So, today I bring you a recent conversation between Taiyo Matsumoto, Inio Asano and Keigo Shinzo that ran in Monthly Spirits. The first two names should be familiar to everyone, but I don’t think anything of Shinzo’s has been translated into English, so I don’t suppose anyone knows anything about him. He came out with a pretty good first book that generated mild buzz among cool manga readers back in 2010, and he’s put out a few things since then that I mostly haven’t read yet. Here’s a sample of what his stuff looks like.
But anyway, here’s the conversation. Don’t say I never do anything for you, internets.
Keigo Shinzo: Okay, so the first thing I want to ask you right off the bat, Taiyo, is how did you feel about your manga when you were 27 years old? I think it would’ve been right around the time you’d finished Tekkon Kinkreet.
Taiyo Matsumoto: How old are you, Shinzo?
Matsumoto: I’ve almost got two decades on you, then — I’m 46. What about you, Inio?
Inio Asano: I’m 33.
Matsumoto: You guys are so young. You wouldn’t know it reading your manga. These days, they sometimes put your age in brackets next to your name when you get interviewed for something — “Taiyo Matsumoto (46)”. It always gets me. Like, “They can’t mean me, can they?”
Matsumoto: Okay, when I was 27… Let’s see. Tekkon Kinkreet was a total flop, so I took my editor’s advice for my next work and went with a sports manga — Ping Pong. It was after finishing Ping Pong (at age 30) that I decided I wouldn’t do weekly magazine serializations anymore. I would wake up, sit at a desk stacked with CalorieMate bars, start drawing, and the next thing I knew it’d be evening. It was no way to live.
Matsumoto: But it was around that point that I started hearing good things here and there about my work.
Shinzo: Did you see Tekkon Kinkreet as a failure at the time, even after all that effort?
Matsumoto: I really did put a lot of effort into it. It’s hard to judge these things. I personally thought it was pretty good, but there wasn’t much of a reaction among the readers, so you start to think, “Huh? Maybe I failed.”
Shinzo: That’s exactly how I feel now.
Asano: I got the impression that you’ve always been allowed to do whatever manga you want to make, Shinzo.
Shinzo: It’s true, I do get to do what I want.
Matsumoto: You know, though, you both seem to me like you’re making whatever you want, however you want. Then again, people tell me I’m just doing whatever I feel like, too.
Matsumoto: I’m actually holding back more than you’d think, though.
Asano/Shinzo: (more laughter)
Asano: The way I saw it, Tekkon Kinkreet didn’t get much appreciation at the time, but then after Ping Pong, people started going back and re-evaluating your work. Did it feel like you’d finally gotten through to people?
Matsumoto: I’m not sure about that. It wasn’t an “I told you so!” moment. I was just happy that people were slowly starting to read my work.
Editor: Did you have some sort of idea at the time that you would try to make a manga unlike anything that came before it, Taiyo?
Matsumoto: When I was young, yes, I wanted to make something that no one else had made before. That stopped around the time I did Tekkon Kinkreet. As you get older, you start to settle for making something that you personally haven’t tried making before. Like with Ping Pong: I liked Makoto Kobayashi’s Judo-bu Monogatari, and I thought there ought to be a manga like that about table tennis. Past that, I don’t think I thought much about whether I was doing something that’d been done before or not.
Shinzo: In terms of story, you mean?
Matsumoto: The story, the characters, the setting. Maybe the artwork too.
Asano: Looking at the three of us here, I’d say that the two of you have some traceable lineage in common, whereas I’m sort of off somewhere else. The styles of one generation of artists tend not to be inherited by the next generation, because it’s too close to them. You’ve got to wait another ten years, say, for the pendulum to swing back that way.
Shinzo: Apparently my generation strikes some people as being a throwback to manga from a long time ago.
Asano: Right. So the way I see it, the art and atmosphere in your manga is sort of like the antithesis of all these manga from the past few years that aim to be as realistic as possible.
