Immediately recognizable with her sexy dolls straight out of a Powerpuff Girls episode with a Russ Meyer-makeover, Mizuno Junko has steadily build, if not a career, at least a reputation — so much that when she attended the 2005 edition of the Angouleme Festival, animation magazine Animeland introduced her as the “morbid pin-up of underground manga”.
But beyond the morbid aspects of her work, it is the woman’s representation and her place in society that lies at the center of her books. A dive in a rose-tinted universe — under acid.
Xavier Guilbert : Be it in your style or your themes, you are really a unique artist — far from the usual manga female productions. How can you explain this ?
Mizuno Junko : I get this question a lot, and it’s difficult to answer. In fact, I only put out on the page what I have in me, what I want to do, very naturally. So when people ask me how I do it — what do they mean ?
XG : You debuted with Pure Trance, which was published by Avex…
MJ : It fact, it was in CDs, in the little booklets that you can find in CDs.
XG : How much freedom did you have on the story ? Because it’s a rather long narrative, but built up from little instalments.
MJ : Pure Trance was really my first attempt at a series of short sequences — in fact, initially I had only been asked to do illustrations for CD covers. But it seems that among the fans there were a lot of manga readers, and all of a sudden, it became “hey, let’s make a manga”.
There was no plan really, no visibility, I didn’t know how many episodes there would be, or when it would stop. So it’s a story I built with a lot of searching around. (laugh) But until then, I had only done short stories, so it was interesting to see how I could handle a longer narrative. And even if it was short sequence by short sequence, I was hoping it would turn out to build something long.
XG : You come from an illustration background, and compared to other manga-ka, you have a rather modest output — seven books so far.
MJ : No … (she counts mentally) Ten.
XG : Ten ? Oh, sorry.
MJ : (laughs)
XG : Between illustration and manga, what is your preferred field ?
MJ : That’s a question I get asked a lot, but for me both are on the same level. When I was a child, I wanted to be a manga-ka. Around me, everybody was drawing manga, my friends were doing it. And I used to believe that manga-ka was the only job where you drew, so I wanted to be a manga-ka.
But when I turned twelve or thirteen, I realized there were other jobs than manga, with arts, photography, movies. I stayed with graphic arts, but for me, none is more important than the other, they are on the same level.
XG : Since you’ve always wanted to be a manga-ka, which manga-ka influenced you the most ?
MJ : When I was a kid, I used to read what all kids read …
XG : Like Doraemon ?
MJ : Yes, Doraemon. And of course shôjo manga. But, how to say ? Not the school romance stories, shôjo manga with a more action twist. With fighting girls …
XG : Like Ribon no Kishi ?
MJ : Ribon no Kishi, it’s a little old. (laugh) Rather things of my time, like Majôko Megu-chan — a bit like Sailor Moon or Cutie Honey, with strong girls using magic to fight. This is the type of story that I liked.
XG : What are the manga-ka you feel close to today ?
MJ : Recently, I haven’t been reading a lot of manga. But there’s Shiriagari Kotobuki, I think he has a very unique and personal approach to manga.
XG : Which Shiriagari Kotobuki ? The one from Yaji-Kita, the one from Kosomori Sensei, the one from Hako-bune ?
MJ : In fact, Yaji-Kita is undoubtly the work that resembles something I would like to do, with its reinterpretation. (laugh)
XG : That’s interesting, because his style is radically different from yours, with the “heta-uma” approach …
MJ : That might be true of the graphical approach, but I really have the impression that when it comes to the stories, there’s a closeness.
XG : For the books that followed Pure Trance — Cinderalla-chan, Hanzel to Gretel and Ningyô Himeden — you didn’t have a say in the choice of the stories. What kind of experience was it ?
MJ : In fact, then, the staff wasn’t really competent. There was no person really dedicated to manga, and on my side I had no other work at that time. But I was faced with people who understood nothing. And as they didn’t know anything, besides asking me to do a manga on a given theme, they were not capable of advising me on anything. I ended up having to decide on everything. So in that sense, there was some freedom.
I went through three different managers. They didn’t know anything, but they frequently pushed me to finish quickly — they had no idea about how difficult it could be to drawn a manga, or even to pay me correctly. I could hardly get by with my reent.
XG : Those three books are in color, which is rare for Japan. Was that interesting to work like that, or was it yet another constraint ?
MJ : (laugh) It was really hard. Color was another ideo of the manager, and of course he had no idea if was another difficulty to deal with. I really hated him, and there were a lot of heated arguments. But regarding the books, I did my best, and in this regard, it was a good experience. And I’m glad I did them.
XG : And regarding the end result ?
MJ : The result … I did them in a rush, so there are parts that could have been done better. But that was a really good experience, and as I got back all the publishing rights, I can manage myself the foreign editions, and that’s great. But those were really hard to create.
XG : When you say “in a rush”, how much precisely ?
