Never thought I’d translate an interview with the guy who did Naruto, but this is a pretty great conversation! Turns out he’d fallen hard for Blade of the Immortal in university and studied it in a serious way, so he’s absolutely stoked to get to talk to Samura. Topics discussed include:
- the endings of each other’s series (so: SPOILER ALERT)
- Samura’s art and panel layout as revelation in the 1990s
- Naruto haters in the West who need to take a deep breath
- the perils of overdeveloping characters
- the perils of drawing the human hand
- confirmation that Kakashi’s character design is in fact pretty much lifted from Magatsu in BOTI (what a scoop!)
Also: if you enjoy this, might I recommend checking out the 2013 Samura interview I translated?
Kishimoto: This is a total dream come true for me. I’ve always dreamed of meeting you.
Samura: That’s nice of you to say. (laugh)
Kishimoto: No — really. I’ve loved your work since I was in university, and…. jeez, how to put this? I’ve got so much I want to say to you. Let’s not even bother talking about Naruto! Really! I just want to talk about Blade of the Immortal. (laugh)
Samura: Come on now. (laugh)
Kishimoto: I can still remember when Blade of the Immortal first ran in Afternoon: I was in my first year of university majoring in art and I was living in a dorm, and the other students there were all going on about this incredible manga in the latest issue, like, “Kishimoto, you want to become a manga artist, right? Then you’d better take a look at this thing.” And the thing is, I was making a samurai manga at the time, so when I heard that this was a samurai manga too, I figured I’d take a look to see if I could glean something from it, but then it turned out that it was just on a whole other level.
Samura: Oh, that’s not true at all! (laugh)
Kishimoto: No, seriously! The art is so good. It was a real shock. I knew I couldn’t compete with something like that, so I decided to give up on doing a samurai manga and changed to a different genre.
Samura: It’s too bad you felt that way — Jump could have produced a samurai masterpiece.
Kishimoto: Well, Rurouni Kenshin was starting around that time, too, though. So. (laugh) Anyway, I changed tacks a little bit and went with a ninja manga.
Samura: Going with ninjas turned out to be a brilliant move, though — the ninjas in Naruto even managed to really hook the ninja lovers outside of Japan.
Kishimoto: Exactly — I was surprised by just how much people outside of Japan liked ninjas. Although, even overseas, there’s… well, I’ve seen reviews of Naruto by people abroad, and one of them was this guy who really hates it. So I was watching this video on YouTube or something of him sitting there talking, and the wall behind him is just covered in Blade of the Immortal posters. (laugh) Wish I could brag to that guy that I’m talking one-on-one with his beloved Samura now. (laugh)
Samura: (laugh) Yeah, it does happen sometimes that someone will compare my manga to other stuff of a similar genre just to bash it and praise my work, but I really wish they wouldn’t do that. (laugh) It’s embarrassing. Can’t stand it.
Kishimoto: Anyway, I was blown away in university in a way I hadn’t been since Akira. I mean, that artwork! It felt so far away from anything I was capable of. The arms and legs especially. Afternoon had this section where artists were given a page to themselves, and I still remember being just floored by this character sitting in a chair that you drew there.
Samura: Ah, I remember that! It took me a really long time. (laugh)
Kishimoto: I’m only four years younger than you, but it made me wonder how long I would have to keep my pen to the grindstone in order to catch up to your level.
Samura: You know, though: I only started reading Naruto midway through the series, but you struck me as someone with a really high basic drawing ability.
Kishimoto: Me?! That’s not true… Oh, jeez… (writhes in embarrassment)
Samura: I mean it. So then I wondered what you were like just starting out, and I went back and read the first volume. It looked different, of course, but even then you were far from being just another half-baked rookie.
Kishimoto: But I take a lot of influence from you, don’t you think? I fell in love with Akira in junior high school, and then in university I fell in love with your work, so I take a lot from you. When I met Osamu Akimoto of Kochikame fame, he commented about how I was influenced a lot by Blade of the Immortal. The clothes and hairstyles gave it away — he was like, “Kakashi is Magatsu, and Iruka is Manji, right? I love that manga too, so I can tell.”
Samura: Oh, really?
