This months EUREKA (ユリイカ) magazine focuses on manga artist Fumiko Takano (高野文子)and it includes a long conversation with Katsuhiro Otomo.
EXTRACT OF THE CONVERSATION
The agony and the ecstasy of drawing and continuing to draw
Fumiko Takano Manga date very quickly wouldn't you say? All that effort, for something that won't even last ten years.
Katsuhiro Otomo That's not really the case, surely?
Takano You don't think? I'd say pictures go out of fashion more quickly than novels.
Otomo Meaning you actually think about whether things are going to stay in vogue (laughs)?
Takano I most certainly do (laughs). In the case of a novel, a good one will last for a century. Even films will do thirty years, fifty. Manga don't have any staying power at all.
Otomo Sure they do.
Takano Nope. There's just something about pictures - I think they definitely go in and out of fashion.
Otomo But not that much, surely. Although I suppose the kind of illustrating that's trying too hard to be cool at any particular time might. Work like this, with such original beginnings, doesn't end up on the trash heap, surely?
Takano Jack Finney wrote a sci-fi novel called Time and Again, in which the protagonist is an illustrator. He travels back to the past, to about the 1880s. There he sketches a likeness of his lover, but does so as a silhouette of her in profile, drawn using his finger on a steamed-up window. Thinking he's done a fine job he declares, "That's you", but she has no idea what he's talking about. In the 1880s, the concept of drawing a person as a silhouette had not yet emerged, apparently. It seems Finney worked in advertising design, and reading this, one could imagine that.
Otomo On a bigger scale, you could say the same thing about before and after the advent of perspective, for instance. Although that might be broadening it just a bit too much (laughs).
Takano Well, I don't imagine my illustrations will be around in a hundred years' time (laughs). But when you consider something can take three years to complete and not even last a decade... .In ten years, even this'll be old hat.
Otomo When you say dated, what exactly do you mean?
Takano I mean read by nobody.
Otomo You reckon? Your previous tankobon are still in circulation though aren't they?
Takano They are but...
Otomo There you go then - they've lasted ten years.
Takano Now that you mention it, yes (laughs). They have indeed been around ten years.
Otomo Most tankobon don't last ten years, so that's amazing. It's why they produce things in shinsoban (new edition with new cover) or bunko (novel-sized) format. On that note, I occasionally marvel that Highway Star is still coming out in its original form (laughs). Akira too is still being distributed just as it was when it came out.
Takano Now that's impressive (laughs).
Otomo I mean, Highway Star is over twenty years old. So see even manga can last ten or twenty years. Take Osamu Tezuka's Shin-Takarajima: copies are still fetching good prices. The problem lies rather with publishers, which stop putting things out, meaning they can no longer be read.
Drawing alone or as a team
Takano Do you think producing manga alone and as part of a team are different?
Otomo You mean whether or not you have assistants?
Takano Yes. Anime of course are a whole different kettle of fish, but what do you find different working with and without assistants?
Otomo With Akira, there was a certain volume and density, plus the length was an issue, so I used assistants, because it would've been too hard to do it alone. If I were to do it all over again, I wouldn't use assistants. I'd rather go solo.
Takano Back when you were doing your earlier stuff like Boogie Woogie Waltz and Good Weather you did the whole lot yourself didn't you, even the backgrounds?
Otomo I was doing what I had to do to put food on the table, meaning I had to draw one a month, and while I did get people to help a little right at the finish. there was never any idea of using assistants to help churn out high volumes of work. With Akira I just happened to think of trying it. These days they seem to use lots of assistants and make a real party of it, and I guess that's enjoyable in its own way, a bit like a university club. But things are diversifying, with a growing number of people also choosing to do it all themselves.
Takano If you'.re working for one of the weeklies like Jump you take on assistants as a matter of course right from the start, but more and more people are preferring to draw manga in a different way to that, to work solo.
Otomo When I was working for the likes of Garo and COM years back a lot of the material was very idiosyncratic, but then Jump went into mass production, and now everyone has found these bizarre places like Afternoon, kind of like a teenage magazine but not, and to my mind there are some odd individuals coming out of there. All of whom work without assistants. Well I guess that's a healthy trend. On the other hand, putting out that more adventurous material relies on getting the bankable artists to churn it out and make a profit, so mass-produced manga do have their merits.
