Rumiko Takahashi


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Animerica Interview

Taken from Animerica Vol 1, No. 2 Interview by Seiji Horibuchi.

Animerica: Since Viz first released Urusei Yatsura about five years ago, several different companies have published English versions of Japanese manga titles. Some of them have sold extremely well. But did you know, among all of them, it's your works which enjoy the most continuing, stable popularity?

Takahashi: Really? This is the first time I've heard about it.

Animerica: Marvel's English version of Akira is a consistent rival in sales, but you definitely have more fan support, readers who follow you regardless of title. Slowly but surely, you're becoming a household name among manga fans in America. How do you feel about that?

Takahashi: It all just comes as a surprise.

Animerica: You may have heard that in the U.S., comics aren't sold in regular book stores. They're sold in comic specialty shops. With superhero titles such as Superman and Batman crowding the shelves, manga titles don't get quite the same exposure, so many fans go to comic conventions to get hard-to-find comics. Your works are among the most frequently requested.

Takahashi: I've heard many animated versions of my manga titles are also available now.

Animerica: Yes, English versions of the Urusei Yatsura TV series and films, as well as most of the Rumic World stories, are easily availale. Any idea on why they're so popular?

Takahashi: I don't have any idea. Maybe if I could understand what aspects the readers like aout them...

Animerica: In Japan, your works are big hits and enjoy great fan support. Those Japanese fans and American fans must have something in common.

Takahashi: Because I consciously feature Japanese daily life such as festivals and the traditional New Year's holiday rather often in my manga, I sometimes wonder if American readers understand what they're reading. Maybe they just like the comics because they're exotic.

Animerica: I'm sure there are at least some readers without any background in Japanese customs. On the other hand, readers who are interested in manga are usually interested in other aspects of Japanese culture. For example, there are probably many readers who wouldn't find anything strange about a dinner scene where everyone sits on tatami of a traditional Japanese house. Do you think that mainstream readers, who aren't as familiar with the Japanese lifestyle, might be intimidated by too many cultural references?

Takahashi: Once, when I was drawing Maison Ikkoku, I received a question about it from an American journalist. As you know, I created Maison Ikkoku to be a love story that could take place in the everyday world. I'm always curious about what attracts non-Japanese readers to my work so I asked the reporter's opinion. The reply I got was that Americans could empathize with the emotions being depicted in the comics. For example, the feeling when you fall in love, and you want to express it, but you can't... the reporter said that emotions are all the same, no matter which country you're from. I thought about this for a little while and said to myself, "Come to think of it, that's true."

Animerica: Maison Ikkoku is a story which takes place under unlikely circumstances, especially from an American point of view. It's possible it may have elements difficult for American readers to understand. However, it's also true that the original Japanese comic already has it's own English-speaking fans. As a publisher, Viz is constantly searching for comics that might be popular in America. In the case of your works, I'd say that it's the attractiveness of the characters, they story, the artwork... probably a combination of all these.

Takahashi: In terms of art style, the portion of Urusei Yatsura published in America is all early drawings, very distinct and completely different from how I draw now.

Animerica: There have been fans who've made a point of mentioning the evolution of your art style. Because the later stories have better art, they say, they'd rather see the later stories printed than the earlier ones. But at Viz we thought it was important to include the first story where Lum appears, so we started from the beginning. The fans who worry about this sort of thing are more than likely to own the original Japanese comics anyway.

Takahashi: But where do they get them from?

Animerica:At the many Japanese cultural centers across the country, it's easy to purchase graphic novels straight from their Japanese publishers. Many fans translate them on their own, sharing books among themselves. There are Urusei Yatsura fan clubs, and some people even put out their own dojinshi based on your characters. It's interesting that Lum seems to be as popular in America as she is in Japan. You speculated in a previous interview that her appeal to American fans might be the exotic elements of a cute girl from the Orient. Has that opinion changed?

Takahashi: Well, let's see. Is there a concept of oni in America.

Animerica:I don't think so. The "devil" is a concept close to oni, but then that's a concept strongly associated with the occult. The oni is more of a mythological monster.

Takahashi: With its many elements, it's difficult to describe Urusei Yatsura in one word. Maybe a school comedy/romance with some science fiction and whatnot, based on a foundation of slapstick...? Add in the play on words such as the puns and the metaphors and the allusions... these aspects might be hard for the American readers to grasp. What does that leave us with as a reason for its popularity in America? The novelity of the characters?

