TALKING WITH THE MASTER OF MANGA
Author Frederik Schodt on translation, Tezuka, and life as a Tokyo teenagerWords by Ryan Sands
Photos by Jenn Yin & Nicole Harvey
(This interview originally published in Electric Ant #1)
I first encountered Fred Schodt’s writing as a geek in high school, with a burgeoning interest in manga and all things Japan. His definitive tomes on comics from Japan, “Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics” and “Dreamland Japan,” introduced manga as not simply some foreign curiosity, but as an art form that I’ve since become enthralled with. Schodt’s work as a manga and Japanese cultural emissary has seen him in the role of translator, interpreter, and author. In his most recent book, “The Astro Boy Essays,” Schodt uses Osamu Tezuka’s most well-known character as a framework for discussing both his friendship with Tezuka and the continuing influence of his stories on pop culture.
In his lectures and on NPR last year discussing manga, Schodt is a humble and nuanced speaker. As someone who’s been the authoritative voice on manga in America for the past 25 years, Schodt has a wealth of interesting stories and personal anecdotes about its early development in America. He also rides a motorcycle and wears a pretty badass hat.
As this issue goes to print, I’ve just heard that Schodt and his longtime translation partner Jared Cook will be teaming up again to work on Naoki Urasawa’s genius manga Pluto, which is a “creative re-interpretation of a single episode of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy called The World’s Greatest Robot.” Think "Watchmen" meets "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," except in manga form.
Last winter, Fred was kind enough to meet up and discuss his unique personal odyssey with Japan, manga, and Tezuka over coffee for a few hours. For more information on Fred’s work, please visit his site, http://www.jai2.com/.
ELECTRIC ANT: You originally went to Japan when you were fifteen. How did that come about, and what was your first reaction to life in Japan?
FREDERIK SCHODT: I had been living in Australia and my father worked for the foreign service, so I grew up overseas. We had lived in Norway for five years, and then Australia for five years. Actually I was enrolled in the American School in Paris; we were supposed to go to France as the next assignment. And then one day, as I recall it, my dad came in and said, “Well actually, things have changed. We’re going to Japan.”
At the time I was thinking “Well, Japan must be a really hot place.” Because in those days, most of the references that I would see related to Japan had something to do with WWII, and it usually had Australian or American soldiers fighting in the jungle in Okinawa or New Guinea.
I was in Japan for about 2.5 years until I graduated from high school, an international school in Tokyo. Actually, I wanted to study Japanese, but at the time my guidance counselor said I had to study French because that’s the language I had been studying. And I always remember, she said, “an American University wouldn’t accept your credits, and besides, Japanese wouldn’t do you any good in the future.” [LAUGHS] So here I am now.
ANT: And that was 1965?
FRED: Yes, then I graduated in 1968 and came back to the States, and I’ve been back and forth ever since.
ANT: In the 80s and 90s, it was en vogue to study Japanese. What was it like as an American in the late 60s to be over there studying?
FRED: Well it wasn’t like it is now, that’s for sure. People who wanted to study Japanese tended to be a little bit, I won’t say unusual, but you had to have some powerful motivation. Actually, I’m always fascinated by people who come from these environments that have nothing to do with Japan, and of all the countries in the world for some reason they just feel this affinity and they go there. Say they come from Iowa or somewhere, maybe they saw Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and they just decided that in a former life they were a samurai or something. There are a lot of people like that and they always fascinate me. I wasn’t like that at all. I was nearly dragged to Japan.
ANT: At that time, what did you think your long-term relationship to Japan was going to be?
FRED: Well, I wasn’t really sure. I’d always been attracted to the language and I seemed to have some affinity with it. I really wanted to do something related to the language, but I wasn’t sure what. I officially graduated, not from the International Christian University in Japan where I studied abroad, but from UC Santa Barbara. I was lucky, I came back and had to do some remedial work and meet some residency requirements, but I eventually graduated on schedule, which was somewhat unusual. I lived in Santa Barbara for a couple years; I was just a hippie, I did a bit of hitchhiking and taking odd jobs. But I would read Japanese novels and manga and things like that.
