From a 2013 article from cakes.mu, a tour through Inio Asano’s workplace. I swear this is the last Asano thing I’ll do for a long time.
–So this is where you’re always drawing your manga.
Asano: Right. It’s my workspace, as well as my personal room. This is where I spend most of the day.
–When you draw manga, what do you start with?
Asano: Making the story. I come up with the framework in the first thirty minutes or so.
–That’s really fast!
Asano: I don’t bother agonizing much over the story. What I think hard about is how to word the dialogue, and the nuance behind the dialogue. I write the dialogue out in a text editor. From here down to here is the rough outline and dialogue for one chapter.
–I see that it’s written in bullet form rather than full sentences.
Asano: I take about an hour to write out a rough outline of the story for a volume. If I’m doing it for Goodnight Punpun, then that’s eleven chapters per volume, so I divide it up into eleven parts in such a way that it balances out well. Then I write out all the dialogue to flesh out the chapter.
–What’s the next step after you’ve finished coming up with the story?
Asano: The rough draft. It’s sort of the manga version of a storyboard, where you divide it into panels and write out the dialogue. Up to and including this part is only about ten to twenty percent of the total time it takes me to produce a chapter.
–Which means that most of the work is…
Asano: The drawing. It’s mostly just drawing. It takes me ten days to draw a chapter these days.
–Which isn’t fast enough to do a weekly series.
Asano: Not nearly fast enough — which is why what I do is put the series on break, save up a bunch of chapters and then have them run in the magazine back-to-back. I can’t do the art any faster. I can’t simplify the process. I have assistants drawing backgrounds based on photographs, but that’s all I have them do.
–So you draw the characters entirely by yourself, then.
Asano: I do. I also do all of the digital work too, like scanning the backgrounds and integrating the images together. There are a ton of things to do.
–Would you say it’s a heavier work process than most manga artists do?
Asano: I think it might be. I used to do it all by myself, and I’m reluctant to change how I do things too much. Drawing as much of it by myself as I can allows me to be more responsible for the quality of the manga, too… Hey, whoa there!
Asano: No sitting on the manga. (laugh)
–Aww, how cute! What’s her name?
Asano: This white one is Rimokon (“remote control”). I also have a black one, whose name is Unagi (“eel”). The white one likes to get up on the desk I draw at. I’ve given up and decided to just let her go for it.
–I suppose the fact that you have your chapters serialized in batches means that you don’t have weekly deadlines or anything like that.
Asano: True — sometimes it can be as far as two months in the future. I used to have weekly deadlines like a manga artist is supposed to. I actually never failed to meet a deadline, but I was under so much pressure that I’d have nightmares even just taking a quick nap.
–Apparently you even got a collapsed lung while you were facing those deadlines.
Asano: Ah, that’s true. Apparently collapsed lungs are just caused by the way your body is and have nothing to do with stress, though. (laugh) But I had just graduated university at the time, and I’d holed myself up in this tiny one-room apartment that didn’t even have the internet set up, doing all the work myself. It was rough. I wouldn’t want to go back to that. So I was happy when I got my collapsed lung — now I had a good excuse to stop drawing. (laugh) Riding in that ambulance, I felt this simply enormous sense of release.
–It took that to finally find a reason to take some time off. (laugh) Alright, so what sort of writing tools do you use?
Asano: This is what’s called a G pen, the pen that manga artists often have. Different artists use all kinds of different pen nibs, and I personally use pretty fine-tipped ones. Then you’ve got your standard brush pen, your ballpoint pen, your magic marker. I’m not fussy when it comes to my drawing implements. First I sketch things out with a mechanical pencil in light blue lead before drawing in ink — light blue because it doesn’t show up when I scan it later. I’ve heard rumor that they’re getting rid of this light blue lead, though, which means that I’ll have to change my way of doing things again. You can’t get too attached to your tools, because that makes it hard when they go off the market. That’s partially why I try not to be fussy about it, so that I can switch over to using something else at any time.