Animerica:Certainly, the comedy may have parts that are hard to understand, but owing to your artistic talent- that is the wonderful visuals- some of it does come through. For example, right before the punchline, a character's mouth will be wide open, nostrils all dilated. The reader can sense something is coming up. At Viz, we're working extra hard to translate the humor into English that goes well with the actions of the characters and the expressions in the drawings. One of the people working on our translations is Gerard Jones. he's a comic writer familar with Japanese culture, has a good sense of humor and is a very creative person, so the majority of your comedic intent gets across.

Takahashi: The majority of Japanese Urusei Yatsura fans have been high school and college students, not children. In some ways that's been a problem. But you know, I can also say it was very easy for me back then because the readers were my own age. I was happy that people from my same generation could enjoy my manga. I was also happy that there were so many male readers. Come to think of it, though, that's not so surprising since it was serialized in a boy's magazine. I was a little disappointed that it might have been too difficult for children. After all, I believe manga belongs fundamentally to children, and maybe Urusei Yatsura just didn't have what it took to entertain them.

Animerica: Even in America, the age of the average reader is high... about 20, I'd say. Readers range even into their late 30s. For Ranma , also serialized in Shonen Sunday after Urusei Yatsura, did you consciously try to draw something aimed more toward children.

Takahashi: Yes, that was done on purpose. And also, I wanted it to be popular among women and children. Ranma is popular among girls now, but it seems as though it hasn't grabbed the boys yet.

Animerica: I see. So it's more popular among girls.

Takahashi: Yes. Let's see, it was around the time when the eighth graphic novel came out that the cumulative circulation had reached 10 million that I asked the editor if he could survey the readers. He placed a questionnaire postcard in the books. As it turned out, Ranma 's fans were similar to those of Urusei Yatsura. Both series had a peak readership of 15-year-olds, but in the case of Urusei Yatsura, the distribution spreaded toward the higher-aged males. Conversely, with Ranma , it spread toward younger females.

Animerica: In America, the vast majority of comic book readers are male, but I think that with Ranma there a definite increase in female readers. In fact, in America, Ranma is selling better that Urusei Yatsura. Issue One completely sold out by the time the fourth issue came out. It's evident that the number of readers is increasing.

Takahashi: Ranma sells better in Japan as well. There are some pretty hardcore Urusei Yatsura fans out there, but among all the serials I've done so far, Ranma is the number-one hit.

Animerica: Is that so?

Takahashi: Yes. Even when you look at the sales figures, there's a remarkable difference between the two. For me, thought, I'll just be happy if someone remembers reading Ranma as a child, years after its serialization is over.

Animerica: How long has it been since Ranma 's serialization started?

Takahashi: Well, I don't remember exactly, but it's probably been five to six years.

Animerica: Since there are so few female readers in this American market, it would certainly make us and the comics industry in general very happy if Ranma could increase the number of women reading comics. In my opinion, the concept of a man changing into a woman and a woman changing into a man could be taken as an effort to enlighten a male-dominated socity. After all, Ranma never knows what gender he'll be next. Did you intend this?

Takahashi: It's just that I came up with something that might be a simple, fun idea. I'm not the type who thinks in terms of societal agendas. But being a woman and recalling what kind of manga I wanted to read as a child, I just thought humans turning into animals might also be fun and marchenhaft... you know, like a fairy tale.

Animerica: So it's more that you never created the characters with a social agenda, but that they just happened to fit in with the zeitgeist?

Takahashi: Yes, in that sense, that's exactly right.

Animerica: I hear the animated Ranma TV series has ended.

Takahashi: That is so. I'm sad about it. It really was a fun show to watch.

Animerica: Will there be new animation projects to follow?

Takahashi: There seem to be many, but nothing I can talk about.

Animerica: Incidentally, did you know that a rock singer named Matthew Sweet is a big fan of yours? He's even come to my office several times.

Takahashi: Um, yes. Even getting a tatoo... I hope it's not permanent. [LAUGHS]

Animerica: Did you know that he made a promotional video using nothing but Urusei Yatsura animation footage?

Takahashi: I'm aware of it, yes.

Animerica: Reportedly the song sold well and got a lot of airplay on MTV. It's probably one of the first times Japanese animation, although in a slightly modified form, was introduced to a major American TV medium.

Takahashi: I hear he also did it with Cobra.

Animerica: Yes. But his tattoo is of Lum.