Shinzo: The total opposite of your work. (laughter)
Asano: That’s how this stuff goes, though. When I was in high school and reading Ping Pong as it ran in Big Comic Spirits, I was drawn to it, but I knew that I shouldn’t try to pull off something like that myself. You might admire someone who’s out there doing something really amazing, but you don’t want to follow them. I see that as being the dynamic here between the three of us.
Editor: Inio, who do you admire from the generation before Taiyo’s?
Asano: I guess it’d have to be Kyoko Okazaki.
Shinzo: So it’s like you’ve got these realists like Katsuhiro Otomo, then you have cartoony artists like Taiyo, and then things get realistic again, then cartoony, then realistic, then cartoony, and it goes on and on like that.
Asano: That’s how it always is — especially in terms of seinen magazines.
Matsumoto: I guess the star for my generation was Katsuhiro Otomo. I remember when I was just starting out, feeling this pressure to come down on one side — do you like Otomo, or not? He was just so influential. There were people who didn’t want to admit they’d even read him, they so hated the thought of being accused of his influence. So I decided that I for one would admit to liking his work.
Asano: I see.
Matsumoto: Who do the two of you see as rivals within your own generations?
Shinzou: Tsuchika Nishimura for me.
Asano: [You and Nishimura] seem more like comrades than anything to me. (laugh) Out of Big Comic Spirits artists, I’d say Kengo Hanazawa.
Matsumoto: Seiki Tsuchida was a big one for us. He had something undeniable. When you’re an artist just starting out, you’re convinced that you’re ten times better than you actually are, so even when you’re confronted with artists who are as good as you or even a little better than you, you can keep telling yourself, “I’m better than them, I’m better than them.” Tsuchi, though, was actually doing work on ten times the scale I was — just a whole other level in terms of artwork and storytelling. You just had to revere him. I still feel like I’m trying to catch up to him, even now.
Matsumoto: Still. It was a pretty big blow when he died. I wanted his acknowledgement, and I wanted to surpass him.
Asano: So you had someone from the same generation who was clearly ahead of you, then.
Matsumoto: Right. I think I was fortunate that way. When it’s someone from an older generation you can just sort of stand back and admire them, but Tsuchi was actually a little younger than me, so he kind of got me panicking.
Asano: Taiyo, you have this unique art style, and yet you still manage to get your manga in mainstream magazines like Spirits. I’m interested in hearing how someone from that position sees the evolution of the manga industry, and where it’s heading.
Matsumoto: I’m 46, but I don’t feel any different from when I was 26, so I’m not sure I could tell you much about the evolution. I’m still just chasing after Otomo and Tsuchi. But looking at the two of you, I can see that new talent will keep coming, which is something I look forward to. In the generation just before mine, with Minetaro Mochizuki, Katsuhiro Otomo, Fumi Takano and the like, I feel like they were all really unique artists, so I do worry just a little about whether our generation can manage to pass them on to the next generation.
Matsumoto: But now I’m starting to feel like artists like you two will be the ones to carry that torch.
Asano: Just knowing that Big Comic Spirits was the magazine that ran Taiyo Matsumoto manga, it felt like a more welcoming magzine. That’s part of the reason I approached Spirits with my manga.
Matsumoto: That’s very nice to hear. Do the two of you read a lot of manga?
Shinzo: Not really.
Asano: Yeah, I don’t read much these days either.
Shinzo: I’ll read something if the cover strikes me the right way, though.
Asano: Did you ever read weekly manga magazines, Taiyo?
Matsumoto: When I was sorting through my book collection a couple of years back, I found some old issues of Big Comic Spirits, from when Zero was running in it. I hadn’t read the other manga in there.
Asano / Shinzo: (laugh)
Matsumoto: I was reading Jimihen and the 4-koma manga, but that was all. I thought to myself, “Huh, I guess even all the way back then, I wasn’t reading much manga.” It’s also something I do intentionally, too, though.
Matsumoto: I have read the tankobon of Oyasumi Punpun and Midori no Hoshi, though. They were really good! It’s too funny, the character you’ve made Punpun into. He looks like a bookmark! It’s hard to believe your editor gave you the go-ahead for it.
Asano: Yes, I really lucked out. (laugh)
Matsumoto: Your editor must’ve been pretty surprised when you showed it to him for the first time.
