Nowadays, Akiko Higashimura is a big-name mangaka, most known in the West for her works Princess Jellyfish and Tokyo Tarareba Girls. Her autobiographical manga, Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey, which depicts her journey to becoming a mangaka, gives us a glimpse at how she got there. Manga fans will appreciate seeing a realistic becoming-a-mangaka story, unlike the dramatized versions in manga like Bakuman. (And if you’ve followed the shoujo or josei world, you’ll also have fun recognizing other people and parts of it, like when she goes to a publisher’s party for the first time and is in awe to see Ai Yazawa of Nana fame.)
However, the manga is compelling not because of Higashimura’s exceptionality, but because of its universal humanness: Blank Canvas is a deeply personal and vulnerable memoir that will leave a lasting impression. The manga is autobiographical, and yet, might be better described as a eulogy. Higashimura’s journey provides the tracks that the story runs upon but is only a lens through which we learn about Blank Canvas’s true main character: her beloved former art teacher, Kenzou Hidaka.
“I don’t know anyone like you, Sensei. Even though I’m going to be 40 this year, I’ve never met another person like you.”
Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey
Seven Seas Entertainment
May 21, 2019 – July 14, 2020
Higashimura grew up in the warm, coastal city of Miyazaki, carefreely spending her days reading manga and doing little schoolwork. Her dreamy life plan was to go to an arts college and eventually become a mangaka. But by her last year of high school, she still hadn’t put any effort into actually preparing for Japan’s highly competitive arts college entrance examinations.
So when she learns about a mysterious, unadvertised art class run out of the home of a strange but skilled teacher, she immediately jumps upon the opportunity to attend. Her enthusiasm, however, rapidly gives way to regret. The first day, Hidaka-sensei bluntly tells her that her sketches suck and she won’t be able to get into art school at her current level. With that out of the way, he tells her to come five days a week to improve. Each practice is grueling—Hidaka-sensei makes them draw for hours on end, often forcing them to redraw the same objects over and over. And on top of it all, he doesn’t hesitate to supplement his teachings with a bamboo sword.
Higashimura quickly decides that Hidaka-sensei’s spartan training camp isn’t for her. So one day, she lies about having a stomachache in order to leave early and hopefully never return. But because of her lie, Hidaka-sensei (who doesn’t own a car) carries her all the way to the faraway bus stop so that she doesn’t have to walk the long distance while being sick. And after they miss the bus, he waits an hour with her for the next one.
“I thought you weren’t like the kind people of Miyazaki, but the truth is, you were the kindest one of all, weren’t you?”
As always, Higashimura is a master at conveying atmosphere; she has a distinctive ability to naturally blend and interweave light and heavy moods, making her works neither pure comedy nor pure drama. (I also wrote about the way she blends light and heavy moods in Tokyo Tarareba Girls.) In Blank Canvas, those skills are fully realized: hilarious panels poking fun at her youthful hubris are naturally punctuated by quieter, more distant panels that provide pause for grief, regret, and reflection. (Compare the two sets of panels above.)
She ends up going to Hidaka-sensei’s classroom for the next eight years, even after she goes to art college, and after she starts publishing manga, all the way up until a year before Hidaka-sensei’s death. Whether it is Hidaka-sensei’s classroom in Blank Canvas, Amamizukan in Princess Jellyfish, or Koyuki’s family pub in Tokyo Tarareba Girls, in Higashimura’s works, physical locations are not just backdrops: they are attractors and preservers of community, and as such, they become treasured by their regular visitors, a sentimentalism which passes on to the reader.
As you read Blank Canvas, you get the sense that it was written both about and for Hidaka-sensei, a way for her to express her appreciations and regrets that she never had the chance to say. The reader of Blank Canvas is merely an invisible spectator who gets to receive its message in lieu of the true recipient.
“I’m sorry, Sensei. I was a greedy person who only thought about herself. Even though I knew you only had a little bit of time left, I ran away and abandoned you, Sensei.”
Hidaka-sensei has a phrase that he often repeated to his students: “Just draw.” One summer break when Higashimura is back home, she sits in front of a huge blank canvas, which she needs to finish for her first college assessment. Staring at it to no avail, unable to draw anything, she breaks down crying in despair. After a call from her parents, Hidaka-sensei immediately speeds there on his scooter, traversing the one-hour journey under the sweltering hot Miyazaki sun, to say to her, “Just draw.”
Years after his death, through the darkest points of her life, Hidaka-sensei’s, “Just draw,” continues to give Higashimura strength. Amazingly enough, I too now rely upon those words: in times of despair, when the most basic of tasks feels impossible, it is relieving to, almost paradoxically, set it all aside and, nevertheless, just create. Somehow even now, Hidaka-sensei continues to affect and inspire more people—a testament to both his character and to Higashimura’s beautiful storytelling.