Takahashi: I heard a rumor that he started putting Ran from Urusei Yatsura on his other arm, but will he go all the way? [LAUGHS]

Animerica: In a previous interview you said that you often use Japanese folklore as a motif in your work. Do you ever receive inspiration from other media, such as contemporary movies or novels?

Takahashi: Well, I've always liked Yasutaka Tsutsui's slapstick novels. I read them often. I've wished I could draw manga that was as absurd as that.

Animerica: Could we say that Yasutaka Tsutsui has had a great influence on your work?

Takahashi: Yes, very much. I just happened to use folklore as a basis, but that's because it's easy to twist tales that everyone knows. As for movies, I only see them for entertainment.

Animerica: Disney animation later influenced the story-oriented manga of the late Osamu Tezuka, which in turn became the basis of Japanese comics. Has animation ever influenced you?

Takahashi: Not in particular. But then, Tezuka saw Disney animation and created the manga of today, and we as a generation grew up reading that, so I very much think I'm in that school.

Animerica: This is an open-ended question, but I'd like to ask just how busy are you? I'll bet American artist can't imagine what it's like to be drawing over 100 pages a month.

Takahashi: Isn't American comic production done in a division of labor? So the artist is infinitely talented in drawing, and the writer is infinitely talented in making stories...

Animerica: Yes. In America, there are very few artists who both draw and write stories.

Takahashi: And so Japanese manga comes from a completely different form, where the artist does everything alone. It's not possible to excel in all tasks, but one can't succeed without a balanced combination of talents. In that sense it's difficult to strive for perfection, but the kind of perfection that is striven for by Japanese artists is different.

Animerica: Are you ever dissatisfied with your stories?

Takahashi: No, I'm always fully satisfied. [LAUGHS]

Animerica: It would seem that it takes a vast amount of talent to succeed as a manga artist in Japan.

Takahashi: I think so. If you can draw really well, but can't write a story, you'd have to become an illustrator. Even with the help of a good writer, if you can't come up with good layouts, you can't make it as a manga artist. You might become a wonderful illustrator but not a manga artist.

Animerica:In America, comics aren't too high in status, the industry is small, and sales figures are noticeably lower than in Japan. Even people who are in comics purely for the love of it tend to move on to other, more highly paid businesses just as soon as their talent is recognized. In Japan it's manga that's the big-money business, so people with talent flock to it. If you've got the talent, it's definitely more financially rewarding to become a manga artist or manga writer than a novelist.

Takahashi: It's probably true everywhere, but people with talent go where the money is.

Animerica: There must be a lot of people with great talent in America, too, and we'd like to give them a chance, within our limited means.

Takahashi: But don't you think manga is still looked down upon in Japan also?

Animerica: There still probably are many people who hold biases agianst it.

Takahashi: But if we wait just a little more, the day will come when the only generation left is the one which reads manga. [LAUGHS]

Animerica: A day when graphic novels of Big Comic magazine line the shelves of retirement homes...

Takahashi: Yes. Manga is entertainment, after all. And because it's a form of entertainment rather than a separate culture, it's inevitable for cultural elements to creep in. It depicts the world we live in. That manga is read in America... well, I think it's truely wonderful if it can make people laugh across all sorts of borders. I think manga is all about feelings, of being scared or happy or sad. In that respect, I think we might all be the same.

Animerica: I'm happy and encouraged that in America, Ranma has a different sort of readership than Urusei Yatsura.

Takahashi: If that's true, then there's nothing that makes me happier.

Animerica: What kind of country do you think America is?

Takahashi: I've only stayed for a single night in Los Angeles. I was scared then. I felt the L.A. airport was frighteningly mechanical.

Animerica: Some people might say that town represents America itself.

Takahashi: I tend to be short, so I was looking up at everything, and my eye-level seemed to be at the waists of the walking people. [LAUGHS]

Animerica: Do you feel Europe suits you better?

Takahashi: I like the Latin people. I was supposed to go to an Italian comic convention this year but in the end, I was too busy. Spain and Italy are agreeable countries, don't you think? I wonder why, among all the counties of Europe, I feel so secure in those two places...?

Animerica: There's a manga boom in Europe right now. It first caught on in Italy and then in Spain. We just signed a big contract there.

Takahashi: It's interesting that Japanese manga is getting accepted in the Latin countries of Europe first.

Animerica: We'd love to interview you again next year after your travels through Europe. In closing, do you have a message for your American fans?

Takahashi: I'm grateful that you read my works, and it gives me encouragement to know that you enjoy them. My best regards to every one of you.

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