Then, I worked as a tour guide in LA for JALPAK, which at the time was a quasi-national tourist organization, and I was probably one of the first non-Japanese to do this kind of work. So, I led troops of Japanese around LA and also to Mexico and Canada and Las Vegas.
ANT: Brushing up on your keigo (polite Japanese grammar)?
FRED: Oh, I got really comfortable with formal Japanese, and as a result I can actually say I’m actually pretty good at it. It was a great place to do that. But after a while, it got to be pretty mind-numbing work. So I started thinking about what can I do next, and “Well, it would be great to do some translation or do interpreting.” My boss at the time said one day, Well you speak good Japanese – There’s a group coming in tomorrow that has to go out to Sunkist National Headquarters and they need an interpreter. Well, okay. And I went out there.
It was quite humiliating because I didn’t know any of the terminology around citrus fruit or manufacturing. I didn’t even know how to say “citrus.” After it was over the Japanese people came over to me and said in Japanese, you know very politely, basically, “Thank you for interpreting, but you really need to get better.” The Americans came up to me and said, “Wow you were fantastic!” I thought that if I wanted to do something like that again I would need to study more. So I applied for the Ministry of Education scholarship and went back specifically to study interpreting in Japanese.
The translation of manga was something I sort of dreamed of as far back as 1970 or 1971. But it was such a far off thing and it wouldn’t have been possible then. When I was in Tokyo the second time, I had a good friend named Jared Cook who had a similar trajectory to me in terms of studying and living in Japan. With two Japanese friends (Shinji Sakamoto and Midori Ueda) we put together this group called Dadakai, which you may of heard of.
We had this really lofty, kind of idealistic and hopelessly utopian idea that we could introduce this wonderful entertainment called Manga to the outside world. We actually approached some artists in Tokyo and began translating their works. And that was really the beginning of manga translation. But we were unable to get anything published. It was way too early.
ANT: You tried to reach out to some U.S. comic book companies?
FRED: We tried. But we didn’t have the wherewithal to really make the rounds at American publishers. In America, people weren’t even eating sushi yet – the idea of Japanese comics was like, “They read comics? They read? Where is Japan? Isn’t that China? YOU MEAN CHINA?” [LAUGHS] It was kind of another level. We were way, way, way too early.
But some of the things we worked on, for example Tezuka’s the Phoenix, are actually completing publication now. Dadakai was really short lived, but for Jared and me, translation of the Phoenix is an over-30 year project. And I think the last volume is scheduled to come from Viz early in 2008. It’s been over 30 years, which is amazing.
ANT: You make it sound like you just sort of approached these artists directly. But if we’re talking Tezuka, it seems like a really wild thing to do. Do you think it’s simply if you were there at a certain time and you’re an audacious foreigner, you can do things that a Japanese couldn’t do? Wasn’t going to Tezuka Productions like someone going to Disney and saying “Um Hi, I’m from Brazil and I want to put your story out in Portuguese”?
FRED: Well at the time, it was completely audacious. And I don’t think now you can do that sort of thing. So I think a lot of it had to do with timing and position in history. I didn’t realize until fairly recently apparently how difficult it was to approach Tezuka. Because we had Shinji Sakamoto, who was the “business manager” of our little group, and he was the guy who made the initial contact. And the fact that we were a group of Japanese and Americans helped us. According to Shinji, he actually had quite a bit of difficulty making the contact and getting the meeting at Tezuka productions. But when we first went there, we met with Tezuka’s manager and as I recall, Tezuka sort of popped into the meeting and we met him. We probably weren’t at the time as aware of how unusual that might have been.
ANT: I’m personally interested in the technical act of translating. Nowadays, it seems easier with scanners and Photoshop and Wacom tablets. But for you guys it was just paper and whiteout. And I read that you and Jared decided to pick certain characters to translate for and would each stick with them for the whole translation. I’ve never heard of anyone doing that, and I’m curious how you guys came up with your process.
