With six volumes of the no-holds-barred Bambi, Kaneko Atsushi indeniably established himself as one of the foremost punk artists. Obviously unwilling to get back in the fray, he followed up with SOIL, a story built on atmosphere and mystery. Encounter with a manga-ka on the fringe.
Xavier Guilbert : Obviously, your drawing style is always what strikes first. It is really unique among Japanese comics, and a lot of American influences show in the line work. It reminds me of the works of Charles Burns or Coop …
Kaneko Atsushi : I’ve always listened to Prog-Rock or Punk. Et there’s a specific visual tradition attached to those — posters, CD jackets, all those illustrations belong to Prog-Art. When I started drawing manga, of course, I wondered what style I should use. And as I wasn’t a fan of “normal” manga, I put in there what I liked.
XG : Didn’t this difference hinder you when you debuted ?
KA : Not really. When I debuted … of course, it took quite a long time, but strangely, it was more because of the stories. How to put that ? I had a lot of stories with a morale in the end, and that was what the publishers were reluctant about.
XG : So it wasn’t the art, but your narrative choices ?
KA : Yes.
XG : Wasn’t it difficult to bring publishers something that wasn’t in the usual format ?
KA : Not really. In fact, my first books have been published by Enterbrain, and they are a very flexible publisher, and my editorial manager was really open. As long as I was producing something different and interesting, he listened to me and I never had any problem.
XG : That’s great.
KA : Yes, it’s really an ideal situation.
XG : To get back to your books — besides the art, there’s also a lot of American references, be it to music or horror movies.
KA : Indeed, I try to put what I like … especially in Bambi, where I’ve put all of my hobbies, I’ve drawn it that way. With all my interests.
And for the visual aspect, I’ve always been driven by the will to play with this story. Like for the huge Gabba King, or the guy who puts on a pig’s head — how to put it ? It was a scene I wanted to play. And little by little, this kind of things have crept into Bambi‘s universe, and it’s been built with the things that I like.
XG : That’s true, and even if there are some elements in your previous books, it seems that Bambi is a special book in this regard…
KA : Yes, but not only. With Bambi, my readership started growing. And with those new readers, things started to move — people sending me CDS, and there was a Live Arts Event in which Bambi was featured, and it was the first time I was feeling the possibility of being at the center of something, and I’ve tried to put that dynamism in the story.
XG : Indeed, Bambi is a really free-flowing story. Did you have any problem with specific scenes or topics, that you had to rework ?
KA : I’m probably very lucky, but my publisher has always been very understanding, and apart from deadline reminders, I’ve never had any remark on the content of my stories.
XG : That freedom, is it because you’re working for a smallish publisher ?
KA : That’s for sure. There are some works that larger publishers couldn’t put out.
XG : The “punk attitude” is very tangible in Bambi. That reminds me of Inoue Santa’s work and his hip-hop sensibility. But reading what he’s been doing, there’s the question of his capability of doing something else than Tokyo Tribe. While in your case, after finishing Bambi, you started SOIL that is almost entirely devoid of this “punk attitude”…
KA : In a way, Bambi is garage punk, while SOIL is alternative — from a musical standpoint, something akin to noisy industrial. (smile) I have many interests, and I try to use them to produce different things.
XG : I also get the impression that, since your debut, there has been an evolution not only in your themes, but also in the narrative structure. A lot of short stories at first, then Bambi, which starts off as a “road-manga” with shorts sequences, but becomes more structured along the way with the introduction of the three killers, to culminate with SOIL where the story structure is essential, since there’s a mystery on which everything relies. This progression, is it because you built up self-confidence, or is that from a desire to tackle more complex stories ?
KA : When I started drawing, I had an idea of how to do it. For Bambi, even if it looks very different on the surface, I wanted to use techniques from “deeply manga” manga — there’s a main character, things happen to her, and the story follows that. And using all the dynamism from manga, for the atmosphere, the reactions, that I could use freely.
But while Bambi was very free-form in its construction, on the opposite, for SOIL I wanted to create a story where everything was decided from the beginning. Among the stories that rely on a mystery, those where the enigma holds up are the most interesting, and I wondered if I would be able to create such a story. But to do that, it required preparation, and when I finished Bambi, I took about half a year to write down the scenario, and only then I started drawing SOIL.
That being said, before SOIL, I never had that freedom. How to put it ? I had always had the drive to go further, again and again.
XG : So for SOIL, the conclusion is already decided ?
KA : That’s right.
