Toren Smith's Interview with Masamune Shirow

Hello, welcome to Toren Smith's first of two interviews with Manga god, Masamune Shirow. This is uncut, and reprinted here with Mr. Smiths' permission. To learn more about Mr. Smith , and his work, go to the Studio Proteus Homepage . Thank you, and enjoy!

I met Shirow at the Kobe Oriental Hotel on October 21, 1994, together with Harumichi Aoki, the president of Seishinsha (publishers of Appleseed and Orion), and Shirow's long-time editor and friend, Shigehiko Ogasawara. Shirow's hardly changed since I first met him back in 1987 (except he's gained a little weight--but hey, I'm not one to talk).

Kobe is a small, clean port town in the southern part of Honshu, Japan's main island. Since the bulk of Japan's comics artists live within easy commuting distance of Tokyo, I asked why Shirow has chosen to base himself in Kobe, almost four hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen ("Bullet Train").

Masamune Shirow: It's peaceful. I tend to require isolation for my work, and I prefer a peaceful, meditative environment. Tokyo is too "high-voltage" for me. How about American comics artists? Is there somewhere they tend to live?

Toren Smith: It used to be true that in order to be a comics artist, you pretty much had to live in New York or nearby. In those days, Marvel and DC pretty much ruled the roost, and if you weren't easily available for story conferences and to hang out with the editors, you had a hard time getting work. Often, in fact, the artists worked in the actual offices of the publisher. FedEx, fax machines, and the increasing power of artists changed all that.

MS: So American artists pretty much live where they want these days?

TS: Pretty much. Most companies tend to gather an enclave nearby, though--Dark Horse in particular. Mike Richardson likes to have his "family" close by, so to speak. So, in your "peaceful, meditative" home in Kobe, do you have any assistants that come in regularly? I've heard conflicting reports.

MS: I work alone. Practically the only visitors are Aoki and Ogasawara.

TS: So was the decision to work without assistants an artistic decision, or were you simply filling the local asylum with raving lunatic assistants, their minds broken from trying to work on your rather difficult pages?

MS: [laughs] How did you know? A little bit of an artistic decision, but actually the problem was more plebeian. It was very difficult for me to find good assistants in a place like Kobe. And when I did find someone good, I really couldn't keep them busy. Since there aren't too many artists here, the poor fellow would practically starve. If my studio was more like the traditional "comics factory," I'd have no problems, but since that isn't the case....

TS: So your situation is quite different from, say, Johji Manabe's [artist of Outlanders and Caravan Kidd] studio, where he has two full-time assistants working for him.

MS: Yeah...but he's producing a lot more work than me.

TS: Over 120 pages a month, last I heard. [horrified reaction from all present]. The Dominion "side story" that you did ["Phantom of the Audience," published by Dark Horse in March 1994] has a very different look from the rest of the series, and I was wondering if that was because it was partially inked by an assistant.

MS: Well, not was inked by a different person, but not an assistant--it was inked by the "other Masamune Shirow."

TS: ???

MS: I was just in a peculiar mental state at the time....

TS: Ah...I see. There was widespread speculation in manga fandom that you just penciled it, and one of your old assistants--maybe Kotetsu Hagane--had inked it.

MS: My evil twin. [laughs].

TS: It's not that it looks bad, just different. Anyway, so recently you stopped working on Appleseed 5, and started on Dominion 2 instead. However, even Dominion 2 seems to be temporarily on hold now. So what actually are you working on now, other than Neurohard? [here Ogasawara broke in]

Shigehiko Ogasawara: Can you believe it? He's done over 45 full-color paintings since the release of Intron Depot 1 [July of 1993].

TS: He said it would be ten years before Intron Depot 2!

SO: Now we're looking at maybe 1996.

TS: Oh, lord...I'm not ready. [everybody laughs except Smith].

MS: Sorry about that. [laughs] The major part of my work now is still Dominion 2. As a straightforward "story comic," that's pretty much it. Of course I'm still doing Neurohard, which will be about 80 pages all together when finished.

[Neurohard, currently running in Fujimi Shobo's monthly comic Dragon, is a unique series. Shirow is basically "worldbuilding," and publishing 8 pages per month of notes, sketches, and text describing the world and characters of Neurohard. When it's finished, he intends to open the world of Neurohard up to other artists and writers to work in.]

