Hirohiko Araki is the author of the popular series "JoJo's Bizarre Adventure", which was selected as the second best manga in the "100 Best Japanese Media Arts" in 2006, the 10th anniversary of the Japan Media Arts Festival. Hirohiko Araki has been a leading figure in the world of shōnen manga. We interviewed him about the path he has taken to develop his unique style and the new frontier he is taking on as a manga artist with his latest work, Steel Ball Run, which marks the 20th anniversary of the series.
[Interview 1] The manga he used to read, the place he grew up
-When did you become aware that you wanted to be a manga artist?
When I was in junior high school, I used to draw manga and pictures for fun, and my friends used to praise me for it. From then on I had a vague idea that I wanted to be a manga artist, but it was after I entered high school that I really wanted to be one and started submitting my work. Yudetamago started serializing "Kinnikuman" right after graduating from junior high school, and I thought to myself, "There are people my age who are doing it professionally, I can't just sit back and relax". At the time, everyone was making their debut early, but even more than that, the generation of manga artists influenced by Osamu Tezuka and Ikki Kajiwara were emerging, and manga was becoming a popular media. I was warned by my teachers and parents that if I read manga I would become stupid. But at that time, manga was interesting because there were so many different personalities clashing.
-You are originally from Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, how do you feel has the city influenced you?
In my childhood, about 20 years after the end of the war, there were still many legends, though not so many "scars of war". There were still air-raid shelters. There were rumours of buried treasure in the old castle town. In fact, there were mountaineers who were looking for such dubious things. There was also at least one child a year who drowned in a pond, and there were also murders. In those days, Sendai was still dark, and there were many mysteries.
-The atmosphere of chaos and the waves of rapid growth are in tension with each other...
Sendai is a city of mountains and sea, all in one compact area. I grew up in a city where you could see the new residential areas spreading out and encroaching on the mountains, and the old streets being destroyed by land readjustment. But also, strangely enough, it was a city where walking in the mountains stimulated my imagination, with its ghosts and buried treasure. When you read Sherlock Holmes in a place like that, it feels strangely real. That's why I liked reading manga and fantasizing so much.
-What kind of manga did you like to read as a child?
I read almost everything that was popular at the time. I still go back and read "Babyl II", "Kamui Den" and "Kamui Gaiden" as they were my textbooks. I was very inspired by Mitsuteru Yokoyama and Sanpei Shiratsuchi when I was becoming a professional. In particular, Yokoyama's style is to depict the main character's emotions in a dry way, and he is completely dedicated to suspense, so I thought to myself as a child that he was different from other manga artists. So he's hard-boiled, and his drawings are cool. In the Shonen Jump magazine, I'd have to say "Ring ni Kakero". Also "Cobra" and "Wolf of the Circuit". And when I was a kid, I also liked "Isamu: The Boy in the Wilderness" and "Kaichojin Mihei". I used to read "Jump" from cover to cover, both weekly and monthly.
[Interview 2] Even if you're weak, you might be able to defeat a hero
In 1980, Araki's "Poker Under Arms" was selected for the Tezuka Award, a newcomer's prize in the weekly Shonen Jump magazine, and he began his career as a manga artist. The following year, "Baoh" was well praised, and he was expected to become the next generation of manga artists. However, in order to survive in the "Weekly Shonen Jump" magazine, which at that time had many big hits such as "Kinnikuman", "Captain Tsubasa", "Fist of the North Star", and "Saint Seiya", the new manga artist Hirohiko Araki had to go through many attempts and errors.
-What was your impression when you first came to Tokyo and visited the editorial office of Weekly Shonen Jump?
I think it was just before I graduated from high school. I was submitting work to the Tezuka Award, and although I got some honorable mentions, I couldn't quite get my work selected. But in that case, there was only a one-line review, so I didn't really understand my own faults. That's why I came to Tokyo to ask the editor for clarification. At that time, the Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Sendai was not yet open. It took me four or five hours each way to get to the editorial office, and I felt like I was competing with the editor from the moment I took the manuscript out of the bag. There were times when the editor would suddenly say to me, "Hey, you haven't corrected the errors on your manuscript". At the time, I didn't even know we do it with white ink, so the lines I drew were sticking out. After a few years, there were times when the editor would look at the door picture without even turning the manuscript and say, "I don't want to read this". Even though I'd been up all night for days working on it (laughs). In other words, he told me that I was supposed to draw pictures that would make people want to see the rest of the story. The editors of weekly manga magazines read a lot of manuscripts every day, so they have a good sense of what makes a work good or bad.
-It took about a year from the time you were shortlisted to the start of your first series, "Cool Shock B.T.". Did you have any anxiety during that time?
No, not at all. I was working on a lot of things in the meantime. Also, at the time I was drawing by myself, so I didn't have the technical confidence to do a weekly series, so I was more worried about that. At the time, about 30 volumes of Osamu Akimoto's "Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Kōen-mae Hashutsujo" had already been published, and I thought "How could he draw 30 volumes? I wondered.
