Resolutely atypical, Tori Miki is about to celebrate in 2009 thirty years of career in manga. After debuting in Shônen Champion (and receiving its 12th Award for New Talent), he has kept on building a body of work that now counts over sixty volumes, sending his strange impassive characters from science-fiction to nonsensical stories — between off-kilter humor and sweet-sad reveries…
Xavier Guilbert : Looking at the list of your works, I was very surprised to see that you started publishing in the very mainstream Shônen Champion, but that you also have books at Seirindô, and that you also wrote the script for the Patlabor 3 animated movie. How did you end up working in so many different domains ?
Tori Miki : I’ve always loved manga, without being exclusive to a specific genre or style, either as a reader or a fan. In fact, what I like in manga is its capability of tackling any genre. Therefore, having no predilection genre in manga, when it became a job I wanted to try very different things. Even if that might come out as being a little greedy.
Yet, from the publishers’ point of view, if you publish in a magazine, you are stuck with a certain type of manga. Meaning that if you want to try out something else, often it’s difficult, especially when you have a strong-selling series. They make you understand that you shouldn’t be trying to look elsewhere. In my personal case, even if I never had a series that got axed down, sometimes my assignments turned out shorter than expected. And having some free time, I thought it was the opportunity to write something that I really liked. And as there where no reasons to set myself any kind of constraint, I was able to try different genres, from more serious stories, shônen-type adventures, or even more experimental stuff.
XG : So the fact of not having had a best-seller gave you this kind of freedom ?
TM : Probably. But even though, I don’t think there is a lot of writer with that frame of mind. How can I put it ? I’ve worked for Shûeisha, Kôdansha, Shôgakkan, Akita Shôten as well as for Seirindô, it’s very unusual for a manga-ka. You can think it’s rare from an outsider point of view, but it is also seen from Japan.
XG : There are a lot of parody sequences in Heebie-Jeebie, be it Ozu’s movies, classic manga like Kyôjin no Hoshi, Golgo 13 or even Hebi Onna by Umezu Kazuo.
TM : Yes, it’s loaded with them.
XG : Is it a way for you to try genres you’re attracted to ? ?
TM : Absolutely. I’ve included works I like as a reader, but not limiting myself to those. Of course, some manga are easy to poke fun at — Kyôjin no Hoshi or Golgo 13 are interesting, but they have this very identifiable style that is very easy to ridicule. And indeed, there have been a lot of writers who have parodied them.
Regarding Heebie-Jeebie, it is a book I started working on right after having published in SHônen Champion, and I wanted to do all that I couldn’t in a shônen publication. That’s why I chose to do a series of short stories. The sames goes for the gags, which are very referential to the manga culture, and which I didn’t attempt to make the accessible to a broader audience. This is a book where I indulged myself. But I don’t think it would have been of a sufficient level for a normal magazine.
XG : Between Shônen Champion and the style you use in Tôku e ikitai, which has to do with gag-manga, what was your evolution ?
TM : In the works I had published before in Shônen Champion, even if those stories were targeted at a shônen audience, I tried regularly to introduce some more referential gags. And in a certain way, the seeds of Tôku e ikitai were already present in the pages of Shônen Champion. Of course, it was more difficult with kids and I didn’t get a lot of feedback on it, but after the Shônen Champion experience, I decided to do something focused solely on the fan aspects, and that turned out to be Heebie-Jeebie.
Though when it was done, even if it was a book that pleased manga-maniacs, I agree it was nearly incomprehensible for a normal reader. That made me think, and this led me to write Tôku e ikitai. Even if there are some formal experiences, I try to stick to more accessibles themes. For instance, references to ancient Japan — be it classic manga or old movies, that if you haven’t heard about them, the gag makes no sense, I’ve stopped doing this. To the contrary, weird people doing weird things, strange coincidences or unusual situations, those were the directions I preferred to explore.
Moreover, as those are silent gags, they become more difficult to get, and any aspect that is a little too referential can make the whole thing indecipherable. I took a particular care about that, and Tôku e ikitai tries to steer away from that.
