Art by: Shiro Usazaki
Story by: Tatsuya Matsuki
First issue: January 2018
Genres: Drama, Slice-of-life, Acting (is that even a genre?)
What it's about: Kei Yonagi is an impoverished high schooler who has to raise her two younger siblings alone after her mother died and her father abandoned the family. Ouch. With real life being so depressing for her, she turns to the screen, dreaming of becoming an actor. She develops fearsome aptitude for method acting,being able to become one with the character she portrays. Despite being turned down at an audition, she is scouted by an avant-garde director who sees her potential, while also recognising the self-destructive nature of her acting.
First impressions: Being a serialised medium, manga are hard to judge in their early stages. Like fine wine, they mature and improve with time. However, chapter one of Act-Age was all it took for me to realise I was reading something special.
First off, I really like how there's serious justification for the sad backstory. Many manga insert tragic backstories solely as a heavy-handed way to make readers empathise with a character. "Cry now!", they command us, rather forcefully. Not the case here. Yonagi's unhappy life is the underlying cause behind her complete embrace of acting, of the unreal. Anything to escape what she's really living through.
Secondly, the character drama is very strong in this one. Yonagi might be one of the most intriguing and fleshed-out Jump protagonists ever, but this strong writing is not limited to her alone. Each and every character rises above their character archetypes to become someone memorable. There is barely a hint of melodrama or exaggeration. It is able to create plenty of conflict and escalation within the bounds of reality. It's still the basic shonen formula (underdog rises to the top) but everything about the execution is fresh.
Thirdly, the art is just great. It's not as cleanly drawn as other Jump series; there's a fair amount of sketchiness, which I always like. Keeping with the realism seen elsewhere, the characters have a wide variety of faces, body types, and fashion styles. The girls, while clearly beautiful, are never drawn in a leery, fanservice-y manner. There's some great utilisation of background special effects and tones, rendered in a soft, feathery style one usually reserves for shojo manga. Usazaki's rendering of eyes, in particular, deserves praise: they are liquid and highly expressive.
If you don't find the art too impressive, then check out what Boichi (the acclaimed Korean artist of manga like Dr. Stone and Sun-Ken Rock) had to say about Act-Age at the start of a Dr. Stone chapter:
And Boichi is the guy who draws stuff like this:
So if that's not high praise, then nothing is.
Who will enjoy this: Act-Age is a title with a significant amount of crossover appeal. In fact, I would hazard a guess that it is more popular outside of its core shonen demographic (young boys between 12 and 18) than within it. If you are a fan of film, theatre, or character-driven drama, then Act-Age is right up your alley. Shojo manga readers will love Act-Age.
Similar manga: None that I can think of from among shonen manga, but Act-Age bears a strong resemblance to plenty of shojo manga, especially the long-running classics Skip Beat and Glass Mask, which are also about show business.
How long it will last: Act-Age published its 11th volume recently. Yet in story terms, it has barely got started, and even then it's already being lavished with praise. All indicators point to a series that's here to stay.