Kishimoto: And he was dead on. You’ve influenced me in how I draw hands, too. I was amazed by the hand holding a gun in the original Blade of the Immortal chapter — the line running from the index finger down to the thumb, you really captured the flesh there so well. It gave me shivers.
Samura: But I was influenced by other people in terms of drawing hands too, you know. The first time I read a manga and thought, “Now here’s someone who can really draw hands,” was Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. I’d look at Arion or whatever and just think that it looked so good.
Kishimoto: Hands really are something that you can’t help but notice.
Samura: They bother you even just looking at one’s own manga. You, though, are really good at hands.
Kishimoto: Oh, it’s completely borrowed from you. One of my assistants had apparently seen my debut one-shot manga “Karakuri” and thought I did a great job on the hands, but then when I told him I was just doing Hiroaki Samura hands he said, “Ah, yes… I know. I could tell, actually.” (laugh) It was that obvious.
Samura: But with me, for example, when I draw hands, I tend to always add lines of the back of them to show the tendons. It’s a habit of mine, for better or worse. You, though, only draw the outline of the hand, but you still manage to convey the surface of the back of the hand anyway. That’s impressive.
Kishimoto: All I did was simplify the hands you do, though.
Samura: But what matters is knowing where to simplify. It’s amazing that you can pull this off with such simple lines.
Kishimoto: Your art is really original, though. Most people just take influence from other people, but you had a really original style.
Samura: The manga I was drawing when I was a student was straight out of Katsuhiro Otomo, actually — like, I even did the Otomo-style shadows where you make characters’ shadows by applying screentone in the same shape as them. (laugh) Then I realized that it might be a problem to be so similar and started trying to come up with ways to change things up, which is how I started drawing a little bit rougher, a little bit scratchier.
Kishimoto: Well, it was a total bombshell.
Samura: Part of it, I think, is also the fact that I didn’t draw with a dip pen like I was supposed to. (laugh) I drew the series with a brush pen and a micron pen, purely because it was faster. (laugh)
Kishimoto: It didn’t show, though — I never would have thought you were drawing with a Pigma micron pen. For the longest time, you had me and my friend scratching our heads over what you were drawing with. He thought it might be a micron pen, but I stupidly told him that there was no way to make the lines look the way they did using a micron pen; then eventually we read that it was in fact exactly what you were using, which was a real shock.
Samura: Pretty sharp friend. (laugh)
Kishimoto: The characters in Blade of the Immortal look great, too. The girls are really cute, and they all look really distinct from each other. Don’t you find it hard to give female characters distinct designs?
Samura: Yeah, I’m bad at it too. With men, you can make them look cool in a bunch of different ways, even if the individual parts they’re made from are actually pretty ugly if you look closely. Women, though — they always come out looking at least fairly pretty, and their faces start to look alike.
Kishimoto: But you manage to even give distinct looks to side characters — the shapes of their eyes, even, are different. The only exception is, while their faces are different, you tend to give them all small breasts. (laugh)
Samura: Their weight and build tend to come out the same, yeah. (laugh) Do you like small breasts or large breasts on women?
Kishimoto: I prefer them big, actually.
Samura: Huh. (laugh) You know how we’re supposed to draw characters from each other’s manga after this talk, right? Well, I was wondering what I should draw, and my assistant told me that he can already easily imagine how I would draw a character liked Hinata or someone like that, so in terms of female characters he says I should try drawing someone like Tsunade, or if I want to do a male character, maybe a Chouza or something. Someone with big breasts for a change, he says. (laugh)
Kishimoto: I used Blade of the Immortal to study structure and layout, and I used to buy two copies of Afternoon.
Samura: What for?
Kishimoto: After buying an issue of Afternoon, I’d start by covering my wall with Blade of the Immortal. The problem is, with the pages stuck on the wall, I could only see one side, so I used to buy two copies so that I could see the front and back of every page. Then I’d drill the structure into me — analyzing, like, “Okay, so he makes this panel here like this, and then the page reads like this”, or, “Hmm, so he spends X number of pages doing this”. And even now, I find myself having to spread pages out and look at them like that when I’m drafting out a chapter.