XG : Even though, there are a certain number of pages in Tôku e ikitai that left me scratching my head…
TM : It’s something I’ve heard of in France but also in Japan. (laugh) It happens to me too, when I pick up my pages after some time, I wonder : “But what was it that I thought was funny in there ?” (laughs) But I don’t worry too much about it, it might have been funny at the time. Maybe.
But generally, when people ask me what I meant, most of the time I have an explanation ready. Sometimes, some people just don’t get it, and then others see things differently and end up finding humor in a way I hadn’t expected. People are different, they react differently, and it’s not a problem for me. That’s the way I intended Tôku e ikitai — and it’s not really important if the people get what I intended, or if they understand things differently but still think it’s funny.
XG : By the way, Tôku e ikitai was serialized in TV Bros. — it’s a weekly ?
TM : A bi-weekly, it comes out every other week.
XG : Is that publication pace also a source of freedom for you ? Being able to take your time ?
TM : Indeed a page every other week gives you the impression you can take your time. But in reality, I end up getting to work just the last two days before my deadline. (laugh) The time I spend drawing doesn’t change much, it’s more for the reader that things change compared to the more usual manga fare.
When you look at people reading manga on the train for instance, you can see that when there is dialog on a page, they read them, but when a page is without text, they just breeze through it. And yet, the author’s intention is just the opposite : if there’s a page without text, it’s because the attention should be given to the art. And this is where the problem lies, people think they are reading a manga, but in fact they are mostly reading the dialog.
This had me thinking that manga was losing part of its interest, and I wanted to produce something that would encourage people to spend more time reading text-less pages. And the solution I found was to do something entirely text-free, from the start. With the added challenge of managing to still be interesting and fun.
Of course, there is a lot of people who, commuting in the morning, don’t really want to use their head. In a certain way, they want a “comfort read”. And this is a page that requires a little effort from them. Obviously, some people are put off by this, and there is no way this manga can appeal to them. But in my opinion, the most interesting part in this approach is encouraging people to question what they are reading. That’s what I like the most in this work.
XG : Indeed, it is very different. From a formal point of view, you move away from the usual yon-koma manga towards a … kyû-koma ? And as there is no text, things are a little bit more difficult to figure out. But that’s part of the challenge for you, right ?
TM : Absolutely.
XG : Challenge is also very present in Heebie-Jeebie, with the structure that uses the “iroha” progression. Is this an appealing aspect for you ?
TM : Yes, I like that. In particular for short stories collections, it’s not sufficient for me that they only be funny in themselves. What I try to achieve, is that when they get published in collections, references and connections become apparent. Some sequences might not seem related to the rest at first, but when you read them in the context of the collection, you understand why they are there. I’m interested in all things related to structure. In fact, I love trying things that haven’t been done before.
XG : Is this yearning for diversity a long-standing motivation for you ?
TM : It has always been, yes. When I started drawing the first years, it was in Shônen Champion. But after that, I started sorting things, and I chose my own constraints myself — no more the constraints of the magazine, but my own. For Tôku e ikitai, if was text-less gags, with the systematic 9-panel grid — and once I had decided on those constraints, I started working. For others, it was refraining from using screentone nor ruler, and draw everything free hand all by myself, without any assistant. I decide on constraints before starting a new project, and then I begin to write.
XG : And how do you choose your constraints ?
TM : First, by trying to do something that has never been done before. And then … depending on the story I want to tell, I look for what would be the most efficient way. In the past, people used pens or brushes to draw. Now you can use screentones, and with the computer you can do practically anything. There are so many possible choices that you could get lost. I prefer deciding before starting a project, that allows me to focus on the direction I want to go.
XG : You still enjoy writing manga ?
TM : Oh yes, really. (laugh) It’s still the same pleasure of exploring new directions and discovering new things.
XG : Is this a way for you to express your originality ?
TM : (hesitating) How to put it ? It is probably not a conscious thing. What is important, is that the reader keeps on enjoying reading, a gag manga has to be funny. If it becomes too experimental to the point it’s not funny anymore, it’s meaningless.
XG : Even if you dare tackling very experimental projects, are there some topics or stories that you would like to try, but that you know they are beyond your skills ?