–I can see how it would be a problem if there were tools you felt you simply couldn’t draw without.
Asano: When you change what you draw with, the artwork changes more than I’d thought it would. Another thing is, I want to draw using as few tools as possible. Like, the reason that I started working on the computer was because I hated having to stock screentone. That stuff really takes up room. I don’t like how it produces trash when I cut and stick it on, either, and then it’s a pain in the ass to restock when I run out. Hence why I started using the computer, so I could add tone digitally.
–It certainly would take up a lot of space when you have to buy and store several different kinds.
Asano: And plus, I used to have a lot of space taken up by reference materials. I need things for reference for whatever I’m drawing — so, say, if I need to draw a video camera, I would actually go to an electronics store and get a catalogue and bring it back here.
–So you need that for all kinds of objects, then; not just for drawing the backgrounds.
Asano: But now I can take pictures of that stuff on my digital camera and draw by looking at it that way, which has made things quite a bit easier. About once every half a year or so I go out and just take a ton of pictures. So, for drawing reference for objects, the easiest way to do it is to take pictures of inside someone’s house. Go through the whole place taking pictures, and you’ll pretty much get everything. And then, like, for people’s clothes, I can’t just draw it based on my imagination, so I take pictures of that too. I’ll go to the Shibuya scramble and take just hundreds of pictures from above. That way I get everyone: middle-aged men, female office workers, students, you name it.
–Wow, that makes sense — you get all kinds of people’s clothing all at once that way. There’s street photography on the internet, but the people in that are a lot more fashionable than people really are.
Asano: Exactly. Sometimes I use magazines for reference, but the people in that tend to look a little too good. They don’t feel like real people. I’ve been using this Canon for my pictures for a long time now. I switched to a Sony not long ago, but the pictures turn out too fancy with these new cameras when they’re on automatic.
–Too “fancy”. (laugh) Like how the background is out of focus, you mean.
Asano: Right, and I want everything in the shot to be in focus. I’m basically uninterested in cameras, so I don’t know how to change the settings. Which is why I prefer the way my old compact digital camera takes pictures with everything clearly visible.
–Is there anything to know about your desk?
Asano: Hmm… Anything’s fine, so long as it doesn’t break. I’m not really particular about how spacious it is, either. The biggest thing is the height. When I’m doing analog work I draw on top of this thing called a lightbox that lets me see through the pictures, and so now I’m overly used to drawing at the height of this desk plus the extra five centimeters from the lightbox. Also, I’ve gotten so that I can’t draw right unless I’m drawing at an incline like the box has. I imagine if I were to draw at a different incline, it would throw off the linear perspective. I think the box is inclined so that I see the whole paper from the same distance. On a flat surface, the stuff farther away from me on the page would look smaller.
–Do you always drink this coffee?
Asano: I drink a ton of this stuff. For the past couple of years it has constituted 90 percent of my water intake. I buy three a day at my local convenience store, so they always run out. When some other customer happens to buy it, there’s none left and I’m forced to buy a different brand, heartbroken. (laugh) I’ve gotten most of my water intake from coffee for a long time now; I used to buy the canned stuff in vending machines but the cans were a pain to get rid of, so I switched to this. I can put these in with the burnable trash, see.
–I see you’ve found all sorts of ways of making your workplace efficient. (laugh)
Asano: I hate having to worry about the little stuff, so I decide on one thing and stick with it.
–So, you have guitars here. Do you ever play them?
Asano: Oh, they’re not just decoration — I do play them. I don’t when I have my assistants here, of course; but once they go home, it’s like I’m back in university. Playing my guitars, coming up with new songs, playing video games.
–You’ve got a lot of video game consoles, too. (laugh) What’s in this folder?
