Manga of the Month: Blank Canvas

Blank Canvas: My So-called Artist’s Journey by Akiko Higashimura

“Now that I’m older, I can safely admit this: At twelve years old, I thought I was a total genius. I was convinced that if I submitted my manga to Ribon, I’d win a prize and make my debut. It was going to be that easy!”

In the small city of Kushima, Japan, Akiko is coasting along in her senior year self-assured that she will easily make the leap from high school art club to top ranked art college. When a friend suggests Akiko attend an independent art class and meet the friend’s teacher, Akiko is rudely awakened to her own lackadaisical approach to art. Thus begins Akiko’s journey from dreamer to full-fledged manga artist.

In this autobiographical series, Akiko Higashimura reflects on her personal story to becoming a manga-ka. As she delves into her development as an artist, her bonds with her teacher, going to art college, and beyond, she brings to light emotions she has not explored in years (or perhaps ever). There are moments in the story when it is as though Higashimura doesn’t realize how she feels until she is in the middle of drawing it; sometimes she even retreats from those realizations.

Higahimura frames her story around her relationship with her teacher Hidaka-sensei, who changes her artistic life practically overnight. Hidaka-sensei is a complicated figure to discuss both for me as a reader and Higashimura as she tells her story. His teaching methods aren’t subtle or soothing, and he frequently gives students a whack. He forces everyone to draw like mad, day after day, still life after still life, until their is little room for anything else. He berates students and critiques their artwork to within an inch of its life.

But Hidaka-sensei also never tells a student they can’t learn something, grow, or get better. He looks proudly on the accomplishments of his students when they reach their personal potential, and he has an uncanny understanding of what each student can achieve. He always believes each of them can be the artist they want to be deep in their hearts.

Hidaka-sensei’s approach is one that could push some to achieve while greatly damaging others. I flinched at times seeing what he did or said despite Higashimura’s comedic expressions and cartoony depictions. Higashimura ablely captures her kaleidoscope of feelings about Hidaka-sensei and his mantra to just draw, and what it ultimately means to her.

Higashimura’s irreverent story of her past feels endlessly authentic as she takes us from her stumbling high school days dreaming of a career in manga while simultaneously never drawing even a single page; to her tentative steps into adulthood working at a job she hates by day and drawing her first comic pages late into the night. As a person who went to art school and has a career in a creative field, I found it particularly tough to read about Akiko’s struggles in college with an unnamed mental block on her creativity which prevents her from doing much of anything in four years.

Blank Canvas is at once resplendent with Higashimura’s trademark humor and also achingly personal in its account of her life.

“But thanks to those days I can keep on drawing no matter what. Even in the hard times.”

-Kate

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