TM : Yes, of course. There are some stories I would like to try, but sometimes I know a manga-ka that would be just right for this or that story, and even if I could manage to produce something interesting, that would be far much better if it was him.
When I made my debut in Champion, I didn’t have much experience and I wasn’t too good, and therefore there were a lot of interesting projects that I couldn’t tackle. For some of the more serious topics, for instance, my art at the time would have made them ridiculous. But five years later, I did write my first serious story. That was a question of adaptation the stories I wanted to tell to what my skills could achieve. And I’ve always waited for my technique to improve.
XG : And are you satisfied with your current level ?
TM : Hmm. Not yet, not yet. There are still plenty of things I cannot do. That’s a reason for keeping on writing, I suppose. The day I’ll be satisfied with my technique, I’ll probably stop writing manga.
XG : One of your short stories, “Reizôkô Ningen Daiichigo”, reminded me of Kago Shintarô’s work, in the ero-guro genre. In this approach of taking a weird idea, and pushing it towards its conclusion. And that’s something I have seen in other parts of your works.
TM : What other sequences, for instance ?
XG : Well, like in the story of the Hebi Onna, with the transposition of thie character in a mundane environment, imagining what would then happen..
TM : Taking a strange situation, and having it evolved in a natural way, right ? Yes, that’s something I really like doing. When you take the idea of a housewife that would be the Hebi Onna, or of a girlfriend turning into a fridge, you can use it to surprise, make laugh or cry. But what I like, is taking this as a starting point, and then think of the kind of strange things that could happen. As for the Hebi Onna who hibernates when it’s cold, or who gets called out in the street to catch mice… but as all the people in the neighborhood know she is the Hebi Onna, they take those things as granted.
And I find this off-kilter approach funny : in a normal setting, introducing strange elements that bring surprise, and end up twisting the setting itself. Usually, gag manga work differently : strange things happen, and it’s the reaction of the characters to those events that are funny. To the contrary, my approach it to try and have the reader react — there are very few characters in my manga who act amazed or even react.
XG : So in a way, that would be the opposite of manzai ?
TM : Exactly. I try and do manzai in reverse. There are some comedians who do this kind of thing, but you don’t see them much on television. (laugh)
XG : Moving to another aspect of your production — what is your approach of science-fiction ? You are yourself a fan of manga, and of Azuma Hideo in particular…
TM : In fact, the way I approach science-fiction is very similar to the way I approach gag manga, but there are some particularities. To begin with, and that’s what sets them apart from classic story-manga, it’s space travel and robots. But what I found interesting in the science-fiction stories I had read, was that I had the impression that they managed to free themselves from the usual rules. That’s something that Azuma Hideo often used to do.
I also love the more ancient science-fiction manga, I find them more interesting than those that are set in worlds very different from ours. But no only for experimentation’s sake, as Azuma Hideo did it to make the reader laugh. His stories might well be serious, there are also many gags.
And as this is the kind of manag I like, I think there are a lot of my own science-fiction manga that I tackled in this way. All the while referencing more classic authors.
XG : What did you think of your work on the script for WXIII : Patlabor the Movie 3 ? How did it go ?
TM : In a certain way, I worked on it using the same approach we just talked about. Yet, as Kidô Keisatsu Patlabor is not my creation, I didn’t have the same liberty of doing whatever I wanted. The previous writers are famous, and I couldn’t allow myself to destroy the universe they had built so far, but rather prolong it.
But that wasn’t a problem, as the people who had contacted me had done so because they wanted me to propose something different from the previous Patlabor by Oshii Mamoru and Itoh Kazunori. I then set out to work on a story that would suit my own taste.
XG : That being said, Patlabor is not really your normal science-fiction fare… There are giant robots, but in the end it’s mainly about fairly mundane police stories, with some particularly boring days and very little opportunities for action. It’s rather unique.
TM : Exactly. Yûki Masami, who wrote the manga, is one of my friends, and I know well what he likes. And the approach I was referring to earlier, with Reizôkô Ningen Daiichigo or Hebi-Onna, it’s very similar with what he used in Patlabor. There might be giant robots, but the police uses them in a very mundane fashion. And besides this science-fiction element, the story is set in today’s Tôkyô.
