This is one of the rarest things: an autobiographical manga by a successful mainstream artist, most of whom are too busy drawing 1,000 pages a year to have a life to write about. Blank Canvas begins with Higashimura, best known as the creator of Princess Jellyfish, as a thirtysomething manga artist and single mom. There’s only a quick glimpse of the present before Higashimura zooms back in time to her real topic, her days as a lazy high school student dreaming of becoming a mangaka. She’s the best artist in her class, and her art teacher praises her, so clearly she’ll become a star manga creator … right?
When Higashimura hears about a “special” afterschool art class, an hour away by bus, she initially thinks it’ll be a waste of her time. But she needs to learn oil painting to get into art college, so she signs up and meets Hidaka Kenzou, the teacher who’ll change her life. A rude, grumpy jerk, Kenzou rips apart Higashimura’s samples (“Every last one of these sucks!”) and puts her on a strict regimen of drawing classical busts and statues. At first, Higashimura is furious. (“He yells at everyone! Age, gender, it doesn’t matter!”) But soon she rises to the challenge and benefits from meeting an adult who doesn’t flatter her. Drawing three to four hours a day, five days a week, she begins to develop her skills, and Kenzou’s studio becomes a home away from home for her and the other aspiring artists.
Looking at Higashimura’s adolescence from 20 years later, Blank Canvas is colored with an almost romantic nostalgia (“Sensei … I was such a child in those days …”). Through her adult self’s often critical eyes, we see her young self’s first challenges, successes, and failures: her first beer, her first overnight trips away from home as she travels to prospective colleges, and stuff that’s too silly to be made up, like relying on dowsing to pass her exams. Readers who are themselves artists may appreciate this manga the most. There’s perhaps too much information about Japanese art colleges and the exam system, but the story will resonate with anyone who’s experienced the quarter-life crisis of struggling after graduation and figuring out what to do with your life. If Higashimura was able to make me, the skeptical critic, accept students getting occasionally whacked with a bamboo sword as an acceptable part of a “tough but fair” art education, you’ll accept it too (maybe). Recommended.
publisher: Seven Seas Entertainment
story and art: Akiko Higashimura