Takano Ah, my husband often chides me about that. His favorites are titles like Hajime no Ippo and Shura no Mon.
Otomo So we owe a lot to those whose work really sells.
Takano That's what he says, he he he.
How manga are drawn, and read
Takano There's something I was going to ask you when we met today. I just can't get into Hikaru no Go or the manga of Naoki Urasawa. How come, when everyone else finds them so interesting? Am I some kind of weirdo?
Otomo No comment (laughs).
Takano My other half loves them so we always have them in he house. And I'm always keen to at least have a peruse.
Otomo I haven't read any manga at all lately. What is it that makes them so hard for you to read?
Takano I think it's the pictures.
Otomo They're both quite good in their own way, surely?
Takano They're well drawn, no doubt about that. But I find them a bit claustrophobic. They don't allow you to look away. It feels like a succession of code puzzles you have to plod through for the story to progress. You can't read them to relax, and the speed at which you read is determined for you.
Otomo Conversely you could say that makes for a superlative sort of work, allowing readers to immerse themselves totally in another world. Which makes for a good manga I guess. I don't know about anyone else, but I don't have much clue because I don't read them either. There's just something about manga technique, you know, getting people to read manga for the technique, that gets up my nose. I don't like it when manga seem well executed, but lack that X factor that makes them memorable. Magazines like Comickers drone on at length about the syntax of manga, but I'm afraid I just think, why bother even looking at that, what a drag. When I was doing Akira, we discussed quantity and quality, but I made up my own sort of manga syntax, really. I leamed to think hard about things like, if I draw this illustration the next frame has to be like this, and the reader's line of sight has to be guided in such and such a way. At the time I seriously considered writing a book on "how to draw manga,'' but soon realized that this was actually my personal way of drawing, and it'd only be bragging about my own technique, so wouldn't be any use as a manga primer. Manga has to be about taking something someone has made, breaking it down and doing it a different way, and the idea of any sort of grammar is absurd ... although truth be told it does exist. But even if one could make people read manga in a particular way, it strikes me that the inherent flexibility of manga lies in another person promptly altering that.
Takano It's that idea of manga just suddenly appearing on the market in guerrilla fashion. What I find fascinating about manga is the way that because it's cheaper than making a film, and requires minimal investment, manga lets even those living out in the sticks suddenly take up pen and paper and think, "Maybe I can do that too!"
Otomo That's very healthy, in my view. It means a constant process of breaking and rebuilding. Difficult though. When you consider that, there isn't really any need for syntax.
Takano But when you're drawing, you gradually start to work it out don't you? Make up your own rules as you go?
Otomo I find I gradually get sick of that (laughs}.
Takano You mean when you've been at it for a long time?
Otomo That's right. Which is why I take my hat off to authors who can keep churning stuff out (laugh).
Takano You'd think they'd get tired of it.
Otomo I guess they're busy, and once you've completed a certain amount you just have to get on with it.
Takano But haven't you also noticed the recent rise in niche works aimed specifically at small readerships?
Otomo How does that apply to you then?
Takano I draw for the majority.
Otomo Really? (laughs)
Takano Though for all that I don't have many readers ... (laughs). I draw for people who would not class themselves as manga fans. I mean, it's not like I'm saying anything especially complex.
Otomo Well yes but...because you work incredibly hard, I think that comes across. Your manga can't be read by ordinary people, people who think manga should be simple, take no effort to understand.
Takano Ah, well that's the way of the world isn't it - it's the readers that just don't get it.
Otomo Surely that's because you demand that they do ( laughs). Aren't you choosing who's going to read your stuff?
Takano But in my view reading something, reading a book requires at least that degree of understanding.
Otomo Someone said to me ages ago that something I'd worked really hard on was a bit hard to understand, but when I draw I envisage a few high school students somewhere who just happen to pick up one of my manga in a spare moment and think wow, this is interesting, never read anything like this before. My ideal would be to have a short story in a bonus edition of some weekly magazine that a boy racer might just happen to spot on waking up at a mate's place after a hard night out and, not knowing my name, see a bizarre manga in there and become hooked (laughs). In that sense my dream is to have not just people who like comics but anyone read my work and find it interesting (laughs). At one stage I was a co-driver for a truckie, and we'd blat along highways through the night and rock up at some drive-in place where everyone would be sitting around eating, worn out from driving. The books in places like that are all titles like Shukan Manga and Manga Goraku. Seeing this it struck me that this was how I should be drawing, for these sorts of books. To me that seemed the healthier option.
