The world of Shonen Jump has changed a lot in the past few years! They’re still primarily known for their gut-busting battle manga, but lately they’ve branched out to genres like rom-coms (Kaguya-sama), horror (The Promised Neverland) and whatever Food Wars is. But one of their best and most unconventional stories is Act-Age, a drama about a young girl trying to make it as an actress. I had never heard of it until, like, yesterday, and I’ve already read the first 60 chapters!
Our protagonist, Kei Yonagi, is not the plucky, optimistic hero(ine) that splashes most Shonen Jump covers. She’s aloof, impulsive, and implied to be suffering from a mood disorder. At just 16, she’s not only had to deal with the standard tragic anime backstory (dead mom, deadbeat absentee father) but is in poverty and has to work full-time just to support herself and her younger siblings. The one thing Kei has going for her is her phenomenal method acting skills. She can completely immerse herself in a character, diving into the depths of her own feelings to create raw and passionate performances unlike anyone else. But her gift is also a curse: if Kei goes too far into her role and can’t tell fantasy from reality, it could destroy her.
For those who don’t know, method acting is a technique where an actor tries to completely embody their role, to have the most emotional performance. It’s made some incredibly lifelike performances, but it’s controversial for its negative psychological effects – like when Heath Ledger got so into playing The Joker in The Dark Knight that it supposedly led to his untimely death. (The reality is less dramatic – poor dude just took too many sleeping pills.)
Kei’s story is not just about her coming into her own as an actress, but about how her unique personality with a cutthroat media industry. She’s incredibly kind and genuine, but that leads to unscrupulous types wanting to exploit her skills for profit. And her impulsiveness and depth of emotion can cause her to break at crucial moments – like when she “accidentally” dropkicks an actor while shooting a period piece. But Kei’s raw talent and passion inspires everyone around her, bringing her characters to life and making the rest of the cast work even harder to keep up.
She also has a great foil in Momoshiro Chiyoko, a former child actress and consummate professional. Chiyoko acts like an Old Hollywood starlet: glamorous and stylish, but you can tell it’s all an act. She doesn’t channel her negative emotions the same way that Kei does in her performances. Most stories would make the two girls enemies, framing their relationship as a struggle between the “performer” and the “artist”. But Act-Age knows you need both to be a great actress, and seeing them both learn from each other and bond was my favorite part of the first arc.
The story has a lot to say about the nature of art and how we treat artists. Many creative people have had troubled lives – Van Gogh, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Hideaki Anno, and the list goes on. But too often, people romanticize their pain, or expect that someone should have to suffer to make art. Act-Age shows both the light and dark side of creativity: the joy of self-expression with the fear of taking it all too far, and the glamour of the spotlight with the corruption of the media industry. It’s a story for our time, but in a way, it’s also timeless. In the end, it still has those classic Shonen Jump ideals about being true to yourself, following your dreams, and trusting in your friends to help you along the way. It’s just about a girl who loves making movies, rather than monsters or robots.
Now can we please get an anime adaptation already?!