FRED: Well, nobody had done it before, so it was pretty easy to think of something unusual, I guess. At the time, nobody was using computers – It was basically a typewriter and hand-written era. And we weren’t able to flip the pages. Even making photocopies in those days was expensive. We tore up our books, whited out all of the word balloons, and then we xeroxed it. Then we wrote in the dialogue so that nothing was flipped or flopped.
It was all done in pen – I think we may have started with pencil and then overwritten it. But we actually tried to fit the dialogue in the balloons and tried to make it look as much as possible as a normal comic book. But like I said, we weren’t able to flop anything, and we delivered the first five volumes to Tezuka Productions in this format. And Volume 4, which we thought was the strongest volume of the Phoenix, we actually had printed.
FRED: Yeah, because it was actually cheaper to get it printed than xeroxed. But again it wasn’t flopped, and the print was of very poor quality from xeroxes and it really didn’t look very good at all. Actually, I have a copy if you’d like to see it sometime. It’s very crude. But it gave people the idea that it was possible to read it as a comic book. You had to read it backwards, which wouldn’t be a problem for people today, but back then... And because we had it printed, we were able to make enough copies to do a survey. We gave copies to people in the U.S. and we had a little form printed up to record their reaction.
ANT: Was that the understanding you gave to Tezuka Productions? They gave the go ahead to do this and see what happens, but there wasn’t any definite understanding that it would be released?
FRED: The agreement was that we would translate the first five volumes of the Phoenix series, and we would do everything we could to try and get it published – but of course, we weren’t publishers. But we were creating a prototype for what could be done. The survey was a way to judge what Americans would think of something like this. Because we were completely biased, obviously, we thought the Phoenix was the most brilliant piece of literature in history. But we needed to know what people who don’t speak Japanese and aren’t familiar with manga or even with anything Japanese would think. And I don’t remember how many copies we distributed, but we did do that survey, and had a typed up form. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. It was 30 years ago or so at this point.
ANT: I had heard of Phoenix before Viz started putting it out in English; I think I saw a copy when I was in Japan. It seemed to have a rocky release here, like Viz didn’t know exactly what to do with it right away. There was volume two in the big format, then the early volumes, and then sort of a long hiatus. Can you fill in some of the gaps with the release of the Viz editions?
FRED: It had a very rocky beginning. I had gone with the then-president of Tezuka Productions to Viz very early on, in the 80s. We had mentioned there are these five volumes that are actually available for translation into English. But I think the opinion at Viz was that it was way to early for something like that, and it wasn’t part of what they were trying to do. They were trying to create something which was as close as possible to an American popular comic book.
As for the Phoenix, the style of art was too cute or there were little oddities in Tezuka’s dialogue with his readers and the gags he does. And it was too long. So at the time, Viz wasn’t interested and nothing happened. Much later, Viz got interested in the first five volumes that Jared and I had done as part of Dadakai.
They decided to put those out, but they weren’t sure in the beginning how to put them out, I think. And that’s why you wind up with the slightly odd sequence of Volume 2 being put out first, in the large format. There’s nothing wrong with the large format, I think it’s actually good, but it was a little odd to start with two. They thought, “Well, there’s a market for this design and style of Volume 2 that there might not be with Volume 1,” because Volume 1 had more of a historical, Japanese history kind of slant to it.
The first five were a kind of like a test run I guess. When they decided to do the rest, [Viz] asked Jared and I if we would finish the translation, so we went back to work using computers.
We worked on the next seven volumes just recently. We had submitted the first five volumes to Tezuka Productions in ’78 and both Jared and I had our own copies for some of them. There was one volume at least that we had lost completely, but they found it at Tezuka Productions and dug it up. But for a quarter of a century it collected dust. It took a long time, but I felt good. You know, Tezuka was already dead but he would have been happy. It felt like we had fulfilled our obligation to him.