Usually, giant robots stories are epic and dramatic. Here, it’s the opposite, and even if the police uses those Patlabors, there’s a lot going on that has nothing to do with them. And besides, nobody really notices them anymore, since they’ve been around for some time now. I think it is in this aspect that it is close to my gag manga, and I didn’t find it difficult to work on it.
Still, as it was the third movie, I had to introduce some monsters that do not exist in the real world, and that was particularly difficult for me. It’s not about realism, but because either in Reizôkô Ningen Daiichigo, Hebi-Onna or with giant robots, once you introduce two obvious genre elements, it becomes more difficult to tell everyday stories, it becomes heavy-handed and implausible. That was clearly the trickiest part.
XG : Getting back to Tôku e ikitai, the title translates literally as “I’d like to go far”, but the English subtitle (“Anywhere but here”) puts the emphasis on the idea of “far away”. Does that mean you intended it as a commentary on Japan ?
TM : I never intended it as a social commentary. It’s more a book in which I express personal feelings, and in my more recent works, I’m still working in this direction, towards the limits. Hence the title, Tôku e ikitai.
XG : A lot of sequences are rather sad, though…
TM : Going away is something very sad, in fact. (laugh) But there are also moments where I come back.
XG : More than sadness, it’s worry and suffering that also comes through. Are those feelings you wanted to express ?
TM : Hm, this suffering, what can it be ? (laugh) You know, besides my own case, there are a lot of gag manga writers, and very few of them are really funny. Quite the contrary, they tend to be loners, versed toward introspection.
XG : That reminds me of Beat Takeshi, whom you can see acting like a fool on television, while his alter ego Takeshi Kitano directs some very dark movies. As if he was taking off a mask.
TM : That’s true. It might not be a conscious thing, but that might be true. (silence) But besides Beat Takeshi, and even if I don’t know many celebrities, among comedians there are a lot of people who are very serious, who don’t laugh much and keep to themselves. It’s not sadness, but when you’re looking for things that could become jokes, you often have to be cynical. And little by little, you end up reacting less, you become more distant from things, because you’re looking at anything as possible laughing material. And maybe that’s where this sadness comes from — maybe.
XG : That also reminds me of Shiriagari Kotobuki’s work, which can be overtly comical, but also present a darker or more dramatic side.
TM : Yes, absolutely.
XG : Are you still working on Tôku e ikitai ?
TM : The serialization in TV Bros. is over, but I’ve been approached for picking it up again elsewhere. And I might be interested. So it’s over, but it might begin again…
XG : What are your current projects ?
TM : The first thing I can think of is… how to put it ? In Morning, I have this series called Reishoku Sôsakan. It’s not a regular feature, but it’s going to come out in episodes. The main character is the same as in Tôku e ikitai, but there are dialogs, and it’s going to be hardboiled science-fiction in the vein of Blade RUnner. And of course, with gags — not systematically, but from time to time.
During this year , I’d really like to get back to a steady rhythm, like I ha with Tôku e ikitai, in a major magazine.
XG : Would that mean getting back to something a little more mainstream ?
TM : Oh no. But I had turned towards stories that were more experimental and less comical, and now I want to go in the opposite direction. I like to change, to wander. Staying in the same place is not something for me.
[Interview conducted in Angoulême, on January 25, 2008.]
- Published in 1986-87 in the magazine Comi Comi, then as a single volume in 1987 by Jets Comics.
- Published in English under the title Anywhere but here by Fantagraphics.
- In Japanese, this progression is used as an alternated alphabetical order, as it is based on a classic poem that uses each of the existing syllables only once. Wikipedia for more details.
- Published in Comic Cue vol.9 in 2000.
- Manzai is a type of Japanese comedy act that consists in a duet : the tsukkomi (the straight guy) and the boke (the fool). The dynamic of the act is based on misunderstandings, puns and other verbal jests, and usually ends in the tsukkomi correcting the boke (often in a physical way, with a smack on the head). The boke‘s punishment usually being the source of hilarity.
- The series was published between 1988 and 2003, but the first collection was only published in 1997.