Last Saturday, Shinjuku’s Loft+1 celebrated the 50th birthday of self-made manga author and critic Kentaro Takekuma with a round table discussion of the history of independent animation, the fine line between commercialism and art, and how to get your work noticed by the people who matter. Joining him were independent animators Frogman and Runparo, as well as manga author Demerin Kaneko.
Incorrigible co-author of Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga. His blog, Takekuma Memo, reads like an autopsy of the walking corpse the industry has become. This past year he launched Mavo, a quarterly anthology featuring the works of students from his manga symposiums at Kyoto Seika University and Tama Art University. Most recently he helped animator Nosferatu, a green grocer from Awaji-Shima, distribute his hand-drawn feature The Messenger From the Sea after six years of solitary production.
Nosferatu’s homepage, Katsudo Mangakan, contains all of his works over the past ten years free to the public.
Filmographer turned Flash animation mogul, Frogman produces, writes, animates, and voices the characters in his low-budget comedy Secret Society Eagle Claw in addition to other commercial works.
An old hand in the world of independent animation, these days Runparo is more active in promoting other artists through organized events. He is here today on behalf of Nosferatu who sadly couldn’t make the cross-country trip.
Umezu Kazuo researcher and underground manga personality. Her tastefully bawdy gag manga, Iyan, Ecchi-no-Suke, based on public domain plot lines provided in Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, enjoys serialization in Mavo.
|The afternoon kicked off with an insider's look at the animation industry with (from left to right) Runparo, Takekuma, and Frogman.|
Takekuma (TK): Independent animation took off at the turn of the 20th Century due to the perfect storm of tools and a means of distribution. The Internet gave amateur animators a voice, and dial-up was sufficient for sending crude animated Gifs. Broadband would later make data-intensive formats like Flash a possibility, whose simplified interface widened the playing field to a rush of pioneers.
Runparo (RP): It rose organically from the media available at the time. Nosferatu’s early works began as message board in-jokes that grew a mind of their own. He created the Kido Senshi Non-Chan series as backlash against 2-chan style flaming before 2-chan even existed, with the antagonist, Gundam's Char, playing the ubiquitous Internet troll.
Part 4 in Nosferatu's ongoing and chronically delayed series, Kido Senshi Non-Chan.
RP: In 2005 I organized Jawa-Con, a meeting of minds between the leading artists in the field. I wanted the event to accomplish something greater than simply another Doujin circle. So I invited industry people and producers to discover our unknown talent. Poeyama got their break there, as did Frogman.
Frogman's Himitsu Kessha: Taka no Tsume (Secret Society Eagle Claw).
Frogman (FM): I got into animation in 2002 at the age of 33. After putting in time as a camera man I was ready to make the jump to the director’s chair, but moving to Shimane Prefecture after marriage effectively quarantined me from the connections that could take me there.
That’s when I saw the work of Nosferatu and Catman. They inspired me to take matters into my own hands. Getting ahead in the film industry is a waiting game with the odds stacked against you, whereas with animation, anyone with a mouse and an idea can be their own producer.
Amateur VS Professional
FM: My production pipeline is as bare bones as you can get. Three of us can crank out one half-hour TV series per week, and we’ve created five feature length films over the past three years. This has unique problems. People come to us with certain expectations about turnaround times, budget, and style. I couldn’t do things any other way if I wanted to. Not that there’s a need to—After five years of being my own boss, I’ve made enough to buy an apartment.
There’s no money in live action films. The real cash comes from branding and character goods. Investors know this, which is why business is focused on manga and anime.
RP: It took Nosferatu six years to create his eight-minute feature, The Messenger From the Sea. The man has God-like resolve. Normal animation uses in-betweens to fill in the motion between key poses, but not Nosferatu. He draws each and every frame entirely from scratch. Pros look at his work and are baffled as to how he did it.
Nosferatu's The Messenger From the Sea.
RP: Nosferatu animates for the love of the craft. Each scene is littered with Easter Eggs obscured in plain sight for those dedicated enough to watch frame by frame.
TK: Like the Budweiser missiles in Macross: Do You Remember Love, or the female genitalia overlay in Neon Genesis Evangelion.