-What was the most memorable piece of advice you received from your editor at the time?
My editor and I used to talk about books other than films and comics, for example, about Shibusawa Tatsuhiko, or "What is Freemasonry? and so on. We would talk about dark things like that (laughs). At that time, I didn't know anything about that kind of stuff, so I asked him "What's that?" and he'd say, "What, you haven't read that book? You should buy it today and read it. If you don't read it, you'll never become a professional". He put pressure on me. So there was an atmosphere that I had to read more books. When I read a book that was recommended to me, I would critique it with my editor. We'd say things like, "This is a great book artistically, but it won't appeal to readers," or, "What do you need for entertainment? ". That's what we'd do at the meetings, including critiques of rival works.
-There is a lot of competition for survival in shonen manga magazines, but was there anything you thought was "great" after you started working on it?
The magazine "Weekly Shonen Jump" actually has a lot of unique aspects. I mean, it allowed manga artists with unusual styles like me to make their debut (laughs). At that time, Daijiro Moroboshi and Buichi Terasawa also drew unique works in Weekly Shonen Jump. Weekly Shonen Jump does have some major works as the mainstay of the magazine, but everyone else's work has a different personality. I think that's what's great about it.
-On the other hand, was there anything that was difficult for you?
At that time, in Weekly Shonen Jump, not only the manga artists but also the editors competed with each other. At the editorial meetings, the opinions of the editors would clash with each other, and it had to go through these difficulties that the series would be decided. In particular, there were times when my work was severely criticized because it wasn't necessarily healthy. For example, when I was working on "Cool Shock B.T.", I was told that just because it had the word "Ma Shonen" in the title, it wasn't good enough. With "JoJo's Bizarre Adventure", they said, "You can't have a foreign main character in a shōnen manga". On the other hand, there were editors who thought, " We've never done this before, so why don't we give it a try? In particular, my first editor said, "We're a major magazine, so we're going to do something minor. There's no point in doing something minor in a minor magazine. It's only when you do it in a major magazine that it becomes meaningful.
-From the second manga in your career, "Baoh", you have been writing mainly about battles, in which a wide variety of characters compete with each other for strength. From suspense to bizarre scientific theories, you use a wide range of knowledge and expressions.
I thought, " Muscular heroes aren't the only ones who are strong. I thought that even if you have a weak body, if you can overcome your weaknesses, you might be able to beat the hero. Also, for practical reasons, I knew that I had to aim for the gaps in the style of my seniors' work in order to survive. The technique of dry suspense itself was influenced by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, but the style of "Jojo" was developed in this way.
-The style of "JoJo's Bizarre Adventure" is now the mainstream of "Weekly Shonen Jump", 20 years after its serialization.
Maybe it's because the people who were my readers are now starting to make their debut as manga artists. But in the early days of the JoJo series, people used to say "I don't understand it", and I used to struggle with "How can I make it easier to understand?". So there's been a bit of a rapid change, it's as if a whole generation has shifted.
Mystery, horror, action and science fiction are all part of the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure series, and the seventh in the series, "Steel Ball Run", which began in 2004, sees a change of direction. Set in the Americas in the 19th century, the story is set in a different world to that of its previous adventures, but where will it take us?
[Interview 3] Hirohiko Araki's Work in Progress
The "JoJo's Bizarre Adventure" series, which greedily incorporates various elements such as mystery, horror, action, and sci-fi. A change of pace happens in the seventh series Steel Ball Run, which started in 2004. Set in the American continent of the 19th century, where will the fantastic adventure story, which unfolds in a world that is similar but different from the previous works, head to?
-In your latest work, "Steel Ball Run", the number of pages per issue has increased and you have moved to the monthly magazine Ultra Jump. From your point of view, has the content of your work changed?
In a weekly serial, you have to show the reader the indescribable beauty of the story in a short space of pages. With more pages, there's more room to build up the story twice, and you can do detailed emotional descriptions. When I was working on a weekly, I would always go over the page count a bit, and I would spend a lot of time trying to figure out where to cut it. I'd ask the editor, "Which parts do you not want?", "Well, there's nothing we don't want," ,"But if we don't include that much, it doesn't fit in the story," or, "It's not good to cut it here. With "Steel Ball Run", the stress of the page limit is gone, and I think the rhythm of the story is much better.
-What was the reason for increasing the number of pages?
I wanted to create a work that combines dynamic screen expression with a delicate emotional portrayal. Another influence was the increase in the number of spectacular stories, such as the international drama "24" and the trilogy "The Lord of the Rings". I wanted to tell bigger stories, rather than the compact, repetitive stories of weekly serials. That's why I'd like to have a bigger frame for my manuscript, or even a two-meter sheet of paper (laughs). I think the reason why the number of copies of magazines is decreasing these days, and the number of comics is increasing instead, is that readers want to read the books all at once.