ANT: I had first read “Manga! Manga!” when I was in high school, and then when I went to school at Stanford and was studying Japanese it came up again in a pop culture undergrad course. But I was curious, when the book came out in ’83, who was the audience for the book – either intended or actual?
FRED: Well, I was trying to proselytize the idea that manga are interesting. One of the reasons I wrote the book was actually because of my experience with Dadakai. I came to the conclusion that it was too early to publish anything in English. The first thing that was needed was a book about manga that would explain to people why they’re interesting, and how varied and diverse they are.
For me, it was also a little bit of a reaction to a lot of the books on Japan at that time. There weren’t books on Japanese popular culture. I think at the time, most people outside of Japan thought Japanese people had no sense of humor, you know, and they were all robot-like salarymen and that kind of thing. It was so different from the Japan that I knew, that was also a motivation.
ANT: There’s some stuff written about other early fandoms – whether it’s science fiction fandom or American comic book fandom – that thing when a sub-culture scene later turns into a big business. I’m always curious about how that gets started. The people you knew in the US who read your first book were probably part of a sort of vanguard of manga or anime fans. Who were those people? Were they science fiction fans? Dungeons and Dragons people? Or Japanophiles?
FRED: I knew a lot of those people in the very beginning, the people from the really enthusiastic manga and anime fans were very unusual people. Jared and I were actually working and interpreting for Tezuka on an early trip – I think ’79 or 1980, I don’t remember the exact date, but I know that we went to see the C/FO folks (Cartoon Fantasy Organization) and I had never met people like that in my life. It was almost frightening. [LAUGHS] I had never met people who were so dedicated to something which was so obscure in the United States at the time, and it was a very small group. But they were people who became quite big in fandom, such as Fred Patton in particular, he was a real central figure in American fandom, and still is.
They were people who were obsessed with anime – more anime than manga, very few people could read it because there weren’t any English manga available. So their entry point had been actually the early 60s anime that was shown in the United States, such as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. Fred Patten's good friend Robin Leyden from the C/FO was a huge Astro Boy fan, the likes of which you’d rarely see. He later on became a special effects animator. Robyn actually made a model of Astro Boy and presented it to Tezuka...
ANT: What was Tezuka’s reaction to that, to these strange American anime fans?
FRED: Oh, he was overwhelmed. [Tezuka] had been in contact with some of them even before Jared and I met him. But they were the first Anime fans in the US, to such a serious degree. Almost scary. These were not people who were interested in Japanese business or technology or anything like that. They were just focused on anime, the characters and the stories, they just loved it. So it was actually very touching.
ANT: It seems like a lot of those people in the early 80s were the ones that eventually drummed up interest in anime, and a lot of them were the people who first ones that did fan subtitles.
FRED: That’s right. And organized the first conventions.
ANT: I was curious then, back when it was possible to get access to Tezuka but the scene was so small, what was your feeling about the unlicensed subtitling that developed? And has your feeling changed about the people who do those intense fan activities, now that manga has turned into a bigger business?
FRED: When I first met the people from C/FO, probably around the end of ’78, very few people had video tape recorders, and the problem of fan subbing was minimal. You’re talking mainly about people watching 16mm films. There were people who may have had type-written transcripts of the script or something, but I don’t think anyone was doing fan subbing.
ANT: Really? To read along with the anime? It seems like it’d be such an act of devotion.
FRED: The whole VCR thing didn’t get going until the 80s. And fan subbing didn’t really become an issue until the mid-80s or later. As far as my feelings on it, in the very beginning obviously people could not buy translated material, there were no dubbed or subbed videos available. So in order to proselytize anime, not manga because there were no scanlations of those, but in order to proselytize anime the fan subbers played a really important role, and there wouldn’t be a market for anime and manga without the early subbing. I think the really smart companies have realized this from the beginning and in some ways, the Japanese companies may have been more hip than the American companies, just because in Japan there are people maybe more used to the gray areas of copyright law.
