Interview with Hiroki Otsuka, Japan Society's First-ever Mangaka-in-Residence
Hiroki Otsuka was bitten by the drawing bug and simultaneously consumed by Japanese manga—comics that have long been a popular form of literature in Japan, and have only recently become staples in Western bookstores, libraries and the secret compartments of adolescents across America.
In a story befitting a comic book hero, Hiroki's prodigious talent and lifelong obsession led to a professional illustration career in 1994. After 10 grueling years crafting 20 pages every week, he landed in New York and almost instantaneously began making his mark in the art world. After his first solo exhibition in 2005, he appeared in major U.S. galleries, art fairs in Japan and Europe, and group shows at venues such as The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Japan Society. Most recently he had a large retrospective at Berlin's Kunstraum Richard Sorge.
Hiroki was drawn into the Japan Society family in 2007 when curator Eric C. Shiner included him among 33 artists in the Society's centennial exhibition Making a Home: Contemporary Japanese Artist in New York. In 2009, he created the illustrations for a Japan Society-commissioned multimedia dance by award-winning choreographer Jeremy Wade.
Whether a manga panel or massive mural, Hiroki's lithe black ink concoctions are alternate worlds—evocative, dark, playful, intricate, irreverent and intoxicating. The compositions are psychologically complex, the lines compelling, often cut with a single use of bold color. His characters' eyes glisten with piercing vacuity, yet their bodies emote powerfully through subtle tilts and gentle gestures. For every fluid stroke of sadness, there is dry dash of wit. Regardless of the image or scene, the depth of Hiroki's work can be attributed to his mastery of storytelling.
On the eve of Japan Society's spring exhibition Graphic Heroes: Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection, we sat down with Hiroki to discuss life as an artist, the power of manga, and the host of activities he will be engaged in as Japan Society first-ever mangaka (comic book illustrator) artist-in-residence. Humble, easy-going and even easier to laugh, it was no surprise to discover that Hiroki still wholeheartedly embraces the childhood manga monster within.
Interview after the jump.
Japan Society: How do you describe yourself: mangaka or geijutsuka--illustrator or artist?
Hiroki Otsuka: I actually like to be called a "manga artist." So many people want to say you are one thing or another--an illustrator or an artist or whatever. I found out recently that I like to be called a manga artist because I love manga. I feel like what I am doing is manga art even when making a drawing or painting. I never planned to be an artist, but something happened to me along the way. The manga artist inside of me was a gateway to the art world.
What is different between life as a manga illustrator and life in the art world? Besides more parties...
Definitely more parties! [Laughs] When I open the door to the art world, I find that it is really like a party world. Somewhere to socialize. But really I think life is the same if I am called an illustrator or an artist.
What was life like as a professional illustrator in Japan. I Imagine you chained to a desk 20 hours a day, drawing nonstop under harsh fluorescent light with no food or bathroom breaks.
[Laughs.] It was sort of like that. I used to work from night until morning. Every day I would start with a story and sit and work for 16 hours to complete over 100 pages in one month.
That's a lot!
20 pages each week. At the beginning I was working by myself, but as I got established I had assistants to help me out.
Did you have creative freedom?
I felt pretty free to do what I wanted as an illustrator. Most of the time I created by myself. But I worked with my editor, so it was a kind of collaboration. I would get an idea first and talk to my editor. "So what does this character do" or "what is the story line going to be" or "what is the climax or the ending?"
Can you tell us about your process?
First, I always draw the pictures in a sketchbook just using a black pen--a very basic manga technique. This sounds simple, but I believe so much can be conveyed with just one line.
You've said: "The spontaneity of lines is my identity." What did you mean by that?
I consider lines the most significant aspect of my work--even more important than the subject. Lines show my inspirations, my state of mind and how my energies flow. The slightest change in lines can create a totally different meaning in what I am drawing. It's very interesting about lines: human beings write things out in lines. [Mimes writing with a pen.] We physically communicate with lines… historically. [Laughs.] Now everybody [mimes typing on his iPhone].
How do you approach manga?
When I draw manga, I like to open doors for readers to share my imaginative world. I use my experiences or stories from my friends to inspire my work. I create drawings that are entertaining and convey something of living freely.
You say you were unusually attracted to manga even as a child?
I grew up reading manga like all young people in Japan, although I was completely obsessed with it. I was reading manga all the time. I would usually buy comics every day. I had to hide them in my room. My parents thought reading manga made a person stupid, so I wasn't allowed to read any comics. But my two older brothers wanted to be cartoonists also, so I would get comics from them. I would probably read 20 comics a week. There was a lot of competition between us.
Are your brothers manga artists?
So you won! When did you begin to draw manga?
I started drawing when I was 4 years old. Since then, I devoted a great deal of time to studying manga. I was more a student of manga then of school.
Are there any manga that you consider the most influential?
Anything from the 80s or early 90s. That's a time when they were making very inspiring manga. It's probably a generational thing. My generation was influenced by that time.
Manga has long been a standard form of literature in Japan, but only in the past few years has it become widespread in the U.S. Some American teachers are even using manga as teaching aids. Why are young people of our different cultures so affected by manga?
