The Japanese manga production can often appear as extremely standardized, following the lead of the publishing powerhouses' weekly and monthly magazines. Among what has undeniably become an industry, Matsumoto Taiyou emerges as a singular case: for a quarter of a century, he has been creating a highly personal and uniquely recognizable body of work, of which Sunny, his latest series, might well be the most intimate accomplishment.
Xavier Guilbert : Last year marked the 25th anniversary of your manga debut. How do you feel about that ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : It’s really strange. Sometimes, I meet young, talented authors who are less than 25 years old, and they realize that I started drawing manga before they were born. When some of them tell me they used to read my stories when they were in elementary school, it’s quite a shock… I’m not a young author anymore.
Xavier Guilbert : How do you look back on your debut ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : It was a very difficult time, because editors give an awful lot of advice to young authors. It’s great when things go smoothly, but in my case, I was just twenty and I wanted to do things my own way. I wondered why my editor kept on giving me all this useless advice. Once I even considered changing jobs.
Xavier Guilbert : I think you were more interested in sports than manga at the time ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : I loved soccer, but by the time I turned twenty, I knew I would never be a professional player.
Xavier Guilbert : Many authors say that they loved drawing since they were kids, that they were drawing all the time, and that they dreamt of becoming manga-ka one day. That wasn’t the case for you, then ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : I used to draw when I was a kid, but in high school I had set my sights on becoming a soccer player, and at that time I had almost stopped reading any manga. I ended up becoming a manga-ka only because of my cousin, Inoue Santa, who was putting so much effort into becoming a manga-ka, and by reading Dômu by Ôtomo Katsuhiro… My mother actually bought it for me. It was so great. Up until then, I used to admire musicians or actors, and I thought that manga-ka were kind of uncool.
Xavier Guilbert : Like salarymen ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : A the time, I had no interest in them, but now I really admire salarymen. And it’s by reading Ôtomo that I realized that manga-ka could also be cool, and I felt a strong urge to follow in Ôtomo’s footsteps. But I had no idea that manga-ka had to deal with so many constraints, and there was a time I really considered quitting.
Xavier Guilbert : Your first published work, Straight, originally told the story of 45-year old baseball pitcher. Twenty-five years later, nearly all the cast of Sunny, your most recent series, is composed of kids. What happened in between to elicit such a turnabout ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : When I debuted, I was very young, and I really liked drawing characters in their forties or fifties. That’s still the case today. Actually, I’ve always liked drawing elderly people and kids-it’s very natural to me. I really like Suzuki as a character in Black & White. And usually, when it comes to sports series, everybody ends up drawing young characters. I wanted to do something different, and the idea of a character in his forties really appealed to me.
Xavier Guilbert : Zero also tells the story of a boxer who is about to retire. Usually, the characters in sports series are often young people for whom everything is possible, and no goal is unreachable. Yet, your characters show some sort of melancholia, and they tend to reflect back on their past.
Matsumoto Taiyou : Of course, I also like young characters who try and achieve their dreams, but I am deeply touched by stories where characters are about to see their dream coming to an end. These are the kind of stories I wanted to tell.
Xavier Guilbert : Loss is a recurring theme in you work. During childhood, there is no separation between reality and imagination, but as one grows old, this unity disappears. This is at the core of GoGo Monster.
Matsumoto Taiyou : In Ping Pong, I have a real fondness for Sakuma, who gives up on ping pong right in the middle of the story. I really like drawing this kind of character, I find they have a real kind of grandeur.
Xavier Guilbert : You debuted in the magazine Morning published by Kôdansha, then you moved to Shôgakukan with Big Comics and Ikki. Seen from France, you are a one-of-a-kind author, both style-wise and story-wise. Your series’ are rather short when compared with the usual standards in Japan. How did you manage to develop this singular approach within the manga industry ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : Lately, I tend to appreciate the fact that manga editors give authors a lot of advice and constraints. There are both positive and negative aspects. Before, I was really envious of the way Franco-Belgian bande dessinée authors work. Everyone works at his own pace, and editors rarely meddle with what they do. Now, I’d really like to be able to keep only the positive aspects of the Japanese system.