But without the fan subbing, there would not be the industry there is today in America, that’s for sure. But, then of course, there’s always the whole issue of IP and how to reward creators ultimately. When it gets to be a big business then it can be a problem, and there has to be a line drawn. I think it’s something that’s being worked out now in all industries, people are not really sure how to view the whole issue – is it promotion? Does it suck away profits from the creator? There’s a real gray area there.
ANT: Yeah, it would be hard to make the argument in ’88 that they were damaging the creations of Japanese creators. But now that there’s so many avenues to get licensed and official copies of things, it becomes a different kind of act.
FRED: Yes, it’s a different act. I’m not an expert on business or copyright, but ultimately I suppose it’s a balance. Obviously if there’s no income for the creators then they’ll stop creating. They have to get their money, but at the same time people have to be able to enjoy what they’ve purchased in a variety of different ways. And they hopefully will be able to proselytize what they’ve purchased. I don’t have an answer, I don’t think anyone has the answer. In fact, if you could solve that problem you’d probably become very, very rich right now.
ANT: So I have some Tezuka questions, of course. The thing I wanted to ask you about, especially, were his rivals. He’s so major a force in manga that I find it really interesting and charming that he would be threatened and also thrive on rivalry with other creators. Could you characterize some of the reactions he had to different rivals, and give your impressions about that aspect of his personality?
FRED: Well, he was always very competitive, and he liked to be liked, he like to be popular. I think he not only liked to be popular but he wanted to be the most popular manga artist. And that was one of the motivators for his work. [Tezuka] also seemed to need rivals and competition. One of the problems was, actually, that he often didn’t have rivals because he was so far out ahead of everybody else. Everybody else was for years imitating him, and that probably was the problem for him.
When the whole gekiga (Dramatic and realistic literary manga that gained popularity in the 60s) thing came out, and especially when younger people at universities in Japan started again reading manga, Japan became very politicized and, just like everywhere else around the world, became antiauthoritarian. There were more people searching for meaning in different areas, and when they started latching on to gekiga artists, Tezuka had seen the flow was changing.
He always had his finger on the pulse of young people in Japan – that was one of his real skills, to always be able to constantly read the pulse of his audience – not only his audience but of young people in general. The attention being given to gekiga artists was a threat to him, because for the first time some new artists came out with new styles, and people started saying at universities, “Well, Tezuka’s old hat and his style’s too Disney-esque or too kiddie-like,” and that sort of thing.
That was, ultimately, very good for him because it actually forced him to move into these other areas, and that’s where you get much more sophisticated themes and layouts. Of course, he had the skill set that he could actually pull it off. If you look at comic artists or manga artists, it’s very unusual and hard for someone to be able to change their style as radically as Tezuka did, but he pulled it off.
ANT: And to not look like you’re trying to be hip or trying to be something you’re not...
FRED: That’s right, and he not only changed his style, but he was also able to give the best of the younger artists a run for their money. So he started telling stories that had these strong psychosexual themes and violence and everything else. And he was able to keep up, which was unusual too because the manga business in Japan is so cyclical and competitive and it’s very hard for people to last, Nowadays artists don’t last the way Tezuka did, they’re gone usually in three or four years.
When I knew him, one of his big rivals was Otomo [Katsuhiro, creator of Akira]. But he also really respected Otomo, it wasn’t that he’d deprecate him or anything like that. But [Tezuka] knew that the media and the hardcore manga readers were in love with Otomo’s work at one point, and it was painful for him. He wanted to get back that attention and glory.
ANT: Do you think he would have moved into cyberpunk if he had been around long enough?
FRED: Well, some of Tezuka’s work are almost cyberpunk if you actually look at his sci-fi material. If he were still alive today he would have wanted to be on the cutting edge of whatever’s being done, but at the same time he would also be very commercial and have his bread and butter series for 7-year olds. He would want to be up front in everything, that was just his personality.
ANT: Talking about rivalries and people that worked with Tezuka, I heard that there was a beef between Tezuka and Kazuo Umezu.
FRED: Oh really?
ANT: I read that Umezu never liked Tezuka because when Umezu was a student he sent a story to Tezuka and he claims that Tezuka ripped him off?
