The ANIMERICA Interview: Ryoichi 1/2

Rodgers and Hammerstein. Lerner and Lowe. Gilbert and Sullivan. When it comes to composing one-of-a-kind works of art, there's nothing like two creators joining their talents to create one unforgettable masterpiece. That's why some of the best writers in the industry these days are lining up for a chance to work with Japanese manga artist Ryoichi Ikegami.

Born in 1944 in Fukui, Japan, Ikegami began drawing his first comic series at the tender age of seventeen. Even then, Ikegami had the magic touch, and his first two collaborative efforts - AIUEO Boy with Kazuo Koike in 1973 and Gallant Gang ("Otoko Gumi") in 1974 with Tetsu Kariya - proved so popular they set the pattern for what would turn out to be one of the manga world's biggest success stories. Although many of his earlier works were written and drawn solo, nowadays Ikegami works almost exclusively with collaborators and shows no signs of stopping.

Viz Comics' publication of Ikegami and writer Kazuya Kudo's Mai the Psychic Girl back in May, 1987 helped to establish what would become an important new genre in the American comics scene - Japanese comics printed in English. As one of the first "manga" titles to be imported into the U.S. (Lone Wolf and Cub, Legend of Kamui and Area 88 were the other three), Mai was an important milestone in the English manga scene even though Ikegami says it "wasn't much of a hit" in its native Japan.

Two years later, English-speaking comic fans would have the chance to enjoy the AIUEO Boy reunion of Ikegami and Koike when Viz Comics published Crying Freeman in October, 1989. An intricate tale of international intrigue, the frankly depicted erotica of Crying Freeman dramatically underscored the point that not all comics are for children.

"Crying Freeman is not my cup of tea," says series translator Matt Thorn. "Why can't I stop reading it?" Thorn, whose translation credits include Ranma 1/2, Mermaid Forest, Maison Ikkoku as well as Ikegami's more recent series Sanctuary, describes Crying Freeman as a combination of "beauty and ugliness, violence and tenderness, passionate love and equally passionate hate, innocence and decadence, reality and fantasy, wakeness and dream."

"Together," Thorn says, "(Ikegami and Koike) create a self-contained aesthetic, a yin and yang balance of oppositions that is appealing not because it is all beautiful or all violent, but because beauty and violence complement each other so exquisitely, like the angel and a demon dancing a waltz in perfect form."

Sanctuary, written by Sho Fumimura (AKA "Buronson," author of Fist of the North Star, is one of Ikegami's most critically acclaimed series. Published by Viz in March, 1992, the socio-political thriller frequently (some say uncannily) mirrors real-world political scandals in the Japanese government and recently laid bare the links between the most powerful politicians and the leaders of organized crime that most Japanese have long assumed to exist, the resulting furor of which has led the now-total collapse of the most powerful faction of the Liberal Democratic Party.

In the American comic world, it's nothing new to have an entire team (writer, letterer, and inker) working on a single series. In Japan, where manga is thought to be a "one-man universe," an artist such as Ikegami who routinely works with a collaborating writer is unusual, to say the least. More than a mere illustrator, Ikegami has very definite ideas about how his stories should be told and likes to have a firm story idea in mind before looking for a series writer.

"The relationship between the writer and myself is similar to that between a screenwriter and a film director," says Ikegami. "Like a director, I decide upon the cast - in manga terms we call that 'character designs' - as well as the cuts or panel layouts in the series.

"Back when my style wasn't really established," Ikegami continues, "there were times when a writer was able to bring out certain talents of mine which I hadn't even know that I'd had. I have learned quite a lot from writers...I think that as a creator of manga I would have disappeared by now if not for them."

Ryoichi Ikegami is more than one-half of a creative team. Ikegami is a phenomenally talented artist whose dreams - and consequently, the dreams of his readers - are brought to life through his work. One half of nothing is still nothing, but in the case of Ryoichi Ikegami, the half definitely exceeds the whole.

