Evening did an interview with Tsutomu Nihei earlier this month because he’s been roped into being the special guest judge for their newcomer awards. It’s a short one, but it ought to hit some of the main things you’d like to hear about from him — including why Knights of Sidonia is so different from his previous work.
–Was drawing manga something you liked to do as a child?
Nihei: I actually hadn’t ever really drawn manga until I was in my twenties. I liked the pictures, but I didn’t draw manga myself. My only connection with manga as a child was reading Shonen Jump, really.
–That’s surprising. How was it that you ended up becoming a manga artist, then?
Nihei: I started working for a construction company after graduating high school, but I wasn’t very good at working in a team, and I realized I wasn’t cut out for group work. So I figured the only way for me to make it in society was finding some sort of work I could do alone. The manga industry was at its peak at the time, and it seemed like you could make a lot of money at it, so I decided to quit my job and went to New York.
The idea was that I would draw manga for a year without working, and if it didn’t pan out then I’d give up on manga. I ended up spending a lot of time screwing around with the other Japanese and Korean students at the language school, though. (laugh) The really determined people don’t hang around with other Japanese people when they’re over there, but I wasn’t that determined.
While in New York I ended up submitting short pieces to magazines — one to Jump, one to Young Magazine — but I didn’t get any prizes or anything.
–How did you first get published, then?
Nihei: After coming back to Japan I went around with this thing I’d drawn and brought it in to a ton of different publishers, but it didn’t go very well. So I asked a friend of mine working as an assistant where I should take it, and he immediately told me to try Afternoon, and I got a phone call from them right away. They gave me the Special Jury Prize in ’95, but it took me another two years before I got my first series. In the meantime I worked as an assistant for five months under Tsutomu Takahashi, who was doing Jiraishin for Afternoon at the time. I still really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, so working there as an assistant gave me the technical know-how I lacked.
–And then in 1997 you started your first series, Blame! — a work of staggering scale for a new artist.
Nihei: My experience working in construction might have played a big part there. Watching buildings get built, the heavy machinery coming in and digging out those giant spaces… I do think the sheer scale of all that must’ve influenced me in some vague way.
It’s more than just the scale, though: I think it also influenced me in the details of my manga. There was a time after coming back to Japan that I was working part-time for an architectural design firm, and I learned about, like, how the insides of walls are structured, that kind of thing. So, for example, buildings over ten stories high are made with steel framing inside, and now I know how they’re structured, or like, how the piping works or whatever, and I can draw that stuff without having to look at anything for reference.
–So that seemingly unrelated work experience turned out to come in handy.
Nihei: To tell the truth, though, I don’t like thinking about back when I was working on Blame!. My work is pretty light on dialogue and people tend to say it’s hard to understand, and I think back then I really just wanted to do something strange. Back when I was starting out I thought of drawing manga not as work, but as a means of self-expression. I wasn’t concerned with entertaining my readers or making something that’ll actually sell, which I suppose is why I made such an opaque manga.
Blame! actually ended with the first volume, originally. After that it became a series in [the Afternoon spin-off magazine] Season, which was published four times a year and therefore wasn’t enough for me to live off of, so I started doing assistant work for Tsutomu Takahashi again here and there. I even had my brother take out a loan for me – I applied for it myself, but wasn’t accepted because I was a manga artist. Not being able to make a living is a really scary thing. That might have been when I first started thinking about getting my work to sell, and how my readers saw my manga.
–The time had come for change.
Nihei: Right, but I still wasn’t able to truly look at myself objectively. I was convinced at the time that I’d learned my lesson and was making stuff that would sell, but looking back at it now, I was still missing the mark. I’d never created a plot before — I was making it up as I went along, which is why people say my work is difficult to follow. So after about ten years of that, I decided to try doing a normal manga for once – change up my art style, try to make as user-friendly a manga as possible. Knights of Sidonia is one of the results of that.
–The art in Knights of Sidonia does seem quite different from your previous work.
Nihei: Yeah, I wanted the art to have a Tezuka-level mass appeal. (laugh) I even considered changing my pen name when I was starting Knights of Sidonia. I wanted the story to be simple, too – nothing that would lose the reader. But while I was making it as user-friendly as possible, though, I figured it was important to make sure it’s still fun for me to draw in some way, so I chose to work within my favorite genre: robot manga. In retrospect, though, if I was aiming to make a mainstream hit, it doesn’t make sense to do a robot manga – it’s not even a remotely mainstream genre. So I’m still missing the mark, in that sense. (laugh)
–Knights of Sidonia ended up becoming your best-known work. Could you feel you that were getting it right at the time?
