10 Years of Kodansha Comics—January Spotlight: AKIRA (Otomo interview, Rightstuf exclusive pins, sweepstakes & MORE)
10 years of Kodansha Comics!
The year 2019 marks the 10th anniversary of the first Kodansha Comics manga published in English. Please join us in celebration as we select one classic Kodansha Comics series each month for exclusive content, promotions, and other surprises!
AKIRA paperback volume 1-6 and hardcover box set is available now from Kodansha Comics!
January Spotlight: AKIRA
For the month of January, we have our spotlight on Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo—one most influential comics ever drawn and one of the first Kodansha Comics releases way back in 2009. So what kind of “special surprises” do we have the celebration? Check this out …
Surprise 1: Exclusive Akira pin!
As a part of the 10 Years of Kodansha Comics project, we’ve teamed up with our friends Rightstuf to bring you these awesome exclusive Akira pins!
Visit Rightstuf and order any paperback volume of Akira, the hardcover Eisner Award-winning Akira 35th Anniversary Edition box set, or the art book OTOMO: A Global Tribute to the Mind Behind AKIRA, and you’ll receive a exclusive Akira pin for FREE! Available this month (January 2019) only or while supplies last.
Surprise 2: Akira Survey Sweepstakes!
Dear die-hard Akira fan, do you wish to have everything Akira in your collection? This should help you along your way: for the month of January only, ONE lucky winner will win a grab-bag of Akira stuff including the Akira 35th Anniversary Edition box set, OTOMO: A Global Tribute to the Mind Behind AKIRA, PLUS the exclusive enamel pins that were only available with the original print run of the box set! All you have to do is take this survey by January 31.
Surprise 3: Interview with Katsuhiro Otomo!
And now, meet the massive mind behind Akira. Here’s our latest interview with manga and anime legend Katsuhiro Otomo.
Katsuhiro Otomo ©2012 Stéphane Beaujean
About Katsuhiro Otomo
Katsuhiro Otomo is best known as the creator of the three-thousand page epic Akira. He also directed the groundbreaking animated feature film of the same name, as well as the acclaimed animated film Steamboy.
ENERGY, CONCENTRATION, HONESTY: The Making of Akira in the Words of Katsuhiro Otomo
Based on the interview by Stéphane Beaujean first published in Kaboom (February-April 2016 issue)
Q. How was Akira born?
Kastuhiro Otomo (KO): I wanted to draw this story set in a Japan similar to how it was after the end of World War II—rebelling governmental factions; a rebuilding world; foreign political influence, an uncertain future; a bored and reckless younger generation racing each other on bikes. Akira is the story of my own teenage years, rewritten to take place in the future. I never thought too deeply about the two main characters as I made them; I just projected how I was like when I was younger. The ideas naturally flowed out from my own memories.
Q. I’ve been wondering about this: Did you have a solid character and design in mind for Akira at the beginning? At the start of the story, Akira is treated as a legend and never actually depicted until several chapters in.
KO: The Akira story gradually ballooned in size as I wrote it, but I had the basic plot outlined from the start. Due to a lack of preparation, I had to bring Fireball to a hurried end without the finale I had in mind, so I didn’t want to repeat that disappointment. You could say that Akira was born from the frustration I had about that at the time. The story’s different from Fireball, but I wanted to build it up in the same way, so I went into more story detail in my preparations for Akira. No matter what, I wanted to draw exactly the finale I wanted. I figured out exactly what Akira was at the start, and I came up with the idea for that in pretty quick order, although it naturally changed a bit as the project went on.
Q. What did you want to do the most with Akira?
KO: I wanted to dig deeper into my issues with speed and flow, polish my skills at telling a story with the fewest words/sentences possible, edit it to gain that sense of speed and make people read it faster, and at the same time make them stop cold at the important scenes. I kept that sense of speed in mind with the art itself as I drew it. I figured at first that I’d wrap up the story in a single volume, so I wrote a two-page synopsis with that in mind and thought I’d have it done in six months. Just like what happened with Dōmu, though new ideas and problems immediately came up and expanded the story and backdrop.
Q. It’s said in France—and in the West in general—that Akira depicts your concerns about political issues, especially nuclear power. Do you think that’s an erroneous interpretation, brought about by cultural differences between Japan and the West?
