Cartoonists in Japan are as abundant as the cherry blossoms at this time of year – but Rieko Saibara is probably the only one who has both a lyrical and rebellious side to her work — along with an astonishing power and what has been called a “lethal poison.’‘
At times she may shock some readers with the indecent content of her work, and at other times her crazy jokes have no doubt made many laugh their heads off. But her portrayals of poverty, of her love for her children and her separation from her husband will have brought many to tears, as well.
Born and raised in a broken family in Kochi Prefecture on the island of Shikoku, Saibara was encouraged by her stepfather to sue her high school when they expelled her for underage drinking. She did, and the school paid her compensation.
In her antiestablishment and cynical “Ura Michelin (Grudge Michelin)” — a parody of the French gourmet guide “Le Guide Michelin” — she appears as herself and bitterly criticizes famous eateries like Botan (founded in 1897 and famous for its “chicken sukiyaki”), saying that their food and service are not worth the money.
Her “Dekirukana? (Do I Dare?)” series shows Saibara evading payment of taxes and calling the authorities thieves — depictions that echo quarrels she actually did have with them in real life.
Despite her early exit from high school, Saibara got into university to study art and pursue her dream to be painter. That was when she moved from Kochi to the western Tokyo suburb of Kodaira City. However, tuition fees and painting material costs were so high that she was forced to work at a miniska pub (where waitresses wear mini-skirts). Eventually, though, she found a way to earn a living drawing erotic illustrations for magazines.
After being discovered by major publisher Shogakukan Inc., Saibara launched her first cartoon series, titled “Chikuro Yochien (Cyclamate Kindergarten),” in the weekly Young Sunday magazine in 1988. Since then, Saibara’s career has blossomed. She was asked to write several new cartoon series in comic magazines, some of them gambling-related stories for pachinko (Japanese-style pinball) and mahjong magazines, and also to write travel comics, in which she visits places like the Amazon and regularly passed out drinking with her companions.
In 1997, she received the prestigious Bungei Shunju Manga Prize for “Bokunchi (My Home),” a cartoon about two brothers who manage to grow up (mostly) happily despite their young lives being afflicted by terrible poverty and violence. The work was later made into a movie.
Meanwhile, in 1996, Saibara had married Yutaka Kamoshida, a war photojournalist who had previously been ordained as a Buddhist priest in Thailand. Sadly, he passed away on March 20 this year, shortly after this interview with The Japan Times.
Although the couple had a happy time together in the beginning, Saibara said, her husband — who had a long-term alcohol problem — began to burst into drunken frenzies and behave violently toward her, resulting in the couple divorcing in 2003.
Recently, after he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, Saibara took her ex-husband back into her home to nurse him through the end of his life.
Despite her marital woes, the birth of two children — a boy now aged 9 and a daughter who is 6 — brought both bliss to her life and a new dimension to her work that is reflected in a series she launched in the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper in October 2002, titled “Mainichi Kasan (Everyday Mother).” This series, in which she humorously describes her everyday life with her children and their father, won the Cultural Affairs Agency’s media art festival award for cartoons in 2004. The weekly series is still running, although it is currently suspended due to Kamoshida’s death.
In 2005, she won an Osamu Tezuka cultural prize (named after the creator of Atom Boy) for “Mainichi Kasan” and “Jokyo Monogatari (Moving to Tokyo),” in which she describes her tough first years in the capital.
The three books in the “Mainichi Kasan” series have sold 500,000 copies to date, and its related series, “Aa Musuko (Oh, Son!)” has added another 200,000 copies to the tally, and was recently also published in South Korea, with a Taiwan edition scheduled to follow.
Since your first series in 1988, you have published more than 50 books, including co-written ones. How many of your series are currently running in magazines, and how many deadlines do you have every month?
I don’t know. I never count them. Many are small, as I started out as erotic illustrator and I still do them. If I count everything, I guess I have 30 to 40 deadlines a month.
I read that you still do erotic illustrations to ensure that you never run out of work, even though you are now a successful cartoonist.
Well, it is scary to think about having no work. But there’s also no reason to refuse, and I appreciate being asked. But I never remember deadlines. I even forget about a series I have run for five years because it’s bothersome to remember.
So your editors push you?
They take me by surprise. Since I’m about 40, I forget everything. I remember things like I have to be in Osaka (for work), but I don’t remember anything else. There were many desperate messages on my answering machine today.
One of them was mine.
Anyway, some basic facts about yourself. You were born in Kochi on Nov. 1, 1964, and lost your father at 3.
My mother got divorced when she was pregnant with me, so I never knew him.
And you were doted on by your stepfather.
But in your stories your parents are often having fierce fights — were they about your biological father?
No. Both fathers were pretty awful, coming from desparately poor families. Though my stepfather loved me to bits, he would still often take what little savings I had and beat my mother.
You can see what kind of background I have — with a father that spends a little girl’s savings on gambling.
But being cherished by him is the only nice memory of the poor, unpleasant life I had then. Nothing else was nice.
After you were kicked out of high school, you took a university entrance qualification exam and moved to Tokyo to study art to become a painter.
