Another conversation between two artists today.
One is Harold Sakuishi, the artist who you hopefully know as the guy who made Beck, among other great manga. The other is Hisashi Eguchi, a well-known figure among Japanese manga buffs who is basically unknown in the English-speaking internets. Eguchi has two manga that he’s mostly known for: One is his first and by far longest work, Susume!! Pirates, a silly 11-volume baseball comedy that ran in Shonen Jump in the late 70s; the other is Stop!! Hibari-kun!, a manga about the cross-dressing son of a yakuza boss which famously simply vanished from Shonen Jump after ending a chapter with a character crying tears of blood and declaring, “Shonen manga is dead”. Since then, Eguchi doesn’t seem to have been able to keep himself working on a series for more than a volume, instead putting out mostly short gag pieces, although that isn’t to say he’s been altogether idle since Hibari-kun: In 1994 he founded Comic Cue, a now-defunct yearly anthology of one-shots from various artists, and he has also gone on to become a pretty successful pop-art illustrator.
This conversation is from a 2005 issue of the pop culture magazine Quick Japan, back when Beck was 21 volumes in and was kind of a big deal, having just gotten its anime adaptation.
Sakuishi: I was pretty pleased to hear that you’ve praised my work, because I had absolutely no idea that you even knew about my manga. I used to read Susume!! Pirates back in elementary school, you know. Artists like you and Katsuhiro Otomo are what paved the way for my generation, so you’re a living legend for me.
Eguchi: Oh, please. (embarrassed laugh) I really like Beck, though, and I have a lot of things I want to ask you, so to start off: What was the first manga you ever read?
Sakuishi: I started from Shinji Mizushima’s Dokaben. I liked old school manga — Osamu Tezuka’s The Amazing Three, or Shotaro Ishinomori’s stuff. My friends in elementary school used to ask me to draw things like Kawai from Ring ni Kakero, but I didn’t even know who that was. I didn’t like those series that were falling all over themselves trying to be popular every week; I was into stuff with real storytelling that you could take your time reading, like Tezuka and Ishinomori used to make.
Eguchi: Interesting. That was back when absolutely everyone was reading Ring ni Kakero, so that would have made you quite the rebel, I imagine. You were interested in manga with more of a realism to them, then, were you?
Sakuishi: That might be it. At first what I liked was Mizushima’s works — Dokaben, Ikkyu-san, Yakyukyo no Uta. I used to buy used copies of the tankobons at second-hand book stores.
Eguchi: I loved Yakyukyo no Uta too, being a baseball fan — it was actually the inspiration behind Susume!! Pirates. You must like Tetsuya Chiba, right?
Sakuishi: I do. His manga like Ashita no Joe have a depth to them that I really like.
Eguchi: Thought so. My dream was to become Tetsuya Chiba, you know.
Sakuishi: I made my manga debut in ’87 with the Tetsuya Chiba Newcomer Award [at Young Magazine], and I was actually supposed to win a bigger award, but apparently Chiba didn’t think my manga was quite that good, so he singlehandedly knocked me down to the next best prize. (laugh) It was a real shock at the time.
Eguchi: Bahaha! That’s great.
Sakuishi: You’ve done a manga parody of Joe before, right? About a boxer who receives nourishment through lust instead of eating. (laugh)
Eguchi: Yeah. (laugh) I’ve done a few parodies of Ashita no Joe. I really really love the manga, but I’ve got this tendency to make fun of the stuff I like. Joe is the standard of manga for me. It’s integrated into who I am. I just love that self-destructive feeling to it.
Sakuishi: Scenes like when Danpei comes to the Boxing Association and starts going berserk have real force to them in a way that shonen manga these days simply don’t have.
Eguchi: So true. Even back then, it wouldn’t have become such a deeply real manga if it weren’t for the way Tetsuya Chiba went along adding nuance to Ikki Kajiwara’s story as he drew the series. The atmosphere in it is incredible from the very start, with the wind blowing through the slums.
Eguchi: How much time has passed within the story in Beck?
Sakuishi: About six years.
