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(NOTE: This article/interview was originally published in Amazing Heroes in 1990, and this updated version is copyright 1996 by Toren Smith. It was written for a general audience, so I suspect most of you manga fans will know a lot of this information already. Hopefully you will find some of it interesting, however.)

When Rumiko Takahashi was seventeen years old, her interest in comics was limited to reading them and occasionally copying a character in the margins. Twenty-two years later, she is arguably Japan's favorite comics artist, a multimillionaire with close to fifty million copies of her books in print. A slim, attractive young lady with an enchanting personality, she seems perhaps a bit bemused by her unexpected success. Most people who meet her are surprised by her charisma--an attribute more often found in performing artists than comics artists who spend most of their time locked away from life--and by the husky contralto voice that seems rather inappropriate for such a petite lady. She is renowned in Japan for her dislike of interviews, and her clockwork-like reliability in a field where editors often have to trap artists in hotel rooms in order to obtain finished artwork. She seems to be universally liked as a person, and Frederik Schodt, well-known author of Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics (Kodansha 1986), has said 'I've never heard anything negative about her--in fact, everyone I've spoken to who has met her has come away thoroughly charmed'. Talent, success, money, and personality--Rumiko Takahashi seems to have it all. But how did she get there?

Takahashi was born in Niigata, Japan, in 1957. After passing the difficult entrance exams for Nihon Josei-dai (Japan Women's University), she moved into a small student's apartment in Nakano, Tokyo, where she lived for several years. This experience was later to form the basis for her series Maison Ikkoku. Simultaneously with entering university, she enrolled in Kazuo Koike's famous training ground for manga artists, Gekiga Sonjuku. Koike is best known to American readers as the author of Lone Wolf and Cub, and like Joe Kubert's school in America, his collage has regularly turned out ready-made professionals.

Takahashi is casual about the difficulties of combining university courses with the notoriously demanding manga school: 'Sonjuku was an evening course, about two hours long. It didn't really feel like school to me, more like participating in a club'.

Since Takahashi had done so little drawing before entering the school, she had her work cut out for her. Under the personal direction of Koike, she turned out hundreds of pages over the next two years, and gradually began to feel that she'd found her place in the world. Koike's prime dictum--hammered into students from day one--is that 'Comics are carried by characters...if a character is well created, the comic becomes a hit'.

With this in mind, Takahashi began to carefully build the cast of Urusei Yatsura, even as she was honing her talents with various short stories. By 1977, her talent was obvious to everyone. 'We all knew she would become a professional,' said Reiko Hikawa, who was in the same comics club as Takahashi while at university (Hikawa is now a popular fantasy writer). 'It was only a matter of time. Her art and stories had, well, they had that something special'. The editorial board at Shogakukan had reached the same conclusion, and in that same year she was nominated for the annual 'New Artist Award'.

Urusei Yatsura first appeared in September, 1978, in 'Shonen Sunday', a weekly comics magazine for young boys. It ran erratically, often skipping several issues, until the middle of 1979, when it began regular publication. Life was hard for Takahashi in those days:

'My parents said 'Don't do it, you won't be able to eat--get a normal job!' And to be perfectly truthful, I myself wasn't absolutely sure I could do it...there was a lot of uncertainty in my own mind as to whether or not I'd be successful. And in fact, I ended up living in a roku-jo room [about 150 sq. ft.] along with my assistants. It was so crowded that I had to sleep in the closet!'

Due to the size and variety of the manga market (not to mention the higher remuneration), taking the plunge to be a professional involves somewhat less risk that in America. Conversely, however, the competition is fierce. 'I think that, in Japan, comics are so much more an integral part of a young person's life...a lot of people are caught up by the 'look and copy' psychology.' So are comics truly a part of mainstream culture, rather than being a sub-culture as in America? 'Perhaps I wouldn't go so far as to say they're completely in the mainstream yet--I think history will have to be the judge of that. But certainly, comics in Japan have become something that should be there, that should exist. They are, at the very least, something that couldn't be done away with without leaving a gap in popular culture'.

