Today, Nobuyuki Fukumoto in conversation with musician and manga fan Kenji Otsuki, in 2009.
Otsuki: I read Kaiji in preparation for this interview, although only halfway. It’s a manga that is guaranteed to be in every musician’s recording studio (laugh), so I’d already read it before, here and there. The thing is, it has a bunch of different series to it, right? So, reading it in a bunch of different places, I would get the volumes mixed up and not really know what’s going on – like, “Why is this happening now? What happened to the dice game?!” or, “Why’s he doing a burning kowtow?!” (laugh), so then I end up deciding to set the manga aside.
Fukumoto: Thank you. I’ve always thought you have an interesting take on things, so whenever I see you on TV or radio I find myself thinking, “It’d be really fun to meet this guy at a bar or somewhere, sit down together and shoot the breeze.” I’m glad to have this opportunity.
Otsuki: It was such a great read that I thought I might fall out of my seat sometimes – and at the same time, it made me feel sick. (laugh)
Fukumoto: Interesting. The chapters do often tend to have a lot of text, and I imagine that parts like the limited rock, paper, scissors arc make the reader use his brain a lot, so it would take a while to read through. I could see it being exhausting. (laugh)
Otsuki: It’s taxing mentally and physically, and I thought it was just amazing. I’m at a point in my life where I’m lacking in motivation (laugh), so this was the first manga in a long time that made me feel inspired – from things like seeing the way Kaiji gets so fired up. I haven’t been reading manga magazines for years now, actually.
Fukumoto: It’s an honor that my manga made you feel that way. I had you pegged for someone who reads a lot of manga, though.
Otsuki: See, I stopped all of a sudden. When I was a kid, I used to read things like Gakideka and Macaroni Hourensou and Devilman in Shonen Jump and Shonen Magazine, but then when I was a teenager you had seinen magazines like Young Magazine and Young Jump appear, and at the same time people started making all these manga about teenage delinquents. Being a geek myself, I just couldn’t get on board with that delinquent culture, and I just stopped reading manga. So, in a way, the thing that caused me to turn away from manga was – and this is hard to say in front of an editor here – Young Magazine [i.e. the magazine Kaiji has been running in for almost two decades].
Otsuki: Well, more specifically, I guess it was Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Bebop High School. (laugh) It was sort of a funny manga, though, to be fair.
Fukumoto: Bebop was pretty original for its time. It had realistic parts to it that delinquent manga until then never used to have – things like having the main character get scared during fights – and because of those original aspects, the thing sold like gangbusters. There really were a lot of biker gang manga that came out after that, though.
Otsuki: Where exactly does your manga come from, in terms of the manga tradition?
Fukumoto: It takes after Tetsuya Chiba, I’d say. I’m working with things like gambling, but I consider myself to be part of the tradition of the wholesome shonen manga – manga about real men, you could say. Maybe people don’t think of Tetsuya Chiba that way, but isn’t that exactly what Hiroshi Motomiya’s manga like Otoko Ippiki Gaki Daisho is? I mean, you could argue that Bebop is about manliness too, in a way, but I do feel like the tradition of “real man” manga came to a halt after Motomiya, and so I see myself as the first artist in a while to be working that field. (laugh) But there is a difference between me and Motomiya: In his manga, the main characters are charismatic and handsome, so people just naturally start to follow them. My protagonists, on the other hand, are always alone – not only do they not have followers, they don’t even have friends. (laugh)
Otsuki: The dropouts start to gather around Kaiji during the E-card match, though.
Fukumoto: As I wrote during that part of the story, though, that solidarity is shallow – Hyodo snaps at them just a little and they all start apologizing and backing off of Kaiji. (laugh) They’re halfheartedly rooting for him on the inside, and that’s the extent of their solidarity. In the underground facility, he has guys like Miyoshi and Maeda acting like his friends, but they betray Kaiji too, and in the end Kaiji is fighting alone – which is part of my style as a writer.
Otsuki: Where do you think that comes from? Were you horribly betrayed by someone as a child or something?
Fukumoto: I’m not sure why it is. I like Motomiya’s Otoko Ippiki Gaki Daisho and Kouha Ginjiro, but when I try to make a manga like those myself, something about it always seems phony about it. I can’t do manga where the characters readily make friends that they risk their lives for. I started out by drawing short human drama pieces, but even then – partially because I wasn’t doing long-term series, but – they weren’t generally stories about friends. After that I drew mahjong manga like Ten and Akagi, and Akagi is similarly about someone who has no friends. (laugh) Although apparently it’s a popular manga among the yaoi fangirls.
