Saturday, December 12, 2009

Kazuo Umezu VS TSB (Part 2)

(The following is the second of a five-part interview with living legend of manga, Kazuo Umezu, whose works released in English include Cat Eyed Boy and the award winning Drifting Classroom. Our event coverage on Same Hat! caught the attention of his official homepage's staff, who then contacted us directly about helping to produce information about the author for the benefit of his English speaking audience. At the end of November, we were invited to the infamous Makoto-Chan House, his recently-completed home and physical embodiment of his vast works, for a face-to-face talk with Umezologist Demerin Kaneko and the man behind five decades of mayhem.)

Glossary 

Kashihon (literally “loaner books”) were manga published largely out of Osaka that were available only for rental, not purchase. This business model died out in the mid 70’s, but the concept lives on in the form of manga cafes and rental chains such as Tsutaya which have recently begun handling manga.

Gekiga (literally “dramatic pictures”) is a style of manga that explores adult themes and uses panels to create a cinematic sense of time passing on the static page. Their self-contained nature allowed them to be highly experimental and was a perfect match for the Kashihon format.

Part 2: Baptism

Tokyo Scum Brigade (T): You were with manga during its infancy and watched the medium mature.

Kazuo Umezu (K): There were countless titles on the market at the time I made my debut, such as Tako no Hacchan and Norakuro. Growing up during the war, most stories were about soldiers and grit.

T: The cartoony art was grounded by the realistic stories.

K: I started taking manga seriously in the fourth grade. My friends lent me tons of titles and I remember thinking, “This art stinks! If this stuff passes off as professional, I’m a shoe-in!”
My first work was titled The Magic Pot (Mahou no Tsubo). I can’t remember the plot, but it was filled with cheap gags. My next few projects copied the model I made for myself.
The following year Osamu Tezuka released New Treasure Island (Shin Takara Jima). 

You know those open-air stalls they have at summer festivals with all the toys and masks laid out on the ground? I ran across it at one of those and it blew my mind! I didn’t know that manga of such caliber existed. That was another thing that made me want to go pro.
At the time, manga was dismissed as pulp. Not that the situation has changed much. Manga was plentiful, cheap, and I read my fair share. 

The range of titles I read before discovering Tezuka gave me a sharp eye for manga. When I saw New Treasure Island at the festival, I knew instinctively that it had to be good. My eyes have never let me down!

T: Early manga was written for children and was mostly juvenile. 

K: This is true, but Tezuka’s creativity set him apart from the pack. He introduced elements that were largely foreign to manga at the time, such as robots and rocket ships. Children ate it up. 
He inspired a generation to become manga artists, myself included. If your drawings didn’t look like his, companies wouldn’t pick up your work. So at first I drew characters Tezuka-style, cartoony with circular faces. Once I got popular I was able to do my own thing.

His style begins to shift from Tezuka to Gekiga with works such as The Fractured Man. (Hibiware Ningen.)
T: Your early sci-fi work, Another World (Bessekai), used similar fantastical elements.

K: The style of early manga was very different than the Gekiga which emerged from it. Gekiga takes place in the "real" world and revolves around action. Traditionally, the point of any manga, regardless of the style, is to challenge the unreal. How far can your work surpass reality?

This doesn’t merely apply to plot, but to illustration and design as well, such as giving characters impossible features like circular faces and bug eyes. This cartoony world formed the bedrock of the medium.

Gekiga didn’t have any of that. The creators wanted to accomplish something different in rebelling against the cartoony in their pursuit of reality over fantasy.

T: Your Gekiga feature realistic settings that quickly move into the unreal.

K: (Snaps fingers.) You got it! I want my illustrations to be extremely realistic. But the story can be fantastical. 

Look at Salvador Dali. His art is meticulous and real, but then you have impossible imagery, like someone pinching the edge of an ocean wave to turn it over like the page of a book. Stuff like that resonates with me. I love it. There’s a dissonance in seeing everyday objects behave in otherworldly ways. With a bare-bones illustration, you can’t tell if an object is intentionally warped or if the draughtmenship is just plain bad. A skilled illustration eliminates the question of intent and frees the reader to focus on the why. Like this plate in front me. You expect it to be solid, but if you were to go pick it up and find it rubbery, you’d freak out! That’s where the fear comes from. I strive to create that kind of reaction with my work.
Early Gekiga-style from Ashen Silhouette. (Haiiro no Naka no Eizou.)
T: How did you get involved publishing Kashihon? 

