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An Interview with Urasawa Naoki a Master of Manga

Date: 2019 June 09 21:49

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Japan House London are currently hosting a manga exhibition of Urasawa Naoki's work. His manga is hugely popular with his books having sold over 127 million copies in Japan alone. He's responsible for manga including Monster, 20th Century Boys, Pluto (the re-imagining of Tezuka's Astroboy).

Urasawa himself was in London to set up the exhibition and also was a guest at events run by Japan House, such as QAs and a few live drawing sessions. Urasawa's live drawing performances aren't like anything else we've seen before. The multi award winning manga artist is also a singer/song writer who has released two albums and performed songs that have gone on to be on the live action versions of some of his manga. His live performance at Japan House started with him singing and playing one of his songs on guitar, then he activated his loop pedal so the guitar tune continues and walks over to a drawing desk and draws for everyone to see on a projected screen. Once he finished drawing he returned to his guitar to finish the song!

We caught up with the manga master at Japan House London to hear what he had to say about the exhibition.

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How did you pick what to show in this exhibition?

This exhibition actually started in Tokyo, then went to Osaka, Paris, Yamaguchi, Saitama, Los Angeles and now London. It started 3 years ago. So the first time when we were creating this show in Tokyo, I wondered what I would do if I was curating my own solo exhibition and the idea came from there.

Urasawa Naoki

So the manga exhibitions for the previous occasions, just in general, they would just exhibit the story boards in one frame. That was their case. But manga isn't read like that! It's not just one page, it's actually two pages, one on the right and one on the left. In Japanese we would start from the top right and then to the bottom left. In English it would be top left to bottom right. That would be how it should be read. So once you've reached here, naturally you'd want to move to there. Even if we were exhibiting not only just one, but two pages like that, the viewer would like to move onto the next section.

So that's why for my exhibition it was very important to get the whole story out, you wouldn't get the effect by just looking at a single page or even two pages, you would need to experience the full story from the start to the finish. That's the only way. You'd be looking at the pictures, following the stories and really feel it! Really feel what is being written. Then that is the only way to get the same effect as say the Mona Lisa for example. That's only one picture in the frame. Manga doesn't have that with just one frame. You would need to follow everything. Either a whole episode or a whole book. That is really what I stressed with this exhibition. That's why I decided to exhibit in this way.

In the exhibit you show sketches and rough storyboards in the exhibit as much as the finished works. Do you think it's important to show this as much as the finished product?

Urasawa Naoki - Storyboards

Part of the reason why we exhibited in this way is because manga is seen an quite casual even in Japan where it's flourishing. So people tend to believe it's quite an easy task to write manga, but by showing it's actually a process, a very intimate developmental process, then if we show them one by one the precision actually required it would probably deepen the understanding for manga.

You also show your work from your childhood. Many artists are reluctant to show their early work. Why did you decide to include it in this exhibition?

Urasawa Naoki - Storyboards

Well it's a long time ago, so I see it almost equal to archaeology really! It's almost like a cave drawing. It's quite far removed!

Would be correct in inferring that your childhood artwork is influenced by Tezuka, Shotaro Ishinomori and Go Nagai? What manga did you love as a child?

Not so much Nagai Go, but yes Tezuka and Ishinomori I was influenced by, since I was about 4 or 5. I even imitated Tezuka's autograph when I was 4 or 5 years old!

So manga a big part of your childhood?

There was nothing else! Nothing else that I found fun!

It's a huge logistical undertaking to have a show of this scale travel worldwide. What made you want to take it international?

Even within Japan people don't seem to understand the real essence of manga, the real appeal of it. So if the Japanese don't understand it, so people outside of Japan would have no clue. I was aware of manga's real appeal even as a small child, but I noticed adult around me and my classmates don't really have an idea at all. They don't understand it.

Urasawa Naoki - Exhibition

This is something that I've come realise quite recently, maybe the reason why I write manga in such a way or I draw and draw is because I want to tell everyone the wonders of manga. That made me think of the acts of missionaries as well. Historically they've travelled far and wide around the world to tell everyone about the wonders of Christianity, maybe they had a similar mindset to what I'm doing now.

In the LA Show you did special sketches just for the LA exhibition. Is this something that you will do in all locations?

Urasawa Naoki - London Artwork


Can you tell us more about the collaboration you've done with Japan House London's restaurant?

Yes because I get approached by the chefs about possibly collaborating together it depends on their times when those projects come up really. The chef at the Akira restaurant is thinking of something to do as well.

We haven't heard exactly the details of how much they'll do.

Can you tell us about your collaborative project with the Louvre Museum?

So this really came when the Louvre announced they would recognise manga as the 9th art. They recognised the status of bandes dessinées, so manga artists is France and manga artists in Japan as well. They approached me to commemorate the occasion, to write something.

But at the time I was working on the series Billy Bat, so I said please hold on a second I just need to concentrate on this. Then in the meantime a lot of artists have done work.

So by the time I came to be in a position of actually drawing something a lot of artists had explored the ideas I already had. So I was like I don't know what kind of things I should focus on now.

What I noticed with the other artists they really took it to their heart that it was the Louvre and the 9th art. They wrote something that was a little highbrow really.

So I decided I'm going to ignore the fact that it's the Louvre, I'm going to ignore the fact that it's the 9th art. Manga in essence really has to be funny and in part cynical or ironic, it just needs to have that sense of surprise for the viewers. So that's why I thought I'm not going to think about it and just focus on my art - manga itself. I really wanted something to just explode within it. That's how I ended up writing about Mujirushi. The Louvre people said this is what we were looking for! Not the highbrow thing, this was exactly what we wanted.

Do you know if Mujirushi will be published in English at all?

I'm not sure. Maybe the irony of it is a bit too much for the American market maybe. (Laughs)

Is Kenji from 20th Century Boys inspired by yourself?

Urasawa Naoki - Kenji

The story itself I'd say is about one-tenth autobiographical. Kenji himself is probably not as a character really.

He wanted to become a rock star as well?

I had a bit more distance from that dream.

Where did you get the idea of the Friend from 20th Century Boys?

I've always been sceptical of the word friend "tomodachi" in Japanese and what it implies, what it means. I'm not exactly sure how it sounds in English, but tomodachi has almost become a concept in Japanese. There is a song in Japanese that goes "How many friends do you have, how many friends have you made?!". It's almost encouraging children to make more friends than each other. There's an essence of competing with each other. It shouldn't be anything like that, because if you found a true friend that's a once in a life time experience. It's a miracle really!

Urasawa Naoki - Friend

That's probably not to say I'm not the one who's twisting the idea of tomodachi the meaning of the friend really. I wanted to explore that idea.

Is there anything you'd like to say to our readers?

I think what I want to say is all in the manga. By the readers actually reading it and something that is felt in the heart is what I want to say.

Urasawa Naoki - In London with artwork

There are some trolls online who criticise the manga, but they even say - that they read it to the very end, "I feel like it's not resolved, he's not giving me the answer, but he's doing it on purpose really just to make it not too obvious".

I'm not trying to give an answer in the manga, but after reading my story [in English] "How did it feel?" How did it feel to you? Readers react and feel, exactly what Bob Dylan said. How does it feel for you? So how did it feel? That's what I'm trying to achieve.

Urasawa Naoki - Artwork


We'd like to thank the legendary Urasawa for being so great to interview, Japan House London for bringing over Urasawa and hosting the event. Additional thanks goes to Deb Aoki for help with some of the questions.

You can catch the This is Manga - the Art of Urasaaa Naoki at Japan House London from 5th June to 28th July 2019. Admission to the exhibition is free.

Source: Otaku News
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