Nihei: I did. There’s still room for improvement, but it basically worked out as planned, and I’m confident that I’ll be able to do even better next time. I feel like I need to do more to appeal to female readers, for one – almost like I should do a shojo manga or something. It took me ten years to pull off a Knights of Sidonia, but I feel like I actually should’ve been strategizing to produce a hit since before I’d even gotten published — for the longest time, I simply wasn’t doing that. Maybe those ten years of really feeling the importance of success were what in the end produced Sidonia, though.
As tough as those ten years were, I never once wanted to give up making manga. I was never satisfied, I guess. I’m hungry in a way that I wasn’t as a child – it’s something that started since I got into this line of work. I’ve always liked drawing since I was little, so I’m just happy that I get to do it for a living, and it’s fun to get to compete against other people who are good at drawing — which is why I want my stuff to sell more.
–Your work so far has been exclusively science fiction. Do you ever have difficulty coming up with ideas?
Nihei: Never. I’ve always been into sci-fi novels, so that’s the source of most of my ideas. The fact that novels only provide you with text and leave it to the reader to imagine the characters and universe has helped me a lot, I think.
I still have a lot of things I want to draw, so I’m planning on sticking with science fiction. I don’t see myself ever doing something set in the present day, even if I were to actually do a shojo manga. (laugh) Plus, there isn’t really that much sci-fi manga out there compared to other genres, which I think is another reason I’ve managed to survive in this industry.
–Is there any particular key to creating the original universes in your work?
Nihei: Well, I’d prefer to keep that secret to myself, but I guess I’d have to say it’s a matter of style. That’s why I don’t hire assistants: it’s partially because I just want to draw it all by myself anyway, but it’s also because no matter how well drawn it may be, a background drawn by someone else just doesn’t look right.
Now, that might make me sound arrogant, but it’s simply true that to some degree the way a person draws can’t be reproduced by anyone else. Some artists really like girls, for example, and draw them all the time. That passion is something that comes from a pretty core place. For me, it’s sci-fi: I have buildings and worlds that I want to draw. That’s something that comes naturally for me, I think — something I was born with. It’s important to be true to that sort of thing.
-When you’re going about starting a new manga, do you start by thinking about what it’s going to be about on a general level, or do you start from some sort of particular scene you want to draw and brainstorm from there?
Nihei: Usually it comes from specific scenes or situations I want to draw. A lot of my ideas come from doodling. I start by thinking of the environment – the inside of a spaceship, say – and then think outward from there. The characters and their relationships come afterward for me – which is why the stories in all my manga have been so highly improvised.
Sidonia is the first time I’ve created a plot right to the end: I knew the protagonist would meet his love interest, fall in love, and then what happens in the end. But truthfully, I don’t like coming up with the humans in my manga… Sidonia was more about winning the reader over with the world it’s set in rather than the human drama, which I think I basically pulled off.
–You say you don’t enjoy coming up with the people, but are there any characters you’re particularly fond of?
Niehei: That would be Killy, the main character in Blame!. He’s my ideal character: strong, refuses to die. All of my protagonists have turned out to be immortal, actually. I’ve got this strong desire to not die, you see, to the point where I seriously wished for a while that I could switch over to a mechanical body — hence all my main characters being the way they are.
And then there’s the fact that they always fall in love with a non-human heroine… which might unintentionally be a reflection of my own creepy desire. (laugh) I guess the fact that love keeps entering into my stories despite my avowed disinterest in humans just goes to show how inseparable a thing it is from being human. I’m a human too after all, it turns out.
–Lastly, I’d like to hear about what you’re hoping to see from the contest entrants, and what you’re looking forward to about being head judge.
Nihei: I’d like to see people do something unique, something only they can draw. That was the only thing I’ve ever had going for myself, and it’s what’s carried me this far. I’d also love to see a lot of sci-fi entries.
To be perfectly honest with you, though, I don’t even want to be the head judge. (laugh) It seems arrogant for an artist to pass judgement on other people’s work, and I’ll no doubt come off as a hypocrite no matter what I say, so it’s pretty scary. I knew it’d be a great experience, though. By carefully reading other people’s work, it’ll be an opportunity to give some real thought about what it is to create manga, which I’m really looking forward to. ♦