Hiroki Otsuka made his American comics debut with the original manga Boys of Summer, published by Tokyopop in 2006. Before that Otsuka was a creator of ero-manga or erotic comics, a genre he continues to produce today. Otsuka began drawing at the age of four and by six he was creating his own cartoons. He has been a professional mangaka since 1994 and after working in the manga industry in Japan for a number of years, Otsuka moved to the U.S.
Otsuka currently teaches manga workshops and is the mangaka artist-in-residence at New York City’s Japan Society, where he is creating a manga, Samurai Beam, which incorporates the woodblock prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), one of the great masters of Japanese woodblock printing and painting. Kuniyoshi’s work is currently on exhibit at the Japan Society, and Otsuka’s Samurai Beam is currently being serialized online at the Japan Society’s website. PW Comics Week caught up with Otsuka at the Japan Society where he is working, to talk to him about Kuniyoshi, manga creation, and the popular Josei manga creator Moyoco Anno.
PW Comics Week: You started drawing at a young age.
Hiroki Otsuka: You mean cartooning? I started cartooning when I was six.
PWCW: Sequential storytelling?
HO: Yes. I loved going to the library with my neighbors —we’d go everyday after school and we’d write and draw stories. And I brought it to the library and showed it to the librarians. They loved it. So this was my first experience [cartooning]. I thought “this is nice.” At the time I was really shy. I didn’t have many friends - I knew mostly girls, so I’d draw them. I’d also draw my favorite manga characters which were also girls, very powerful characters.
PWCW: What attracted you to these strong, female characters?
HO: Well, I’m very much influenced by my mom. Also at the time, in Japan, the culture is uneven, where the man is on top and the woman is thought of as lower than him. I hate that. I wanted to address that in my work. Also, my mom and my grandmother used to dress me in skirts when I was small, so I felt in touch with that feminine side. I feel that both sides are part of my identity.
PWCW: When did you begin drawing ero-comics?
HO: I was 20. Ero-manga was a big movement in Japan, there were big anthologies, thick, telephone book-sized anthologies. The money was good, and they were looking for new artists, artists that could draw and write. So I got a job. This was in the early 1990’s and people had lots of sexual fantasies.
PWCW: How is the industry now?
HO: It’s stopped growing. Most of the publishers are having trouble selling magazines. Everything is online now. And cellphones are really popular in Japan. Really popular. But one of my publishers, I can’t remember the name, they’ve begun publishing comics online and they’ve found some success.
PWCW: The manga you’re creating for Japan Society incorporates Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s work into it. Kuniyoshi was incredibly prolific, even with the restrictions put on artists at the time.
HO: You know, he had a big fanbase. The Japanese government put a lot of restrictions onto artwork at the time. They were afraid of him, but the publishers still wanted him to make money—it was a collaborative work.
PWCW: Fans are important.
HO: Fans are important. It’s a business, honey. Popularity is important. I look at Kuniyoshi, he didn’t become a popular artist until his 30’s. How did he survive until then? I’m impressed by his output.
PWCW: Right now, there is more direct contact between creator and fans, so publishers are getting pushed out.
HO: You can advertise for yourself through Facebook and Twitter, but it’s difficult, creating, working and doing your own PR. You’re really running your own business. I think it’s very important to work with publishers, especially if you have an editor. In Japan, I have an editor, and we’d always develop ideas and characters; and talk about the character, what does he do, what does he like; just creative brainstorming. That kind of creative relationship builds the skill of human communication. But now people don’t want to deal with communication, they don’t want to interact. Even with online communication, like Facebook, it’s still important to speak to people. I think we’re losing that skill.
PWCW: Do you still communicate with your editor in Japan?
HO: I’ve stayed in touch with my editor, yes. We’ve worked together for 10 years. She’s not my editor anymore, but we’re friends. I’ve got a different editor that I work with. It’s a very important dynamic. Artists get lazier. I feel like I learned a lot from my editor [when I was younger]. I don’t get as much feedback now since I know what to do, how to write, how to draw.
PWCW: What’s exciting for you about creating this manga for Japan Society? I mean, you’re working in sort of a fishbowl, being watched.