Asano: I’ve filled this folder with backgrounds drawn by my assistants. It’s divided into the ones that I’ve used in the manga and the ones I haven’t yet. With the process that I go by, I have a much heavier workload than my assistants, so I have them just steadily drawing all kinds of backgrounds they think I might need to use months in the future. Worst case scenario, I end up not using them.
–Wow, just look at how much they’ve drawn…
Asano: I touch up the backgrounds, scan them and finish them on the computer myself in the end. It makes me dizzy just thinking that I’ve got this many that I’ll have to do.
–What’s your schedule look like for a day’s work?
Asano: My assistants will come around lunchtime, and I wake up about then. Then we just chit-chat for a good three hours. (laugh) Then we eventually decide to get to work, and from that point on there’s no more talking at all. They leave to catch the last train, and I keep working roughly until dawn. I become a lot less efficient once I’m by myself, though, doing things like binge-reading digests of 2chan threads.
–Wow, really? What kind of thread do you read?
Asano: All kinds of very lowbrow things. (laugh) I have several sites bookmarked that do digests of threads, and I look through them all day. I read just about every post they do.
–Uh… wow. (laugh) So you check whenever they update, then.
Asano: It’s more like I’ll be waiting impatiently for them to update. (laugh) For the longest time, I didn’t have the internet set up at home. Even after I finally got it set up, for a while I just didn’t like the idea of the internet and only ever used it for shopping. Then when I became thirty, though, I said to myself screw it, I’m going to start using this to look at porn too, and I figured I might as well start looking into everything out there on the internet while I was at it. So I’ve only been surfing the web for three years now, and so it’s still fun for me. I don’t get tired of it.
–When you started going on the internet, I heard that you were hurt when you saw what people thought of your work.
Asano: I did, so back then I only looked at that occasionally. Now, though, I’m constantly searching Twitter for “Inio Asano” and seeing what they’ve got to say. I actually eagerly look forward to more tweets about Inio Asano. (laugh)
–Seriously?! (laugh) So you’re not hurt by it anymore, then.
Asano: I’ve toughened up a lot. I don’t respond back to them, but I’ve learned how to mentally cope with all the opinions out there by telling myself, “Alright, so that’s how this guy thinks, but what I’m going for is this.” I’m pretty okay with it all, now.
–Some scenes in your current series Goodnight Punpun can be hard to look at. Is it ever difficult for you to draw those scenes?
Asano: A lot of people say my manga is rather harsh. I don’t see it that way, though. When bad things happen to the characters in my manga, it’s always their own fault. And since I believe the characters deserve it, I don’t feel very bad.
–Speaking as a reader, I do sometimes feel like it wouldn’t hurt if the characters met somewhat happier ends…
Asano: Nah, this is about right. This touches on my motivation for drawing manga, actually. The reason that the story turned out the way it has isn’t because I decided that a dark or cruel story was what I wanted to do. I find that there’s too much cheery manga out in the world. I saw it as a niche that needed filling and tried to create something different, and so it inevitably turned out the way it did.
–It’s a corrective for the other manga out there, then.
Asano: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with other manga, but when I look at what sells, I can’t help but think, “Wow, people sure like their feel-good manga.”
–Ah, that’s true. Stories where the protagonist is rewarded in the end for being good-hearted, or for trying hard.
Asano: People love that stuff. But that feel-good stuff didn’t do much to make me feel good back when I was a teenager. What I was encouraged by was actually the stuff that had no redemption at all. In Minoru Furuya’s Himizu, for example, it was encouraging just to see this manga with this pessimistic protagonist in a weekly magazine. Which is not to say that pessimism is better, exactly — but just the fact that this manga was allowed to exist somewhere for people to see, was great.
–There must be young people out there now, too, who will be encouraged by that sort of pessimistic manga.
Asano: It’s not like I’m making this ugly story just to annoy people… although, well, I do also want to shock people who are overly complacent, too. (laugh) See, that’s why I’m hated. There are people out there who feel I shouldn’t show them this horrible manga, and I do sometimes feel like I’m hated. Nothing I can do about that, though, obviously.
