I give this gripping one-shot manga...an 82/100!
I've started before that I've always had a big respect for Japan's more lax standards when it comes to the type of content they allow creators to make. Unlike, say, America, which has unnecessarily strict or even downright hypocritical rules for what they allow on cartoons (Like, cancelling Infinity Train while allowing Teen Titans Go to continue ad nauseum), Japan's looser rules allows creators of all kinds, whether they be comic artists or animators, to go buck wild with their content without much in the way of blowback from overzealous parents. Granted, Japan has its own issues with its entertainment industry, but that's neither here nor there. One of the most popular manga right now is Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto. I personally have no interest in it, as it doesn't look to be my thing. But the host of a podcast I follow mentioned that they recently published a long one-shot manga called Look Back...and when they mentioned it was based on a real life event, I knew I had to read it. Not only is this one of the longest one-shot manga I've read (It's at a whopping 144 pages. How many other one-shot manga have that many pages?!), it's also a very, very good, well written piece that absolutely deserves more love!
The story centers on a young girl, Kyo Fujino, whose 4-panel manga gets published in her elementary school's newspaper. Everyone loves her art, and they think she can be successful as a mangaka...but one classmate claims her art isn't as good as that of her reclusive classmate, Kyomoto. Angered at the thought of a shut-in being better than her at drawing, she decides to improve her art further by studying as much as she can. When a teacher forces her to go to Kyomoto's house and give them their graduation certificate, an awkward first meeting follows, and Kyomoto confesses that she's actually a huge fan of Fujino and wants to work with her. Touched by her kindness, Fujino lets go of her anger and the two of them make manga together all throughout their years in school. But when college is afoot, the two find themselves drifting apart, with their careers taking them down different paths.
There's no point in hiding this, so I'm just going to get this out of my system: Look Back has a plot point that is deliberately similar to that of the Kyoto Animation arson attack of 2019. If you think this is just a coincidence, there's a lot of evidence supporting this: In-story, an axe murderer kills people at an art school one of the leads attends, with said murderer's motive being that he believes one of the lead characters deliberately plagiarized their work, which was the motive behind Shinji Aoba's attack on KyoAni's Studio 1 building. Furthermore, Look Back was published on the day of the two-year anniversary of the arson. At this point in time, we don't know if Fujimoto has some kind of personal history with the arson attack (Maybe they had a friend who was injured or died in the arson), or if they made this one-shot specifically as tribute to it, or if they just happen to have really strong feelings about it. Whatever the case, Shounen Jump made a good move in letting Fujimoto draw and publish this, as this is a deeply moving story about grief, guilt, regret, and what might have been.
But even without that connotation, how does the one-shot hold up on its own? Surprisingly, really well. I admit I'm not familiar with Fujimoto's other works, nor have I read them, but I must say, the art is fantastic. The character designs are distinct yet realistic, the backgrounds are well drawn and full of detail, if bordering on a bit overcluttered at times, the paneling and page layouts really help the pacing, and since the manga is so short, it's always moving forward and never slows down. Plus, Fujimoto's line etching has a rough, scribble-like look to it, as if it's deliberately unpolished, similar to how A Silent Voice and the She And Her Cat manga look. I think it works here because of the nature of the story, and the manga even contains references to Fujimoto's other works, though more subtle than simply namedropping them.
However, the heart and soul of this manga are the two characters. I admit, I didn't like Fujino when she first appeared because I felt like her hatred for some kind she didn't even know came off as really shallow. Thankfully she grows out of this by the time she and Kyomoto actually become friends and start working together. Both characters, while not entirely fleshed out because of the manga's short page run, do have believable chemistry, and the manga takes great pains to make you care about this eclectic little duo, flaws and all. I do wish the manga offered more of an explanation as to why Kyomoto became a shut-in, as her being afraid of people doesn't hold a lot of weight. Does she have a mental disorder? Was she bullied to the point of refusing to go to school? The manga doesn't really go into detail, but I did like that Kyomoto tried to face her fears once she grew up. One thing that did throw me off was that Kyomoto's design made me think she was a boy at first, though later scenes confirmed that she is, in fact, female. Bottom line, the two main characters are flawed but likeable characters with their own strengths and weaknesses and stray far away from the usual stereotypes we've come to expect.
I guess if I really had to name one flaw, it'd be that this manga, even with having over 140 pages, which is far beyond the scope of most other one-shots, is still rather short and doesn't have time to really flesh out the characters more, along with one sequence near the end that may throw viewers for a loop even though context clues establish that it's a character's fantasy. The story is very simple but uses its simplistic setting and premise to deliver profound characters and messages. If you're not into the characters or prefer fast-paced stories where there's lots of action, this isn't the manga for you. Look Back is a character study first and foremost, and a damn fine one at that. Whatever the reason Fujimoto-sensei created this, I'm glad he did, as this is a damn good manga that everyone needs to read at least once.