Hibiki: How to Become a Novelist is one of my favorite manga of the past few years. Sure, it doesn’t have the mind-blowing thrills or soul-reverberating energy of other works. The art is also decidedly mediocre. But what Hibiki does have is ridiculous humor, unpredictability, and a protagonist I would describe as “spiritually akin to Stone Cold Steve Austin.”
The series follows a teenage girl named Akui Hibiki, who one day submits a novel manuscript on a whim. As a result, she winds up on a journey that brings Hibiki in contact with titans of the field, struggling aspiring authors, an eccentric but enthusiastic school literary club, and a whole host of other unique personalities. But while Hibiki’s quiet and thoughtful personality evoke images of a bookworm archetype or perhaps a demure “literature girl,” she also refuses to take shit from anyone. Whether it’s high school bullies, dismissive fellow writers, nosy paparazzi, or even a kid getting in the way of customers at the bookstore, they’re all met immediately with unexpected violence from this skinny girl. Hibiki isn’t particularly strong or fast, and she isn’t trained to fight in any way, but she will not let anyone try to use the trappings of civility and etiquette to take advantage of her.
Hibiki is not a malicious person. She respects creative passion in all its forms, and will go out of her way to encourage everyone to try their hand at writing so that they might express what’s inside of them, be they friends or enemies. Her fellow members of the literature club run the gamut—from the granddaughter of a famous author, to a childhood friend she knows is stalker-level obsessed with her, to a girl who likes cheesy light novels—but Hibiki supports them all. She cares little about celebrity and glamor, or the aesthetics of fame, as it’s the love of craft that motivates her. What she hates possibly more than anything else is people who shower her with praise but who clearly haven’t actually read her work. Hibiki honestly engages with the creations and feelings of others, and she expects the same in return.
That unabashed authenticity is why I liken Hibiki to one of the most popular wrestlers ever. While pro wrestling is a staged performance and everyone pretty much knows this to be the case, Steve Austin is famous for feeling incredibly genuine every time he walks into the arena as the sound of shattering glass marks his arrival. Austin’s appeal was that he 1) felt convincingly real, and 2) he would constantly kick the ass of his nasty boss, Mr. McMahon, who kept trying to humiliate him. That’s Hibiki to a tee—minus the Stone Cold Stunners, but still keeping the kicks to the gut and the chair shots (really). Though, if I were to describe her exclusively with anime characters, she’s like a cross between the eerily capable mind of mahjong prodigy Akagi Shigeru and the also-aggressive Taniguchi Mio from 22/7.
As I think about the appeal of Hibiki, I’m reminded of a series of tweets I saw by translator Dan Kanemitsu. In them, he expresses the idea that the reason Japanese culture places so much value on stories about middle and high school years is because they’re assumed to be filled with potential and agency. After you grow up, things change, and it just doesn’t come across the same way when a story is about a defiant adult. I feel that the character of Hibiki speaks to this sentiment on a very visceral level, and much of the satisfaction she provides is that she won’t let anything get in the way of that agency. In fact, the last couple of volumes of Hibiki even bring up this idea that the passion of youth can’t be maintained relative to her career. Without going into spoilers, the resulting answer is worth seeing.