-The portrayal of ethics has also changed as manga has moved to magazines for older readers.
When I turned forty, I thought it was time to make a work that was also about ethics. For example, Clint Eastwood, the actor and director, is not limited to being an action star. I also thought that if I limited my target audience to young readers, my work would be too shallow. Also, with Steel Ball Run, I'm trying to go in a more classical direction, from the story to the design. We're going back to the roots of the characters' bloodlines and history, and I' m trying to keep the abilities simple. Also, the use of CGI is increasing these days, but I try not to use it in my manga, for example. I'm trying to include philosophy to the extent that it doesn't come to the forefront, and that change may be the reason why I left Weekly Shonen Jump.
-The battles in the "JoJo" series are not so much "physical battles" but rather "philosophical battles" where the heroes' views on values clash with those of their enemies who have heretical views on life. This time, too, there's a rival who's obsessed with "male aesthetics".
The film itself is going in a classical direction, so the characters are naturally going to have classical values. At some point in the story, the main character has to re-evaluate the meaning of his participation in the race, and the fight against the classic values of "male aesthetics" was a perfect fit. It's a classic, but the idea of spiritual growth through fair competition is rather new for today's readers. Also, in order to keep the fight simple and the gun realistic, I wanted to use the gun to show the quietness of a samurai battle, rather than a showy shoot-out. In that sense, I think it worked well.
-You're known for your fast writing, but how do you get out of a bad situation when you're stuck on a story?
Sometimes I have to reuse an idea that I've already used once, so I have to worry about making sure that my ideas don't overlap. But in terms of the characters, it's not a puzzle. If the characters are well-developed, they'll move around and get out of the way when the story gets stuck. I give all the characters a positive direction, so as soon as they clash with each other in the story, the problem is solved. Even the villains all think they're right.
-Are there times when you've come up with a new ability, but it's hard to use it in a fight?
When that happens, I sometimes end the fight early. But it's not something that I think about for days. But it's not good when I feel like, "This character looks like the one who came out before". The reader has a sense of déjà vu, so it's like, "Do I add something new?" or "Do I just cut it?". It's a bit tough when I have to make that decision.
[Interview 4] Hirohiko Araki's Vision of the Future
Hirohiko Araki is a manga artist in the making, creating new stories that no one has ever seen before, and continuing to exert a powerful influence on young creators in a variety of genres. What is Araki's vision for the future and what is his message to the younger generation?
-You've recently had an exhibition in Paris and you're working outside of the conventional image of manga, what else are you interested in?
If you ask me "Which is important for you, story or pictures?", I'd answer pictures are more important. That's why I'm very interested in music, painting and other things that can be incorporated into my work. I'm particularly interested in contemporary painting and Italian Renaissance painting. I like people who are like, "What is he thinking? Like Gauguin, Michelangelo. It's fun to read about them, and I like to find out why they were so unorthodox.
-You've said before that you have plans for a 9th part, will you continue with "JoJo" as long as possible?
The problem is physical strength. I've changed from a weekly to a monthly series, but when you're 40 or 50, your stamina goes down. When I was younger, I used to be able to get better after a night's sleep, but I don't anymore. If you have a bad joint or something, and you put up with it, it gets worse and worse. Being a manga artist is similar to being an athlete in that you have to maintain your condition for a long time. "Steel Ball Run" is a work that makes you feel like you're racing across the American continent (laughs). Especially the scenes where the horses are running are very tiring. I'm sure that drawing the horses is just as exhausting as riding them. I feel relieved when I reach the finish line, because I am one of the participants in the race. But then there's another race in a few tens of hours... I can't wait to go back to Japan (laughs).
-Otokazu spent several years writing a novel based on the JoJo series, and bands such as SOUL'd OUT have appeared on the scene that have been strongly influenced by Araki's work in a musical sense. A new generation of creators is emerging one after another.
It makes me very happy to hear young artists say that, and it gives me a lot of energy. When I'm working silently on a manga, no matter how successful it is, I'm always wondering if my drawings are good enough or it's not getting old. And when there's a lot of new artists coming out, I wonder if I'm going to be abandoned. At times like that, I'm grateful when people say they've been influenced by my work. If they don't, I feel sad because I lose the meaning of what I've been doing.
-Lastly, do you have a message for young people who want to become creators?
When I look back at my own work, I think that young people won't accept it if it's just for profit. Young people who are growing up don't need work that doesn't help them grow up. Also, if you think something is "new", you should try it, even if it seems useless. Art and manga, especially manga as a medium, have a base that allows for such experimentation. Well, there may be people who don't want to cooperate with such experiments, but I want you to read the situation appropriately and do your best without getting discouraged. If we don't try new things, the human spirit will stay in stagnation.
Interviewer and writer: Shuichiro Sarashina
Photo: Manami Tazuke