FRED: Oh? I never heard that. But I knew that there were lots of people in Japan that didn’t like Tezuka. If you wanted to do something different, you almost had to not like Tezuka because everybody’s roots were so linked to Tezuka’s work. Hayao Miyazaki is a classic example. He has written in several essays about how he’s part of this sort of anti-Tezuka faction but realizes that he’s very influenced by Tezuka as well because almost everyone was really.
ANT: Like, if you want to be anti-authoritarian, you have to shake off years of Tezuka influence.
FRED: That’s right – that’s not so true now, but it certainly was true if you were doing something in the late 70s or early 80s.
ANT: Have you ever met Umezu? What was he like?
FRED: I have met him. I actually met him at a Viz party in San Francisco. He lived in San Francisco for a while, in Pacific Heights and he had a very nice place. I remember he was quite thin and he was wearing, I don’t know how you describe it...
ANT: Was it red and white stripes?
FRED: It was something striped, yeah. I could draw you a picture but I can’t describe it. I don’t know what the right word is for that shirt. I remember he was very cheerful – he seemed like a really nice guy, you’d never think he’s the one creating the characters he did.
ANT: A lot of people ask you about Tezuka, but I was wondering if you had any other stories or impressions that stand out about some of the other creators you worked with. I know you did the translation for Ghost in the Shell and Barefoot Gen?
FRED: Well, everyone I’ve met has really made a big impression on me. I’m easily impressed! [LAUGHS] I was one of many translators that worked on Barefoot Gen. Jared Cook and I translated the second volume in the series. But actually there’ve been many people that worked on Barefoot Gen and that was arguably one of the first translations into English. And it started out of a totally volunteer effort.
FRED: Because of the merit of the material itself?
ANT: That’s the reason it was the first Japanese comic published here, I believe. It’s precisely that social, anti-nuclear theme that was motivating enough that people were willing to work on it for free and donate a lot of time and energy.
ANT: It seems that manga licensing has turned into a very competitive business. Are there any pet projects you’ve wanted to work on? Or have most of the titles you’ve had your eye on already been licensed?
FRED: Yeah, most of them. I mean, a lot of the works that I like are so obscure or weird that I know there’s no market for them in the United States. But then there are always people who come up and actually publish things that I wouldn’t think there’d be much of a market for, and I’m always in awe of that. I mean, Last Gasp is case in point. They’ve done these fabulous books, many of them I’ve liked over the years and I never thought that they’d see the light here.
ANT: Just as I started really reading manga in the late 90s, it seemed like a lot of cutting-edge and strange titles came out. Some did okay, but it seemed like for a lot of them it was too early.Now you’d think that the total manga publishing pie has gotten bigger, so there’d be more of a space for those strange things, like those manga in Garo or COM. But that doesn’t always seem to be the case.
FRED: I mean, making a profit in manga is getting tougher and tougher, and it’s getting even harder for anime. My understanding is that sales of anime DVDs have plummeted, dropped by maybe a third or more since a few years ago.
ANT: Looking at the stuff that the major publishers are doing right now, do you think there’s a genre of manga that hasn’t really been opened up to U.S. readers yet?
FRED: Most genres of manga haven’t and probably never will be, for good reason. Most Americans probably would not be interested in a lot of the things Japanese are reading, because their lifestyles are so different. Obviously, salaryman manga is not gonna be big here, mahjong manga won’t be big here. Some of the kinds of genres that are really popular in Japan will probably never catch on here.
I think most people who read manga in America are not aware of the fact that the filter is huge. The filter that an American publisher is using when they decide what to publish here is very big and tight and they ultimately have to import what they can sell here, which is not what someone in Japan would necessarily want. That’s why for years all the manga here were kind of SF, young male-oriented works. It’s only recently that shojo manga caught on, which was a big surprise to everybody in the industry. Even to this day, I’m not sure how much of the popularity of manga is here to stay, or how much of it is a bubble or fad. It’ll be interesting to see.