A beginning artist makes a good $60-80,000 a year (although much of this can be eaten up by wages for their assistants). But young comics hopefuls in Japan are surrounded by examples of success--the late Tezuka, Fujiko-Fujio, Toriyama and others. All are multi-millionaires, and provide a peak to aim for. However, as Takahashi points out, it's still a risky move:

'That kind of success does happen, but it's kind of hard to imagine it happening to yourself. It's true that [in Japan] there are more chances to succeed, but if you fail, then everything is lost. [She is referring here to the usual Japanese employment system--students are signed up for companies long before they finish university, and few companies accept entry level staff any other way. A twenty-two year old failed manga artist is liable to find the job market virtually non-existent, even with a university degree]. So you have to make the decision, and just do it--in my case, success didn't come overnight, it took some time before things really began to move for me. But of course, the only way to find out is to do it, try for several years and just hope for the best'.

Once Urusei Yatsura began to take off, it seemed likely that her life was destined to change dramatically. In October, 1981, Urusei Yatsura became an animated TV series--always a sure sign of success, and a significant boost to the bank account. But Takahashi says 'At the level of my feelings, nothing changed. What I do now, the basic way I live, is the same. When I sit down at the drawing board, all that I can see is that white piece of paper--just as white after all these years. In any case', she laughs, 'Even though I'm paid very well these days, I really haven't the time to spend it!'

The money was never important to Rumiko, as it has been with some of her contemporaries. Even the responsibility to produce hundreds of pages on a regular basis hasn't spoiled the essential reason she became an artist in the first place. 'Everyone's feelings about this are different, but in my case, I'm just happy to be able to have this opportunity to write so much--it's vastly preferable to not being given that chance. There are so, so many things I want to write, more than I could possibly write in a lifetime...I guess I'm just happy that I can spend my time doing what I want'.

At least she can be comfortable while doing what she wants--she has been one of the top two or three best paid comics artist in Japan since 1984, with an annual income averaging over three million dollars.

The popularity of animation based on her works has helped make her income what it is. The animated version of Urusei Yatsura ran from October 1981 to March 1986, and comprised 216 episodes. Urusei Yatsura has also spawned five feature films and three original videos. At its peak, the fan club had over 250,000 members. A limited edition laserdisc set of the complete run of Urusei Yatsura TV shows and movies was released, costing $2600.00--it was sold out in just weeks. Maison Ikkoku ran on TV from March 1986 until March 1988, and was made into both an animated feature and a critically acclaimed live action movie. Several of her Rumic World short stories have been released on original video animation, including Laughing Target (Warau Hyoteki) and One-Pound Gospel (1 Pondo Fukuin). More original videos are in the works for Urusei Yatsura and Maison Ikkoku. Ranma 1/2 began TV broadcasting in 1989, and has settled in for a long run.

Urusei Yatsura (first published in English in 1989 by Viz Comics) epitomizes the Takahashi approach to comics. It concerns the tempestuous relationship between Ataru Moroboshi, a high school student in the small town of Tomobiki, and Lum--a green-haired, green-eyed package of sex appeal and jealousy, who just happens to be an alien. 'Urusei Yatsura is a title I had been dreaming about since I was very young. It really included everything I wanted to do. I love science-fiction because SF has such flexibility'. More than just SF, Urusei Yatsura was a melting pot of love triangles (and other more complex polygons), Japanese and Chinese mythology, high school life, and more. The cast of characters grew over its nine year run, and when the series ended, the audience was following the adventures of more than 25 major characters. The characters were divided into roughly two groups--Lum's friends, who were often based on Japanese mythological figures; and the earthlings. Takahashi herself claims to be partial to supporting characters like 'the bizarre Ran, or Benten. I also like Ryunosuke and her father--it was very easy to manipulate them in the story. Ryunosuke's character was very clear--she wants to live as a woman, and her father's role is to prevent her from doing so. Very clear and simple'. Ryunosuke--the girl who dresses and acts like a guy--also provided the seed idea from which Takahashi's current series, Ranma 1/2, grew.

