Oh, What Could Have Been: Maku Musubi Final Review

Maku Musubi by Hotani Shin is a manga that hooked me instantly. Its story—that of a high school girl who abandoned her dreams of becoming a comic artist but finds new life creating scenarios for theater—resonated with me because of its exploration of its protagonist’s creative process, and it made me want to read more. 

The series ended up being five volumes total, and my takeaway is that the series is great fun from start to finish, but feels like it was cut short and prevented from reaching its true potential.

In Maku Musubi, heroine Tsuchikure “Musubi” Sakura and her clubmates are working towards competing in competitions against other schools. They even attend a joint-school event where different drama clubs gather for what is essentially a practice run with professional critique. This little arc is great: it emphasizes the eccentric yet compelling nature of Sakura’s scripts, and also introduces an extremely harsh judge whose cold-blooded reviews of every performance provide a “villain” of sorts that challenges everyone to rise to the occasion. The judge clearly recognizes Sakura’s potential, her inability to meet his high standards makes her screenplay a “disappointment” in his eyes. But then they never truly get to any competitions, and so we never see them get to the first true step of their main goal. 

The manga has plenty going for it despite this lack of resolution, and its main focus in the final chapters on the club president’s unpleasant past with the former members who left prior to the first chapter brings out all of the things that make Maku Musubi interesting to read: character introspection, depictions of club-life camaraderie, and a flair for the dramatic (literally). Still, it feels like Musubi’s story could have gone so much further. Her creative struggle could have grown into something even more impactful if given the chance.

Manga isn’t an easy area to succeed in. I’m reminded of another title I reviewed years ago called Haru Polish which, like Maku Musubi, clearly stops earlier than was intended. But when  you look at manga about acting, it’s hard to end things at the right time. Glass Mask is notoriously long—around five decades old with no finish in sight. Now Playing finishes at four volumes when it felt like it had more left in the tank. Act-Age was doing great until the author’s sex crimes forced that series to be canceled. I don’t know if the theatre genre in manga is cursed or what.

I hope Hotani Shin ends up doing another manga, and that they’re able to make as big and beautiful a series as they hope. In the meantime, Maku Musubi was a great ride.

Manga Made for Theater: Maku Musubi

Whether it’s Glass Mask or Beastars, there’s something exciting about seeing theatrical performances in manga. Perhaps it’s because we’re viewing a medium that thrives on ingenuity in presentation and strongly projected emotions through the lens of another that emphasizes dynamic page composition and intense closeness. A recent genre work, Maku Musubi by Hotani Shin, stands out because of how it delves deeper into the process of creating a play, told from the perspective of a girl discovering her potential as a scriptwriter.

The plot: When she was little, Tsuchikure Sakura loved to draw manga. But now, as she starts high school, Sakura sees her childhood art as a hurtful and embarrassing part of her past. When one of her old drafts inadvertently ends up in the hands of the school’s drama club, Sakura gets drawn into their world. While her drawings don’t make for the best manga, they might just be the perfect material for theater.

It’s always a little heart-wrenching to see someone’s dreams get shattered, and Maku Musubi goes in depth on just how much drawing manga meant to Sakura. It was her way of letting her imagination flourish, unbeholden to the judgment of others, but it’s also due to past criticism that she feels unable to keep making comics. This is not uncommon in stories both fictional and real about creators, but I find the angle about Sakura’s pivot towards theater to be filled with storytelling potential. 

Many works would keep her on a path towards pursuing a career in manga with a “never give up” theme. Maku Musubi instead presents the interesting notion that its heroine isn’t necessarily untalented as an artist, but rather just hasn’t found the avenue of expression that best fits her. Although a story about teenagers, I think it has the power to resonate especially with adult readers, who might look at their own lost childhood aspirations with a bit of regret, but who could find inspiration in channeling those dreams in a different but still fulfilling direction.