Also, I'm working on conceptual designs and stories for use in animation and computer games. If I create a regular "story comic," it can't really be adapted to animation or games without radical changes. So rather than offering a completed story to the various companies that have expressed interest in my work, I'm just putting together "do it yourself" packets of various bits and pieces--mechanical design, basic storylines, character designs, like that. So from that, they can go nuts and develop whatever they want, without being restricted by the existing work.

TS: Similar to what Syd Mead, Ron Cobb, and Moebius do for movie projects.

MS: It's pretty much like my work on Neurohard, which I hope to see as animation at some point. For my part, what I've done with Neurohard in Dragon is a completed work--I'm finished. Others can take it and run with it, now.

TS: Maybe when you're done, we can have Adam Warren do a Neurohard series. He's probably be up for say the least!

MS: Boy, I'd love to see that.

SO: If Adam has enough courage...

TS: Adam has a lot of courage! You've seen SimHell? Case closed! [everybody laughs]

So the next thing fans should see from you in English is Kokaku Kidotai [Ghost in the Shell], sometime in 1994. After that should be Dominion, but beyond that, what should we expect to see? Another Ghost in the Shell series? Appleseed 5?

MS: After I finish Dominion 2, I'm planning to do one or two more episodes of Ghost in the Shell, maybe 30 pages each. After that, I'm not 100% certain of what I'll be doing. As for Appleseed 5....[laughs and shrugs]

TS: I'm just working on the Appleseed Databook right now [now available from Dark Horse] which came out in what, 1989? And in that, you say that we can expect Appleseed 5 in "the near future." I got a good laugh out of that when I read it. [everybody laughs] Perhaps you'd like to add a footnote to the English-language edition...maybe something like "just kidding, folks!"

MS: Hmm...that's "near future" in Kobe time. I do feel sorry for my readers, though...many apologies!

TS: Your American fans are rather impatiently demanding "more Shirow comics," at conventions, in letters, and on the phone. They can be, ah, somewhat excitable about it.

MS: The Japanese fans are just the same, so don't worry.

TS: Maybe that's another reason you live in Kobe.

MS: Figured it out, did you? [laughs]

TS: It's been very interesting working on the Databook material, and getting insights into what I suppose you could call your "fiendish master plan," such as it is, for Appleseed. It does tend to raise some questions, however...

MS: you're going to ask the hard questions. Now I'm scared!

TS: Sorry about that! For example, on the timeline chart in the Databook, the "real" history of the world, as opposed to the "Appleseed history," diverges sometime in 1988. Are you basically relying totally on your "new history," or are you making any effort to bring in elements of current events?

MS: Not a thing. As you can see, it starts by diverging pretty significantly, and heads into the stratosphere after that. I fully intend to keep it that way. Who wants to be at the mercy of current events?

TS: I definitely sympathize. When I was scripting my Terminator series [Terminator: Hunters and Killers], which takes place in the old Soviet Union, the breakdown of the USSR was taking place at the time. Sometimes I had to call up the letterer and have her redo a balloon or two before it went off to be printed.

MS: Too exciting for me. Better to make it all up, don't you think?

TS: I've learned my lesson, that's for sure. Looking at the future world that you predict, there seems to be an interesting contrast between your extreme pessimism on one hand, with destruction of the environment, global thermonuclear war, etc., and yet on the other hand, you seem to be very optimistic--you foresee antigravity, practical applications of nanotechnology, the creation of a functional utopia. So what do you really think is going to happen? Do you foresee destruction or utopia?

MS: Of course I want it to be a utopia.

TS: But there's a big difference between "wanting," and....

MS: The general tendency of the world seems to be for destruction, but there are isolated pockets of true progress here and there. Still, I can't be too optimistic. Human nature seems to be depressingly self-serving.

TS: One of the points you make in the Databook is the exhaustion of the world's resources. But on the other hand, you predict effective and widespread use of nanotechnology. Don't you believe that the harnessing of nanotechnology would create almost limitless resources?

MS: No. I believe that nanotechnology, at least in the foreseeable future, will consume, not create, resources. I firmly believe we should pursue natural energy sources, such as geothermal, solar, that sort of thing. If resources are conserved, just to be utilized by some other sort of technology, nothing has been gained.

TS: Still, the history of mankind, up to now, has really been about creation of resources, largely through more efficient creation and use of energy. We could never support our present society on the energy from burning wood. We needed to exploit higher energy densities, for example, from petrochemicals and nuclear fission. Future use of even higher energy densities will allow more advanced technologies--which have always, historically, created or made available more resources.