Xavier Guilbert : Originally, the main character in Straight was to be a 45-year old man, but the editor asked you to change and make him a younger character. Ever since, your stories have managed to keep their singularity. Is creative freedom an important aspect for you ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : I said that the fact that manga editors gave authors a lot of constraints could be a good thing, but for me, the editor has to understand what I want to do and help me in this process.
As you may know, with manga periodicals in Japan, readers are frequently polled to vote for their preferred series, and depending on this vote, series can be cancelled. Sometimes, some badly-ranked series are still published in collected volumes, but if the sales are not good, editors completely lose any interest in the author. There’s nothing to be done about it, but in the end, as all authors are trying to please the audience, the stories end up being very similar to each other. There is some kind of template to follow in order to keep the reader interested, which I absolutely do not subscribe to. If I were asked to write that type of manga, I would be incapable of it.
After 25 years in the industry, editors don’t give me as many constraints any more. It is now more important to me to be able to do things at my own pace, than to achieve commercial success. Before, I used to really hope that my books sold well, but at the same time I hated having rules to follow. It feels like back then I was always angry.
Xavier Guilbert : GoGo Monster was released directly as a bound volume, without being serialized in magazine. It is something rather rare in Japan, right ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : If I remember correctly, I went to Angoulême two years before the release of GoGo Monster. Bilal wasn’t attending the Festival, but I did meet Nicolas De Crécy, Mœbius, and Michelangelo Prado, an author I really like. Seeing the work they were doing, I really felt I was still clumsy, both art-wise and story-wise. They were very talented, and they had all the time in the world to produce their albums, while I had to churn out a chapter a week. There was no way for me to compete with them in this context. I wanted to write a manga that I would be completely satisfied with, but the Japanese system based on serialized series didn’t allow me to achieve this kind of goal. It is at this time that I started working with Mr. Hideki Egami, one of my editors. He supported me, while my then-Editor Mr. Hori was more circumspect about it. Overall, I spent almost three years working on GoGo Monster. Things were okay on the financial front, because I don’t spend much !
Egami Hideki (Matsumoto Taiyou’s editor) : In my job, you have to always keep in mind the fact that you are also dealing with readers who are buying the magazine for the first time, and discover an on-going series in the middle. But I wanted to get away from this way of doing ; and work not on a TV series, but on a feature film. And just as I was complaining about the lack of such projects, Matsumoto came to me with GoGo Monster.
Xavier Guilbert : Was it difficult to get back to the weekly format after that ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : Yes, especially regarding focus. Now, I’m working for a monthly. The delivery date for the pages is set in advance, and I know how much time I have to do my layout, pencils, ink, and so on. I stay more easily focused, because I know I don’t have any margin for error. But when you have all the time you want, it is very difficult to remain focused.
When I was working on GoGo Monster, I kept on coming back over and over to pages I had already finished, and I wasn’t able any more to tell whether they were good or not. I remember that after finishing the first 400 pages, I wanted to give up the whole thing. I wanted to correct so many things, there was no end to it. Bande dessinée authors are certainly used to this way of working, but for Japanese authors used to having set dates for their pages, and obliged to follow the editors’ comments, it is paradoxically very difficult to work with so much freedom.
After GoGo Monster came out, I had no intention of experiencing that again, and I didn’t want to work on this kind of long format (with 450 pages coming out at once). I’d like to work on color, and try to bring myself to the level of what is done in Europe. I could work on something about a hundred pages long, but that would take another three years… and moreover, it seems that even Nicolas De Crécy does not color his own comics any more.
Xavier Guilbert : How did you discover European bande dessinée ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : When I was twenty, I came to Paris to collaborate on a feature about the Paris-Dakar Rally. And as I had no interest at all in that, so I made the rounds of the bookstores and I discovered the Franco-Belgian bande dessinée of Bilal and Mœbius. I was so impressed that I even considered coming to live in France ! As I couldn’t read French and there was very little being translated, I was only interested in the art. Nowadays, Hara Masato is translating some De Crécy albums, for instance, and when I read them I realize just how complex the story and themes are.
Xavier Guilbert : I read somewhere that Garo had been specifically founded to publish Shirato Sampei, Com for Tezuka Osamu — and Ikki for you. (Egami Hideki nods vigorously in agreement)
Matsumoto Taiyou : This is the first time I’ve heard that : It’s so much pressure !