Animerica: Let's begin with a little bit about your career. I understand you were very young when
you made your debut as an artist. Were you doing graphic novels right from the start?
Ikegami: I was seventeen or eighteen when I debuted. My start was in the "rental manga"
business, drawing a title in an anthology.
Animerica: I remember reading rental manga myself, back in the days when not many people
could actually afford to own manga. Were you still living in Osaka at the time?
Ikegami: Yes, I was.
Animerica: And then you came out to Tokoyo.
Ikegami: Here's what happened. Shigeru Mizuki [renowned creator of the spooky comedy
Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro - Ed.] saw a short story of mine called "Sense of Guilt," printed in the avant garde manga magazine Garo. Mizuki said to me, "If you really want to become a manga artist, why don't you come work as my assistant?" I was painting signs in Osaka at the time and I wasn't particularly thrilled with the business, so I went off to Tokoyo with no regrets.
Animerica: When was the first time your own work was published?
Ikegami: Let's see. I was twenty-two when I came to Tokoyo, and I worked with Mizuki for
two and a half years...I must have been twenty-four by the time my own work was printed in a magazine. While I was as his assistant I was still drawing my own stories, of course. When I finally got my own serial, I asked Mizuki for my freedom. That was late in my twenty-fourth year.
Animerica: What were the names of your earlier works?
Ikegami: The first was titled "Tracker," published in Shonen King magazine. Several of my
own original short stories followed in Kodansha's Shonen Magazine. In comparison to other artists working at the time, my style was very realistic. That's probably why I was approached by an editor at Shonen Magazine Extra to do one hundred pages of a Japanese version of the American comic Spider-man. Since I don't read English, a gentleman named Kosei Ono translated it for me. We got all the way up to the fifth issue before the cultural differences sort of did us in.
Animerica: There were a few changes from Ono's literal translation, weren't there? My
understanding was that you restructured it for the Japanese version.
Ikegami: That's right. I created an original main character named "Yu Komori" and tried to
integrate him into the American story, but that didn't go over too well with the Japanese readers. The editors finally decided to ask the Japanese science fiction writer Kazumasa Hirai to write scripts for us, creating a story more tailored to a Japanese audience. The popularity picked up a bit after that, but as a series it never really became a big success.
Animerica: What did you work on after Spider-man ended?
Ikegami: I did a story called "Rin Alone" for Shonen Magazine based on a script by Tetsu
Kariya [currently writing the gourmet manga series Oishinbo - Ed.] His pen name was different back then, but it was Kariya all right. After that, I started AIUEO Boy with Kazuo Koike. AIUEO Boy wasn't a manga magazine story; it was published in Weekly Gendai, one of the major general-interest magazines. An editor from Shonen Sunday approached me saying that he liked my style and wanted to see if that realistic touch could work in a boys' magazine. That's how Gallant Gang got started. Let me tell you, Gallant Gang really stood out in that magazine...all the other manga were so stylized and cartoony.
Animerica: I remember that I felt the same way when Gallant Gang started. That was around
the time AIUEO Boy switched publishers, right?
Ikegami: Yes. AIUEO Boy was never one of Weekly Gendai's more popular titles, and they
were kind of giving up on the series anyway, so that's when Koike said to me that he'd like to start over again with Shogakukan. That's why we switched right in the middle of the series to the Shogakukan pictoral magazine, Goro.
Animerica: And then Gallant Gang became a big hit. It ran for about four years, right?
Ikegami: Yes. And my name became pretty well-known.
Animerica: After that you started Blue Sky Gang ["Otoko Ozora," lit. "big sky," implying
"lofty goals and endless possibilities" - Ed.]. That continued for some time too, didn't it?
Ikegami: Blue Sky Gang was really nothing more than a rehash of Gallant Gang. I'm not
quite sure how many stories I did in the boys' magazines after that, but none of them were ever quite as popular as Gallant Gang.
Animerica: And then there was Mai. Was Mai the Psychic Girl the first story in which your
main character was a girl?
Ikegami: Yes. But I think Kazuya Kudo, who wrote the script, should share some of the credit
for that.
Animerica: Until then it was all a man's world.
Ikegami: Yes. I talked with my editor at Shonen Sunday before taking the idea to Kudo. The