KO: I’m aware of this line of thinking, but it’s because France takes a philosophical view to everything, distorting it. It’s not how it’s seen in Japan, and it’s not what’s depicted in the comic. I have no intention of expressing my political views or philosophical opinions. I’ve said this often before, but one of my influences as I made Akira was Tetsujin 28-go. This was a manga series meant for kids, with numbers applied to the cast of characters, and I wanted to make an homage to this series. I also wanted to depict the later Showa period (postwar Japan), including preparations for the Olympics, rapid economic growth, and the student unrest of the 1960s. I wanted to recreate the assorted elements that built this era and craft an exciting story that would seem believable enough in reality.
Looking at the world now, I wonder how it wound up like this. Looking at issues like wars/conflicts and organized crime, I can feel the world slowly fall out of balance, and I hope we can improve on that. Basically, though, Akira was heavily influenced by the manga I read as a child, and it portrays this kind of brilliant force that you see in people around the world in their younger, purer years. That’s the simple theme preached by Akira; it’s a tragedy depicting people destroying the world’s balance amid this era that I wanted to recreate.
Q. I have two more questions about your work. I think there’s this concept of “utopia within the apocalypse” in Japan. Ever since the great earthquake during the Edo period, there’s been a theme in Japanese entertainment that catastrophes can have a positive side to them, restoring balance or reforming past mistakes. Is this something you focused on? The second one is related to World War II, and the new cataclysms depicted in Godzilla in 1955. When depicting people who make mistakes, most manga up to now used non-Japanese foreigners for those roles, but you used Japanese characters. Do you think it could be said that you’re the first creator to depict Japan being antagonized by its own citizens?
KO: Certainly, destruction and rebuilding are depicted in my works, Akira in particular. In Akira the apocalypse happens in the midpoint of the story, so I think you can understand how much I’m interested in the two sides of what you call the “utopia within the apocalypse.” That might come from the elements of Japanese culture that I have within myself, but that’s not a theory I build up before I start writing. One thing I should emphasize is that I have no intention of advocating for Japanese culture in any way. Quite the opposite. I want to create stories influenced by many things from Japan, the U.S. and Europe, from art to movies and manga and much more. I haven’t deliberately set out to use Japanese instead of Westerners for characters who promote the destruction of nature, but if it seems that way, it’s not at all something I was conscious of.
Q. The images of the apocalypse in your manga and films are very impressive. Where do they come from?
KO: In Tokyo, buildings are eternally being torn down and rebuilt (something that also has its origins in real estate laws). It’s the the point where it’s rare not to see a building under construction if you take a walk outside. Ever since I depicted a huge apartment complex in Dōmu, I’ve had a much larger interest in architecture, which led me to want to depict more buildings under construction. These always feel so fresh to me, and it was something I didn’t really see until I moved to Tokyo. I’ve drawn so many buildings in my time that I can instinctively see how a building would collapse, or what pieces it would break into as it came down. I always want to draw what pops up in my mind, so I’ve written stories that fulfilled my desire to depict buildings being destroyed. Maybe I’m driven to destroy them because I’m trying to have a full grasp of everything and want to make sure I’m understanding the structures correctly. With plastic toy models as well, I can’t help but want to see them break apart after I finish building one.
Either way, I don’t think there was anyone before me who put this much effort into their depictions of buildings. I take my time on that and think it through because I like to. Thanks to that, critics in Japan have done things like compare my approach to people like Monsù Desiderio and Piranesi for this, but that’s not true at all. I’m interested in their art, of course, but we approach our work in totally different ways. They’re depicting the frameworks of ancient structures left abandoned over time, while I’m interested in the exact moment the building falls.
Q. Your work features backgrounds and characters drawn in the same level of detail, giving them identical treatment.
KO: I think drawing backgrounds in this much detail was influenced by the manga of Shigeru Mizuki, whom I’m a huge fan of. Reading his work made me realize how important to the story it is to have detailed backdrops in place. The reason is simple: Backgrounds take up the most space in any panel. My background-drawing habit comes from that. Ever since, I’ve liked large, voluminous buildings; I’ll walk around Shinjuku and draw, or look straight up from the bottom of the Eiffel Tower. I’ll look at something through the camera in my mind, distorting it with the lens, changing the angle, naturally looking for ways to show off the structure as much as possible.