This manga also has a great cast of supporting characters, especially the members of the drama club. A mix of experienced but eccentric upperclassmen and newcomers looking for change in their own lives, it greatly reminds me of the club aspects of Sound! Euphonium and even Kannagi to some extent. The introduction of a nationwide competition between school drama clubs also brings it away from a slow-paced slice-of-life feel and towards challenging its characters to change and grow. 

Maku Musubi was actually on my radar for a while, and I’m actually kind of mad that I didn’t get around to it sooner. As of Volume 1, Hotani’s work really appeals to my taste and aesthetics, especially with its cute yet striking depictions of both inner and outer human emotions. Consider me a fan, and I can’t wait to see these characters on a bigger stage.

Book Off Broadway: Toshiki Okada’s “Enjoy”

While I am not normally a patron of theatre, my interest was piqued when I heard about Enjoy, a play centered around a manga cafe and the colorful individuals who work at it. Translated by Aya Ogawa and directed by Dan Rothenberg, Enjoy was originally written by Toshiki Okada, a man apparently known for using very “realistic” language in his scripts. After having seen Enjoy, I understand what that really means.

The first big impression I got from the play happened before it even began. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I assumed that the people coming to a play about a manga cafe in Shinjuku would probably be manga fans and otaku eager to see this part of their lives dramatized, so it was a little surprising when I realized that the majority of the audience consisted of roughly middle-aged theatre-goers. It makes sense in hindsight, but I still didn’t expect it. Meanwhile, the stage itself was very close to the front row and probably less than twelve inches away. It was also very bare-bones, being essentially an empty room. That simplicity and proximity would be the first hint at how the play would unfold.

Enjoy is split into four acts, focusing on the various workers at the manga cafe and the ways in which their lives appear to be in stasis. Some of the characters are over 30 and still working part-time. Others are younger employees who seem to define their self-worth relative to those 30+ year olds. The story is told through actors who, while each technically playing different characters, go between talking about themselves in the first person, talking about themselves in the third person, and talking as if they were another character involved in the story, resulting in constant perspective shifts all in the form of expository dialogue. Very much to its credit, however, this is never truly confusing, as it’s less important who on stage is saying what as it is what is being said at all.

The “realism” of the language stems from the fact that every character in the play is incredibly awkward in their own way, and through a combination of acting talent and an effective script are able to really convey that awkwardness in a convincing manner without having it be unintelligible. It strikes a delicate balance that could easily be undone. All of the characters, whether they’re being played by their original actors or being assumed by different actors, are very flawed people whose individual hangups come largely from the active pursuit of uneventful lives. Insecurities abound in areas of work, romance and friendship.

As for the story itself, there isn’t exactly one, at least not in the traditional sense. Enjoy is primarily an exploration of characters, and though you get a clear image of who they are as the play goes on, none of them have any real motivations to move themselves forward. It’s the kind of thing that works ideally as a play and would probably not be so personal as a film in a theater. By having the actors so close to the audience, and having them seem as if they are speaking directly to the audience (without actually acknowledging it), it gives a direct emotional connection that’s hard to replicate without real bodies in a live performance.

Although adapted for English-speaking audiences, Enjoy still sets itself in Japan and uses Japanese names for all of its characters (Kato, Shimizu, etc), even if none of the actors are Asian, as if to say that this story could not be told elsewhere and that the adaptation is mainly in the transformation of the text itself. This makes sense, I think, because the manga cafe for the most part does not exist in the US. However, the play is not so Japanese that it is impenetrable for those unfamiliar with the country or its comics. In fact, Enjoy makes only one reference to any specific manga title, and it comes and goes so quickly that it’s more for flavor than anything else. Moreover, the characters’ idiosyncrasies and doubts about their worth and the way their success in employment (or lack thereof) might define them seems to be especially relevant and universal today.

Truthfully, some of the themes of Enjoy hit a little too close to home, but that’s also the very same reason I consider it a success.