Were back with Part 2 of the CasaBRUTUS interview with Naoki Urasawa. Read on and see what kind of 20th century boy the author was in 1970.
PART 2: The Future That Never Came/Urasawa on Urasawa
Tokyo, the Ever-Changing City
The Tokyo featured in 20th Century Boys has undergone dizzying changes to become the Tokyo we know today. Some people say the past was better; some people say there’s no time more convenient than the present. We are complacent to live in the city, but what are we to hold onto for support in this storm of change?
When I was young, Japan was doing everything it could to become the future. ‘Goodbye poor Japan, hello bright tomorrow.’ Look at how much Shinjuku alone has changed. Shinjuku Station West Gate Plaza was developed in 1966, and the Keio Plaza Hotel was completed in 1971. West Shinjuku wouldn’t recognize its former self.
At the time I lived around Fuchu City on the Keio Line. Fuchu was just like the town in 20th Century Boys—grass fields everywhere, forever. The Keio Line that ran straight into Shinjuku was my train to the future. I still think that as an adult. Before the train reaches Shinjuku, right around Hatsudai, it travels underground right quick. Entering that tunnel made me feel like I was in the future. When the blackness of the tunnel breaks away to the sprawling metropolis of the subway station, it felt like the city of the future had come!
There’s also the ventilation towers scattered around the Shinjuku Station West Gate Plaza that are cut at an angle like a stalk of bamboo. The same design appears in Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix. He must have been inspired by these ducts. Things like that helped me believe that I was living in the future. Every time I went to Shinjuku, I became a child of the future. I would go the ever-growing rows of skyscrapers and gaze upwards. With my face pressed up against their walls, it created the illusion that the buildings were bent, looming down upon on. It almost made me faint. That’s how children of the future get their kicks (laughs).
It wasn’t until later I realized how off base I was. I believed I was a child of the future, but it was never so. I was only fooling myself. Coming to terms with the illusions you create for yourself is an important part of everyone’s life, I think.
Moving slightly off topic, you know the famous manga, Star of the Giants? It was serialized in Shonen Magazine from 1966 to 1971, and at the time we took it very seriously. It’s not like now where you laugh at it as a self-parody—when trouble came knocking to the protagonist’s door every week, we were there to answer the challenge with him.
When you reach a certain age, you have a sudden moment of clarity. ‘How does that make any sense? It’s not like that in reality!’ The more you pick it apart, the more of a joke it becomes. But chew on this—what you’re laughing at isn’t the comic itself, but rather the you that used to read it so earnestly. And now we’re back to laughing at the dead joke that has been picked clean. It's the same with Tokyo. I’m not laughing at a Tokyo that didn’t turn out to be the future city I envisioned, I’m laughing at myself for being naïve enough to believe that I was a child of the future. That’s the clincher. If you can’t laugh at yourself, it stunts your perspective.
As I said earlier, I don’t think that things used to be better. I’m excited about moving towards the future because I don’t want to go back to the time where everything was underdeveloped and shoddy. Entertainment wasn’t as vibrant as it is now, either. For all its imperfections we made an effort to make it work. We used our imaginations to make it interesting. Nowadays you have everything given to you. While on one hand its nice to have, on the other I don’t know how kids who haven’t trained their imaginations are going to manage. I always make this a point when I talk to students—The light of each star may look the same, but they are all of different ages. Develop the sense to discern between them. Light released hundreds of millions of years ago has the intensity to suppress light that's mere hundreds of years old. That’s what we call lasting star power.
Kenji is Naoki Urasawa?
Kenji, the main protagonist of 20th Century Boys, is a loyal friend who wouldn’t think twice about sacrificing himself for justice. Given the overlap between their age and experiences, it seems natural that fans would come to the conclusion that Kenji and Urasawa are one and the same. How much of the manga is based on Urasawa’s actual life? Or is it a complete fabrication? We explore the connection between Kenji and Urasawa by listening about the man’s childhood in his own words.
Is Kenji me? I tell people that about 10% of the story is autobiographical. Playing T-Rex in the school, the reason I started guitar—the manga is based on a lot of these personal experiences. But that doesn’t make me Kenji. Our personalities are totally different. Actually, I feel that I connect more with Otcho. But I can also understand how Yoshitsune and Friend feel to a certain degree. When it comes to the characters’ emotions, Kenji is the last one I could relate to. Kenji is very on the level! I’m more of a smart ass (laughs). I considered making Kenji more of a smart ass as well, but the main character has to be likeable. That’s why he's always a straight shooter.
My family was fairly hectic as a child so my parents didn’t have time to look after me. All I'd get was a few volumes of Tezuka manga, and then I was on my own! Drawing manga was all I had. I was told not to play with other kids in the neighborhood and wasn’t let outside, so I named my reflection in the mirror Mr. Smith. He was a foreign spy (laughs). Mr. Smith became my playmate.
Then when I turned six, I was thrust unceremoniously into elementary school. There were so many kids! Up until then I had been surrounded by only adults, so it was frightening being around that many kids. One day during arts and crafts the teacher told us to draw a picture. I was already doing manga at my young age, but I caught myself—I couldn't draw that kind of stuff at school! I ended up copying the other kids drawing messy round faces with messy round eyes. I remember thinking, “I can’t stand out; I can’t be myself.”
I hid the fact that I drew, but that kind of thinking gets you bullied. So I drew manga for the head bully. He praised me, "Man, you’re awesome!" We became friends of sorts, and the bullying stopped. I became part of the ‘in’ crowd. I used manga to keep myself safe (laughs). Manga became a means of communication for me, but I never thought about becoming a manga artist. Even though I was a child myself, I thought that having dreams like that was childish. But now that I think about it, in my composition class I always wrote ‘manga artist’ as my future dream. I was driven by peer pressure. Always doubting myself, I looked to those around me for approval.
Somehow that kid was given the chance to be a real manga author and now is lucky enough to enjoy a wide readership. But that doesn’t change my personality. I wonder how much meaning the manga I write has. And I still can’t believe the situation I find myself in. Honestly, the world won’t be swayed either way if I write or don’t write manga. That’s why if I slack off I forget about manga completely. Given the staggering amount of people that want to draw manga, it’s practically a miracle that I have people knocking on my door to write. All I can do is work hard so that they come, and to make sure that they keep coming. These job offers feel like they’re coming from another planet. If I don’t keep myself to a strict schedule, I know that the sloth in me will rear its lazy head.