Takano Well, I suppose so ...
Otomo You get readers who come to those autograph gatherings, right. Do you think of them as "my readers"?
Takano Yeeesss ...
Otomo Don't you? Sure you must think, who are my readers, where are they and what are they doing? Just as readers wonder what sort of person Fumiko Takano might be, I think we wonder what sort of people our readers are.
Takano That's true. Now, this might sound a bit weird, but reading tor pleasure, whether manga or books - and this will sound odd coming from someone who's made a whole business out of it - don't you think there's something not quite right about the whole concept?
Otomo Meaning reading is not pleasurable?
Takano In a way I think we read books to make ourselves smarter.
Otomo You crack me up (laughs).
Takano Yes it does happen to be fun along the way, but the actual object is to go from dumb to smart. We read novels, or whatever, as how-to guides to becoming wiser and not messing up in life.
Otomo Well, reading a book can be in itself an intellectual quest, a kind of hunger. Reading something a person has written is about finding something in there you want to know. Reading a novel merely to pass the time is actually quite a sophisticated thing to do. So I think your assertion is correct.
Takano You think so? But hang on, when I was drawing The Yellow Book you asked what I was drawing, and I said yes, I am indeed drawing, and when I said my motive for drawing was the theme, you laughed and said, come on Takano, is it about setting the world to rights and all that. show us justice according to Fumiko Takano then (laughs). So I was holed up for three years. determined to show you. Except that when I published the book, it seemed nobody thought that. When I said my motivation for drawing lay in the themes, Shinichi Sugimura also said "Are you a left-winger then?" (laughs) It's not about being left-wing or right-wing; I was able to work hard at it for three years because I had a theme. But those who read something rate it on whether they were surprised by the angle or suchlike. or being enjoyable along the way. Not that there's anything wrong with that of course. But come to think of it, at the time you chuckled, but when I met you a few months later you said it was interesting. I'd like to think you agree with my idea of what constitutes right.
Otomo I'm certainly impressed.
Hard slog that's always new
Otomo You've talked about your work being "hard slog." Does this mean you no longer want to draw?
Takano Hmm. well if I maintain my thematic focus, I'll end up one of those people who do and say the same thing, won't I? If one were to make one's own calls on what's right and wrong, and vow not to do anything one perceives as bad, I get the feeling that not only drawing but just ordinary life, living would become harder. So doing that is risky. Thus I'm thinking I should stop about where I am now; if I take this any further things could really deteriorate. I didn't think about that sort of thing when I was younger, of course. In my Zettai Anzen Kamisori days I got a kick out of surprising people, a bit like a child who surprises an adult and then says "Oh, did I give you a fright?"
Otomo But I guess that's healthy in its own way. It's what everyone does in their youth in this setting.
Takano When you were young, what did you think about as you drew?
Otomo Manga weren't always technically sophisticated, were they. I like manga, but at a certain point you start to take more of an interest in illustration, photos, paintings, all sorts of other things. I found those things interesting and looked at them, studied them if you like. Returning to manga having done that, I realized that no one was really doing anything worthwhile; there was a time when I thought ah, this'll do, wouldn't it be so much more interesting to do it like this? The manga that (Osamu) Tezuka started moved little by little from using accessible characters and expression to tell a story to drawing out different elements, something more akin to illustration, photos, film. (Shotaro) lshimori also did that, and yes while everyone does it, from my point of view I still found myself thinking why not do it a bit more like this, and rapidly injecting that into my work. So there was this "actually they also do this kind of thing in the outside world" kind of thing happening. Well I suppose I did that out of youthful enthusiasm. When you're doing that all the time, you can become trapped by an obsessive need to offer something new each time you draw.
Takano Mm, yes there is that.
Otomo To be honest I suspect there's a part of me that thinks if I used about this amount of technique, could express myself to this degree and had about this amount of story I'd end up like those manga artists that churn out the same old stuff time after time ... ( laughs).
Takano You're right, why are we so scared of that? It's incredible really: there's no reason why one shouldn't keep churning out the same stuff.
