This year again at the Angouleme Festival, the exhibit held at the Hotel Saint-Simon featured the works of an author yet to be translated in France. After Dave Cooper, Shiriagari Kotobuki was in the spotlight — a prolific and atypical manga-ka, coming from the underground scene and rewarded in 2001 with the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Award.
Participating in numerous round tables, Shiriagari Kotobuki also left his mark with a daily performance, with the on-going creation of a large fresco in the town hall stairs. Another opportunity to grasp the personal universe of this author, iconoclast and multiform.
Conversation with a creator at large.
Xavier Guilbert : In the introductory texts about you for the Festival, you have been often presented as a comical author, and indeed the exhibit displays this aspect of your works. Yet, in reading Hinshi no Essayist, I have discovered a book that has nothing comical to it — quite the contrary. Would you be hiding a split personality ?
Shiriagari Kotobuki : Indeed, the manga that I draw are very varied. But usually, when it comes to people… you see, they have their funny moments, moments when they laugh, but there are also times when they worry and ask for advice. Which means that in a single person, I think there can coexist a comical manga-ka and a serious manga-ka.
XG : You use a lot of different formats, from editorial cartoon to yonkoma manga or longer narratives…
SK : Yes, depending on the media, I adapt the way I express myself as well as the contents. The readers are different, and therefore their preoccupations are as different as the way to carry across what I want to express. For instance, in advertisement, even if you’re talking about the same product, you’ll change the actor you will choose depending on the target. For me, it’s the same approach.
XG : Parody seems to be very important for you, whether in the themes (with icons from the Japanese society, like the office ladies or the salarymen) or in the graphic style (engravings, shôjo manga, ukiyo-e)…
SK : I often resort to parody, but… when I debuted, I didn’t like the idea of letting my originality coming out spontaneously. To the contrary, with parody… I had already imitated some authors, and I’ve always chosen to mock the originality of their narration. And at this stage, parody was for me a very important mean to criticize while remaining funny.
XG : Is there a “Shiriagary Kotobuki style”, something that would be personal ?
SK : I would say that my style, is about being able to draw whatever I want whenever I want.
XG : What is the importance of improvisation and speed in your work ?
SK : In my manga, nearly none. Often, I’d like to draw quickly, but that’s more because I’d like to go and have a drink. It’s not for the manga. (laugh) When I draw, it is not my brain controlling my hand to get a nice-looking drawing — quite the opposite, I let my hand draw, guided by the pleasure of drawing.
I remember once I was drawing, it was three in the morning, I was drunk, I was listening to music, and it was a drawing for an exhibition. The morning after, I woke up — and as I had drunk, I couldn’t remember having drawn, but the illustration was great, and it was certainly the drawing style of my unconscious.
XG : Maybe your own, personal style that had come through ?
SK : More something in my heart or my body which had escaped…
XG : Akin to “Beat” Takeshi/Kitano Takeshi, you arbor a comical face and a darker face, with irruptions of violence and a lot of sadness. Is this a Japanese thing, to have two masks ?
SK : For me, the comical never strays away from drama. Even when you laugh, you play a role — for instance, when faced with failure, you’re going to laugh and say (miming someone encouraging with a friendly pat) “come on, it’s okay, it’s okay”.
So of course, laughter can soften sadness, but there’s more importantly this aspect of purification, which allows to liberate oneself from his hidden worries with laughter. It’s a little like the story of the “Emperor’s new clothes”. As I was saying, I think that the comical is very close to the dramatic. And to choose between the two, I prefer the purifying laughter.
When in the middle of the night I think “oh this is horrible”, or when I think “hm, wouldn’t there be another way to write that” — I have always the choice of telling it with laughter, or in a more serious and sad fashion, but that doesn’t change anything to the actual subject.
XG : You often put forward relationship problems between your characters. Is it a comment you want to make about the Japanese society ? ?
SK : I don’t know how it is abroad, so I cannot really compare with Japan. But I think there is a lot of sadness hidden in plain sight around us.
XG : Are there manga-ka in the underground manga scene that you would feel close to ?
SK : Personally, I don’t consider myself as being part of an “underground”. I draw whatever I feel like doing, and I’d like to be able to share this with as many people as possible, just because I would like to live in a larger house. (laugh) But I’m not the one deciding whether I’m “underground”, it’s the editors and the readers.
XG : YajiKita was made into a movie last year. What did you think about it ?
SK : I was very pleased that one of my manga was made into a movie. Of course, I hope that among the people who went to see the movie, a lot of them will decide to read my manga. I was also pleased that the movie allowed to reach out to people who do not usually read manga.
Of course, regarding the contents, it’s not a manga, but this movie has — how can I say ? — has betrayed me in a good way. “Oh, they’ve changed that”, or “hey, they’ve chosen this actor for this character”, or even “oh this is funny” — in a good way, they have changed a lot of things, and I enjoyed that.
XG : You’ve designed a couple of video games for Sony…
SK : Oh yes, it’s been almost eight years now…
XG : Yes, you’ve experimented with a lot of different media. Does manga remain you most natural support ?
SK : Regarding the other media, whether it is about video games or novels — last year, I shot a short film using my cellphone camera, whatever the format, I like to create. Of course, it’s a totally different process from manga .. but as it is the case for everyone, the experience of creating something, it’s a pleasure. For manga in particular, what motivates me is trying to come up with something original, something that has never been attempted before.
