion, to anyone concerned with reading and writing books. I’m sure every one of us can name a book or a movie they enjoyed in childhood that they weren’t “supposed to”. For what it’s worth, I used to devour “Anne of Green Gables” just as eagerly as I had the Cowboy & Indian-type adventure books at the same time.

Merida-image-merida-36459015-648-365[1]

So this post would have been a very short one, if it wasn’t for a remark from Michael O’Mara, of Buster Books (one of the chief offenders – they produced the colouring books in the picture), quoted by the Independent in the piece linked above:

“Our Boys’ Book covers things like how to make a bow and arrow. 20131004050534!Katniss_Everdeen[1]

And it made me wonder. How did we get to this point, as mankind? How did things get so bad that even bow and arrow is not a girls’ thing anymore?

marion01[1]Merida and Katniss are just the latest in the long run of women archers in popular fiction. Thirty years ago, I watched, fascinated, as the feisty Judi Trott drew her bow along with the rest of the Merry Men in the iconic Robin of Sherwood series. At roughly the same time, I was reading C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles for the first time, where Susan Pevensie is the archetypal bad-ass with a bow, outshooting the master dwarf bowman Trumpkin. Susan[1]

marsprofile[1]In the 90s we discovered anime, and with it came a whole army of female archers: from the “Flame Sniper” Rei Hino in Sailor Moon, to Kagome and Kikyou from Inuyasha.

Ten years ago, Keira Knightley stormed onto our screens as another bow-wielding lass, first in the little known straight-to-video “Princess of Thieves“, as no less than Robin Hood’s daughter, and then as Guinevere in “King Arthur“.  That opened the flood-gates: Mulan, Abigail Whistler, Nefriti… even Padme with her blaster, all the way back to Merida and Katniss.  p2[1]

K6.1Artemis[1]The association of women with bows and arrows is very much an archetypal thing. It’s at least as old as the image of Artemis the Huntress. It’s got its own TV Tropes page. In fact, it could be argued that the association itself is a sexist cultural stereotype: it was supposed to be the boys’ role to fight with swords in the melee – girls were at the back, with bows and guns.

bronies2[1]If for men like Mr O’Mara even that much involvement with power and violence is too much for girls, it is really a time to despair. The goalposts have been moved – back. That is a dreadful and woeful state of affairs, my friends. In 2014, we really shouldn’t have to tell girls that they, too, can play with bows and arrows. Just as we don’t have to tell boys that they, too, can play with My Little Ponies.