Studio Proteus: How would you describe your background?
Masamune Shirow: One way you can look at it is that since I was born in 1961 in Japan, I am a member of the color TV generation; it first appeared and became popular while I was growing up. As for Kobe, it is a long, narrow city hemmed in by mountains and the ocean, at the corner of an industrial region that stretches out from Osaka, Japan's second largest metropolis. Kobe is the second largest port city next to Yokohama, and historically it was an early port of entry for Western culture. In Japan today Kobe has a reputation of being a tourist city.
When I made my debut with Appleseed, I lived only a few meters from the breakwater, but I drew The Ghost in the Shell while living in a town in the mountains about nine kilometers from the sea, and I continue to live there today.
[Following the destruction of his home and studio by the Hanshin earthquake, Shirow has since moved, but still lives in Kobe.]
SP: What did you do prior to your professional debut as an artist?
MS: When I was in elementary school I used to do water colors without thinking about it much, and for fun I often went out to draw in the local mountains or at the seashore--taking complicated illustrated reference books with me that I didn't really understand at all. When I was in junior high and high school I didn't draw much, and I instead devoted myself to sports (judo).
Since I was fond of art, though, I later chose to enter the Osaka University of Arts, and I studied oil painting there. In college I met a friend who was a manga fan and was also doing self-publishing. And that's how someone like me--who had never even bought a manga magazine before--wound up drawing them.
Perhaps because of this, there's very little of the usual manga "know-how" in my work. Some people kindly refer to my style as "unique," but others say it's immature and lacking in understanding of some important and basic points that would make it more commercial.
At any rate, after drawing manga for around two years, I was able to issue Black Magic--my first manga paperback--through the self-publishing group to which I belonged. Black Magic was noticed by a man named Harumichi Aoki, who is the president of a small publishing firm in Osaka called Seishinsha, and he invited me to make my official debut from his company. Thus began my first contact with the real manga world.
Since I wanted to concentrate on painting until I graduated from college, I had Mr. Aoki wait for a while. Then, upon graduation, in 1985, I drew Appleseed specifically for his company, Seishinsha, and made my commercial debut. Unlike others, I thus began my career never having working as an "assistant" for an established artist, and never having gone through the arduous process of submitting work to publishers as an unknown.
I loved to draw and create stories and do research, and I knew that I wanted to enter a profession where I could do all those things, but it took a while after my debut for me to realize that this is, after all, what a comic artist is really all about.
In parallel with my manga debut with Appleseed, I also became a high school teacher. I taught for five years, but I eventually realized that school education merely demands that teachers transmit information, and that I could have a much more direct and deeper dialog with people as a manga artist, so I'm now taking a break from teaching. Around the time I stopped teaching I began drawing The Ghost in the Shell and Orion (Seishinsha), and that brings us up to the present.
Since my debut, I've been supported by many people and by fortunate circumstances around me, and I feel that I've been incredibly lucky. I'm enormously grateful, for example, for all those at Studio Proteus and Dark Horse who have helped make it possible for my works to be read by my fans in America.
SP: What are your primary influences?
MS: Rather than manga, I think I've been more influenced by animation and TV dramas (especially those from the U.S. and the U.K.). Gundam is an example that comes to mind of one influential animation work.
Of course I do believe that my work is original in its own way, but there's always some past experience or memory that triggers the ideas I come up with. I may be able to build on ideas, to adapt them, and thus come up with something new, but I have doubts about whether it's truly possible for anyone to create something completely new and original.
Emphasizing a combination of females and mecha, as I do, is something that's been around for a long time, and neither the idea of cyberbrains nor Special Forces units are themselves new, either. But as with cooking, even if the ingredients are the same, the way they are mixed together and the goal of the person doing the mixing creates a different flavor. In that sense, if the result of cooking can be called original, so, too, can my work. I always try to draw manga that are true to myself.
SP: Are there any foreign artists whose work you particularly enjoy?
MS: Unfortunately, there are very few non-Japanese comics sold in Japan, so we have very little opportunity to get to know foreign artists. I'm really happy that I've recently, finally, been able to obtain DC Comics' Arkham Asylum and Moebius' Made in L.A., but I've only been able to catch three episodes of Max Cabanes' Colin-Maillard, which was serialized in one of Kodansha's magazines. Someday when I can find the time I want to take a vacation and tour bookstores throughout Europe scouting for comics.
SP: Would you ever consider working off another writer's script?