Asano: He called it very quirky. It’s fine and good once you get the green light and it starts to sell, but you do need a bit of magic for that first stage before that, to make the manga come to fruition. Before Punpun I’d done Solanin, which was pretty well received, so that’s why I managed to force this one through.
Matsumoto: The panels always go straight to the top and bottom of the page, but the sides are bordered. Is it supposed to look like film?
Asano: I see manga as being read vertically — pages start in the top-right and end in the bottom-left. Hence why it looks like film.
Matsumoto: That’s true. Not many people try that. And Solanin was the same way too, wasn’t it? It’s pretty neat. And what I like about Midori no Hoshi, Shinzo, is the way the artwork keeps moving around — like it’s unfixed, you know? And it might keep on changing!
Shinzo: Oh, I have something I want to show you, Taiyo. When I was a first-year in high school, I redrew some of Ping Pong. (shows a reproduction of an entire chapter of Ping Pong)
Asano: (flipping through the pages) Wow, it’s good! You could really draw, right from the start.
Shinzo: I was just copying, though.
Asano: Even so!
Shinzo: I changed around the first part.
Matsumoto: Alright, let’s see these changes.
Shinzo: I went for a cinematic look.
Matsumoto: So I see. Interesting. Wow. (to Asano) You’ve never redrawn a manga like this, have you?
Asano: I haven’t!
Matsumoto: As much as I admire Otomo, I’ve never done anything like this.
Asano: I mean, I’ve tried imitating drawings before, but I’ve never fully redrawn a manga, with the panels and all.
Matsumoto: Why would you do this? Don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered, but…
Shinzo: I really liked this manga. I don’t suppose you’ll let me get away with saying I was just bored, will you? (laughs) You know what, forget it, I’m putting it away now.
Shinzo: Taiyo, do you draw your characters totally by just picturing them in your head?
Matsumoto: Oh, no. I take photos. I’ve started taking a lot fewer recently, though. With Ping Pong, I had my wife taking photos for just about every pose, because I was drawing the panels from such strange angles. What about you two?
Shinzo: I take photos of myself with my phone, setting the camera on a timer.
Asano: For poses?
Shinzo: For poses, by myself. You don’t use photos like that, do you?
Asano: Not for characters, anyway.
Shinzo: I think that’s great. Lately I’ve been finding that it’s been turning out alright when I try to draw from imagination.
Matsumoto: What I’m afraid of doing is drawing things through habit, which is what happens quite a bit when I don’t take photos. I didn’t take many for when I was doing Takemitsu Zamurai, and I started to just draw facial expressions for the various emotions in the simplest way possible. Taking photos helps you understand how there’s all sorts of different nuances of facial expressions, so I think taking the occasional photo is a good habit to get into.
Asano: It’s true — even a normal person walking along can actually take some pretty strange forms when you actually look at them in a photo. I didn’t do it for any of my main characters, but for background characters I used to trace from photographs. You could say it’s a shortcut of sorts for becoming a better drawer, in a way.
Shinzo: Lately I’ve forgotten of what about my manga makes it my own, and I wanted to ask you two about that.
Asano: That’s pretty vague, so it’s kind of hard to give an answer…
Editor: When people talk about the qualities that are characteristic of your work, do you ever find yourself disagreeing with them?
Asano: I do. In interviews, I get asked more about the words than the pictures, when actually you could say I’m not even all that interested in the words. It’s not what I’m about. So it’s surprising to find people paying so much attention to that stuff.
Matsumoto: What part is it that does interest you?
Asano: I just want to draw well. That’s all. I’m only making up a story as an excuse to draw.
Shinzo: Do you have something you’re trying to get through to the reader?
Asano: Like what?
Shinzo: Like, something that you want to get off your chest, by drawing it as manga.
Asano: Well, like Taiyo said, you’re serious when you’re in your twenties, so I was making a lot of characters around my actual age, who I used as mouthpieces to some degree… but then I hit 30. People call my manga “adolescent” a lot, and that’s what I was like a long time ago, but I personally am not actually like that anymore. I’m actually nostalgic for all those juvenile, earnest feelings.
