ACT-AGE 001-002 – Manga Review
Synopsis: Kei Yonagi comes from a poor family. Her father ran out on her and her two younger siblings, leaving her to fend for the family herself. When the opportunity comes to chase her dream of becoming an actress, Yonagi jumps at the chance. Catching the eye of Director Sumiji Kuroyama, Yonagi’s opportunity to shine has come. However, Yonagi’s talent for acting comes from her extreme and innate ability for Method Acting, one that various individuals note as potentially self-destructive.
Warning: Spoilers to Follow:
Act-Age is one of those manga that takes a profession and turns the dial on its drama up to eleven. It takes acting and makes it over the top, instilling far more drama and intensity into the concept that it ever normally contains. This isn’t new, Food Wars remains an excellent ongoing example of taking the art of cooking and turning it into something altogether exclusively shonen.
That said, it works in Food Wars, and doesn’t here. The fundamental difference is that Food Wars knows that battle cooking is a gag. The drama in Food Wars never really stems from that, and manages to keep the passion of its characters separate from the shonen-charged cook offs. Even when Food Wars tries to pull at our heartstrings, there a looser, lighter atmosphere that lacks intensity. Sometimes Food Wars botches that, I’d argue with Erina’s most recent character development over the last arc, but we’re not here to talk about Food Wars. Act-Age, on the other hand, gets this wrong from the get go.
Act-Age oozes with melodrama, playing its entire concept is such an overtly serious way that it becomes ridiculous and distant emotionally. Act-Age wants us to care, wants us to feel, wants us to cry, but that intensely forceful nature to move the audience makes Act-Age come off as ridiculous and hokey.
Chapter 1 opens with Director Kuroyama stumbling upon Yonagi in an acting competition. It’s here she immediately showcases her extreme ability to produce emotion upon command and as we’ll come to understand, utilize her innate ability to method act. Act-Age’s first couple pages aren’t bad, and serve as an acceptable introduction to its premise. But the series quickly falls into the struggle of “Show don’t tell” and fails at this defining concept spectacularly.
We are told Yonagi and her siblings live in something akin to poverty with dialogue denoting their lack of money. Despite this, they seem to live in a pretty good house, and outside of a tight food budget, have no trouble paying for amenities like running water, heating or electricity. It crafts a divide between what the manga wants us to believe about these characters and the reality of what it’s showing us. It makes its drama seem false and forced.
This issue continues as Act-Age further tells rather than shows. we are told of how their mother died, their father left them, etc. None of this is presented in such a way to dig into our emotions and get us to care for Yonagi and her awful situation. It’s regurgitated to us in a line or two. It’d be fine if Act-Age didn’t give off this overtly somber atmosphere. The minimalist art-style cuts away backgrounds and creates an intense focus on characters and their emotions. It’s hard not to feel like I’m supposed to be on the verge of tears this entire chapter, as if Yonagi’s journey is one of deep emotional heartache and profound realization.
It’s all compounded by the way CEO Arisa Hoshi talks of Yonagi’s ability. Not only does Yonagi have incredible talent, but so much so that it could destroy her. There’s a focus on whether Yonagi would be truly happy as an actress, seeing as her ability produces genuine and intense emotion, threatening to tear Yonagi’s delicate nature apart. That’s the insinuation anyway and one that presents Act-Age as a tragedy, further sending the story down the avenue of melodrama.
Comments like “she’s dangerous’ continue to build this melodramatic atmosphere that makes it difficult to take any of this seriously. Comments like that make sense in something like Naruto, where we’re dealing with life and death struggles of Ninja’s and Fox Spirit Demons. But Act-Age is a straight drama and doesn’t benefit from grim phrasing and intense interpretation.
The chapter climaxes as Yonagi, in the chapter’s most over the top display yet, showcases her method acting ability by imagining a feral dog trying to eat her siblings during the ultimate and final audition phase. The crazy praise with which Yonagi is showered speaks to Act-Age’s other major issue, further illuminated in Chapter 2– the portrayal of Yonagi as a character herself.
With Chapter 2, Yonagi starts to feel a lot like a Mary-Sue. Mary-Sues are traditionally characters that serve as self-inserts for the audience. The term originated due to Star Trek fan fiction where women would write stories where they’d insert themselves as characters into the Star Trek universe and quickly become a part of the lives of the show’s main cast. Today’s usage is more generic. They are often flawless and things tend to come easily for them. Their greatest obstacle is that no one understands how amazing they are. Not every character who suffers an arc like this is a Mary-Sue or, if you prefer, self insert for the audience.
Naruto contains some of these elements, as does Asta of Black Clover, but both manage to exist more so as downtrodden heroes than Mary-Sues (Or Gary-Stus, the male version of the term) due to their otherwise flawed natures. Either they need greater training to unlock their latent potential, or suffer character flaws they need to overcome (Naruto’s lack of innate talent is an excellent example). Or perhaps, like Goku, they exist as a catalyst character, meant to inspire change in the individuals around them. Near all Shonen contains some level of wish-fulfillment with its characters. Like Spider-man, these characters exist to inspire and suck in the audience. What better way to do so than with a relatable avatar that audiences can, potentially, see themselves in. It’s why Naruto is a young pre-teen at the start of the series. Same with Asta. Yonagi however, exists much closer to Mary-Sue status than any of the other characters I’ve mentioned, transcending the wish-fulfillment nature of shonen leads and becoming something altogether more frustrating.
The trouble with Yonagi starts at the end of Chapter 1, portraying her as this secret acting genius. It’s compounded by the divide between Act-Age’s melodramatic atmosphere/tone and the over the top presentation of Yonagi’s ability. That in and of itself wouldn’t be an issue, save for Chapter 2’s need to double down on Yonagi’s perfect nature. While the world hasn’t realized how amazing Yonagi is, her peers have. We’re treated to two pages of people doing nothing but fawning over Yonagi’s beauty, ability and work ethic. The only thing that keeps me from ultimately declaring Yonagi as a self-insert for the audience, is the fact that this title runs in Shonen Jump, a predominantly male centric manga magazine. I don’t know the gender of the author, nor do I think gender really matters when producing a lead character that acts as little more than a fictional representation of the author, but these two pages feel terribly out of place, unnecessary and pandering to the idea that Yonagi is someone for us to fawn over and adore, much as her peers do.
Chapter 2 gets a little better once we’re past those two, almost pointless, pages and I will give props to Act-Age for trying something new. It’s not everyday we get a manga about acting, with a female heroine no less, struggling in the day to day. For all it does wrong, Chapter 2 eventually manages to craft an acting scenario where we learn about Yonagi a little more naturally, and see her struggle to get the job done. It’s a stronger portrayal of what Act-Age has been trying to present. If Chapter 3 can continue this stronger direction, it could go a long way to improving my thoughts on the series. But right now Act-Age is another Jump title that I feel has more flaws than actual potential.
That’s it for today. Please let me know your thoughts on Act-Age in the comments below!
Act-Age is published weekly as a Jump Start in Shonen Jump.