RP: Exactly! Anime used to have that sense of playfulness with it. Animators honed their craft precisely by clicking through other works, frame by frame. These hidden images were one animator’s message to the other, like a secret fraternity handshake. “Thanks for watching.”
TK: Ideally we’d all like to be able to turn our art around to pay the bills. Pros have a budget, deadline, and investors to appease. They may not necessarily want to create a particular product, or follow the client’s vision, but you must deliver what the contract demands. Being able to work under those compromises is what separates pros from amateurs. Maintaining a balance between integrity and flexibility is the challenge a true professional deals with on a daily basis.
For example, Frogman can create a work at 1/10th the budget of Miyazaki and end up with something just as entertaining. He is afforded a large degree of freedom despite his work stipulations.
Nosferatu, on the other hand, has a similar mentality to Anno Hideki. The recent Evangelion films circumvented the standard steering committee, making them largely self funded. If they tanked, Anno was going under with them. Of course, Nosferatu always has his day job to fall back on, but the drive to maintain complete control remains unchanged.
Takekuma on Growing Up Otaku
|After a short intermission, Takekuma returned with Demerin to discuss his roots.|
TK: The first televised anime was 1963’s Astro Boy. At the time we called it TV manga. No one had any idea at the time of what Tezuka had started.
See, the Otaku phenomenon was nurtured by the period of rapid economic growth from the 60’ to the 70’s. This previously unknown high standard of living trickled down to the children. We were the first Japanese children to have their own rooms. This gave us space. Space to collect. Manga, figures, Gundam kits, you named it. Otaku would not have been sustainable if not for the private bedrooms that the soaring yen provided.
DK: What were early Otaku like?
TK: I had a friend in junior high who was the prototypical Otaku. Of course, this was before the phrase was coined, so nobody had way to explain away his neuroses. In a word, he was obsessed. During the 5th grade he was assigned to write down his three heroes, and he listed Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. He would go far out of his way to catch communist broadcasts from China and North Korea the one day of the year they were transmitted in Japanese. When his favorite baseball team, the Nishitetsu Lions, was bought out by Seibu, he would go their games and wave a Nishitetsu flag out of spite.
Otaku didn’t have to be into anime; they merely have to be meticulously dedicated to their interest. They propel a hobby to a life style.
TK: Another friend became obsessed with the magical girl show Majokko Megu-Chan (Little Meg the Witch Girl) after listening to the opening song on a lark. He would scrawl episode synopses in the margins of his notebooks with the most painfully cramped handwriting. They were like reading Buddhist sutras.
DK: Otaku sounds dangerously close to Asperger's syndrome.
TK: You need razor-sharp focus and dedication above all else.
DK: How did you get involved with writing manga?
TK: In High school I became involved in Dojinshi circles and knew that my future was in manga. My writing attracted interest from publishers and landed me my first job as an editor. During my spat at Kuwasawa Design School I fell in with Fujiwara Kamui (Emblem of Roto, character design for Terranigma) and the two of us created some real hum-dinger gags, like How to Rape, which was published in the short-lived Bishojo serial, Manga Burikko.
DK: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
TK: Start by copying an existing work you admire. Study the panel layout, pacing, and tricks used to grab the eye. Creating parodies or unofficial sequels is a good launching point, though you can’t technically sell the work. Even pros steal, but they have to make it not so obvious.
There is a common misconception that you need to get your foot in the door through the mochikomi system of bringing your work to a powerful editor for publication. I tell my students not to bother. You’re essentially begging, groveling at their feet to for the privilege or subjugating yourself to their demands. The whole relationship starts off backwards. Assuming you get picked up for serialization—which is a big if, given that your performance depends on the company, the editor, and the phase of the moon—you are indebted to them and sacrifice any shred of creative freedom you were hoping to maintain.
The best thing to do is make your work available for free. Get it out there and let it speak for itself. With the Internet it’s never been easier to have your voice be heard. I’ve never had to endure clandestine agreements with an editor to be published, and neither should you!
Takekuma had barely scratched the surface of his life story, but we were nearing the four hour mark and the staff wanted us out of there. We'll have to wait until the second Takekuma Festival to hear the real dirt on Miyazaki, Gainax, and his predictions of the manga industry's eventual collapse.