Xavier Guilbert : Could you compare your experiences at Big Comics and at Ikki ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : I was there at the very beginning of the magazine Ikki, creating Number Five. As generally Mr. Egami is the one selecting the authors, I had the feeling I was surrounded by manga-ka who shared the same ambitions as me. But at the same time, it was almost embarrassing, like a soccer team where everyone is playing midfield… I almost left !
At Big Spirits, I not only had the feeling people didn’t pay me much attention, but moreover, there was no author like me. It’s a magazine that’s very sales-oriented, and my aspirations were progressively becoming less and less compatible with their commercial objectives. They wanted to make entertainment. That’s something I fully respect, but I think that there are younger authors better suited to this than me. I’ve always created comics with my wife, and when we started working on Sunny many years ago, we thought that this series wouldn’t fit at Big Spirits. With with Mr. Egami, I can really go along my ideas. For Takemitsu Zamurai [The Bamboo Samurai], it was different, because Eifuku Issei (the writer) and I really wanted to make entertainment, and Spirits felt like a good choice for serialization.
Xavier Guilbert : You tackle very diverse types of stories (sports, science-fiction, historical drama) and your art has very much evolved, and yet your style remains immediately identifiable.
Matsumoto Taiyou : I don’t really know what creates this unity… For the stories, I always try to present characters whom I care for.
Xavier Guilbert : And yet, some characters really embody a dark side of your universe, such as Itachi in Black & White, the shadows creeping out at night in Number Five, the crows…
Matsumoto Taiyou : Indeed, I try and show both light and shadow at the same time. For me, the darkness is not something entirely negative, I don’t try to hide it.
Xavier Guilbert : I also feel that even in your most “realistic” series, you can’t help incorporate “grotesque” elements, such as the Matroshka, the character of Taro in Sunny, or Kikuchi in Takemitsu Zamurai.
Matsumoto Taiyou : I enjoy that. I loved drawing Kikuchi. The character of Taro is based on an actual person, but much more “normal”, someone who’s skinny and wears clothes like everybody. But I wanted to make him a more comical character from a visual point of view. I like drawing characters who stand up among the others, as if they were coming from a different universe.
Xavier Guilbert : Reading Ping Pong in particular, it shows that you enjoy action scenes…
Matsumoto Taiyou : That’s right, and I am rather good at it. It is very physical, drawing an action scene.
Xavier Guilbert : And yet, contrary to the classic shônen manga, who just keep on accumulating action scenes, your stories alternate between action and quieter, sometimes melancholic moments. In your manga, once the action scene is over, the reader is brought to consider the meaning of the fight he just witnessed and what will come out of it. In Number Five, each fight ended with the death of a character, and was therefore laden with meaning and emotion.
Matsumoto Taiyou : I think that if you satisfy yourself with drawing action scenes, you end up boring the reader. I consciously work on clearly spacing each fight, but this kind of rhythm comes to me naturally. In Ping Pong, I really took care in telling something else than an endless string on matches.
Xavier Guilbert : In Takemitsu Zamurai in particular, the main character keeps finding excuses to avoid fighting, as if you’re playing with the codes and expectations of the historical manga genre.
Matsumoto Taiyou : This has also to do with the fact that the writer is a friend of mine. I think he decided to purposefully limit the combat scenes. In samurai movies and manga, murder is never shown in a realistic way. There are so many deaths that after a while, the reader doesn’t feel the importance of the act. That was what we wanted to avoid. Kikuchi is a killer, but he rarely kills. I really like this manga, but it didn’t sell very well.
Xavier Guilbert : Your works feature numerous homages to Ishinomori Shoutarou, to the children’s book series Guri to Gura, or Doraemon… Are those books that were important to you in your childhood ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : Exactly. With Number Five, I wanted to make something fun, using references to all that I love : Ôtomo Katsuhiro, Mœbius, Cyborg 009… After September 11 2001, it felt like the whole world was feeling really down, and I wanted to do something light, a little stupid and innocent. But as I was writing it, I started thinking seriously about the concept of “peace”. At the time, people were saying that in order to achieve peace, you had to defend Good. But once you decide you stand for Good, that means that people who do not share your ideas are systematically identified as being on the side of Evil, and I couldn’t stand this way of schematizing things. The series started taking on a life of its own, and growing as if from snowball effect.