HO: It’s a very interesting experience, I’ve never done this before. Live-painting, I’ve done that, but nothing like this. I’m in this room, every weekend, creating comics. I work with interns, in English. It’s very challenging. Sometimes people come in and ask me about manga techniques and stuff. It’s interesting. I feel like I’m learning a lot from people. I teach a workshop [at Japan Society] and I teach in high schools. Not everyone can express this show and teach in a second language. I had to go back to the very beginning and learn how to draw manga, learn about character, so that I can teach it in English. If you have to teach, you have to learn their skills and what they want to learn. Before, the 15 year-olds I teach, they could draw manga, but now, there’s more exposure, more anime, more information about this. Now, a 15 year-old can really draw. They can really draw.
PWCW: So the art quality is high, but is the storytelling improving?
HO: Well, everything has been done already, so you have to concentrate on character. Character first, then story. I’m so amazed by the high school I teach at, P.S. 40. They have a manga lab where they’re collaborating, creating a manga. I think once the art comes together, the stories in American manga will be so interesting. People here, kids, they talk about race, religion, issues. These issues are so interesting.
PWCW: What is your starting point with a character?
HO: I start with my own insecurities. Then I take from life experiences. I do a lot of people watching, everyday. I also watch my friends, listen to their stories. And a lot of it comes out when I’m doing the rough sketch. Life is all experience and the character has to struggle with something. I feel like I’m a movie director or something.
PWCW: How much control do you have over the storyline?
HO: Oh, about 80 %. My editor will give me feedback, like “If she’s really feeling angry, she wouldn’t make that face.”
PWCW: What brought you to New York?
HO: I moved to San Francisco first. I was very tired, working for publishers every day. A friend took me up to Napa Valley to visit and do some wine tasting. And I saw this man, doing portraits there. And he told me that he used to be an assistant to Charles Schultz, working on Peanuts, but now he lives and does portraits in Napa Valley. And he was so happy. And that inspired me. Living in Tokyo was too much. Too much information. I really needed to stop working. I wanted to go somewhere that I didn’t understand the language. A friend invited me to live in New York, and I said, “Okay.”
I never planned to be an artist. I moved here and worked in a studio space that I rented from a gallery. One day, they were preparing for a show, but the artist quit on them. So they had no show. The curator approached me and asked me if I wanted to do a show with them. And I said “Sure.” I had no art training but I had worked at [anime influenced gallery artist] Takashi Murakami’s art studio (in Brooklyn) for a couple of months so at least I knew how to stretch a canvas. If I hadn’t worked there, I’d be totally lost. And since people seemed to like manga, I thought, I’d do a show that incorporates manga. And since I really don’t have enough experience with color, I did it in black and white. The show got some good reviews, and it was fun to do.
PWCW: You continue to create manga—like this project for Japan Society—and for ero-manga publishers in Japan. Do you still read manga?
HO: I’m reading Yotsuba&! right now. It’s great. But [josei manga creator] Mayocco Anno is my inspiration [Josei manga is a genre aimed at older women and Anno is best known for such series as Happy Mania and Hataraki Man]. She’s my Marc Jacobs. I’m amazed by her style. It’s completely different. It’s shojo manga but it’s not—she’s mixed in shonen manga style, and underground culture like fashion, a lot of fashion. She knew she wanted to be an artist and knew what people wanted. She understood the different age demographics and gave them something new. I’ve met her and she told me that emotions, drawing emotion is the most important thing an artist can draw, a snapshot of the feeling, cartooning the moment.
A lot of her work comes from her insecurities, or her wish for something or from something her friends are talking about, like boys and everyday subjects. And she writes for fashion magazines; she challenges herself. She’s a big fan of Tezuka and her grandfather was also a famous cartoonist. American artists and creators are trying too hard, trying to make something “important.” But you have to know what your attraction is; you’ve got to just enjoy what you do and do your best. You also need a business mind. The gallery people are looking at my work as money. You need to separate yourself from the value of your work. Some artists take six months to do a painting; I understand that. But I’m a cartoonist, I’m an entertainer.