original idea was to base the character on the Buddhist figure known as "Miruko" or "Maitreya," a Bodhisattva supposed to come to Earth as a savior three billion years in the future. By mistake, he comes to present day Earth. He also comes as a girl.
Animerica: In Mai, psychic power is depicted as manifesting in many different ways. Did you
come up with those variations while talking with Kudo?
Ikegami: Sure. But I also think that Kudo and I must have had the American movie Firestarter
lurking around somewhere in our minds. We didn't want our story to be too close to that, so we came up with a story in which psychically gifted boys and girls could come together to build a new world.
Animerica: There's a character named "Tsukiro," who became a mutant after being experimented
on with radiation. Did you have him in mind when you came up with the story for Mai?
Ikegami: Oh, I think special-effects movies like Star Wars are to blame for that one
Animerica: Do you go to the movies often?
Ikegami: Sure, all the time. They have a great influence on my work. I probably see all the
American films shown in Japan.
Animerica: What did you do after Mai?
Ikegami: I gave up on trying to top the popularity of Gallant Gang in the boy's magazines. I
started a new story called Wounded Soul ["Kizuyoi Bito" - Ed.] in Spirits magazine. That became a moderate hit.
Animerica: Another story with script by Koike.
Ikegami: Yes. When Wounded Soul was over, I started wondering if I could re-enter the
world of manly romance once more. And that's how Crying Freeman started.
Animerica: The graphically depicted sexuality in Crying Freeman was a bit of a problem for us
in America. We did everything we possibly could to clearly label it as for "mature audiences only," but there are still some states which won't touch it with a ten-foot pole.
Ikegami: The sexuality was a problem for us in Japan as well. Certain members of the Japanese
media had tagged it as "poisonous" [LAUGHS]. Sure, if you only concentrate on bits and pieces, of course it's going to look lurid. You have to see the work as a whole.
Animerica: The sex and violence is just a part of the whole story.
Ikegami: Exactly. We are talking entertainment here, after all. Sure, it's got some sex and
violence, but Crying Freeman is more than that...if you read it as a whole, you'll realize that it's a story about the dangerous romance of a man's world.
Animerica: It's definitely romantic. The first two volumes of the compilation read more like a love
Ikegami: I like the first two volumes best myself.
Animerica: What did you do after Freeman?
Ikegami: There was a story called "Offered." Just like my days in the boys' magazines, it wasn't
very popular.
Animerica: Well, as I recall, the story was a bit difficult to grasp.
Ikegami: Well, you know Koike...he just loves historicals. He'd wanted to do something
dealing with the theory that modern-day Japan and Prussia descend from the same ancestral origins. That's not the kind of story my readers expect from me, though. They expect good-looking, powerful men and beautiful, sexy women. When I do something outside of the manly romance genre, for some reason the stories don't do very well.
Animerica: And then...?
Ikegami: Next was Sanctuary with Sho Fumimura. The idea was to depict something different
from Freeman, create a different kind of man. The series is actually selling pretty well - I think it'll become a big hit.
Animerica: I'm sure the best parts are yet to come. It's a fascinating premise.
Ikegami: That's right, and there's more to come! Back when we started Sanctuary, the
Japanese economy was still booming. The young people of those days - not that they're so different now, mind you - weren't up to putting their lives on the line to accomplish something they believed in. Fumimura and I thought that in order to make a convincing motive for the story, we'd have to make them returnees from the killing fields in Cambodia. It also made them just about the right age.
Animerica: If it weren't for that unusual premise, Asami and Hojo would be nothing more than
two megalomaniacs [LAUGHS]. It explains why they've become the way they are, and where they got the drive to make others follow them. The tie-ins with real-world political scandals don't hurt any, either.
Ikegami: Yes. It's like I said before, my manga is always expected to be realistic. It's never
popular when the story is complete fiction. In Freeman, for example, readers expect me to depict the 108 Dragons as though they really existed. In Sanctuary, even though the current political structure or the new anti-organized crime law don't come up by name, they're definitely intertwined with the story.
Animerica: In your original version the ruling political party is known as the "Democratic Liberal
Party." In the English version, it's been translated back to the "Liberal Democratic Party," just like in real-life. I think the idea was that a touch of reality would play better in the American market.
