What if Blue Period was less enamored with art history and the nitty-gritty of making art and more about an artist beaten down by perceived failures, trying to get into art school five years after she was rejected? If that sounds like, if not precisely a good time, at least a good read, Aya Fumino‘s The Essence of Being a Muse is here for you. The story has enough surface similarities with Blue Period to merit the comparison between the two manga titles, but whereas Tsubasa Yamaguchi‘s title is in love with art for art’s sake, Fumino’s work spends its time exploring the impact of art on the lives of those who want to be involved with it, for better or for worse.
While there are arguably three protagonists introduced in this first volume, the main one is Miyuu Seno. Five years ago, Miyuu failed her art school entrance exams, and she’s cut herself off from art ever since – and not entirely voluntarily. The only child of a single mother, Miyuu has been burdened with her mother’s expectations of success from day one, and this has made her bury her growing feelings of inferiority and worries about never living up to her mother’s expectations. After she fails the exam, she tells her mother that she’ll try again next year, but when she gets up the next morning, her mother has left job-hunting magazines on the coffee table. Miyuu recognizes this for what it is: an indication that she’s an artistic failure, so it’s time to move on. In Miyuu’s mother’s world, there is no such thing as second chances.
If this sounds horrible, it is, and Fumino pulls very few punches with the mother’s behavior. What looks like passive aggression at first ends up morphing into something much more obvious when Miyuu, feeling like she’s drowning in her corporate wage slave life, finally stretches and prepares an old canvas she’s been holding on to. Miyuu comes home to find her mother in her room, a knife poised over the canvas, and when she confronts her, the woman begins spewing bile about how she made Miyuu from her cells, and now Miyuu owes it to her to be a success because a child is a parent’s second chance at life. It’s a terrible moment, and it drives home what has been burdening Miyuu her entire life: her mother never saw it as Miyuu’s life in the first place, merely an extension of her own.
Her mother’s words and actions become the catalyst for Miyuu to change. Once she’s out of her mother’s toxic orbit, Miyuu begins to restart her life, and two different men end up influencing, or at least wanting to influence, Miyuu. The more interesting one right now is Nabeshima, whom Miyuu initially meets at a mixer. Nabeshima comes across as being sincere and into fashion, but as we delve deeper into his character, we find that he’s just as beaten down as Miyuu. The loss of his mother to the dreaded manga-wasting disease in middle school did just as much harm to him as Miyuu’s living mother has done to her; Nabeshima views everything through what he perceives as her lens. That it isn’t, and that his mother wanted nothing more than for her son to be happy, is something that we, as readers, can see, but adult Nabeshima still has middle school Nabeshima calling the shots inside his heart. He finds it difficult, if not impossible, to be honest, and that causes him to hurt Miyuu when that’s not what he wants to do. Since the other man Miyuu meets, Souta, is nothing but supportive, admiring Miyuu’s sketches, and offering her a place to live, Nabeshima has his work cut out for him if he wants to overcome his self-imposed missteps.
But that seems to be the heart of the story that’s beginning to unfold: if you want to grow, you need to do the work and rise above (or at least understand) what’s holding you back. Miyuu, at one point, admits that she just wants a knight on a white horse to come and save her, and maybe that’s what she sees in Souta, but the implications of the action are such that a mere white knight isn’t going to be enough. Miyuu and Nabeshima have taken their first steps in recognizing the problem, and Miyuu has gone even further by escaping. It’s less about working for the art and more about setting up art as what you make of it and enjoy, an expression of who you are. It’s a harsh story in many ways, and Fumino’s art isn’t always up to the task in terms of body language and facial expressions, but this seems like a series that will be worth paying attention to as it unfolds.
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