Otsuki: You mean they pair Akagi up with other characters – top and bottom?
Fukumoto: I haven’t actually read the books, but apparently he’s a popular character at those dojinshi markets. (laugh) Akagi is a character very in control of himself. He really never falters, to the point of not even fearing death. That’s why he tends to be the target of that stuff – he’s easy to pick on. (laugh)
Otsuki: Your manga flaunt a ton of ethical lines that aren’t supposed to be crossed. Is that something you see at all in other shonen or seinen manga these days?
Fukumoto: So, what you’re asking about is how, say, Tonegawa goes on tirades in Kaiji about how the characters are absolutely pathetic, and do other manga do that kind of thing? I suppose not many do. I consider one of the characteristics of my manga to be that the bad guys say these really cruel things, and yet you feel like maybe what they’re saying is true. You could say that I use the bad guys in my manga as a sort of wall that stands in for society or something like that, which Kaiji then bumps up against and wins or loses against. Manga have had walls like that in the past, like, say, Ittetsu Hoshi [from Kyojin no Hoshi], but the thing is, Ittetsu had affection for Hyuma, whereas Tonegawa has zero affection. (laugh) He’s just pure wall. I sort of like that.
Another characteristic of my manga is, Kaiji loses quite a bit. Main characters are usually supposed to win, but not Kaiji. Especially in the original Gambling Apocalypse series [i.e., the 13 volumes corresponding to the first season of the anime], where he loses at that crucial final moment – that’s sort of what’s real about my manga, what sets it apart from manga where the characters win and the reader gets his catharsis. I’ve had a lot of people tell me how they never expected his fingers to get cut off. (laugh)
Otsuki: Manga is something that goes in surprising directions, and this was the first time in a long while that I really felt surprised like that. Like that part where Kaiji rigs the tissue box – I did not see those tissue boxes coming. (laugh)
Fukumoto: You know, tissue boxes these days are compressed now and aren’t made that way anymore, but they used to be like the ones in Kaiji. I tried it myself.
Otsuki: So that sort of idea just occurs to you all of a sudden?
Fukumoto: Yeah, it struck me as something that could be interesting if I used it right.
Otsuki: When I was about twenty, I was an idiot student and took a couple of years off of school before going to a university that wasn’t especially academic, where I would screw around and not go to school much, and even on the days I did go I would just eat curry at the cafeteria like four times in one day – that was my life. Just as I was starting to think I might be screwed in terms of finding a job, the band I was in happened to ride the band boom at the time and we managed to get our start in the industry, and so when I read Kaiji I thought to myself that if I hadn’t been in that band, I’d be on the boat. At first when they’re playing rock, paper, scissors on the boat, a lot of the idiots there don’t really understand what’s even going on and just thoughtlessly lose, and yet they keep carrying on like it’s no big deal. Seeing that, I felt a little scared, knowing that that’s what I am.
Fukumoto: If I hadn’t managed to get where I am now through manga, I’d have been the same. I started working after high school but quit after three months, went to work as a manga artist’s assistant where I was basically fired after a year and a half. I was twenty at the time. At that point, I started doing things like delivering newspapers while working alone on manga that I’d bring in to publishers. After a year or so of that I finally got published, which eventually brought me to where I am now.
Back to what you were saying about feeling like you were in Kaiji’s shoes, though: I have another manga called Legend of the Strongest Man Kurosawa, about a deadbeat middle-aged man, which I think makes the reader feel that way too. The protagonist, Kurosawa, works as a construction site supervisor but is unmotivated in his work and is still single in his forties.
Otsuki: Is there any longstanding tradition of that sort of manga about losers? Maybe, say, Mataro ga Kuru? (laugh) Maybe that’s not really the same thing.
Fukumoto: It’s a stretch, but that falls under the category of superpower fantasy, doesn’t it? Kurosawa is more realistic than that. You know how protagonists in shonen manga do things like jump in to stop their classmate from being bullied without thinking about how they might get beaten up themselves? I always felt that wasn’t real. So with Kurosawa, I wanted to make a manga that shows hesitation, and how it actually isn’t so easy to defend people like that.
Another problem I had in mind was that there aren’t any funny story manga out there anymore – the kind that makes you chuckle to yourself. That’s part of why I made the main character something of a loser, someone that you can laugh at.
Otsuki: Recently this girl who’s into Johnnys boy bands saw me reading Kaiji and recognized it as the manga being made into a movie starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, so she asked me to lend it to her. I can’t help but worry that it’s not something that the average girl should read. (laugh) I just know it’ll traumatize her. There might be a Kaiji generation of people who read your manga as children, are shown the true nature of humans and are left unable to trust in people, carrying Chairman Hyodo’s words of wisdom with them throughout their entire lives.