–You’ve said before that your psychological hang-ups are the source of your creativity.
Asano: That’s true. Originally what I was hung up on was my body. My body is sort of caved in a little underneath my breastbone. It’s immediately noticeable, so I absolutely hated going to the pool for phys ed back in elementary school.
–There’s a boy like that in Njigahara Holograph.
Asano: I felt like I was different from people in my appearance, and that gave them all a head start on me, and I had to be perfect in every other way in order to compensate for that. I was really bad at sports, so I decided I had to try really hard to do well in school. And then eventually drawing became part of it. So I managed to keep my self-esteem up because I could draw and I did well in school, but then along came high school, where I stopped doing so well. (laugh) So at that point I was this kid who really had nothing going for him but being able to draw. If I failed at that, I’d fail at everything. So for a long time I was desperate to make something of myself through drawing.
–Was it because of that sense of crisis that you got your start as a manga artist at the early age of seventeen?
Asano: It might be. That was my motivation up until then, so it was like even if I did make it as a manga artist, that would just put me at the start line. It would only have been making up for the negative stuff. I’m still very hard on myself, even now…
–Even now that you have series in a weekly magazine and have been well received by society as a manga artist?
Asano: It doesn’t fill the hole, though. It feels like I’m constantly being abused. (laugh)
–How do you fill that hole?
Asano: I have no idea. I wonder if I’d get some self-confidence if my stuff sold as much as One Piece. Then again, if the kind of manga I make were to sell 300 million copies, I would fear for society. (laugh) So it’s not a dream that’ll ever come true, but anyway.
–So, apparently you got married three years ago, but does being accepted by a woman not fill the hole?
Asano: That’s a whole separate thing. The thing is, uh… this is going to sound weird. I hope you don’t mind.
–Huh? Um, go ahead.
Asano: Let’s say there’s this really cute girl. Let’s say I fall in love with her and we start dating. The thing is, I absolutely would not find fulfilment in that. And the reason for that is, I wouldn’t want to make that girl mine — I would want to become her.
Asano: I would want to actually be her. She’s my ideal, and that would be why I like her. So, if we were a couple and she were near me all the time, it would actually be painful to have the cuteness I idealize rubbed in my face like that. I think that’s how I would feel.
–You would rather be a cute girl than a handsome man?
Asano: If I could pick one, I would absolutely go for the cute girl.
–So, um, why is that?
Asano: You know, I just dislike men. Getting back to what I was saying about psychological hang-ups, I’ve got a complex about my body, and then plus I’m no good at sports. I knew I couldn’t act like the other boys did; I couldn’t be manly, no matter how much it maybe expected of me. So, instead, I leaned towards wanting to be cute. It’s safer to act manly on the surface, so I acted relatively manly as I got older. On the inside, though, I was always unsatisfied.
–Does that feeling that you wish you were a cute girl affect the way you draw female characters in any way?
Asano: Well, when I draw a girl character, I don’t draw them from a male perspective as something I want to have for myself; rather, I draw them as I feel I would act if I were a girl. Which might be why I sometimes hear from girls that those characters strike them as pretty realistic.
–Aiko, the heroine in Goodnight Punpun, is a little scary, even from a woman’s perspective. (laugh)
Asano: Ah, yeah, she has some problems, personality-wise. (laugh) She’s unlike the other female characters in that even I don’t entirely understand her. She’s the consummate heroine, in a way. When you’ve got a story with a male protagonist, the heroine doesn’t need to be her own person. She’s just a romanticized ideal, so she’s not supposed to be understandable. I want her to feel that distant in Goodnight Punpun.
–People often describe your work as “hip”, including your character designs. How do you feel about that?
Asano: I feel like those people haven’t read my recent work. (laugh) Goodnight Punpun isn’t a hip manga at all. In my older manga, I did sort of try to give a sort of hip feel to it, but that was only superficial. And, let’s face it, manga has always been lame!
