Acclaimed manga artist Moyoco Anno is best known as one of the most influential creators in the josei manga genre—Japanese comics aimed at older women. Although she’s also worked in the girl-focused shojo genre, Anno-sensei’s work focuses typically on the lives, ambitions and social triumphs—as well as the frustrations and mistakes—of independent Japanese women navigating a decidedly patriarchal culture in Japanese society.

Among many popular works she is the author of the series Happy Mania, the story of a young Japanese woman and her turbulent experiences with love and sex; Hataraki Man, a look at the life of a high-powered Japanese female journalist, and the acclaimed Sakuran, the story of a young girl raised to be a courtesan in an Edo Period brothel. But no matter the setting, Anno’s works offer a succession of vivid, charismatic women in manga that are as rich in humor as they are in insight into the inner-lives and social experiences of contemporary and historical Japanese women.

On route to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, the manga superstar stopped off in New York City accompanied by her husband, Hideaki Anno. A Japanese pop culture superstar in his own right, Hideaki Anno is the director of the anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion, an apocalyptic sci-fi mecha that originally aired in 1995. Moyoco has comically portrayed the Anno’s marriage in her manga, Insufficient Direction.

Anno is currently at work on two manga serializations in Japan: Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen, a story set among the prostitutes of a 1920s brothel in Paris, is running in the monthly manga magazine Feel Young; and The Diary of Ochibi, a series of charming one page comics for readers of all ages starring Ochibi and his friend Nazeni, is running in the weekly magazine Aera. Both titles are available to English readers on simulpub on Crunchyroll.

And in July, the U.S. publisher Vertical Inc, plans to publish In Clothes Called Fat, a manga series focused on the female body image

Anno-sensei talked with PW Comics World editors Heidi MacDonald and Calvin Reid about her career making josei manga, women in Japan and about life married to a Japanese pop culture star, when you’re a pop culture star yourself. She also discusses the couple’s self-proclaimed status as otaku, or obsessive fans of Japanese pop culture media. Providing translation was Yuma Terada, co-owner of Cork Inc., a Tokyo-based literary agency representing Anno. Also present during the interview was Cork founder and CEO Yohei Sadoshima and Ed Chavez, marketing director of Vertical Inc., which will publish her next book.

PW: The manga Insufficient Direction outlines the dynamic of your relationship with your husband, the anime director (and equally famous otaku) Hideaki Anno. The book looks at the lives of an otaku couple and in it you portray yourself as an infant and your husband as a grouchy character. Why did you choose a baby? And what does that say about your relationship?

MA: I chose the baby because I always want to be forgiven! But it’s actually the other way around [laughs]. I’m the grouchy character.

PW: We love your women characters. Are they really you and how do you develop these great independent women?

MA: Parts of the characters come from me with a lot of inspiration from my friends and people around me.

PW: When the American TV show Sex and the City came out I thought that Happy Mania told a more realistic story of sex and the city.

MA: Happy Mania does precede both Sex and the City and the Bridget Jones novels.

PW: Sakuran is one of the first books by you that I read. Did it take a lot of research? The attitude of the courtesan seemed so modern. How much of the book is historical and how much did you need to fictionalize it in order to create something different and unique?

MA: I did very little research [laughs]. There are several people I based the main character Kiyoha on. There’s a historical courtesan named Takao. She was known for speaking her mind and she was executed by a Samurai in the brothel. Talking back was unheard of at that time.

PW: The Sakuran character is so impertinent that I expected something like that.

MA: People don’t talk about it a lot but from what little research I did, I found there are actually women who stood up for themselves during the Edo Period and were executed for that reason. Before I created Sakuran, the portrayal of Edo period courtesans had always been as very miserable and sad characters that have a short life, are always beaten, and eventually die. That’s part of the reality. I guessed that there were stronger women and that’s what I wanted to portray.

PW: What attracts you to a female character? Sometimes your characters are very foolish but they are always so vivid. What makes you want to write about a character?

MA: I feel like a lot of women make foolish mistakes. Despite the fact that they have successful careers, when it comes to relationships, they turn out to be exceptionally foolish. So that’s what draws me to the victim and it goes the other way as well. Certain women are good at relationships and are really good at dominating males. On the other hand they’re absolutely terrible at their jobs.

PW: In Hataraki Man, a female journalist goes into a “Man Mode” at her job at a high-pressure magazine when she has an assignment. Is that characteristic of professional women in Japan? Do they have to act like men to succeed?

MA: It’s not an exclusively Japanese thing. When women get involved emotionally with people even on a professional level, the productivity in their careers goes down. So it’s sometimes necessary to shut these things off in order to sustain their professional productivity. That’s what I’m trying to portray.

PW: Your characters are dynamic, accomplished, determined and relentless, but they don’t always seem very happy.

MA: That’s a problem that a lot of Japanese women face.

PW: We’re having a big debate in this country about diversity and women who are also pop culture geeks. In Insufficient Direction you talk about not knowing how big a geek you really are. How did you discover your inner geek and are you comfortable with it?

MA: I got it growing up in my early days and it wasn’t gradual. But I realized in elementary school that being a geek doesn’t get boys’ attention. So I tried very hard to change that in order to get the boys’ attention but in reality I always was and will always be a geek.

PW: Did you know about your husband’s work before you were married?

MA: Yes, though he did not know my work (laughs).

PW: Does your work influence each other?

MA: Yes.

PW: Your drawing seems different from the conventional shojo drawing style. Is it a conscious decision to be more dynamic than the usual shojo style?

MA: I’m conscious that my drawing is different. Before Happy Mania the shojo genre had a kind of staple template where just before the protagonist, the girl, got dumped by a guy, there was always some other guy there just waiting for her, without her even having to try to find someone. So even without putting in any effort, right before she gets dumped there’s another guy waiting for her. So I wanted to break that template with Happy Mania. I grew up reading those typical shojo manga and I was referencing my own life and thinking that that never happens in my life! [laughing]. I was annoyed and wondering why manga was never like that.

PW: What was the reception by your readers to breaking the mold?

MA: People resisted at first. It was unheard of that the main character would be dumped with nobody there to get her back to her feet.

PW: Then you did Sugar Sugar Rune, the story of magical girl witches who are out to capture the hearts of boys. Was that book a reaction to that? It uses the tropes in a different way.

MA: It’s true that people think it’s coming back to the Shojo genre but I think otherwise because Happy Mania was such influence on the genre. I depicted sex and sexuality and the sex element filtered into a lot of the shojo manga that addressed a younger audience age group. That’s a bad thing and I wanted to correct it. It wasn’t productive that so many magazines were openly depicting sex post-Happy Mania and it was so readily available to little girls. So Sugar Sugar Rune was an attempt to go back to the works that I grew up with.

PW: What’s your work schedule like, drawing manga and having a family and having these incredible manga deadlines?

MA: It’s impossible to have a template schedule. I’m exceptionally busy but when I created Insufficient Direction, it was about a decade ago and my life was really crazy with deadlines. I’ve come to a place in my life now where I have control over my own workflow.

PW: So you are happy even if your characters are not?

MA: That’s true but even in a hotel here in New York, I’m working on manga during the day.

PW: What do you want to do in the future? In another interview you said that you wanted to do comics for women in their 40s on through their 60s.

MA: I always like to be able to address people of my age group and my friends, definitely, as we get older. That’s the audience I’d like to address. As opposed to normal manga genres, which are purely about the questions of relationships, I feel like there should be other manga that deal with other subject matter because that’s not all there is to life.

Below are excerpts from Insufficient Direction and Diary of Ochibi-San.