Otomo I agree, there's no reason not to slip into a particular groove, but part of why people do is the difficulty of producing one new thing after another. If it really is this tiring. When you're young, it's fine because the things you want to try and your own ability are elevated in unison, but after you've been doing it for a while, you've pretty much done everything you want to. Times change and so does your personal way of thinking. But because your skills don't progress as much as your ideas, you adapt to suit, compromise somewhere, and head off in a different direction.
Watching intently to draw
Takano Why do all those young chaps they call designers these days look so frail? Where have all the solid, reliable-looking young men gone? They all look so slouched over already in their early twenties. The lines they draw are all wispy; they need to harden up a bit.
Otomo I too have times when I can't concentrate, and that's when I do some good abdominal breathing exercises. Store up some strength just below the navel. The thing about powers of concentration is that if you really can't concentrate, you can't do anything. To draw manga you need to build up some energy. You have to be able to soar right to the heights and take flight. In short, it's a job that has to be fulfilling, or it can't be done.
Takano Yes, you're right there. Now that you mention it, the other day my husband brought me a copy of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, opened the section with comments from the author and asked, "Do you do this too?" It didn't actually say abdominal breathing, but Hirohiko Araki does do the same.
Otomo To be honest I find it impossible to concentrate with a hangover; still I do keep working, doing abdominal breathing to force myself to concentrate. Really concentrating hard is indeed very tiring. Gathering one's idle wits together and directing them at the work slowly becomes more difficult, which is why everyone starts resorting to technique instead. Gradually thinking up ways to get by without doing a particular thing.
Takano Which seems to end up like looking at a photo to draw.
Otomo So after a while you can look at various manga and work out who's been concentrating as they draw, and who's just cruising.
Takano That's true. Even with the same person you can see that sometimes they have it together, so why not others?
Otomo Because they go into cruise mode. There's a difference between people who figure that as long as have a certain amount of skill, and can draw characters with cute faces, it'll all work out somehow, and people who draw without using cute faces. (Looking at The Yellow Book) Now it struck me that this would've been hard slog (laughs).
Takano It did me in physically, that. When I told my iaido teacher, he said that it was because I hadn't done enough training, and if I was that knackered on finishing, the next opponent might turn up and take me down at any moment.
Otomo That's a bit harsh (laughs). Once you start to feel that's too tough, I suspect gradually you lose the ability to do that...lt's exhausting. after all. All that harshness.
Otomo When I decide to do the story myself. I have to be on guard, eyes narrowed just like some martial art. Otherwise It'll end up going off on some strange tangent.
Takano You end up being able to move neither forward nor backward (laughs), wondering when to move, and looking behind you all the time.
Otomo I move ahead, with objectivity, and eyes half closed at all times, then right at the end finally have that little eureka moment. And if there is no catharsis, if there's no catharsis somewhere, then it is really hard, isn't it.
Takano Then there's what you might call the follow-up after the execution.
Otomo I imagine it's tough if you're doing that. But they say it comes back to you.
Takano I wonder.
Otomo Everyone's in the same boat aren't they? Manga are difficult. I suppose you could say the same for novels, but your whole self emerges in even a single work, so you have to confront that. If you're loath to face up to yourself you gradually take evasive measures, and if you run away from yourself, you find you can no longer draw. You do see them occasionally though. Manga artists whose drawing rapidly goes off-track are people who've stopped looking. In pictures, all that sort of thing comes out.
Takano Frightening, isn't it.
Otomo It certainly is. You can tell by looking, "Ah, this guy isn't actually looking himself." For instance not worried that their sketching is all wrong and just this strange screen tone is neatly applied. When I see that sor t of thing I think well, it's all over for him. That's what producing work is all about. Putting your own work out there means showing how bad you are right now, or how good.
Takano There are times, aren't there, when people seem to draw simply to confirm how useless they are at it.
Otomo Putting stuff out because they don't realize, right? Because it's their job. Just drawing and drawing, and continuing to draw because even though everyone says it's terrible, they can't see it. That's what I'm most afraid of.
Takano There's part of me that thinks I'd hate to end up like that.
Otomo Yes, my greatest fear is to keep drawing when people are saying what I put out is awful. But I guess there are guys somewhere saying nuts to that and still drawing, and some will put out a lot of rubbish. Difficult isn't it? It's because manga developed as a genre for making money, but are still not up to much as culture. Although by the same token I suppose it would be odd if it did suddenly turn into "culture."