Lum's race comes to Earth intending to simply invade and take over. But Earth has one chance--if Ataru (chosen randomly by computer as Earth's champion) can defeat Lum in a game of tag, the invaders will just pack up and leave quietly. Ataru, who has glandular drives undreamed of by even the most lascivious of high school boys, is only too eager to get his hands on the delectable Lum. This proves rather difficult when he discovers she can fly.... But he triumphs in the end, after undergoing so much pain and humiliation he has (apparently) lost all interest in Lum. Lum has fallen irrevocably in love with him, however, and remains behind on Earth to chase after him for the next 34 volumes. 'For Urusei Yatsura, I didn't want to create stories in the usual way--I wanted the reader to be taken completely by surprise with the developments in the next panel. Ideally, every story should have numerous subplots connecting the beginning and the climax, so that the readers would be kept guessing. It was pretty tough, pulling off all those little tricks'.

Much of the humor is very slapstick, but this is all part of Takahashi's plan: 'I wanted to write slapstick comedy because it is a great way to get the readers to react quickly. I really get a charge out of seeing people laughing as they read my books. If a story is more serious, it's harder to determine if someone likes it or not. I guess I'm really just a kid a heart!' (laughs)

When it first appeared, Urusei Yatsura was not an instant success, and Takahashi kept herself busy writing short stories (some of which have been reprinted in the Rumic World series of books from Shogakukan) and another series, Dust Spot (the title is a strange Japanese/English term for garbage can--not original with Takahashi). Dust Spot concerns the adventures of two agents for the mythical HCIA organization. Yura, the female member of the team, is immensely strong, while her partner Tamuro is an esper--whose teleportation ability inevitably lands him in a garbage can or dump. It ran in Shonen Sunday from May to September 1979. But by the middle of 1979, Urusei Yatsura began to take off, and Takahashi concentrated her efforts almost exclusively on that series for about a year.

She was also, in her mind and notebooks, slowly turning her experiences in university into a new series that began in October, 1980 in biweekly Big Comic Spirits.

'When I was a poor college student, I lived in Nakano (a district in Tokyo) in a small apartment that cost [[yen]]55,000 a month (about $550). Just behind my apartment house, there was another which seemed rather...er...'strange.' Two of the people who were living there often spent hours talking by walkie-talkie with one in his room and the other just a few yards away on the street (laughs). I thought they were pretty annoying, but I was also a little scared and wondered what they could possibly be up to.'

It was that place she wanted to characterize in Maison Ikkoku. Though she never actually got up the nerve to enter that strange apartment house, she modeled 'Ikkoku-kan' (Ikkoku Apartments) after it. In design, it was a typical cheap Japanese apartment house, where there are shared bathrooms, no hot running water, and the tenants have to take their bath at the public baths down the road. 'Once you're thrown into an apartment, you have to live there--unless you move out [this is terribly difficult and expensive in Japan, where moving into an apartment often requires a deposit of six months rent--about four months of which is non-refundable]. You can't just reject the people who share the place with you...you just have to get along with them. I wanted to create an emotional human drama centering around the apartment and its tenants'.

Maison Ikkoku ('Maison' is often used in Japan as a 'borrowed' word from French, but usually refers to an apartment house) tells the story of Yusaku Godai, a young university student, and his love for Kyoko Otonashi, the beautiful young widow who becomes the landlady. Godai falls in love with Kyoko at first sight, and overcomes obstacle after obstacle in his way as he tries to both win her love, and make himself worthy of that love. Kyoko herself is not a cardboard caricature of 'the perfect Japanese woman', but a fascinating character who manages to combine gentleness with an occasionally quick temper. Hesitant at first, she eventually warms to the sincere young Yusaku. Again, Takahashi's genius for characterization gives us a unforgettable cast, and involves the reader in the story to a degree that is quite extraordinary.

'I had a lot of fun creating this series', smiles Takahashi. 'At first, I just wanted to start the story by centering on the love story between Kyoko and Godai, and from there, move into more of a human drama involving the other tenants. But as I developed the relationship between Kyoko and Godai, I became more attracted to their love story--and eventually, it took over the series'.