Eguchi: Ah, so it’s about the same amount of time that’s actually passed in reality, then. You know, I’m a believer in having characters age within the story — having them go through different hair styles, say, or that time Joe Yabuki grew that facial hair. In manga these days like Slam Dunk or Dear Boys, the time within the story might only progress three months or so after years of chapters appearing in the magazine, which I think has to do with how they’ve got these new visual techniques, using double-page spreads and just using larger panels in general, which makes it harder to move the plot along. Manga back in the day used to have these tiny little panels, and the level of information that guys like Kazuo Umezu could pack into each one was just incredible.
Sakuishi: Your pages were really dense in the early parts of Pirates, too. It’s true, though — with old manga sometimes I’ll go back and reread some part that had made a real impact on me before, and I’ll be surprised to find that the art is actually underwhelming.
Eguchi: Remind me again of how many pages you do per month for Beck — is it about 24?
Sakuishi: 64 a month, actually. It’s just the right pace for me.
Eguchi: Wait — 64 pages per chapter? It doesn’t feel that long at all, but I guess you’re just that good at pacing it. I can’t say as I’ve ever drawn 64 pages for a single chapter! I don’t even have it in me to work on a regular series anymore. (laugh) I always want to put out a regular amount of work like other people, of course, but it just doesn’t happen. Actually, though, I am working constantly; the problem is that I can’t let assistants help me, which slows my output.
Sakuishi: Yeah, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the results the first time I worked with an assistant, but you really do have to learn to let them help you out or you’ll just never last.
Eguchi: It’s tough putting together the system for that. In the past, I used to have no trouble drawing everything by myself, or just having assistants come in for emergencies. With Pirates, I used to just screw around from Monday through Friday, then when the weekend finally rolled around I’d start to panic and would just draw it in one fell swoop, no rough draft, over Saturday and Sunday.
Sakuishi: That’s nuts!
Eguchi: But starting with Stop!! Hibari-kun!, I raised the standards I held for my art — I mean, Otomo was out there, you know? So then I had to start taking time drawing my manga. Part of it was that I was drawn to the way Otomo used to get to take his time and draw manga directly released in tankobon form, rather than having it run in magazines. What kind of pace do you work at? Do you pull a lot of all-nighters?
Sakuishi: No, I’ve got a pace that works for me, so I get my seven or eight hours of sleep every day. Back when I was doing Gorillaman I used to whip up a chapter outline in 30 minutes and then rush through drawing it, but you can’t keep just blasting manga out like that. After a while I learned some techniques almost in the same way a pitcher has to learn to increase his repertoire — you may want to just keep throwing them hard and fast, but the truth is it’s just impossible to keep throwing those 150 km/h fastballs. When I first started out, the older artists used to tell me that I’d start to hate drawing after a while, but that hasn’t been the case for me at all — drawing is still a ton of fun for me, just like it always was.
Eguchi: That’s really great. I’ve gotta be honest: It’s tough for me. (laugh) I mean, when I’m patient and force myself through that tough work, it does start to become fun, though — kind of like stepping into a hot bath. But I still can’t quite understand approaching manga as one’s job, you know? And there are people out there who’ve been doing the same series for decades, about who I just can’t help but wonder, is it really any fun for them doing the same manga for all those years? I mean, drawing manga just isn’t the same as a job, don’t you think?
Sakuishi: It’s true — I like drawing manga, and I want to keep on drawing forever like Tezuka did, but not just out of inertia, obviously. I want to keep making manga that have never been done before, I want to meet people’s expectations. I believe in manga being entertainment first and foremost, but I also try to give people something that will contribute to their lives in some way.
Eguchi: Your work doesn’t feel like something you draw just for yourself — you always have the reader in mind. I want to leave something with my readers, too. It’s almost like I want to sow some sort of seed in the their minds, whether it be the desire to become a manga artist themselves, or whatever.
Sakuishi: Yeah. There are a lot of brutal stories out there filled with nothing but gore, but I want to draw something different from all that — which I should also add, though, isn’t the same as saying that I want to draw something that’s politically correct or moral or whatever.
