Chainsaw Man is the first manga I reviewed (and also the only one), accidentally coinciding with the series’ unexpected end last December. In it, I discussed how its characters are simply-written and likable, its art is grisly and majestic, and it’s the first story in a long time where I truly believed that anyone could die. Since writing that review, I’ve had the chance to reread it in preparation for its upcoming anime.
I wasn’t wrong to give Chainsaw Man or its author-illustrator Tatsuki Fujimoto as much credit as I did. In fact, I was grossly neglecting my duty to give this wonderful manga and its mastermind even more credit. But you know what? This essay isn’t about Chainsaw Man.
Don’t get me wrong, Chainsaw Man deserves a deeper dive than one measly review could ever provide, but that’s not Fujimoto’s most recent work. I rarely review manga because it’s difficult to get on the ground floor; anything that’s not Shonen Jump doesn’t get an English release quickly enough to make the review timely.
On top of that, it’s pretty hard to determine whether or not a manga is truly special in just a few chapters. If I were to review any more manga, it would probably be closer to the hundred chapter mark like I did for Chainsaw Man.
So I was delightfully surprised when Shonen Jump published Look Back, a 140-page one-shot by Fujimoto about the lives of two manga artists. No, Bakuman, I’m not looking at you, but I did recently finish that manga, so expect an essay on that soon. Look Back manages to present a densely rich narrative of two lives surrounded by love, loss, and art, and provide meaningful characterization and painful yet satisfying catharsis in the equivalent of five or six chapters.
To do this one-shot any justice, I am going to spoil Look Back in its entirety. If you want to read it, it’s a brief story that’s available on the app of the most popular manga magazine for pocket change per month. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you to come back.
And if you haven’t noticed, I wrote this within hours of reading and rereading Look Back. It’s just that I completely spaced and forgot I had this finished outline until nearly two months later. Woopsie.
Look Back begins when budding fourth-grade manga artist Fujino is asked to give up one of her slots in the school newspaper to Kyomoto, a shut-in whose art seems otherworldly compared to Fujino’s amateurish scrawling and immature jokes. Discouraged but determined, she is set to not be shown up; she buys instruction books, ignores friends and schoolwork, and spends all her time practicing her art.
She hits another plateau of her work and quits manga, but when she’s pressured to deliver Kyomoto’s certificate of their elementary school graduation, the two hit it off. Kyomoto’s realistic, lonely style of background art serves as a complement to Fujino’s homier, cheesy storytelling and character design.
The two complete a one-shot while still in middle school, earning runner-up in one of Shonen Jump’s contests, and receive an offer to serialize their work as they graduate high school. Kyomoto’s grown a lot in the intervening years, though, and isn’t content to stagnate as an artist. After an argument, she leaves Fujino to work on the series alone, while she goes to art school.
Years down the line, Fujino has become a successful mangaka, but learns that a disturbed man attacked Kyomoto’s school with an axe, killing twelve, Kyomoto among them. The news sends her spiraling, and as she attends her friend’s funeral and later visits her home, she despairs that by causing Kyomoto to leave her room and go to art school, she caused her partner’s death.
She plays out a scenario where the two never met and became friends, and while Kyomoto still attends art school, Fujino fantasizes that she would have had the chance to save her. In the end, the daydream fades and she’s left with only the question of why she even draws in the first place. Reliving the adolescent days where nothing made Kyomoto happier than reading Fujino’s manga, she picks up a single comic strip from her partner’s room, and eventually pins it above her desk.
I will address the writing first, as it is unbelievably dense, and even then, I could never do it justice in this short a timespan. Maybe it’s the moment to encourage you to read the manga again if you haven’t already. You may think spoiling the entire story ruins it for you, but as someone preparing to read it a third time, I can assure you it doesn’t.