The secret of Maison Ikkoku's success--and it was tremendously successful, selling 80% more per volume than Urusei Yatsura--probably lies in Takahashi's unparalleled ability to create characters that the readers are sympathetic with. Anyone who reads Maison Ikkoku ends up rooting for Godai, as he tries desperately to win Kyoko's heart. Godai begins the series as a 'ronin', a university student who has failed the first round of entrance exams, and is studying full-time for a year before trying again. Kyoko has been recently widowed, and has little room in her heart for anything but memories of her late husband, Soichiro. Godai's efforts are perhaps best described as 'three steps forward, two steps back,' and he seems destined to be thwarted at every turn by fate, his friends, and his neighbors in Ikkoku-kan. Kyoko's handsome tennis coach, the rich and personable Mitaka, is his only serious rival--but that's serious enough. Maison Ikkoku resembles a television situation comedy, but has a gentleness and wit to it that most sitcoms lack. We never laugh at the unfortunate Godai's failures and disappointments, and are filled with warmth when he succeeds.

Takahashi reflects, 'I think the basic difference between Maison Ikkoku and Urusei Yatsura was the way their main characters were presented. In the case of Urusei Yatsura, the main character was basically the one the readers wished to be. In Maison Ikkoku, the main character is one that the readers can sympathize with--they can see themselves in his place'.

Maison Ikkoku represented a different sort of storytelling experience for Takahashi, after working on Urusei Yatsura for almost two years. 'Creating Maison Ikkoku was like letting a ball of yarn unroll. I just developed the story step by step, each building on the one before. Urusei Yatsura was more like letting a football bounce--I never knew which way it would go'.

Takahashi's latest, Ranma 1/2, began in August 1987 and continues her tried-and-true romantic comedy formula--but with a truly inspired twist. Ranma Saotome is a young martial artist who has recently returned to Japan after spending some years training in China. Ranma moves in with the Tendo family (father and three daughters--Akane, Nabiki, and Kasumi) , and promptly falls in love with Akane, herself a competent martial artist. There's only one problem--Ranma is a girl! Or so it appears, until she is doused with hot water, and turns back into a guy. Gradually the story comes out--how Ranma (who was originally a boy) accidentally fell into a magic hot spring in China, and now switches from male to female depending on whether he/she gets wet with hot or cold water. The plot thickens when the female Ranma begins to attract suitors, and unwelcome guests from China begin to arrive...many of whom have had experiences with the same magic hot spring as Ranma (but with different effects).

Ranma 1/2 has proven just as much of a success in Japan as all of Takahashi's previous works, and perhaps a little more--so far, sales per volume of Ranma 1/2 have exceeded even Maison Ikkoku. For example, when released in October 1988, Volume #5 of the series sold over a million copies in less than a month.

Part of the reason for Ranma 1/2's success may be that it is much more action oriented than Takahashi's previous works. The current favorite comic series for young boys is Akira Toriyama's Dragonball, which is little more than extended battle sequences (but brilliantly drawn and paced, mind you). Ranma 1/2 has, to an extent, followed this trend in boy's comics. But, as Takahashi no doubt remembers from her years at Sonjuku, Koike points out the necessity of changing with the readers. 'That's why I'm still ahead of the game,' he says. 'Had I continued to write just samurai stories, I would have been forgotten'.

Takahashi is best known in America for her romantic comedies, but she has produced quite a few horror stories as well. The three volume Rumic World series contains six horror stories, and she has recently released The Mermaid's Scar (Ningyo no Kizu), the second 260 page collected volume of her 'Mermaid' story cycle (the first was Mermaid Wood (Ningyo no Mori)).

For readers used to her light-hearted comedies and SF shorts, her horror stories in general and Mermaid Wood in particular can be quite a shock. The atmosphere of the stories is quite different, and some of the violence rather graphic. Takahashi herself seems uncertain as to why she writes them: 'Perhaps they act as a sort of catharsis for me...I really don't know. I just get these frightful ideas, sometimes.' Mermaid Wood, a tale of what mermaids are really like, is probably her best horror work, but Laughing Target is a close second. The animated version of Laughing Target is a disappointment, largely due to the unfortunate scripting.