Eguchi: My daughter is a fan of Death Note, which is running in Shonen Jump now. I enjoy it too while I’m reading it, but it’s a manga I couldn’t come out and say that I like without reservation. I mean, it’s an ugly story, killing people like it’s a video game. I much prefer Beck — in fact, Beck‘s the only good shonen manga going right now. I’m downright envious. It’s pretty much the ideal shonen manga.
Sakuishi: Thank you. I didn’t think the older generations of manga artists even read the work of the younger generations, so I was surprised just to hear that you were even reading Beck at all.
Eguchi: In Beck, you’ve got this just absolutely great sense for the everyday elements in the manga, stuff like how the guitarist [Ryusuke] lives at a fish pond. I feel something almost Tetsuya Chiba-esque in the details — even the names like Koyuki or Saku, they show real taste. I like to pick apart and critique manga as I read them, but with Beck there are never any parts where I feel like someone says something out of character or whatever. You’re really good at looking at things objectively, I think. Like, I’ll bet you never find yourself feeling like you’re lying to the reader when you’re writing the characters’ dialogue, do you?
Sakuishi: Yes, I do pride myself on my manga’s realistic dialogue. Not too many people compliment me on the everyday elements in my manga like the fish pond you mentioned, but I’m making a point of including those little details in Beck. I didn’t want it to be a manga about winning in Battle of the Bands X or whatever. Another thing is, while there are a lot of band-themed shojo manga, they tend to be about romances between a girl and the band’s star.
Eguchi: Right, Beck is totally different from other band manga. I felt like I was reading something made by an actual music buff. I’m sure there must have been a certain point where you really felt like the manga had hit its stride, right?
Sakuishi: Yes — it was the same time it started getting noticed. Beck is a pretty slow-paced manga, and not many people seemed to even be aware that it existed. When Gorillaman first ran in the magazine, I saw the reaction the very next day, when some high school kids were talking about it on the train. The reaction to Beck, meanwhile, was more gradual. For me personally, it was around the point where I came up with the idea for the Grateful Sound concert that I started to feel I really had something.
Eguchi: Why is it that you know so much about bands and the music industry?
Sakuishi: Oh, I really wouldn’t say I know that much.
Eguchi: But you’ve got all this talk about amps and Western indie bands and all that, and I don’t think there’s ever been a music manga that has dealt with all those details like you have. Your love for music is just apparent. I imagine you probably don’t get any complaints even from people who are themselves actually in their own rock bands, do you?
Sakuishi: Actually, that’s not quite true: To an actual pro, there’d probably be all sorts of things I get wrong, but then, there’s no point in making a niche manga that only experts could get interested in. I’m running in Monthly Shonen Magazine, so entertainment value comes first.
Eguchi: Fair enough, but you don’t strike me as the sort of person who only pays attention to manga. I mean, you read as much manga as the next guy, but then you’re also a listener of music… right?
Eguchi: Thought so. You’ve gotta know about more than just manga, or else how is one to draw real life? I’m not really into manga that aren’t connected with the outside world, and I think Beck‘s is a manga that is successfully reaching out there. I mean, you just know that there has to be people out there who’ve started a band after reading it, and when art causes someone to get up and go do something like that, you know it has real power on the outside world. Hell, there are a lot of people who read Hibari-kun and started crossdressing. (laugh) The thing is, kids today know that they’re just going to go to a good school, join a company and become salarymen, so they only approach manga as “just manga”. Hence the popularity of video game-like manga.
Sakuishi: They don’t let themselves get too deep into the manga, you’re saying?
Eguchi: Right. A manga might be fun, but it has nothing to do with real life, so even while there are people out there who read video game-like manga and may even feel inspired to become manga artists themselves, I personally am not satisfied with that. I want manga to stimulate the reader in more ways than that, and in more interesting ways. I want manga to make the reader think he could have become something different, and maybe that if he wants to, he could still turn out that way yet. There aren’t any realistic success stories like that in manga these days aside from Beck, which is why in a way I think you take a lot from Tetsuya Chiba. And then there’s the fact while our generation sort of had this idea that effort was uncool, young people these days seem to be pretty receptive to straightforward sincerety. Beck isn’t just goofing around, but it’s not too serious, either, and I think that delicate balance is really in sync with the times. It’s a realistic work, in that way. My daughter is in her first year of junior high school, and I think she’d be a big fan of Beck if she were to read it.