MS: I personally like working alone. I like thinking up my stories (even if I'm not very good at it...). Whether using scripts is good or bad is a case-by-case situation, and it would depend on each writer's circumstances and involve some judgment. (From my experience, though, script writers all too easily specify "a young girl so beautiful one falls in love at first sight" or "a heroic clash of mounted armies," and frankly as the person who has to draw the pictures, I'm not very interested in working with them then. Of course, it does depend on the writer, though).
SP: How do you view the relationship between manga and animation?
MS: I do believe that commercial success with manga makes it much easier to get animation projects off the ground. But there are too many people who think that they only have to do a half-way decent job of animating the drawings of a best-selling manga, and I don't agree. I think there are ways to demonstrate and produce animation that are unique to animation. Also, in order to establish animation as a truly unique medium of expression, I think it's better to work from an original concept than to base the work on a manga, or, if producing animation based on a manga work, I think it's better to at least rewrite the story for the animation.
It's also true that there are some manga that are truly superb when read, but that are not necessarily suited for animation because of their pacing, style, or length of story. Rather than stressing the "animation of manga," I think it's better to evaluate each work on it's own merits (as either manga or animation), and see whether it is good, or whether there is room for improvement.
SP: What do you consider your best work?
MS: I think of my works as my own children, so they're all equally precious to me, and I can't say which is best. But in an overall sense I suppose that Appleseed stands out the most.SP: What do you do in your spare time?
MS: I take photographs of spiders and make paper-mache figures (unfortunately, I haven't been doing much of this recently). Since I have always loved to draw, it's hard for me to differentiate between work and play.
SP: Some of your color work includes very unusual textures. Do you achieve these effects by using the Canon copier you mentioned earlier?
MS: Yes, I use the color copy machine and copy rock or metallic images onto a "transparent film with an adhesive on one side," (reversing or flipping positive and negative images, altering colors, and changing sizes), and then cut and paste them into the drawing. I usually use acrylic paint and apply several thin layers... I avoid a high contrast look with sketches, because when I draw very realistically "the flat, deformed, and unrealistic-looking" faces of my characters tend to dissolve into the surroundings there, and appear odd.
SP: Do you work together with anyone?
MS: I still have no drawing assistants or special manga production staff. For business matters such as accounting, handling rights, and general negotiations, I have formed a company, however. This allows me to leave business matters up to the company and to concentrate on my creative work. As far as my comics are concerned, it's easier for me to work on my own.
SP: How much money do manga artists in Japan make?
MS: Manga are quite established as a creative medium in Japan--although they are not given a great deal of public recognition--and there are many different genres. There is also a vast gap between the lowest and the highest incomes of manga artists. (For your information, although Japan is said to be an economic superpower, it is really the corporations that have all the money, and not the individual citizens. Japan is a peaceful and fortunate place, all right, but to buy a house typically takes between 20 to 30 times the average white-collar worker's annual pay).
According to a rumor I have heard (and I can't guarantee its veracity), the annual income of a certain top manga artist is $3 million (perhaps half of this is taken by taxes, but it's still more than 70 times the average white collar worker's annual pay!) and the lowest annual income is around $500 (which would obviously require depending on one's family). But with a page rate of $100, a thirty-page work serialized in a monthly magazine for a year comes to around $36,000, or almost the same as the average salaried employee's annual wage of $40,000. And once the artist draws 200 to 300 pages, he or she can issue a paperback volume and enjoy royalties as well, with almost no limit as long as the work sells well.
Major publishers usually demand that artists produce between 20 to 30 pages a week, and they pay more than $100 per page. Artists are also generally paid between $500 and $5000 for the rights to use a single illustration for a video game package, etc., so with talent and luck (depending on whether the masses love you or not), you can see that it can be considerably more profitable to work as a manga artist than as the salaried employee of a company. Nonetheless, things don't always go the way you expect in this business, so being a manga artist is definitely an occupation with a considerable element of gambling to it.
Finally, it takes considerable expense to hire the multiple assistants necessary to meet the volume-production demanded by publishers, and to set up and maintain a studio. You have to do good work in order to succeed commercially, but whether you'll succeed commercially just by doing good work involves a gamble.
For The Ghost in the Shell I drew an average of forty pages per episode and it took me around forty days to do one episode. But the number of hours I can work, and the efficiency of my work fluctuates, so it's not always possible to do a page a day. It's a real struggle simply to adjust my schedule to "meet the deadlines"...!