Takahashi, like many other manga artists, has also occasionally written short stories about herself and her life as a manga artist. Most manga artists seem to do these largely to grumble publicly about their editors, and Takahashi is no exception, but her Kemono 24-jikan has become quite famous in manga circles in Japan. It offers a very honest look into her creative processes, and is also renowned for the excellence of its puns.

Still, Takahashi's forte seems to be her talent for understanding and depicting the labyrinthine tangle of romantic relationships. She seems very young to have developed such an acute awareness of how people think, especially considering that Japanese manga artists typically have little time for themselves--the pressure and necessity of producing 100 or more pages of work a month leads to days of sleepless nights, and desperate editors peering in through the windows. Coupled with the hellish life of a Japanese high school student (especially one preparing to enter one of the top universities in Japan), and the fact that they often sleep no more than four hours a night, studying or attending cram schools the rest of the time, it is surprising that she has developed the ability to understand people and human nature so well.

'Actually, I've found the secret of dealing with deadline disasters', she laughs. 'Are you ready? (whispers conspiratorially) Finish early! Then the editors don't come pounding at the door, and you're able to live a somewhat normal life. I've always tried to get my work done early, so I have a fair amount of time to myself, compared with most manga artists...and of course, I started comics after university. One can learn a lot about life and people, in university'. One should keep in mind that Japanese universities are different from American universities. After working insanely hard through high school, once they've passed the brutal entrance exams and made it into university they tend to kick back. Many attend classes only a day or two a week, and spend the rest of the time in clubs or partying. In general, quite the reverse of the American system.

More pensively, Takahashi remarks, 'I suppose I spent almost all, no rather, virtually all of my twenties for Urusei Yatsura and Maison Ikkoku. But I don't regret that--actually, I'm rather satisfied to have done so. All the life experiences of my twenties are imbedded in those two titles'.

Other than her peculiar penchant for finishing ahead of deadline, Takahashi's working methods are similar to other comics artists in Japan. She tends to rise in the early afternoon, and potters about until evening. 'Before I start on a story I meet with my editor to discuss the basic outline and which characters to use'. Following that, she generally spends a day or two just sitting at her board, thinking about the story. 'Then I do rough sketches, large ones, working out problems or ideas for specific panels. I then set up the actual boards and put down the layouts for the entire story'. Following this, Takahashi finishes her pencils, and inks each page one at a time. This is slightly unusual in the manga field--most artists pencil an entire issue, then ink it. She regularly produces about eighty pages a month, but 'if I include short stories, or special requests, then there may be an additional twenty pages or thereabouts'. Is that about her maximum output? 'Well, if I had to, I guess I could do about one hundred and, say, four pages (laughs).

Like virtually all manga artists working on a regular series, Takahashi works with assistants. 'Right now I have four. They do the backgrounds of course, panel borders, laying the tone--that sort of thing. I still have to do the story, the layouts, pencil and ink all the characters, and do the covers'. All of her assistants are female--Rumiko says: 'When the work place has only women, you don't have to worry about certain things as much'.

Takahashi is one of the very few women drawing comics for boys and young men. Although her layouts occasionally betray a heavy women's comics influence, she has a real knack for putting together stories that are highly attractive to males. Women, too, enjoy her works and form a fairly large portion of her audience. While she concentrates on the sex appeal of her female characters (as is appropriate for the magazines in which her work appears), her males are also lovingly rendered. When asked which of Takahashi's male characters she preferred, L. Lois Buhalis (letterer on Appleseed from Dark Horse and Studio Proteus, and long-time manga fan) was almost unable to choose: 'The male half of Ranma is gorgeous...but so is Mitaka! That's a tough question'. Takahashi seems a little like Ranma herself--able to see life from both sides of the male/female equation--a point of view sought after since Tiresias in classical Greek mythology.