Xavier Guilbert : The book regularly features sequences that sum up the story so far, and I feel these are there as much for the reader as for the author himself. Was Number Five conceived as largely improvised ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : Yes, for most part. For example, I had read a critic who was writing about the band Spitz, and said : “It would be wonderful it the world could be in Spitz’ image.” Then I thought it was a nice quote, but thinking about it afterwards, I found it very unsettling. What if the whole world ended up looking like a single person ? At the beginning, I wanted to write something lighter, but after a while, I stopped thinking and I started writing instinctively. I knew how I wanted to finish the story, but I wrote without setting any milestones or objectives, like I had done for Ping Pong. I was very much influenced by the social climate at the time, and after a while I didn’t really know where I was, and I considering stopping altogether.
After the serialization in Ikki, my wife and I spent a lot of time going over the series, and we decided that never again we would write something in this manner.
Xavier Guilbert : You use a lot of symbols associated with your characters, and their names often become emblematic. That’s the case for Kuro (“black”) and Shiro (“white”) of Black & White, but also in Ping Pong with the two main characters as well as Dragon and Akuma [Demon]. Or similarly in Number Five, each “Number” has a Chinese character phonetically close to their associated number : Oh (1, “king”), Nin (2, “compassion”), San (3, “disaster”), Shi (4, “death”), and so on.
Matsumoto Taiyou : That’s true. For instance, for Tsukimoto in Ping Pong, “Tsuki” means “moon”, and he is a somewhat moody character. For Hoshino, “hoshi” means “star”, and he’s a character who shines, a real star, in fact. I choose the name of my characters so that their personality is easily understandable. There are other examples that are rather obvious for Japanese readers.
Xavier Guilbert : Does the name decide the personality of your characters, or do you simply chose those names in order to set them apart ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : A bit of both. Sometimes, I think of it from the beginning, sometimes it’s just for fun, without any conscious thought behind it. But that helps me remember how each of them is supposed to behave.
Xavier Guilbert : Blue Spring, Black & White and Ping Pong have all been made into movies. What do you think about those adaptations ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : I think I’ve been very lucky, because they are all good movies. This is not always the case with this kind of project. I’m always a little anxious during the preparation phase, but after that, even if people ask me for my opinion, I don’t say a word and I leave the directors do their job.
Xavier Guilbert : Music is very much present in Ping Pong and Blue Spring. Moreover, the artistic choices are spot-on with your universe, I think, especially with the band Thee Michelle Gun Elephant in Blue Spring.
Matsumoto Taiyou : For Ping Pong, the soundtrack is by the band Supercar. I consider myself very lucky on this aspect too.
But to be honest and to get back on the adaptations, there is a difference between the way the dialog is played by the actors, and the way I had envisioned when I was working on the manga. When I write, I always have in my head very precise intonations, and it’s only normal that there would be a difference with the acting. But when I watch a movie adaptation of one of my stories, it’s always unsettling. That doesn’t mean that my vision is the only acceptable one. I just think it’s the same for all the authors who have their manga made into movies. But you get used to it and end up siding with the actors.
When directors write entirely new scenes, as it was the case in Blue Spring, I don’t have any problem with it. But as soon as it’s a piece of dialog I have written myself, I just cannot watch the scene as any other spectator would. I think it is the same for other manga-ka. Some might say that they “really enjoyed” the movie adaptation of their manga, or to the contrary that they didn’t like it, but I think they are like me and that they just cannot watch it and be objective about it.
Xavier Guilbert : How much time do you spend researching and preparing for a new series before you actually sit down and start drawing ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : It really depends a lot. For Ping Pong, it took a lot of time because I didn’t know anything about this sport. I did a lot of interviews, read some books. Overall, I must have spent a year on it. For Sunny, this preparation period was really short, about six months. I really like spending a year researching, this is the most enjoyable moment. Once I’ve started laying out the first page, I get back to the constraints of work, the limited page number, the awkwardness of my line. But during the research phase, I’m completely free, I feel like I can draw better than anyone else… if I could, I would spend all my time doing just this.