XG : Five volumes have been published so far, how many for the complete story ?
KA : Most likely seven. With Bambi, I was always looking for places to take the story, and I was worried to see if it could work. While with SOIL, it’s far more relaxed, I only have to drawn and stick to what has already been decided.
XG : In SOIL, I have the impression that the drawing is a little looser, there are little hints in the line work, as if to balance the story where everything is set. There is a distinctive pleasure from drawing that can be felt, do you have the impression you’ve reached some sort of mastery ?
KA : Oh no, absolutely not ! (laugh) When I look back on something I’ve drawn, be it for Bambi of for SOIL, I’m always a little disappointed, and I have this urge to correct my mistakes. But well, I still hope I’m progressing as books go by …
XG : There is another rupture between Bambi and SOIL. On one hand, Bambi shows a fantasy Japan, deeply transformed by American influences, while on the other hand, SOIL is set in a nearly realistic Japan…
KA : That’s not something I was specifically looking for. But for Bambi, I didn’t have a set narrative, I was improvising. For SOIL, story and characters are already well defined, and that allows me to put in more details, and then it’s easier to be more realistic.
XG : What were your sources for inspiration for SOIL ? I find it rather close to the universe of David Lynch, with the irruption of otherworldly forces, and a very specific atmosphere …
KA : How to put it ? … At the start, I had this idea of relics. With the idea that the first relics had something to do with sex — with a magical dimension. And starting from there, I started building my story. But it was only a starting point, and little by little it grew to encompass broader topics. And the relics ended up being at the center of the key situations.
XG : We’ve made a point that Bambi looks like no other manga, and even if it’s about a more realistic Japan, SOIL is also very much aside from the Japanese tradition of horror manga. In fact, there’s almost no manga-ka that could be likened to you. Is that something you miss ?
KA : In fact, not at all. If my books are different, it’s because I almost don’t read Japanese manga, I don’t know anything about them. Therefore, it’s normal there’s no similarity.
XG : You draw what you like, then.
KA : Yes. To be completely honest, there are very few manga-ka which work I’m interested in. Even if there are many manga-ka among my friends. (laughs)
XG : Considering that your style is not Japanese, you’ve never been tempted to do something with the US or Europe, collaborations ?
KA : Actually, no, but … I’ve directed a film, recently. In fact, it was a short, in a collective …
XG : Yes, with four directors, right ?
KA : Yes. What interests me in movies, it’s the mixing of creativities. But regarding manga, I’ve always worked alone, choosing to do what I liked, without anybody else bringing in his vision.
XG : You’re used to working alone, and therefore a collaboration …
KA : … doesn’t interest me much, no. There’s a lot of chances it gets on my nerves, in fact. (laugh)
XG : You’ve always wanted to do manga ?
KA : Yes, I’ve always wanted to, but when I started, in fact I would have preferred to do movies. But well, I didn’t have the opportunity to. (laugh) And little by little, the desire to do movies has disappeared, and that when I eventually had the opportunity to. At first, I wasn’t really interested — but that was an old dream, and I was sort of compelled to. (laugh) And I finally set up to do it.
XG : Was your experience drawing manga — how long has it been, not yet twenty years ?
KA : No, not yet… but fifteen already.
XG : So was this fifteen-year manga-ka experience helpful in your directing debut ? Regarding the narration, or the scene construction ?
KA : Initially, I thought that manga and film worked basically in similar ways, as you combine pictures and text. And that’s why I wanted to become director. When that happened, I decided to go at it as I would do for a manga, by drawing a scene-by-scene storyboard. And I used that to explain what I wanted.
XG : To share your vision …
KA : Exactly. I knew I could do it as a manga, as I had been doing with my books, and then I used that for the movie.
XG : What are your projects when SOIL is done ?
KA : Erm … after SOIL, I’d like to direct another movie.
XG : A full-length one ?
KA : Yes, a full-length movie this time. Regarding manga — I have nothing yet, because I still have a lot of work on SOIL. But it will certainly be like when I finished Bambi and set out to work on SOIL — I’ll try again to surprise my readers.
(Interview conducted in Angoulême, on January 27, 2007)
- The collections Atomic ?, R and the trilogy B.Q. The Mouse/Fly/Roach Book, all published by Beam Comix excepted R, published by Shôdensha.
- The short is Mushi, one of four Edogawa Rampou short stories adapted for the big screen in the movie Rampou Jigoku (“Rampou’s Hell”), released in Japan in November 2005.