MJ : For a book ? Let’s see, for Cinderalla, about half a year.
XG : For everything ? You didn’t have an assistant ?
MJ : For everything. All by myself. (laugh)
XG : Is that something you’d wish for, to have assistants ?
MJ : I’m not used to it … As I lay out the sketches and then I draw by myself, I wouldn’t know how to say “draw me this” to someone else. If I had an assistant, it would be for house cleaning … (laughs) … or cooking …
XG : Anything but manga then.
MJ : Yes, that’s right. (laughs)
XG : When you started working on Fancy Gigolo Peru, how much did you lay out in preparation ?
MJ : I had decided on the general outline of the story, but I didn’t exactly know how long it would be. Comparing with other people’s books, I had a general idea. I had written down a storyboard for the first three or four chapters, and after that I had precise ideas about sequences and characters. And then, it shaped out month after month.
XG : How many pages per month were you producing ?
MJ : Per month, sixteen pages. But for the next one, it will probably be twelve. (laugh)
XG : It was hard to maintain that pace ?
MJ : It was really hard. But it was my first time being published in a manga magazine, before it was in fashion magazines, and I had a bit of a complex. The feeling that I wasn’t rightly a manga-ka. But with a monthly series, I built up confidence. And then I had the opportunity to attend conventions overseas, and meet some fans. While in Japan, it’s rather rare — and it would be nice to have more opportunities.
With monthly pages, you have to maintain a certain quality level, and I think that there are a lot of manga-ka who just give up. Moreover, it seem that sales of manga magazines are going down. It would be nice to have other outlets that would allow for a more flexible pace…
XG : Fancy Gigolo Peru is three volumes long, it’s your longest story so far. But in fact, it’s build up of shorter stories within an overarching narration. How did you get the idea for Peru ?
MJ : Peru … I don’t remember precisely. (laugh) In fact, my main characters had always been women, and I thought it would be interesting to have a main character that wouldn’t be female.
XG : Even though women are prominently featured in the story.
MJ : That’s right. (laugh) The stories that I had worked on at that point had been either traditional tales, or Pure Trance that is set in fantasy, in a mix of the futuristic and the Shôwa-era Japan — how to say ? I wanted to do something more normal, something that would be a complete change.
XG : Peru is not a tale, as it is an original story, but there’s still the rhyme that serves as a conclusion to each sequence. And there’s also your universe, which remains rooted in fantasy.
MJ : Yes. But when you look at music or manga that are in fashion, reading them with some distance, they lose most of their interest. I prefer things that would me more atemporal, but which retain their interest, and I would like to write a manga like that. Not something that would be hip, but something that you can read ten years from now and still find interesting.
XG : What was the feedback from the readers ?
MJ : It seems that only the people who enjoy my work buy my books, so overall I nearly didn’t have any bad returns. People who don’t like my work don’t buy my books, and therefore they don’t give any feedback.
XG : So only positive ?
MJ : Mostly.
XG : Even overseas ?
MJ : On my website, I had a forum, and from time to time, there were some aggresive comments, but very few.
XG : That’s to be expected online, this kind of behavior.
MJ : Yes, but I still expected them to be more numerous.
XG : There are a certain number of recurring themes in your book. The most obvious is the one dealing with food — with two aspects, on one hand food linked to bulimy, with a rather negative value ; and on the other hand, food as a source of resurrection, such as in Peru, when a catatonic mother comes back to life by eating a sausage made of her children. So an ambivalent relation towards food …
MJ : It’s not limited to food, everything has a positive and a negative aspect. It’s a theme in my manga, it’s also more simply my way of thinking. Something can bring happiness to someone, but there’s inevitably someone else for whom it brings sadness. And this, we should — not ignore it.
It means that even when I’m drawing a very sad scene, I introduce funny elements, it comes naturally to me. When I watch a movie that tells a sad story, I often get the impression they are pushing it too much. I prefer the way documentaries deal with showing misery, without automatically aiming at making people cry or touching them, but rather showing good things and bad things altogether.
XG : A theme that is very present in Peru has to do with human relations, with a progression along the three books. In the first volume, Peru is generally the “third man” in an ailing relationship, and will often unvoluntarily help it to take off again ; in the second volume, to the contrary, he finds himself involved in unsettling and dangerous relationships.
The man-woman relations are often shown in a negative light, but that’s also the case with relations among women, among sisters. Is there a message you want to give there ?
MJ : There is really no message, it’s simply based on my personal experience. When I was a child, I was the type of girls that boys hate, and often girls would step in to save me. So my relations with girls were rather good, while with boys — but then again, a girl who’s drawing manga all the time, it’s rather strange, don’t you think ? (laugh) So I have some bad memories about it, and that probably comes through in an unconscious way.
But today, I have a lot of male friends and … and there’s probably not a message there.