Xavier Guilbert : Childhood is very present in your work. What memories do you have of your own childhood ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : My childhood was very similar to what I describe in Sunny. Contrary to Sunny, Black & White is a warped view of childhood. Kids who attack adults with steel pipes to rob them, that doesn’t exist. But in Sunny, I draw inspiration from things I have really lived. Black & White represents the world I used to dream of as a kid, Sunny is closer to reality. Reality being more… how do I say ? Bitter. I love all the characters from Sunny, but actually, there were kids with whom I didn’t get along, we cried more often at night, and the school buildings were dirtier… In some sense, Sunny retains some idealized elements, but this series is definitely closer to my childhood memories.
Xavier Guilbert : Childhood is a theme that is very present in all of your work, but you approach it in a different way, I think, in Sunny.
Matsumoto Taiyou : Be it in movies or manga, I think that when children are depicted from an adult point of view, they appear to be some sort of strange creatures, and I don’t really like that. Myself, I try to adopt an outlook on the same level as them. As I write with my wife, she usually handles female characters and attitudes. More so than I, she is the one who adjusts all the details. I also take inspiration from my nephew, who is always bouncing and yelling around… It is very difficult to be sure now, but I fear that with age, when I’ll turn sixty for instance, I might become too nostalgic when dealing with childhood. I had wanted to write this story for a long time, but I didn’t think I was up to it when I started. On the other hand, I didn’t want to let too much time pass, because I feared I would end up idealizing things. What I tell in this manga did really happen, and before starting to write, I first thought of the consequences that would have on them as well as on myself. I very nearly didn’t write this story.
Xavier Guilbert : In Sunny, the narrative often changes its point of view, going from character to character. Was this storytelling device something difficult to adopt ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : No, not really. At the beginning, I intended to focus on Junsuke. The other characters all have very different personalities, but it wasn’t difficult to put myself in their place.
Xavier Guilbert : Sunny is mostly a chronicle of the characters’ daily life, there is no competition involved.
Matsumoto Taiyou : Indeed, except for the day of the sport festival !
Xavier Guilbert : The story in Sunny seems at the same time to be both current and set in a recent past (about twenty years back), through subtle references.
Matsumoto Taiyou : I have a lot of affection for things of the past, and I often willingly introduce anachronistic elements in my stories. For instance, in GoGo Monster, you can see at a moment a black rotary telephone, even if at the time nobody was using those any more. I like these kind of slightly-ancient objects. Thinking about it, I don’t think I have ever drawn a cell phone in my manga series. The same goes for flat-screen televisions, I think I’ll have to get used to them before I can draw one. I don’t really like drawing objects that are too recent, I enjoy more and feel much more at ease drawing older objects. When I draw something old, it works better from a visual point of view.
Xavier Guilbert : The third volume of Sunny had just come out in Japan, how much longer do you think the series will be ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : I am currently working on the last chapter of the fourth volume. I think the story will be done at six volumes, but there is nothing set there. There are certain chapters that I would like to write, but sometimes it’s difficult to tie them together. I then have to write transition chapters, and as a result the series becomes longer than expected.
Xavier Guilbert : Writers often tell of how their characters end up escaping their control — has it happened for you ?
Matsumoto Taiyou : Oh yes, very often. For instance, in Ping Pong, especially with Sakuma. I never had intended him to become so cool ! But this isn’t really the case with Sunny, as the narrative deals with me personally, and I even appear in it from time to time.
[Interview conducted on May 9 2013, during the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Translated from the Japanese by Aurélien Estager, English proofreading and corrections by Christopher Butcher.]
- This short series (two volumes) published in 1987 has not been reprinted since, at the request of Matsumoto Taiyou himself.
- The Japanese have a particular affection towards this moment in life between the teenage and adult years (called seishun), when everything is still possible. As for the cherry blossoms, it is mainly its ephemeral and fragile aspect that elicits fascination. Note that the title of the short story collection Blue Spring (Aoi Haru in Japanese) by Matsumoto Taiyou is a play on words, using a different reading of the characters used to write seishun.