Manga magic from a girl who uses her melon

by Daniel Robson

Worth a reported ¥500 billion every year, Japan’s manga industry is a serious business. But not so for Saki Matsuzawa, a budding 12-year-old mangaka (comic book artist) who has created her own adorable interactive storybook, “Meron Pan no Ichi Nichi” (titled in English as “A Day of the Melon Bread”), with nary a glimpse of fevered ambition.

“I never intended to make or book or anything; it just happened naturally,” Matsuzawa says after lunch at her publisher Yayoi Seto’s beautiful Minami-Ashibara home. “I have a thick stack of character designs. I like drawing girls, and inventing characters. After I drew the ‘Meron Pan’ characters I realized that I needed a story to go with them, and it just came to me. I couldn’t do it if I had to force it out.”

“Meron Pan no Ichi Nichi” follows the daylong life of a sentient snack, from a ball of dough to the bakery shelf and beyond. Our hero is delighted to be alive and yet oddly keen to be eaten, and despairs as his brother breads are bought one by one while he languishes on the shelf. Will anyone buy Melon Bread before the day is out?

The story is illustrated with sweet characters that ooze personality, recalling not only traditional manga characters but also the slightly awry creations of Tim Burton in his book “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories” — an off-kilter, unusual look that makes them all the more memorable. Meron Pan himself runs a spectrum of emotions — excitement, joy, pain, rejection, frustration, sadness, relief. Indeed, when tears well up in Meron Pan’s eyes, it genuinely tugs at the heartstrings.

Matsuzawa created the “Meron Pan” story last year, and was soon discovered by Sakyou Takaishi, founder and executive editor of publisher JPS (Japan Publication Service). He passed word of Matsuzawa to Seto, the company’s president, and she in turn set her son Haruo, whose company Production C-Time produces computer animations and games, the task of turning Matsuzawa’s story into an interactive online storybook, somewhere between a manga and an animation.

So now, rather than simply turning pages and reading, readers can help cook Melon Bread and advance the animated story with mouse clicks, while reading along in Japanese, English or Korean (with more languages planned in future). So far, the Web site has received a staggering 14,800 visitors simply via word of mouth, and plans to release the story as a traditional comic book are afoot.

“I created the characters and the story last year,” explains Matsuzawa quietly. “I enjoyed watching Haruo animating my characters, but once it went online I wasn’t all that bothered, until my mom showed me how many people had looked at it.”

If she sounds blase about her success, well, maybe she is. She’s shy, having been diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), and despite her natural talent for drawing and writing stories, Matsuzawa is a girl who just wants to have fun. “I don’t care about the future at all. I don’t even think about it,” she says when asked about her next steps. “As long as I’m alive it’s OK.”

She considers this for a moment, then adds, “However, one thing I would like to learn more about is how to use computers for drawing.”

Matsuzawa’s knack with a story likely stems from her childhood, when her mother would read her 20 to 30 manga a day from the 1,000-plus in the family library, and a six-month stint of staying up all night watching anime and then sleeping all day. Last year she won second prize in a story contest held by Kid’s Express 21, a government scheme to encourage creativity among young people.

“My mom entered me into the contest,” laughs Matsuzawa. “I didn’t even know about it. So when they wrote to say I’d won second prize, I had no idea what they were talking about. My mom had to explain it to me. But I’m not that bothered about it. It wasn’t even first prize . . . “

Currently in the first year of middle school in her hometown of Tsurumaki, which she describes as a place brimming with nature and kind people, she enjoys “everything except science, history and social studies.”

“I especially enjoy studying Japanese,” she says, “although I don’t like learning kanji.’

And outside of school, her hobbies are typical of a quiet but smart girl: “I love reading manga — all sorts,” she says. “I don’t have a particular favorite. I also love playing videogames, like on the Nintendo Wii and Gamecube or the Sony PlayStation 2. Of course I love drawing. And sleeping! Sleeping’s great. I really like traveling too. I’ve been to Russia, Mexico and Korea. Each of them was wonderful, especially the food. I definitely want to visit those places again someday.”

Surprisingly for a girl who loves to write, Matsuzawa isn’t fond of reading novels, her attention wandering all too often before reaching the end. “I like reading short stories, but I never finish them,” she says. “Maybe I’ve only ever reached the end of a book once! I much prefer reading manga.”

And, as the “Meron Pan” story might suggest, she also loves to cook. During our visit, she and various members of the Seto family and friends make a huge pizza dough on the porch, kneading it with deafening blows on a wooden table.

Clearly such an idyllic upbringing works wonders for the creative soul; Matsuzawa is surrounded by warm, caring, nurturing people, and blessed with natural talent. She can go far. You know, if she feels like it.

Eri Nosaka assisted with this story. “Meron Pan no Ichi Nichi” can be found online at melon.ctime.jp/