Sakuishi: I’m a big fan of the original Tiger Mask professional wrestler, who is someone who appealed not only to wrestling fans, but to society at large. If possible, I’d like to make a manga that grabs the attention of society like that, too.
Sakuishi: What about that Eiji manga you did — were there people who were inspired by it to get into boxing?
Eguchi: Hmm, I don’t really know. The problem with Eiji was, I didn’t really know enough about boxing. I wanted to do it together with a storywriter who actually knew about the sport — Ikki Kajiwara, say. (laugh)
Sakuishi: You and Kajiwara, doing Eiji together?! But then the dialogue would lose that Eguchi touch, though. (laugh) You know, you say that you didn’t know enough about boxing, but the dialogue in Eiji seemed totally real to me.
Eguchi: Really? Well, I did do a lot of interviewing with young boxers. I didn’t understand what drove a person to box in the 1980s. Back in Joe‘s era, you had people trying to pull themselves out of the gutter using their fists, but when I was asking young people about it, they just weren’t hungry like that. They were really stoic, instead. Very serious. Like they were really facing down their selves.
Sakuishi: Ah, interesting.
Eguchi: I didn’t want to do the kind of romantic comedy that was trending at the time. Everyone had girls as their main characters, so I decided I would do a manga about a boy with Eiji.
Sakuishi: I recently rebought Eiji in the recent pocket edition, and I was pretty surprised to read in the afterword that the idea was to make a shonen manga that would overturn the reign of the romantic comedy.
Eguchi: But in the end I worried too much about getting the art just right, and I couldn’t keep it going as a series. With Beck, I see you as doing what I wanted to do but couldn’t. It’s a real relief to have someone like you out there working in a shonen magazine. Where are the other manga like Beck? We could really use some.
Sakuishi: I think there used to be a lot more, actually. In my case, though, it’s just that I couldn’t do the whole popularity competition thing week after week even if I tried.
Eguchi: But I do think it’s better to draw your stuff regularly for a magazine, even if it’s monthly rather than weekly. It’s important to put your manga out there regularly and have kids read it. Kids today aren’t reading manga — they’re too busy playing on their phones all the time — but I want them to, and so I want to see the shonen magazines doing their job. Comic Cue, which I used to run, was a place for artists doing series elsewhere to do a short piece as a change of pace every once in a while. It was a niche venue. Beck, though isn’t niche, and I much prefer a shonen manga like Beck to niche stuff. If I were still running Comic Cue, though, I would definitely invite you to draw for it.
Sakuishi: If you were to ask me to do a one-shot, I would absolutely take it upon myself to answer that call.
Eguchi: Different media have different roles, and I want manga’s role to be something that stimulates children. I don’t want to see it lean too far in the direction of literature or art.
Sakuishi: I’m not any good at producing art anyway. (laugh)
Eguchi: Always so modest. (laugh) So, do you have some sort of ending in mind for Beck at this point? Are Koyuki and company going to take on the world?
Sakuishi: Well, yes, I have a rough idea of where things will probably end up. How about you, though — do you have any plans for the future?
Eguchi: Me? Well, see, I know that my manga isn’t exactly cutting edge anymore, but it’s still something unique to me that only I can make, so I’m going to keep putting out work. I used to always target young people, but now I figure I’m ready to make manga for an audience closer to my own age, although if there are some young people out there who are able to appreciate it, that’d be nice too. I don’t believe in artists creating manga based on whatever is trendy at the moment — the reader can see right through that stuff.
Sakuishi: Yeah, I’ve never approached manga in terms of how many thousands of copies I want to sell; instead, I want my work to be important in my reader’s life. Ashita no Joe, for example, is a manga that a lot of people out there who really hold close to their heart and reread multiple times throughout their lives, and that’s the kind of thing I want to make. I want to make manga that people will want to keep with them for the rest of their lives. There’s still a lot more that I want to do, and I believe that my personal best manga is still yet to come. ♦