With its themes of mentorship, nostalgia, coming of age, and plenty of art training, Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey by Akiko Higashimura is a powerful autobiography with many life lessons to impart. Readers with their own dreams of comic or gallery stardom will recognize a lot of the personal growth required to stay on that path as Akiko struggles through art school and repeated early failures. Considering she is known for her hit manga series like Princess Jellyfish and Tokyo Tarareba Girls, there is a guaranteed light at the end of her tunnel, but present-day Akiko is also the narrator, coloring the entire story with a wistful sadness at days gone by.
One of the instantly endearing qualities of this first volume is its authenticity. Akiko determines she will dive head-first into the world of art after loving shojo comics all her life, and slams into the rude awakening that is finding her discipline with a brash instructor, Hidaka. He hits his students on the head with a wooden sword and is unrelenting in his criticism. His classroom environment is stark, and classmates are often found crying to themselves. This is exactly the kind of tough-love approach Akiko needs in order to thrive creatively, and she… actually sneaks out, because that much ego death is too much to handle.
Akiko’s willingness to expose the flaws, vulnerabilities, and petty grievances of her younger self is both a comedy goldmine and relatable doorway to readers young and old. I am reminded of Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer, which adult readers felt would go over the heads of teenagers, but teenagers felt would go over the heads of adults. Everyone feels validated! Akiko does go back, though, because despite all the physical and verbal abuse Hidaka unleashes, he cares about his students. If they’re sick, he’d rather carry them to a bus stop than risk them falling over. When he labels a student a monkey and her lunch turns out to be a banana, he laughs so hard the entire class can’t help but join him. Hidaka’s role in Akiko’s education is a mixture of her younger perspective in the moment, older perspective looking back, and the reader’s perspective as a third party to everything. In the latter half of the first volume, when Akiko isn’t selected by one of her top three schools, he takes her out for a consolation beer. She, a minor, only takes a sip, but reflects on the moment as an adult, supposing if she could revisit that day she would gulp it all down.
The art school training and entrance exams, while involving exercises such as drawing live models and statues (not manga), don’t include any especially technical expertise about illustration or art appreciation. This is not a how-to guide for drawing, but a tracing of the stubborn maturing of a young artist. Young Akiko is always swiping at canvases with a pencil, while present day Akiko beholds a range of tools rendered in detail. The clarity of detail could be said to be tied to the nearness of memory. Comedic and dramatic beats are true to Akiko’s style in her fiction series, and her ability to swap between them at will highlights the talent in her storytelling. She captures the helplessness of children struggling to find their artistic chops as well as the shock of a confident artist upended by a harsh judgment.
If this volume ended with an epilogue about going to art college and winding up in a manga career, the arc would be credibly self-contained. As it stands, with four more volumes imminent, Akiko’s journey should be a rich fount of frank observations, self-deprecation, and hard-learned lessons. Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey is an excellent autobiographical tale that belongs wherever teens can find it and make a funny artist friend.
Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey, vol. 1
By Akiko Higashimura
Seven Seas, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: T