Samura: Wow, you really didn’t have to look at my stuff — there were plenty of good models to learn from in Jump… (laugh)
Kishimoto: See, I wanted you to know just how obsessed I was with your work. (laugh) The rhythm you give your manga is just awesome: Like, you show the characters’ positions with a zoomed-out shot, and then when you’re cutting back and forth with the camera quickly you go into a series of close-ups. I’m still totally amazed by the way you create that rhythm, with the tiny close-up panels underneath one big one.
Samura: For me, I feel the most important thing I have to do with the art in my manga is explanation. Explaining the scene that’s happening is always top priority, and then trying to make that into something cool-looking comes second. A thought I’ve had recently is that the rapid cuts in action scenes in films really seem to be different from the way we do cuts in manga, because in manga, you have to show more zoomed-out shots. In film you can stay in close-up the whole time without showing much of the background, because what little background you see is in color, so you still can pretty much understand what’s going on. Unlike in manga…
Kishimoto: Which is all black and white.
Samura: Right. You have to explain it all.
Kishimoto: It is hard. Slip up a little bit in an action scene and it becomes unfollowable.
Samura: I think in your case, it’s partially just your fate when doing a weekly shonen series. I mean, your schedule is brutal, isn’t it? I’ve seen an article before about a week in the life of a Jump artist, and it made me really wonder how you guys find the time and energy in that schedule to pay attention to your art. (laugh) You have so little time, and have to constantly produce so much. So, for example, I’m guessing you don’t get to apply screentone as you would like, right?
Kishimoto: Right. Definitely not for the chapters as they run in the magazine, anyway — though I do get to fix some of it for the tankobon releases.
Samura: Your battles are really dense with lines, but that also means there’s a lot of information for the eye to follow, and that information can appear to be just noise. I think it’d probably be easier to read if you had the time to apply a screentone to the entire background around the characters, but I take it there’s no time for that.
Kishimoto: No, there isn’t. In your manga, you sometimes apply tone to characters in the foreground, which gives the panel a depth to it. I was doing that early on in Naruto, but eventually I had to stop because I just didn’t have the time for it.
Samura: You say my manga is easy to read, but the only difference is that I’m using screentone. (laugh)
Kishimoto: It’s the camera positioning too. Too close up and you don’t know where the characters are. With Naruto, the people fighting aren’t normal — they become kaiju size — and I don’t really know how far back to take the camera. I can’t go too far back, or you won’t be able to see the characters; too close up and you can’t see who they’re fighting. Your camerawork is another thing I admire you for. I imagine the Blade of the Immortal story arc under Edo Castle must’ve been tough, because you always have to deal with perspective when the scenes take place underground. The idea of drawing fight scenes there is just mind-boggling. You’re so limited in where you can take the camera.
Samura: Yeah, you can’t draw anything too zoomed out.
Kishimoto: And yet you still have them fight in a way that the reader can understand what’s going on. I tried drawing a battle scene in a corridor when my character Jiraiya first appeared, but it was really tough — to the point that I had to tell my editor that the camerawork for this is just too difficult. But you had all kinds of characters fighting in passageways in that Edo Castle arc, somehow.
Samura: Yeah, well, I faked my way through a lot of that part. (laugh)
Kishimoto: That’s not true.
Samura: Changing topic a little bit, I think the two of us share a common weakness: You have trouble creating characters that it feels unambiguously good to see get killed off too, don’t you? (laugh) The two of us just can’t help but add background and side stories that make them into not such bad guys after all.
Kishimoto: Ah, like we put in flashbacks and explain their childhood and background and all that… Yeah, the story gets pretty long with that stuff, doesn’t it? (laugh)
Samura: But you know, this might be because I’m the same type of artist myself, but the thing I was most impressed with in reading Naruto was how you never forget about any of the characters. In that pretty long final battle, for example, you tried to give every character his or her time to shine, right? You’d think that having been doing a manga for fifteen years, you would forget about some of the characters from the early parts of the manga.
Kishimoto: I did try to make it so that everyone had at least a little bit of an opportunity to shine. You never forgot about your characters either, though.
Samura: Well, yeah, I tried to have everyone make an appearance, aside from the characters who didn’t really have any reason to come back.
Kishimoto: I was really happy to see characters like Giichi come back in the end of Blade of the Immortal. Loved how he fought with Manji’s weapon.