MS: Well, that's true as far as it goes. Perhaps I just don't believe that nanotechnology will progress far enough, soon enough to help us in that way.

TS: One of the interesting hypothesis you explore in Appleseed is the concept of a utopia that contains individual freedoms. Have you read Thomas More's Utopia? One of the conclusions that More comes to is that you cannot have a utopia that has any significant degree of personal freedom for the inhabitants. And yet, you say one of the key aspects of Olympus is personal freedom.

MS: My vision of "utopia" is not what you'd call a true utopia, or at least not More's utopia. I believe that there can be no utopia if we are required to change our personalities or behavior. My ultimate ideas for a perfect world are expressed in Neurohard, but I also feel the Appleseed world represents, well, another sort of utopia. Utopia isn't just one thing to me.

TS: But if you don't have a consensus of opinion in society, if everyone doesn't want the same thing, then you're going to have conflicts. And if you have conflicts, you no longer have a utopia.

MS: I have, to a certain extent, addressed that point in Appleseed 2. The whole "Gaia incident" revolves around the idea that the only way to approach a true utopia is to replace everyone with bioroids. But again, my utopia is not More's. To me, one of the fundamental improvements over present day society would be the resolution of conflicts through negotiation, rather than violence or war. So, instead of eliminating personal differences, we could learn to coexist peacefully despite them.

The Council and Gaia believe that an all-bioroid society is the only hope for utopia. I don't. My keyword would be "tolerance." If different people have enough tolerance for each other, utopia can be realized. The history of industrialized societies is rather short, as a part of mankind's history, so we'll probably have to take a long time to establish that level of tolerance.

TS: In any case, your utopia can't be too much like a utopia, or there'll be nothing for Deunan and Briareos to do.

MS: Just unemployment, maybe! [laughs]

TS: Larry Niven reached the same conclusion in his Known Space series. In the far future, a perfect utopian future, there are no stories to write because there's no conflict.

MS: Well, utopia won't be reached in Olympus within Deunan's lifetime.

TS: Especially since as an "endangered species," an original human, she's not eligible for life extensions. One more tough question, then I'll lighten up a little. [everybody laughs]

Once you accept that you have functioning nanotechnology, the gap between effective nanotechnology and magic is very narrow. What can be done with fully developed nanotechnology is, well, inconceivable. It would change society in fundamental ways--no one would have to work, no one would have to die. Society would change so completely it would be essentially unrecognizable. So, are you deliberately limiting the capabilities of nanotechnology in Appleseed to avoid this problem?

MS: In the Appleseed world, nanotechnology is still a fledgling technology. I mean, we really have no way of telling whether or not, as our knowledge increases, a huge stumbling block may appear in our way, with regard to nanotechnology. Perhaps a economic problem, a technical problem, a problem with the basic physical model. Any kind of problem could appear. So I'm taking a very conservative approach to nanotechnological development, based on present state of the art, extrapolated into the near future. I'm assuming that there will be no quantum leaps, that development will be linear. Neurohard takes a slightly more optimistic view.

TS: One of the key areas of inquiry for your American fans, and I'm sure it's the same in Japan, is concerning your artistic techniques. A lot of your fans are artists, or would like to be, and they have a lot of questions about "how you do it."

MS: I use a type of smooth surface Kent paper, pretty much the same sort of paper every manga artist uses. The particular type I chose is a fairly cheap paper, with a bit more tooth than is usual for Kent paper. Seishinsha has it overprinted with non-photo blue rulings. I don't actually remember the maker. So it's pretty much custom made.

TS: A grave disappointment for your fans.

SO: Maybe we ought to sell packages of "genuine Shirow paper." [everybody laughs; Aoki looks thoughtful.]

TS: I can see it all now: Shirow "Signature Model" pens; paper, screentone, ink...we'll be rich!

SO: We can hold weekend retreats, where the aspiring artists have to undergo severe training...bathing in ice water, ten mile runs, that sort of thing. [everybody laughs]

TS: One of the problems Adam had when adapting some of Shirow's techniques, is that Japanese screentone is made to stick to smooth paper. It doesn't stick very well to the sort of rough paper he's used to, so he needs to really burnish it down.

MS: I usually use Maxon screentone, mostly 60 line, 10%, 20%, 30%. A long time ago I bought several cases of my favorite types, so I'm still using that. Some may not even be available anymore.

TS: Pens. Do you use a maru-pen [roughly equivalent to a crow-quill pen], or different kinds?