Her influences come from many sources, but she claims to find little to inspire her in movies. 'It does seem that most manga artists really like movies, but I guess I'm a bit different, for some reason. I really don't see movies very often'. Conversely, many of her stories are heavily influenced by Japanese and Chinese mythology, with several characters even bearing the same names as the mythological beings. For example, Benten, from Urusei Yatsura, is named after Benten, the Japanese goddess of good fortune. However, unlike her gentle namesake, Takahashi's Benten is a super-powerful, rough-and-ready scrapper with the vocabulary and demeanor of a drill sergeant.

Surprisingly, Takahashi has been somewhat influenced by American comics. A number of years ago, a small Japanese publisher brought out several volumes of black & white reprints of American comics, including Fantastic Four, The Hulk, and Spiderman. With covers by Shuho Itahashi (creator of Cyber 7, released in 1989 by Eclipse Comics and Studio Proteus), these 240 page volumes seem to have had an influence on quite a number of Japanese manga artist. Takahashi herself says, 'When I was in junior high school, I really liked Spiderman. Though there has been an influence from those comics, it hasn't been in style [those printed in Japan were largely drawn by Sal Buscema], but in the sense of excitement I found in them. I thought to myself that this was something that Japanese comics needed more of, and I've tried to capture a bit of that sense of excitement in my own work'.

The character of Lum from Urusei Yatsura was modeled after the Chinese singer Agnes Lum, who was quite popular in Japan during the early seventies. Like her comics counterpart, Agnes Lum was what the Japanese call a 'glamour girl', in other words, an unusually shapely young lady. Another influence on Urusei Yatsura was the American TV show Bewitched, which ran for many years on Japanese TV as 'Okusama Majo'. The parallels between the two are easy to draw--in both, a man is involved with a woman from another world, whose friends and relatives come into his life and wreak havoc. Archie comics are another possible influence on the series, since translated pirate editions were widely distributed during and following the American Occupation. The similarities between Betty and Lum, Ataru and Archie, and Reggie and Mendo are hard to ignore, but may simply be the result of the overall similarities between love triangles everywhere.

But generally, Takahashi's work has been refreshingly original--certainly the premise of Ranma 1/2 provides for an unlimited number of interesting situations that have yet to be explored by many writers.

Takahashi has expressed puzzlement that she has fans in America--many of whom can read little or no Japanese. 'If it's really true, then I'm truly happy. But I must also confess as to being rather puzzled as to why my work should be so well received. It's my intention to be putting in a lot of Japanese references, Japanese lifestyle and feelings...even concepts such as a subtle awareness of the four seasons. I really have to wonder if foreign readers can understand all this, and if so, how?' (laughs).

A good question, and Takahashi and I discussed it for some time. Our final conclusion was that the main reason is that a good story has the same elements in any language--good stories concern the core emotions held by people, any people. Civilization is a thin veneer on top of millions of years of evolution. Most of her stories revolve around feelings and values that are present in any culture. Another reason could be that, while her stories take place on a world completely alien to most Western readers, they are internally consistent--and so take no more of a leap of the imagination than, say, reading Frank Herbert's Dune. Godai's world in the Ikkoku-kan apartments is scarcely more unusual than Paul's on Arrakis, and perhaps even less so.

Looking back on her success, Takahashi feels that she wouldn't like to have it any other way. 'This is really all I want to do with my life--write stories. I don't expect to change the world'. Have her comics had any effect on Japanese culture?

'I think my comics are things that people should just read and enjoy, and laugh along with, and that's really enough for me. I supposed that there are deeper things hidden in my work--sometimes not deliberately--but I don't set out to write literature. One theme that runs through my work, or at least I try to make it that way, is the idea that people should be kind to others. So, if people read my comics, and begin to feel more strongly that their friends are important, that they shouldn't be cruel to them or anyone...if people can get those feelings out of my work, then that's enough. If people became more gentle in their lives because of my comics, then that would really make me happy. It would be worth all the work and sacrifice in my life so far'.

Quotes and information for parts of this article were supplied by Viz Comics, Dana Lewis, and Frederik Schodt. Invaluable assistance was provided in Tokyo by Katsuya Shirai and Takashi Fukuda of Shogakukan Publishing. Thanks also to Rumiko Takahashi for being such a sweetheart during our interview

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