AKIRA 35th Anniversary Box Set is available now from Kodansha Comics!
Q. Japanese critics have praised you for being the first manga artist to draw realistic Japanese faces, as well as for bringing such variety to them and never drawing the same one twice.
KO: I’ve always taken heed of the two key points of fantasy and realism. If one is left too much in the shadow of the other, that weakens the story. Depicting things too realistically actually damages the social realism of the piece, and if you go too far into the realm of fantasy, that hurts its imaginative ability. I’m always thinking about how to balance the two. I think the realism from my early works stems from how I used close friends of mine as character models. My style is naturally built from observation.
Q. In one interview, one of your editors said “In the scene in Akira with the Neo Tokyo explosion, he used a massive amount of crosshatching to depict the volume of the sphere and the way the light hit it. I suggested that painting it straight black, then drawing in white lines would be quicker and easier, but he got angry at me and said he couldn’t do that; not with the millions of people dying inside the sphere.” I think that really shows the relationship you have with your art.
KO: I spent an entire evening gradually blackening that sphere with really thin lines. The editor was pretty alarmed when he saw it, what with all the time it took. But—while you can’t see it since it’s a full-view depiction of the blast—there are millions of lives being lost in this panel. If I wanted readers to sense realism in the scene and feel just how significant this event was, that work spent covering it up in detailed black lines was indispensable.
Making art requires a huge amount of energy and concentration. Drawing accurately, faithfully reproducing characters’ looks, and not relying too much on allure (drawing people too cutesy, etc.) takes tons of energy, to the point where my body can’t take it sometimes. Creativity is all about projecting everything about yourself into your work. You need to have the honesty to fully expose yourself, the ability to recognize your limits, and the power to express how you’re perceiving the world.
I’m always casting these spells to help me find the best form possible for the lines I draw, adding wrinkles to elderly characters’ faces and drawing detail into buildings to help readers dive into the story. When I’m drawing clouds or buildings, I’m chanting at the lines, telling them to “become a cloud” or “become a building.” A lot of other artists have said this, so it may be trite by now, but drawing something is really about projecting yourself into the object you’re drawing. To achieve that, you have to work those incantations into your art—to the point where you might gross out your readers! This is also why I don’t use computers. I don’t need them, and compared to hand-drawn art, that powerful “magic” isn’t as effective. I’ve drawn with computers before, but I don’t like it very much. Doing that means there’s no original in existence, and I like it more when I have an original.
When you’re able to truly draw freely, taking the image in your mind and putting it down perfectly on paper—whether it’s a structure or a pose—you start seeing things you couldn’t see before. You become conscious of that.
Q. How did the production of Akira proceed overall?
KO: At first, I was producing twenty pages per installment, or around forty pages a month. In terms of production, the first thing I did for each chapter was fully complete the first page for practice. Work needed to go fast, so I didn’t even bother with character-pose sketches or anything; I just drew directly on the comic page I was submitting to the editors, no do-overs. After one page was done, my assistant used a Rotring pen and a ruler to ink out the lines on the buildings and the rest of the backgrounds. I would work ahead of him, completing the rough draft two days before the deadline. I’d take half a day to draw the characters, then wrap up the buildings, adding dust and crevices and cracks in the windows to blow life into them. We’d finish the final rough at 5 a.m. on Sunday, have the characters inked by 7 p.m., and then the completed chapter would get submitted 8 a.m. on Monday.
It became successful pretty quickly. The first volume sold 300,000 copies in its initial printing, even though it sold for the rather high price of 1,000 yen.
By the time production began on the anime Akira, the manga was running on a weekly schedule—in other words, we drew 20 pages a week. I brought on a second assistant to help with this, occasionally enlisting a third just to handle the screentone work. When the manga deadline drew near, we’d pull several all-nighters, then I’d walk right into the anime studio the day after. Still, I think working alone suits me the best. I did helper work when I was younger, but I’ve never worked as an assistant in a manga studio.
Thank you, Otomo-sensei!
Copyright: AKIRA © MASH∙ROOM Co. Ltd./Kodansha Ltd.
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Be sure to check back again next month, when we’ll be throwing the spotlight onto yet another Kodansha classic!