Of course, I can't spend all month ragging on music-related manga. I also need to cover better, more earnest stories learning one's craft and embracing the love of music.
BLUE GIANT, by Shinichi Ishizuka. First published in 2013 and first published in North America in 2020.
Dai is just another middle-class high-schooler growing up in Sendai...or would be if not for his intense love for jazz. No one else seems to get his attraction to it and Dai himself is bad at explaining it, but he knows is that the passion and emotion of classic jazz speaks to his soul like nothing else and that he wants to capture that feeling for himself. That's what drives him to practice his saxophone everyday on the riverbank, honing his craft until he can become the world's greatest jazz musician.
As much as it tries to dress things up, this is absolutely the sort of earnest inspirational story you think it's going to be. It's the kind of story where the protagonist will repeatedly, loudly declare how they are going to be the greatest [insert occupation] ever. It's the kind of story where a teenager toots his sax as loud, fast, and sloppily as possible and instead of demanding that he STFU the people around him are quietly inspired by his passion. This should be pure cheese, but Ishizuki does find a few ways to bring it down to earth.
He puts a lot of emphasis on the transitive state Dai's life is in at this point. It's not just the usual stuff that comes with being in your senior year of high school (tests, relationships, figuring out what the hell you want to do with your adult life), but also a lot of comings and goings. Old friends move away, businesses get shut down, younger siblings grow up, it's a total mono no aware vibe. This lends the story a thoughtful wistfulness that contrasts nicely with Dai's do-or-die attitude.
He also makes no bones about the fact that passion can only get your so far with music. Dai can play all he wants down by the river, but without any sort of formal musical training he cannot go far. My favorite part of the book was when Dai learned this lesson the hard way during his first paid gig at a local bar. He's excited to play with actual professionals, only to proceed to freeze up on stage, blast his sax like a loud, honking goose, and get booed off stage by drunks looking only for some easy listening jazz to drink to. The second half deals (in part) with Dai starting to learn fundamentals like mouth technique, meter, and how to read music. As someone who studied singing in college without the ability to read music, I can relate to how hard learning the technical side of music can be and how rewarding the results can be.
Finally, we do get some documentary-style flash-forwards at the equivalent of each volume end featuring some of the people around Dai. These moments not only serve to add a little more to the featured characters, but make it clear that Dai's assertions of becoming a great jazz musician isn't just a bunch of teenage bluster, which helps to give incentive to read further.
It's pretty obvious that Ishizuka is a Naoki Urasawa fan. It's visible in the way he draws his characters and even the way he lays out his panels. It's not enough to be distracting, but if you know what you're looking for his influence is visible all over this series.
Despite the fact Blue Giant is set in the rather large city of Sendai, there's a very provincial, working-class quality to the art of this series. The backgrounds are all working-class neighborhoods, modest shops and bars, and blue-collar workplaces. The only notable bit of greenery in the book is the riverbank where Dai practices. It's also something of a period piece - recent enough for things like iPods, but not recent enough for smartphones, which makes me wonder if at some point this series is going to deal with the last major event that happened in Sendai.
Being a music series, Ishizuka inevitably has to deal with the dilemma how to visualize Dai's music. His answer is mostly to use a lot of speedlines, as if Dai's music (or that of others) is like some super-powerful shonen-style punch waiting to be delivered. It's a technique that only partially works; it certainly gets across the loudness and intensity of Dai's sax playing, but not the quality or the emotional impact. For that he mostly has to rely on a lot of close-ups of intense staring whenever anyone is expected to get something more that mere loudness out of it. Hopefully the upcoming movie adaptation will be able to handle this a little more gracefully.
This series is published by Seven Seas. This series is complete in Japan with 10 volumes available. All 10 have been released in 5 2-in-1 omnibuses and are currently in print.
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