Otsuki: Seriously, I’ll bet there are Hyodo fundamentalists out there. I do wonder, though: What is it that drives you to make these characters?
Fukumoto: Take pledge-drive concerts, for example. Basically, I think those things are bogus. I don’t know how many hundreds of millions of yen those things raise, but I suspect that they’d be donating more money if they would just take the money they put toward the concert’s production fees and donate that to charity instead. Now, obviously they’re aware that they could do that and are choosing not to anyway – they want to appeal to people’s consciences, I get that, but still… as Kaiji says when he’s on the steel beam, “People don’t save people,” because “they don’t feel bad about it.” I realize this is pretty harsh stuff. Sorry.
Otsuki: But, say you have this idiot reading your manga, and his life isn’t going well in large part because he isn’t trying hard enough, but it’s also because there’s a force of evil out there controlling the world, which isn’t his fault at all. There’s a pretty direct message in your manga that he’d be able to improve his life if he could just defeat that evil force, and that seems to me something you have in common with artists like Motomiya Hiroshi.
Fukumoto: Now that is something that we might have in common. Motomiya’s work isn’t really part of the delinquent manga genre. The way I see it, delinquent manga is about the memories of youth – it’s not something connected to society at large. Motomiya, though, does connect his work with society – like, he has an oil tanker show up with an Arabian oil tycoon, etc. (laugh) He moves the world itself, whereas delinquent manga are just about some gang from Shonan fighting some other gang from wherever the hell, and then some other biker gang gets involved… but all of that is finished once they graduate. It’s just the memories of some kids fighting each other. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that stuff doesn’t connect to anything bigger. No one’s taking on the world.
Otsuki: You’re right: delinquent manga isn’t about taking on the system, it just sticks to friendship.
Fukumoto: Exactly, it’s about friendship. It’s about a guy going in alone, saving his friend from a swarm of enemies, and successfully getting out. The most it has to say about going out into the world is how some older boy is now out there working for some construction company, and what a total man that makes him. That’s it.
Otsuki: Kaiji is very anti-establishment in that sense. The money involved isn’t actually all that much, though, is it? The money he’s gambling with is just in the tens of millions, so even while he may be standing up against the evil establishment, to them it’s just a drop in the bucket, whereas Kaiji loses his fingers and ear, and it’s really sad. (laugh) I think readers who are still students will be doubly shocked once they become adults and realize that, thinking back on it, Kaiji never even had that much money on the line.
Fukumoto: That might be true – maybe Kaiji’s involvement in the larger world has just been him getting constantly beaten… But we’re only partway through the story, and at the moment in the manga he has something like 480,000,000 yen, actually. (laugh)
Otsuki: Attaboy, Kaiji. (laugh) When Kaiji had his ear and fingers operated on, he didn’t have any sort of devices implanted in him, did he? Like, maybe all of a sudden he’ll be revealed to be a cyborg or something, and then he comes out of nowhere with Kitaro-style finger guns and shoot the hell out of Hyodo. (laugh) I’m guessing you must have some sort of line that you just won’t cross like that?
Fukumoto: For me, there’s a reason for winning at gambling, and that reason is what’s interesting about it, so I try to structure my manga so that I can explain things through reason.
Otsuki: But you must get fan letters telling you what to do, right? “Do horse racing next time,” or whatever.
Fukumoto: I consider doing all sorts of things, including horse racing – rather than making a brand new game to gamble on, I’ll change the rules of some already existing game a little. So, if I were to do horse racing, maybe it’d be a 400-meter baton relay race, or something… (laugh)
Otsuki: I’ve never done it so I don’t personally know, but do people actually gamble while reading each other like the characters in Kaiji do? When I play poker or whatever I just go at it without even thinking about anything.
Fukumoto: People do it in mahjong somewhat.
Otsuki: Do you yourself do any gambling?
Fukumoto: Rarely. But I am drawn to things that involve points, as opposed to, say, fishing, which I can’t really get into. I like golf, for example, which has points. Activities where you win or lose based on points – that’s what I like. My line of work is actually a bit like gambling. I see having a manga series as like putting on a show, in that it comes down to how long you can keep it running, how many customers you can get into your tent. You don’t even know if you’re going to have an audience if you put on your show, so it’s a blind investment and, in that sense, a sort of gamble. Manga is a gamble in the same way – you start a series without knowing whether it’ll last or not. ♦