Look Back is the deceptively simple glance at Fujino’s life and what contributed to her decision to be a manga artist. It packs innumerable details that you won’t discover until your fifth or tenth reread. Its first promise is to show you that the base human desire to work hard when we see someone else doing well. It’s the cornerstone of shonen manga, but it’s not all we have to see here.
As much as Look Back is about these characters, or its gorgeous art and heartbreak, it is about manga. Why individuals are driven to create this difficult, unrewarding art, and the unparalleled joy that can be derived by reading this. You could do this story about any art form, or maybe you couldn’t. It is just a wonderful feeling that this type of meta story could not exist out of the expressive world of manga.
Manga as an art form is about showing the reader individual moments in as much detail as possible, so we can put the in-betweens in ourselves. The use of panel layout, flow, and individual moments join these disparate works of art into a comprehensible story. Like manga itself, Look Back is about looking at snapshots in a story, the story of Fujino and Kyomoto, and using intricate detail to give the reader what they need to fill in the blanks.
Fujimoto uses every tool available to a mangaka to create an authentic story about the love and pursuit of artistry. By doing that, Tatsuki Fujimoto already created a masterpiece, but he didn’t stop there, because the art makes your and my favorite manga look like garbage by comparison.
Before today, I would have never accused Fujimoto of having a ‘realistic’ art style. His work in Chainsaw Man and fire Punch (which I have not read enough yet to do a whole other essay on) have given me the impression that he is talented at rendering outlandish concepts in immaculate gory detail. I already knew he was a master of clever panel layouts and transitions, but Look Back is a whole new side to him.
It’s not exactly a manga art style. The eyes are large and the other facial features are simplified, but there’s nothing unusual about these characters. All of the normal creative choices that mangaka use to distinguish characters are subdued, and yet wildly expressive. I would easily believe that Fujino and Kyomoto’s appearances are based on real people, but I can also believe that Fujimoto is just that good.
What stands out the most is the many ways Fujimoto depicts a variation of the same scene. Fujino simply sits at her desk scratching away at another drawing. Each time her room or studio is cluttered with details that tell their own stories, like the slow growth of her bookshelf, the increasing refinement of her art, or Kyomoto’s presence. Despite the many changes, we see Fujino hunched over her work time and time again.
Look Back doesn’t use many of the tricks that characterized Chainsaw Man, but the decision to use such grounded designs and layouts is a creative choice, not a flaw. The narrative draws the eye and flows like water as Fujimoto strings you along to the beat of the story.
Call this a review, an essay, or whatever you like. I prefer the term retrospective because it’s a…look back. Other than my terrible sense of humor, I hope that this has helped you to appreciate Fujimoto’s past and present works a bit more, if not to convince you to read Look Back.
With little to no hyperbole, Chainsaw Man may be the last true great of this era’s Shonen Jump. There are plenty of promising contenders to watch out for as they hit their stride and get anime adaptations of their own, like Spy x Family and Kaiju No. 8.
However, it is going to be difficult to top a graduating class of Demon Slayer, Haikyu, The Promised Neverland, and series that are coming closer to their end like My Hero Academia and Jujutsu Kaisen. That’s not even mentioning series that are showing no signs of slowing down even as they hit their 200th or 300th chapters like Dr. Stone and Black Clover (as long as you don’t count the latter’s anime).
Even if I lump Chainsaw Man in with series that are over or entering their final stages, it’s not over. It is just that this particular part of the story has come to a close. If the author has time between parts to churn out brilliant pieces like this, I am eagerly anticipating what Chainsaw Man will offer us next. Heck, Chainsaw Man is even moving from Weekly Jump to Jump+, so Fujimoto has even less incentive to tone down his bloody Renaissance art.
If you’re looking forward to Chainsaw Man, either the anime or the next part of the manga, it would be wise to follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress, and maybe over on Twitter for notifications every time a new essay and review goes live. You could have predicted this essay was coming if you saw the thread I posted the day Look Back was published. Until next time, thanks for reading.