That's a very interesting point. I read Roland Kelts' book [JapanAmerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.] recently. I was intrigued by how Americans are influenced by Japan as much as Japan is influenced by America. It's all about exchange. Exchanging ideas. Then we create a new remix.
A sort of "cultural remix"…
Yes! It reminded me of when I had a residency at the Spence [high school in New York in 2008]. The kids really loved manga—Japanese comics. I asked why and the answer was "because the characters relate to me." Most American comics are very hero [oriented], but Japanese comics are more about feelings--more like real life. The teenagers I was teaching were struggling with their lives--some with race, some with home, some with school. I understood that from my own experience. I realized when young people read manga, they can find their feelings and release them--can release themselves.
During your residency, you are going to give drawing workshops for general public as well as high school students. What can people expect?
I want them to have a good time and to get inspired. I hope that I can teach them to open their minds and open themselves to what they want to create. We only have 2 hours in each session, so I will focus on how to draw faces. The face is the most expressive part of manga drawing.
How can manga drawing skills and styles help with other forms of art?
Wow! That's an interesting question. There is so much. I hope people of all different artistic backgrounds come to the workshops so we can learn together.
You are going to create an original manga based on the Japan Society exhibition Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters. How is it coming along.
I am working on the basic story now, but the manga will evolve in the process. I don't do storyboards, so it will come to life I draw. I plan to draw 20 pages a month for the three month exhibition, with new episodes going up every week online.
Can you tell us about the story?
It is about a student who comes to Japan Society as part of a school group. The student is an outcast, but becomes a hero and saves New York from monsters. It is a coming of age story. Of course influenced by Kuniyoshi and the exhibit.
I got a fast sneak peek from Joe [Earle, director of Japan Society Gallery]. There are too many to mention! I was amazed at all the techniques used in Teruuji at an abandoned temple--from the torn paper and figures to the floorboards and grasses. I love the neck line in Kabuki actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV as the ghost of Asakura Tōgo. In Japan, you never see the feet of ghosts in art. Kuniyoshi is respectful of this even in his portrait of a kabuki actor.
What about The Chinese warrior Zhang Heng?
I know! Demure but so powerful, especially when you realize he has the head of his enemy in his mouth. Were you familiar with Kuniyoshi before Japan Society approached you about the residency?
Very much so. I became familiar with Kuniyoshi when I first came to New York. I was looking at a book of ukiyo-e and was fascinated with his compositions, colorings, and his amazing imagination. It immediately interested me and related to what I try to do in comics. It surprised me how in so many ukiyo-e drawings you see the moment the character is moving. Like a snapshot. You see movement as a story in just one picture.
New York City and Japan Society are going to be locations in your original manga. When did you come to New York and when did you discover Japan Society?
I came to New York in May 2002. I came to Japan Society first in 2005. For a performance, I think. Then in 2007, I was asked to be part of Making a Home. It was an incredible experience. I am so humble that they used my drawing for the exhibition catalogue cover. There were so many great artists in the show that I knew. I also met some new ones.
What do you miss about Japan?
Food. I miss home-cooked food. I miss the beauty of Japanese culture. Politeness. Language. But especially I miss food. [Laughs.]
Is there any place you would go in New York for good food?
Sapporo East in the East Village.
I'll have to check it out. You recently provided illustrations for a new piece by choreographer Jeremy Wade. What was that experience like?
That was a super different experience. It was a great collaboration working with Jeremy Wade. It was my first time working with a choreographer. I had never been animated before and loved working with the animator. I would love to do it again if the opportunity came up.
In addition to the original manga, you are also going to create original artwork based on Kuniyoshi. What is that going to be?
I will select several works during the exhibition and create a painting based on that particular work. I am not doing just a copy of Kunisyohi. I will do something completely different, so people can take a piece of the project home with them.
Last question: what are you looking forward to most as Japan Society's first mangaka-in-residence?
I'm really looking forward to teaching and meeting new people. And I'm looking forward to learning—learning from the students, from the exhibition, from Kuniyoshi.
Interview by SJ. Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters opens today and runs though June 13, 2010. Image credits top-to-bottom: Collage 1 (l-r): Hiroki Otuska superimposed over his art, image courtesy of Kunstraum Richard Sorge; untitled (c) Hiroki Otsuaka. Collage 2: concept art for Jeremy Wade's "there is no end to more" (c) Hiroki Otsuka; "Evening Calm Union", 2007, part of Japan Society's 2007 centennial exhibition "Making a Home," (c) Hiroki Otsuka. Collage 3: detail of Utagawa Kuniyoshi's "Teruuji at an Abandoned Temple," 1849-51, color woodblock print, R: 14 7/8 x 10 in. C: 14 3/4 x 10 in. L: 14 7/8 x 10 in., American Friends of The British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) 18913, photo © Trustees of The British Museum; and "Chinese Warrior Zhang Heng," 1847-48, color woodblock print, 9 3/4 x 7 1/4 in., American Friends of The British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) 10221, photo © Trustees of The British Museum.