–Wow… that’s a pretty blunt way of putting it. (laugh)
Asano: But it’s okay that it’s lame. That’s a good thing, in its own way. Take the characters, for example: having them with the same haircut and always wearing the same clothes might actually be a good thing in terms of merchandise and cosplaying. And then in terms of story and mise-en-scène, prioritizing readability and clarity leads to very manga-y forms of expression unique to the medium. I want the manga I’m working on to be on the same plane as reality, though, and so all I’m doing is getting rid of those unnatural aspects that manga get away with for being manga. So when people accuse me of trying too hard to be hip I feel like those people are just overly used to manga and I’m actually drawing things normally.
–This is that coping mechanism you mentioned before that allows you to handle the criticism you get on the internet, I take it. (laugh)
Asano: I used to go out and say these things in interviews, but I don’t bother anymore. Ah, I guess I just did. (laugh) All of this stuff doesn’t apply to most of my readers, is the thing. They’d rather I didn’t have to explain this stuff. Holding forth on manga is inevitably an ugly thing.
–Right, it doesn’t apply to the people who are actually out there reading your work.
–Already your desk is starting to look different to me just from what I’ve heard so far. By the way, though, what is all of this over here?
Asano: A bunch of music-related machines. I don’t have much time to devote to music these days. I used to be in a band and we’d practice pretty often, but now we’re all in our thirties, so. Now I occasionally create songs using software, add my own crappy vocals to it and listen to it by myself. Not sure why I even do it.
–You should release that stuff for the public! (laugh) Alright, how about this bookshelf in the back?
Asano: The line-up I have there hasn’t changed for a good ten years. I like manga by Naoki Yamamoto, Kyoko Okazaki, Minetaro Mochizuki. Kenichiro Nagao was running in Young Sunday at the same time as me, and he was actually a big influence.
–So your work’s surreal aspects were influenced by Kenichiro Nagao, then? That’s a bit surprising.
Asano: I’ve got people coming in and out of this room a lot, so this line-up of manga is definitely partly for show. (laugh) This stuff is placed here with the knowledge that it will be seen. But then the problem is that sometimes I have people making snide comments about how my bookshelf looks like something out of a Village Vanguard. (laugh) Until recently I had a figurine here of Madoka from Puella Magi Madoka Magica, but I had it there just to show people, like, “Hey guys, I’m into this stuff, too”. But nobody took the bait and said anything, and I wasn’t sure who I was trying to show off to in the first place anyway, so I put it away. (laugh) Good anime, though.
–You weren’t sure who you were trying to show off to? (laugh)
Asano: I’m into a lot of things, but never that deep into it. So, like, with figures, I’m incapable of collecting an entire series, for example. I can’t get really into it. The one exception is when I was collecting Lego. That’s something I was pretty into — I used to build all kinds of original creations, ignoring the instruction manuals. This robot is one of those creations.
–This is something you built on your own? Wow!
Asano: Yep, it’s quite the piece of work, if I do say so myself! (laugh) I came up with the design in my head as I put it together. Lego sells its own robot sets, but they’re not really cool enough.
–It looks like a plastic Gundam model.
Asano: I liked putting together Gundam models, too. Ah, but it’s not like I’m so into it that I could really talk shop about Gundam models — I’m no real fan. I don’t have any areas of expertise… but I guess you could say that Junji Inagawa’s horror stories are something I know well. I’ve listened to his albums multiple times.
–Huh? Junji Inagawa’s horror stories? There are albums of that?
Asano: He puts out one a year; there are more than twenty now. I own most of them, so my iTunes library is full of Junji Inagawa horror stories.
Asano: The life I lead is truly one void of anything to be proud of. Ah, but I’m doing a pretty good job with manga, though. I have to hand it to myself that I’ve been working hard at this drawing manga thing.
–Isn’t that enough?! ♦