ANT: Back to the stuff published in the late-90s in PULP, it seems so underground to us Americans, but do you think that has to do with the filter you mentioned? Or perhaps the same with shojo’s success. Anything that’s not a male-centered action comic seems strange here, whereas in Japan it wouldn’t be such a weird title?
FRED: Yeah. And the popularity of shojo manga has been a huge surprise to American publishers, and it’s a wonderful thing. It’s actually one of the few growth areas in American publishing these days. But I think it took the publishing industry completely by surprise.
Nobody dreamed that so many American girls would love to read manga, because girls weren’t reading comic books. For years and years you had all the publishers saying, “Well, we can’t publish anything other than SF or realistic, action-oriented stuff” and now they’re saying, “Oh, there’s a whole 50 or 52% of the population called FEMALES. And there’s money here!?” And they’re all happy, for now.
ANT: The male action stuff seems in competition to superhero stuff, in some cases. But there isn’t really a direct analog for shojo here, so it fills a complete void.
FRED: That’s exactly why the major book publishers in America are doing shojo manga and making money. It’s what’s hot now – what’ll be hot five years from now, I don’t know. You read all these articles in American media about how manga are such huge business in Japan; It’s only taken 25 or 30 years or more to wake up to this huge phenomenon out there, but the irony of it is, it’s sort of like in the 19th century when people in France opened up tea boxes and discovered ukiyo-e woodblock prints and they’re thinking, “Wow there’s this fabulous art form!” and of course in Japan it was dying out.
And then in the 1980s, you get the same thing – Americans just go ga-ga over Japanese business practices and there’s all these books in America come out about Japanese business techniques and management techniques, and actually that was dying in japan at the time. And manga are not doing well either, actually sales of manga are miserable compared to 10 years ago, which was the peak really.
It’s ironic to me, when I see for example that Shonen Jump, which has always been one of the biggest boys weeklies in Japan, is bragging about sales of 3 million copies per week. That’s great but if you remember what in 1996 or 1997, they were selling 5 to 6 million copies a week it doesn’t sound very good. So, Americans are interested in this phenomenon which actually peaked 10 years ago in Japan. We don’t really know where the baseline is.
ANT: You’ve worked as a writer, translator and interpreter involved in Japan for more than 30 years. Now that Japan and manga are no longer unfamiliar to people, has that changed how you see your role and how you want to spend your time?
FRED: I don’t think there’s any need for books that sort of generally describe manga anymore, which is great. There’ll be more and more publishers doing unusual things and the range of material available will just get broader and broader, which is great. In terms of my role, my first book’s idea was just sort of prosthelytizing. You know, I don’t think I have a role there anymore. And that’s fine. And I’ll just concentrate on what interests me personally. I don’t make a living from doing things relating to manga anyway, it’s always been just a sort of expensive hobby, basically. [LAUGHS] It’s been for the love of it.
ANT: I recently read and enjoyed your latest book, The Astro Boy Essays. At first I was sort of surprised that you didn’t write like a Osamu and Me type book about Tezuka. But I suppose that a book just about Tezuka’s life would be a massive undertaking.
FRED: And that’s great if someone wants to do that. That would be wonderful. If you were to tackle the whole Tezuka canon and try and introduce it, you’d need a lot of pictures and it’d be a very expensive book. You’d need a lot of time and probably assistants, if some publisher was gonna pony up for all that. At this point in time, there’s such a disconnect between knowledge of Tezuka in Japan and in the United States, I thought that what you’d really need is something they could digest fairly easily, without being completely overwhelmed by the hundreds of different titles, translation names and characters – there’s over 1000 characters – if one person could catalogue everything that Tezuka did in manga, anime and experimental animation and everything else, that’d be amazing.
But there will be other books on Tezuka coming out, in fact, there are two that I know of that are in the works. And there’s room for lots more. But hopefully mine will be the most accessible and the best of the bunch.
Electric Ant Zine #1 is now out of print, but if you enjoyed the article you can purchase the complete issue as an ebook via Google Play.