XG : Do you feel there are some themes you cannot tackle in your stories ?
SK : Personally, there are none. Yet, it’s different with publishers, they can worry about the way to get some things across. But for me, there are no themes that you cannot use in manga. If you cannot express certain things, it is not because of the shortcomings of manga as a means of communication, it’s because the author is not strong enough to achieve what he wants.
XG : You seem to be going from project to project, book to book. Would you describe yourself as a compulsive author ?
SK : I don’t think I’m the type of person who feels the need to produce. But I always have an idea of what I want to do next. And it’s always about getting pleasure from it.
XG : So what is your next project ?
SK : The next project… is a secret. (laugh) At the moment, I experiment on the Internet with short animated sequences.
XG : On your website SaruHage ?
SK : SaruHage… no, it’s elsewhere. But it’s interesting. And I’m thinking about starting another series in manga, something I’ve never tried doing so far, to reach out to readers abroad, if possible.
It’s a little like the performance I’m doing at the moment, the fresco, it’s really cool. Whatever the experiment, I’m in — but maybe I sounds a little greedy… (laugh)
XG : You’ve tried a lot of things indeed, from yonkoma to longer series to essays, and not on the Internet…
SK : Yes, I want to try everything. I think that inside a single person, there are funny moments, serious moments too, there are a lot of emotions. And with gag-manga, yonkoma — you can use freely all those formats, but you can also end up prisoner of them. Me, I try to let everything out… for instance, if you become famous for your gag-manga, you have to do this your whole life. And this is definitely not what I want.
XG : You like to surprise the reader…
SK : Yes, I like to surprise. I like when people think that my manga are something never seen before.
XG : Do you feel lucky for having this kind of freedom ?
SK : Yes, I’m lucky. What I’ve done so far, if you look at it as a whole, and I’m not talking about sheer volume, but looking at the result, yes, I’m very lucky.
XG : Have you had any trouble with the way some of your manga have been received ?
SK : Yes, it has happened that I’ve been told that they weren’t very funny. (laugh) No, I’ve never really had any problem. From time to time, in the newspaper, it happens that one of my drawing gets refused, because it deals with certain disasters or tragedies…
XG : Never for the drawing style ?
SK : Regarding the drawing style, as I’m a manga-ka of the “Heta-Uma” school, people think “yes, he draws badly, but there’s nothing we can do”. (laugh) As everybody knows about it, it has never been a problem.
XG : But this whole deal of “Heta-Uma”, isn’t it just an hoax ? Because looking at the exhibit, there’s undeniably a lot of talent there…
SK : (laughing) I doubt it.
XG : … in the faces, the expressions, there are things that are extremely true…
SK : Oh, yes, sometimes… sometimes, I come up with a nice drawing, and I’m happy about it.
XG : A stroke of luck ?
SK : Yes, a little luck. (laugh) But in my manga, I’m glad when my drawings manage to go beyond me. If I draw only things that resemble me, it’s fastidious and boring, what I prefer, it’s managing to come up with things I hadn’t thought of in the first place. Even if I wish to surprise my readers with my manga, I also try and surprise myself.
XG : How did you get your debut in manga ?
SK : When I debuted, I was still a salaryman. I used to live in a dormitory for singles, and one day a publisher called me on the phone. When I was in college I had done a dôjinshi, and this person thought that one of the manga in there was funny, and wanted me to continue it. And that’s how it all begun.
XG : And how long have you been at it ?
SK : Since the publication of my first book… let’s see, last year, it was exactly twenty years. So this year, twenty-one, and then next year twenty-two… (laugh)
XG : And after more than twenty years, do you still have projects, things that you haven’t attempted yet but you would like to make ?
SK : Absolutely. (a long pause) There are a lot of manga genres that I would like to draw, for instance I would like to do a manga for kids. At the moment, my kids are four and seven year old, and I would like to do for them a manga that would explain simply the society.
And thinking further still, I would like to do something about our generation, to do a manga that would bear witness to how people are living today. Concretely, those are the few ideas I have at the moment.
XG : In the manga scene, who would be the authors close to you, in the narration or the themes ?
SK : To be honest, I don’t have any friends (laugh), and I know only a few manga-ka. In my generation, there would be Tori Miki, Kusumi-san or maybe Miyojio-san… yes, we have about the same age, and I feel some kind of affinity with them. Authors that are not passionate, if I can say so. I feel close to manga-ka who are rather serious, a little cold, with a cynical stance.
Regarding gag-manga, Yoshida Toshi, Nakagawa-san, and more recently Amahita-san, and… come on, what’s his name again ? (turning to the other Japanese at the table) I was seated across him during a year-end party… he’s famous, a young guy… Anyways. But yes, there are some authors with whom I feel this affinity. But why can’t I remember his name ? (another discussion) Ohiata Go. That’s it, Ohiata Go too.
XG : And outside of gag-manga, are there other types of manga you are interested in ?
SK : Erm… in fact, I don’t read a lot of manga, I’d have to study the question. (laugh)
(Interview made at the Angouleme Festival, on January 28, 2006.)
- The Japanese version of the comic strip, made of four frames and ending with a punchline usually absurd or comical.
- “Clumsy-skilled”, a style originated in Garô magazine.
- Note : this listing taking place during an animated discussion with a lot of background noise, the retranscription of the names mentioned by Shiriagari Kotobuki is unfortunately very approximate.