XG : Still, in Ningyô Himeden, the opposition between men and women is rather clearly expressed. And there’s the same theme in the first volume of Peru, where men are described negatively : haughty, neglecting women or discarding them like used clothes…
MJ : In Japan, today still, men use to judge very strictly women who are not pretty. I used to have a bad image of men, and even if deep inside of me I’d really like to think otherwise, that undoubtly comes out.
XG : There’s also this exhortation for women to fight…
MJ : I don’t think so, but … (laughs)
XG : Your female characters display a lot of strength though.
MJ : I think I wished I was like them, and I do like a lot women who fight for themselves. But not just women, anything that displays resilience — some animals, for instance … for instance, I really like the image of a very cute cat, that brings back a mouse he caught. It in this frame of mind that I like to drawn my female characters. But then again, it’s not to say “everybody, become like that”. (laughs)
XG : Family relationships — especially with the father or the mother — come back often. With the tales, it was preexisting, but that comes back also in Peru with the father of the butcher shop. Is that again an echo of your personal experience ?
MJ : When I try and write a story, there are things that come out naturally and I drawn them without changing anything. So yes, there might be a lot of personal elements in my books. But I must confess I never wonder why. (laugh)
More than putting out a message, I try to share my experience. But more generally, I’d like people to read my books with the same pleasure I create them. And I don’t try to analyze too much what I do, I draw what seems interesting to me.
XG : Regarding the art, there’s a very sensual and sexy aspect to it — something that is rather rare in the non-pornographic manga production. In this case to, it’s something that appeals to you ?
MJ : At home with my parents, we weren’t very open regarding those things. So yes, I think sexy things do appeal to me.
XG : It’s very present in your manga.
MJ : Especially since I like to draw nudes. But I think there are a lot of women who drawn pin-ups, when we discuss together and wonder why, the answer is nearly always “because we like it”. Myself, I don’t really know.
Among men who drawn male nudes, there are a lot of gay men. But for women, without necessarily being gay, there are a lot of women who like drawing sexy women, pin-ups. Why, I don’t know. But with fashion, make-up, hairdressing, there are a lot of possible reasons…
XG : Nudity is very present in your books, and moreover, very openly sexual poses.
MJ : (laughs) Yes, but I like that. I’ve always liked the pin-ups in Playboy.
[Note: during the very relaxed chat that followed this interview, I mentionned the sado-masochistic set-ups that are prominently featured in Pure Trance, and Mizuno Junko mentioned without hesitation the works of Eric Stanton as an influence and a source for inspiration.]
XG : We were discussing the position of women in the Japanese society, wouldn’t the pin-ups from Playboy represent a way to break away from it ? By displaying their sexuality, their strength ?
MJ : There are different ways to understand “strength”. There are women who feign listening to what men are telling them, but are in fact completely in control. And those women do display strength, in my opinion.
But for the girls who pose nude to bring money home, and there are a lot of them… they have a lot of pride. Models… for me, it’s a carrier that is completely closed to me, of course, but I think it’s great, that they are beautiful.
Japanese magazine ofen show women in submissive situations, ashamed of being nude — I hate that with a passion. While in Playboy…
XG : Women are more in control of the situation ? Compared to Japan, where they show more timidity …
MJ : True, but there is a lot of women who fake timidity, because men like it. Which makes it all the more difficult to know which women are displaying strength.
XG : Among your recurring themes, there’s also the idea of Paradise Lost. Peru is built around this idea, up until the rather pessimistic conclusion.
MJ : There’s no message there, but rather the desire to speak about things that are happening in the real world, where people don’t think they are doing anything wrong, but are still destroying the planet. I can’t ignore that. I’ve always found simplistic stories where the bad guys die and the good guys just live on. Makes me angry.
XG : Peru was published in Comic Beam — how was this experience ?
MJ : I really like Comic Beam, it’s a magazine that manages to avoid being mainstream while not being completely underground, there are a lot of different manga in there. Compared to the other publishers I’ve worked for, there’s no doubt, they are manga professionnals. It was really nice. My manager left me a lot of freedom, all the while being understanding, it was really great and I’m looking forward to working with them again.
XG : What are your projects now ?
MJ : I’ve got a lot of them. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity for an exhibition in an art gallery. There are a lot of things I would like to try. I want to start another series in Comic Beams, and there are also the new toys. So really, lots of projets.
XG : Manga-wise, nothing more precise ?
MJ : I’ve only started to work on the preparation of my next series, and I’m also rather busy with those other projets. I’m not like the other manga-ka, who can produce really quickly. I also have this project of another illustration book, and I like that idea a lot.
(Interview made during Japan Expo in Paris, on July 7, 2007)
- The reason for this apparent discrepency comes from the fact that I was counting only her manga books (Pure Trance, Cinderalla-chan, Henzel & Gretel, Ningyô Himeden and three volumes of Fancy Gigolo Peru), while Mizuno Junko was adding to the count her three illustration collections (Hell Babies, Fireworks and Yonjôhan Yôsei Zukan).