Ikegami: An American reader once asked me if we'd had any complaints from politicians.
What the reader didn't realize was that in Japan, it's enough just to change the story around a bit and slap a disclaimer on it. You can bet there would've been trouble aplenty if we dared to use characters with recognizable faces, though! [LAUGHS]
Animerica: While it's true that Sanctuary's story may only be "inspired" by real-world headlines,
it does seem as though events which happen in the manga also happen in the real world.
Ikegami: They could very well be true. Making it seem as though it could happen in "real-life" is
probably the most ideal situation a manga artist could hope for.
Animerica: What kind of story are you working on these days?
Ikegami: Well, aside from Sanctuary, I'm working on a new story with a female writer named
Soko Ieda scheduled to start very soon in Big Comic Spirit. I've been ill recently and just can't keep up with the weekly schedule anymore, so it'll have to be a monthly serial in a weekly magazine. It's very interesting - we're planning a female main character modeled after the French film, La Femme Nikita.
Animerica: Here's a question often asked by American fans. In manga, the story and art are
usually done by a single person. In the U.S. comics industry, two or more people work together on a single title. Back in your earlier works you wrote your own stories. How is it that you came to work so extensively with collaborators?
Ikegami: In the beginning, I did a number of short stories by myself for various magazines.
Eventually I noticed that these solo stories were turning out to be very downbeat and not very entertaining. I could never entirely swallow the idea of happy endings, you know...probably this penchant for the dark reflects itself in my work. So that's when I started actively looking for collaborators.
Animerica: Even when you're working with a collaborator, don't you usually come up with the
original ideas yourself?
Ikegami: That's how it is now, but it wasn't always like that. It wasn't until my own style
became more established that I began to search for stories suited to the way I wanted to draw. For example, I think the reason I'm able to portray the manly romance of Crying Freeman is the power of Koike's script. Surely somewhere, I must have had it in me all along, but I don't think I ever would've been able to visualize it without his help. It was Koike who helped me see Freeman.
Animerica: What's it like to work with collaborators? How specific are they in giving details?
Ikegami: It all depends on the writer. Someone familiar with manga who got into writing
because he couldn't be an artist is likely to create a script so meticulous, he's probably already got the panel layout in his mind. Some writers create scripts as though they were novels. Either way, it ends up being like a movie script, with actual choreography and panel layout left up to me.
Animerica: Both Wounded Soul and Crying Freeman have been animated. What's your
impression of these animated versions?
Ikegami: I thought Wounded Soul might have been a little strained technically, but it got better
as the animators got used to the style. By the time the fifth volume of Crying Freeman came out, I'm happy to say I was completely satisfied with the work. It can be such a pleasure to see your works animated! Since I draw nothing but static art, it always amazes me to see the characters I've created move [LAUGHS].
Animerica: You've got something of a reputation as an American comics fan. Which artists do
you like?
Ikegami: I've been a fan of American comics since before I worked on Spider-man, but I
didn't fall in love until I started studying Neal Adams [currently working on DC's Deathwatch - Ed.]. I am deeply impressed by his sketches. I've collected all his works, I think, not only Spider-man but Batman and Superman, too. I'd love to get his autograph.
Animerica: You've got a number of your own fans in the U.S.' especially female fans. Your Mai
the Psychic Girl and Crying Freeman seem to be among the most popular. What feelings do you have about your overseas success?
Ikegami: As you know, Mai was one of the first shonen manga to feature a girl in the lead role.
I'm pleased to hear that Freeman is getting read by American women...I think I can understand why they find it appealing, especially that very romantic love story in the first two volumes. I understand that romance novels such as the Harlequin series are very popular in the U.S. They're not so different from shojo manga, you know. I think that if shojo manga were to be introduced on a wider scale to the U.S., English-language publishers of manga could attract an incredible amount of new female readers.

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