K: At the time there were strict, arbitrary rules about the way things had to be drawn. Publishers turned their noses up at horror. “We can’t run the scary stuff!” I had an offer to draw horror for a serial magazine, but I found the editors too overbearing and quit. On the other hand, Osaka publishing houses putting out Kashihon were more lowbrow and crass— and I mean that in a good way! They gave me the freedom to do the stories I wanted to, the way I wanted. 

T: You did a number of anthologies and longer self-contained works during this period.

K: Speaking as a writer, I consider short stories the training camp for creating full-length ones. Short stories are easy to digest. You take one bite and the flavor hits you. Long works, conversely, require you to eat the whole thing before you know if it’s good or not. Over time, people’s tastes shifted towards serialized works and the Osaka publishers went kaput. This was the death of Kashihon. 

What could I do? I packed up my bags and went to Tokyo to find work. I remember my mother and father waving me off from the train platform. It was anything but dramatic. You’d never have known that I was moving to the big city for the adventure of a lifetime.

I suffered from chronic stiff shoulders and insomnia even before coming to Tokyo. For a period I was only sleeping two hours per night. I would counteract this by taking long walks and swimming. Naturally, when I moved, I chose an apartment close to a pool in Ikebukuro. I only drew in the afternoon, leaving my evenings free to wander the streets.

T: Did it take long for work to pick up?

K: Before I arrived I was writing for Kodansha’s girl-oriented serial, Shojo Friend. My Cat Eyed Girl (Nekome no Shojo) was well received, and soon I had Shonen Magazine knocking at my door. I had two weeklies which I handled 100% on my own, no assistants.

Then one day my editor suddenly asks for my work a week in advance. Essentially I had to write four issues in the time span I normally had for two. But what could I say? So I nearly kill myself meeting this unfair deadline. I visit my editor to deliver the finished pages—editors never come to you unless they want something—and he says with a knowing laugh, “You’re looking a little haggard, har har har!”


T: You realized that you couldn’t keep this up on your own.

K: I started hiring assistants. These days you have the Internet to find people for you, but in my time you left that to the editors. Assistants make the job easier, but increase its magnitude—they’re the first sign that you’ve gone pro. Having to tend to your crew is a job in itself.

T: But you could handle more titles at once.

K: At my busiest I was doing three monthlies and three weeklies simultaneously. Cat Eyed Boy, Orochi… I was drawing like a madman. The work was physically demanding. I could feel my strength slipping away and thinking, "this time tomorrow, I’ll be dead." I don’t mean that as a figure of speech.

T: You were their golden child.

K: At one point, they asked me to whip up a 4-color spread for Cat Eyed Boy overnight. It was physically impossible but I didn’t have the courage or fortitude left to refuse. The editor exists to make you draw more! They won’t take no for an answer.

It was faster for me to fill their ridiculous demands than to fight with them about it. I got the coloring done, but I was white as a ghost. That’s where I decided to scale the whole operation back to one weekly.


T: I’m sure their editorial policies didn’t make it any easier.

K: Kodansha didn’t want us putting any boys into our Shojo manga. And they had weird rules, like girls should be drawn with three eyelashes, or horror one-shots are OK while serials were out of the question. Of course, we authors made sure to break the rules every chance we got.
The seminal Shojo title Goddess of Romance. (Romansu no Kamisama.)
T: Did any of your assistants make it big?

K: Nope! But I was able to turn crummy artists into respectable ones overnight. I’d analyze their individual drawing style and have them focus on what they were good at. I consider myself to be a good teacher. Of course, if you took your eyes off of them they’d fall right off the wagon again!

Demerin: I remember Kobayashi Makoto (What's Michael?) asked to apprentice under you.

K: (laughs) That's right! I had enough staff so I turned him away, but not before giving him advice about illustration.

T: How did you end up leaving Kodansha for Shogakkan?

K: I had made a name for myself through horror comics. One day, our new editor comes into my studio looking real straight-lipped and he spouts off, “I don’t think horror manga is an option for us anymore.” I couldn’t abandon all my stories that had yet to be written! They didn’t give me any option but to quit.

Before Shogakkan I was at Shonen King for a while where I did another Cat Eyed Boy series and The Laughing Mask (Warau Kamen), a super-hero story of sorts.

T: Maintaining your health was clearly off the table. How did you maintain the quality of your work?

K: That's a good question! You know all those walks I went on during my sleepless nights? Those were where I did my planning. Stories and dialogue came to me naturally. So when it came to crunch time, everything was already in my notebooks waiting to be used.

I made it a rule to keep five stories on hand. The first thing I would do when an offer came to me was weigh it against my stock. Deadlines were tight, but this method made sure I never missed a beat.

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