MS: Almost exclusively a kabura [turnip-shaped] pen. Unfortunately, the type I use is no longer in production. I bought a bunch when I heard that. I'm currently testing potential replacements.

TS: Maybe you should ask Seishinsha to have them custom made for part of the Shirow Signature line. [Aoki looks horrified; Ogasawara looks thoughtful; Shirow laughs.]

MS: Seems like there's no good news for my fans. Everything is unobtainable! Sorry about that. Even my pen holder is custom made. Kabura pens are rather long, so I made my own holder so that my fingers are closer to the tip. Regular holders keep my fingers too far away from the point.

TS: Have you ever used a G-pen [the most common pen tip used by manga artists]?

MS: Only when I was doing fanzines.

TS: Anything special about the ink?

MS: Just plain old sumi ink. I water it down a bit more, though.

TS: Do you use tech pens, like Rotrings?

MS: I find that they tend to clog, because of the paper I use. So, no.

TS: Do you have any secret techniques for your screentone work? Do you just scratch it with a regular art knife, or do you use an electric eraser?

MS: Just a plain old X-Acto, usually. Electric erasers produce nice effects, but they don't seem to reproduce well, so you have to be careful. For some special effects, like clouds, I use a scalpel that's designed for dissecting insects.

TS: [laughs] Where in the hell did your find that? Do you have a whole set? Is dissecting insects your hobby or something?

MS: [laughs] No, no. I just had this catalogue of weird art tools. It was in that. I'm always looking for stuff I can use.

TS: You ought to take a look at eye surgery instruments. Might be kind of expensive, though.

MS: Interesting idea. I'll check it out.

TS: If nothing else, it would have great shock value. When I was looking at the original art for Appleseed 3 several years ago, I noticed one panel in particular [page 94, panel 2] that was very heavily layered--several layers of screentone, plus ink and whiteout. The original was almost 3-dimensional. Is it common for you to do that, and does it ever lead to reproduction problems?

MS: I did a lot of it in Appleseed 3, but recently I've almost quit. It has a tendency to get damaged easily, for one reason. Anyway, I've recently found I can produce practically the same effect with an electric eraser. Besides, my recent linework has gotten so fine, it would probably be lost under multiple layers of tone.

TS: In your color work, I noticed you began using color xeroxes as elements of the art. Where are your sources for the xeroxes?

MS: Yeah, it's a great toy. It's a Canon. Sometimes I draw or paint the patterns, then manipulate them using the copier, and sometimes I copy real things--like kimono fabric. Sometimes I use photos I've shot, sometimes I copy out of fabric sample books. Different places.

TS: When you're beginning work on a new story, do you write it down as a prose story, or do you work directly into thumbnails or layouts?

MS: It depends. In the case of Neurohard, prose. Appleseed goes directly into layouts.

TS: Ogasawara tells me you often produce several versions of a page before settling on the final version, sometimes even replacing panels just before publication.

MS: When I was doing Appleseed 3 and 4, it was common for me to throw away three or four finished versions of a page. I've improved now, so I usually only throw away pencils.

TS: You mean you were actually throwing out finished, inked pages?!

MS: Yeah.

TS: That's, uh, that's very unusual. I can guarantee a strong reaction from your fans, especially Adam and the Gaijin Studios boys to that particular bit of information. First they'll say "Oh, my god," then they'll say "Does he still have them?"

MS: I used some of them in the Databook. You know that Miyazaki throws away painted pages?

TS: Yes, I've seen that, when he was working on Totoro. It's enough to break your heart, that's for sure. It's amazing the fans haven't learned to raid his garbage cans. If he'd left me alone for two minutes, my briefcase would have been full.

SO: I think I'll sneak in disguised as a cleaner. [everybody laughs]

TS: Well, I supposed we'd better wrap this train leaves pretty soon. Any closing comments?

MS: I'd just like to say that I really appreciate my foreign fans, and their interest in my work. They've been very patient, and I feel sorry that they're going to have to wait for so long for Appleseed 5.

TS: I think I can speak for all of his fans if I say that they'd rather have it good, than soon.

Harumichi Aoki: Good and soon is the best. [everybody laughs]

TS: I'll send you a big lock to put on the outside of Shirow's house.

SO: Please!

Thanks to Harumichi Aoki and Shigehiko Ogasawara of Seishinsha for setting up the interview, and to Nozomi Omori, the Studio Proteus agent in Japan, for his assistance.

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