Kishimoto: I think Blade of the Immortal and Naruto are thematic flipsides of each other, in a way. One of the themes in Naruto is the passing down of will across generations, whereas Blade of the Immortal is about how you shouldn’t pass that stuff on, because if you don’t let it end with your generation you’ll end up making your children and grandchildren suffer. But at the same time, you also say that it’s not purely a curse — there’s love there being passed on too, right? I thought that was just great.
Samura: The end was really just me trying to find some way to bring it all to something resembling a close. (laugh) The ending sort of wrote itself, in a way; there were things I did earlier on in the story that made it necessary to do certain things in the ending.
Kishimoto: Oh, but you did a beautiful job. I mean, dealing with hate is hard. Like, okay, so people want to get back at others who’ve wronged them, but what’s justifiable about that? Having done a series dealing with revenge and hate myself, I’ve always thought it must be hard for you doing your series, too — but you really did wrap it up nicely. Did you have the ending in mind for a long time?
Samura: I had figured out the gist of how it would go when I started on the final arc, but the idea that Rin would get Anotsu was something I had decided from the very start.
Kishimoto: Rin was always wavering, doing things like traveling together with her sworn enemy Anotsu, but she was consistent that she would be the one to kill him.
Samura: Her wishy-washiness might just be the wishy-washiness of the artist coming through. (laugh)
Kishimoto: That felt real, though — like, if I were in Rin’s shoes, I would be hesitant, too.
Samura: The characters in Naruto don’t really waver in that way, though — especially Naruto himself. It’s a good shonen manga.
Kishimoto: Yeah, I made Naruto the kind of character who doesn’t generally waver, partly just because I thought the kids reading it might not get it. He does run into a barrier at one point, when Nagato/Pain appears, and he starts to wonder if maybe revenge is wrong and he can’t come up with an answer. It seemed like it would be unrealistic for the main character to never ever doubt himself.
Samura: So, I actually have two things I wanted to say to you about Naruto today. One is about the relationship between Sasuke and Naruto. So, Sasuke goes away and then eventually comes back, right? During that time, you have Naruto doing all kinds of things with Sasuke in mind, but Sasuke goes through all kinds of decisions without hardly ever thinking about Naruto, and really, I wasn’t sure that it was okay to have Sasuke’s actions be so unaffected by Naruto. But then I got to the ending, where it takes Naruto to bring Sasuke back from the brink.
Samura: So then I was pretty happy with that, and my discomfort about that went away. Anyway, the other thing I wanted to say is: the shadow clone jutsu was too strong a technique to bring in right from the start.
Samura: I didn’t think much of it at first, but then when I stopped and thought about it, a technique that produces actual physical copies that can act separately from yourself is actually really frigging good. (laugh)
Kishimoto: It’s true. (laugh) The main character is overpowered. It’s a secret technique, so he shouldn’t be able to use it, but he does anyway. I ended up making it because of the fox. (laugh)
Samura: So, by the way, do you have any idea what kind of manga you want to do next?
Kishimoto: Hopefully something that isn’t too long, anyway. (laugh) I’d like to do something that wraps up within ten volumes or so.
Samura: I don’t imagine Jump will be too willing to let you do that. (laugh) I’d like to read a ten-volume series by you, though. Any thoughts on what it would be about?
Kishimoto: Hmm, well, I’d like to avoid doing anything like Naruto… but something like Naruto is what the readers want. I did a short piece about the mafia before, but people wrote back that they went into it excited for some sort of superpowers to appear, but they never did.
Samura: Jump is pretty light on its feet, though — like, they’ll let you give something a try, and if it doesn’t work out they’ll axe it after one volume and it’s onto the next series. I personally would like to see you try making something a little different next time rather than going for another giant hit.
Kishimoto: I would like to try something a little different. Doing a weekly series is a bit much for me now, too, so I’d like to try going monthly or something.
Samura: You’re really good at drawing, so I’d be interested in seeing what kind of art you’ll produce if given the time to work on it until you’re fully satisfied.
Kishimoto: You’re too kind… (laugh) But I do want to spend more time working on the art to a point that I’m satisfied with. I might not be able to meet my deadlines with that attitude, though. (laugh) ♦Above: Kishimoto does Blade of the Immortal, Samura does Naruto.