Shinzo: I see.
Matsumoto: Reading Punpun, you worry for the guy who drew it. It seems like a wonder that he would still be alive.
Asano: After a certain point, I was distancing myself as I drew it. I came up with the plotline when I was in my twenties and just went on following it right on into my thirties, so after a while Punpun was a totally different character from who I am. I knew at the time that people would probably see it as worrying, even though I’m actually all right.
Editor: Taiyo, you’re often interviewed for foreign media, even. No doubt you’ve had your share of experiences of being surprised at how you’re seen.
Matsumoto: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t generally read things written about me.
Asano: You do vanity Google searches every day, right, Shinzo?
Shinzo: I do indeed. I can’t help myself.
Matsumoto: What do you mean, “vanity Google search”?
Asano: Typing your name or manga titles into a search engine and reading what comes up.
Shinzo: It’s the only means I have of getting feedback. Do you guys get fan letters?
Matsumoto: No, not anymore. Maybe I’m just not as popular as I used to be, or maybe the media landscape’s changed so that people just put their thoughts on the internet now. I’ll bet you get a ton though, Inio.
Asano: Well, I don’t know about a ton. They’re mostly from teenagers. You probably don’t get too many letters nowadays because it’s hard to send one to such a reverent figure, way up there in the clouds. My fans, on the other hand, are a little too friendly.
Asano: They see me as being on the same level as them. I’m just fine with that, though.
Editor: Do you get any chocolate on Valentine’s Day, Inio?
Asano: No, my fans don’t go that far.
Matsumoto: Back when I was doing Straight in Morning, I got a whole cardboard box full. They stopped coming after about the third year. Not sure why. (laugh)
Asano: Chocolate from a woman?
Shinzo: I wasn’t sure if I should mention it or not, but…
Asano: You got some?
Shinzo: Yeah, this year. Just a small one, department store wrapping and all. I ate ’em.
Editor: Anyway, what do you do when you encounter negative comments during your vanity searches, Shinzo?
Shinzo: I don’t encounter any. It’s actually troubling, somehow. Asano gets some doozies though.
Asano: Yeah, they tell me to go die.
Shinzo: Any manga that sells is going to have its critics.
Matsumoto: Why do they tell you to die?
Asano: Apparently they don’t like me. I’m used to it now.
Matsumoto: That’s a hell of a thing to be able to get used to.
Asano: But you have to, or you won’t be able to keep going. At times I’ve almost felt like I was drawing manga in dialog with the criticism — like, “Oh yeah, you think so? Well how do you like this?!”
Shinzo: I haven’t gotten any criticism.
Asano: Well, it’s not like it’s a fun thing to get.
Shinzo: So, another thing I think about a lot is how far along my favorite older artists were when they were my age.
Asano: I don’t think there’s much point in thinking about that sort of thing. The fact that you admire those artists means that they’ve mastered their art — you can go back and reread them later when you’re the same age as them, but you still won’t find that you’re any closer. I used to chase after artists I admired like that, but over the years you eventually stop thinking that way.
Asano: As you go on drawing manga, there’s this stage you hit where you come to understand your skills and your tics, and it all becomes a matter of looking back and honing that stuff. Once you’re at that point, the way other people draw becomes irrelevant. I said earlier that I don’t read manga anymore, and the reason for that is because it stopped being useful to me.
Editor: Is there anyone in particular you wish you could draw like, Shinzo?
Shinzo: I’m starting to realize that that’s not a good way to look at it, that I need to be true to my own style… but then at the same time, I just can’t quite seem to escape from Taiyo’s influence.
Asano: I imagine Taiyo himself is constantly adapting to fit whatever series he’s working on, though.
Matsumoto: I am. I used to want to make perfect manga, but after a while I figured that that wasn’t possible, so now I try to think of things in terms of the overall whole — maybe I’ll draw something really cheerful for a while, then go on to do something really dark, and hopefully it’ll all balance out well in the end.
Editor: Are you talking about more than just your artwork here?
Matsumoto: Yes, I suppose I mean everything. I didn’t even like my own manga back when I was in my twenties — I thought it was ugly. Like, I’d go to draw an airplane and it’d come out looking soft.
Asano: One might see that as artistic style, though.
Matsumoto: Well, no matter how many times you’re told that that awkwardness is actually good, it doesn’t seem good when you’re the person drawing it. Really, the only answer is to keep working on improving your technique. Looking back from where I am now, having improved my technique somewhat, my older work seems… awkward, and like I thought I had everything all figured out. With Hanaotoko and I suppose with Tekkon Kinkreet too, I was pretending like I had all the answers, you know? But now I can see that as maybe kinda cute, in a way.
Asano: How old were you when you started feeling that way?
Matsumoto: My late thirties, or maybe around 40. You almost start to see your past works as if they were made by another artist, I think.
Asano: I see — so as you get older, you start to see this young artist trying to impress people as cute?
Matsumoto: Yeah — cute. Or maybe earnest is the word.
Asano: Oh, I think I see — he comes off that way because he’s so earnest.
Matsumoto: So earnest you’re almost embarrassed for him.
Shinzo: I want to know how to make my stuff sell.
Asano: Another awfully frank question. (laugh)
Shinzo: I’m really worried right now that people’ll forget all about me.
Matsumoto: It’s normal to have dry spells where you don’t get any calls from anywhere for a few years. Having done this for 25 years, I’ve had times where I’m in the spotlight, and I’ve had times where I’ve been totally forgotten about. I wouldn’t quite say that it doesn’t bother me at all anymore — I do have times when I worry about being forgotten — but I know that basically what it boils down to is, sometimes you draw a manga and it’s a hit, and then sometimes it isn’t.
Shinzo: Do you have barometer for that sort of thing — for knowing when your manga is going to be a hit and when it’s not?
Matsumoto: Hmm, not really. But you know, when I’m not getting approached by anyone, I actually find myself better at settling down and drawing.
Asano: What do you mean by “not getting approached”?
Matsumoto: Not getting approached with job offers by publishers. I don’t go on the internet so I don’t actually know first-hand what kind of reaction my work is getting, but once I start to get a little hype on there, I get all kinds of offers from publishers. And then there are times when I don’t hear anything from them. Really, you just need to make sure you’ve got some savings, for those dry spells.
Shinzo: How about times when you just feel sick of drawing manga — have you ever had that?
Matsumoto: Yeah, after finishing Hanaotoko. I was convinced that things would change because of manga. My manga. But then I go to Seven Eleven after my series had ended, and obviously there’s the next issue of Big Comic Spirits just sitting there like always, as if nothing had happened. I had this realization that my manga was no big deal, and it took me some time before I started up again. I was so young, I was convinced that it would make a difference.
Editor: Make a difference in what — society? The manga industry?
Matsumoto: Basically, I just thought people would make a bigger deal out of it, that’s all. (laugh)
Asano: Oh, I’m constantly expecting big-deal treatment. (laugh)
Shinzo: I guess everyone feels that way.
Asano: When I started Punpun I was really expecting it to cause more of a fuss, but people got used to it in no time. There I was, doing some pretty weird stuff, but after a few weeks people just take it for granted that there’s this bizarre manga, you know? It was a real lesson in how quickly people can become used to something unfamiliar. I realized then that I can’t rely too much on that shock factor so much.
Shinzo: The desire to make a difference in the world, then — how does that change over time?
Asano: Well, I still want make some waves even now, you know.
Asano: But anyway — you’re saying that you want your stuff to sell. Wouldn’t you say that having your books sell is itself a sign of an audience reacting to your work? Isn’t that why you want your stuff to sell?
Shinzo: So a manga that sells well is therefore good?
Asano: What I’m always searching for is the sweet spot where what I want to draw and what people what to read meet. I can’t force myself to make manga that I’m uninterested in just because I think it’ll sell.
Matsumoto: I’d say striking that balance is something I’m always thinking about too. I’ve got things I want to draw, but if I go ahead and say that I don’t care whether it sells or not, then I might as well be drawing it for myself as a hobby.