I still want to be one. It has been my dream since childhood.
But your harsh economic circumstances forced you to work in a miniska pub in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho “entertainment district”.
That’s after I entered university [Musashino Art University]. You really need a lot of money to go to art universities, you know. One small tube of paint like this (she shows the size with her finger) costs 1,000 yen. Canvases are even more expensive. It costs a fortune to complete an assignment. That’s why I worked there (the pub).
But it’s Kabukicho, right? There were female drug addicts and prostitutes of about 60 years old roaming about. I remember thinking that, if I stayed there, I would definitely become one of them.
In the past you have said people fall really fast in Kabukicho.
It was like a trade show of people who fall and lose. There was every pattern of what I could be, and it was scary. I could have been any of them.
How did the prizes you won affect your career?
Prizes are irrelevant for cartoonists. Novels may sell if an author wins the Naoki Prize, but no comic reader buys comics because a cartoonist won a prize.
People around me told me to take the prize, as it may help when I need bank loans — but it didn’t help at all.
You keep launching new cartoons. Does anything in particular influence your output?
Well, I’m from Kochi, which is in southwestern Japan. The mindset and culture of people in Kochi are very similar to people in countries like the Philippines, Thailand or Cambodia, where men on the whole are lazy, while women work. There’s a unique custom there, though, where the minute you meet somebody you make them laugh by telling a wild lie, often under the influence of alcohol. I guess I’m very much influenced by such customs of my homeland.
I’m quite different from the hard-working people of eastern Japan, so most people I get along with in Tokyo are criminal types — those who don’t believe that they should comply with the law. But what can they do when the state is at fault? From a gangster’s point of view, the police and the authorities are the baddies, as they come to get our money and kill people.
What is most important to you?
Of course, my priorities are my children, but just having a family isn’t enough. Without money, the best household collapses. Even the most respectable man, after 10 years of poverty, becomes a really lousy person. So I guess both money and family are important.
I understand that Yutaka Kamoshida, who you married in 1996, became a war photographer because he met and was inspired by war journalist Shinsuke Hashida, who was killed in Baghdad in 2004. Kamoshida has said that his chilling experiences, like being held up by the Pol Pot faction in Cambodia, triggered him to become alcoholic. Is that correct?
I don’t believe that. If that were the case, everyone who experiences war would be an alcoholic.
In his 2006 book “Yoi ga Sametara Uchi ni Kaerou (I’ll Get Home When Sober)” about his struggle with alcoholism, he said that he one day tore up the work you just finished because he was drunk, and that you told him you wanted a divorce on the spot. Is that true?
He wrote that? He did that kind of thing every day! Do you think that someone who needs nursing care gets kicked out for something that just happened one day? Alcoholics are nuts, and he was nuts for six years. (Laughs cynically.) I thought I shouldn’t ditch him because he’s family. But now I understand you need professional help in a situation like that. Our whole family collapsed. It wasn’t something an amateur like me could handle.
I was very moved by your dialogue in “Mainichi Kasan,” where you say “no matter how many times I live, I want to be a mother again.”
I also say that life is so much more fun being a woman. I want to be a woman no matter how many times I live again. I think men’s lives are boring.
I just can’t understand them. I thought two human beings could understand each other by talking, but no matter how much I explained myself to my boyfriends, they never kept promises or understood why I didn’t like certain things they did.
But they always nod when I talk. That was a real mystery until I had my son, then I discovered that men are just not listening! (sighs). I wish I would have gone out with men after raising my son.
When you are a woman, you can do everything yourself. You can give birth to children, raise them, work, goof off if you like. Many men can’t raise kids, and even their work isn’t that great. Life is so much more fun for women!
You’ve said before that all the mothers you see are at the end of their tethers, and that the only people who criticize them are men who don’t help in the house.
Mothers are really on the edge without support from society or the workplace. Every day, they run to pick up children at daycare, and fathers never take time off when they are sick.
I think child-raising is especially hard for women with a career. It’s 365 days nonstop work without pay or holidays. I’ve had many jobs, but working as a full-time mother was psychologically the toughest.
Didn’t your husband help?
I told you he was an alcoholic. I can’t let a crazy man touch my children, right?
Which of your works do you like best?
I don’t know. I forget the minute I write them.
I also forget which jokes I used, so I check with my assistant all the time. It’s a waste to think about the past when I need to think about my next topic.
Your work is said to have both a rebellious side from your wild lifestyle and a touching, lyrical side, which together create an exquisite balance. Does this style come from the experiences and hardships you went through?
I’m not the one who started with this rebel thing, so I don’t know what they mean. I also don’t have that many experiences. All I do is write gags. I’m like a sushi chef and I can’t offer bad sushi to my clients.
People say my life is wild, but I’m just writing about my life in an interesting way because it’s a cartoon. So if a reader gets shocked and says, “Gee, what a wild life she has!” then it’s my victory as a sushi chef (laughs).
And even when I write true stories, I can’t say that my husband is crazy, right? Or that it was a typical DV (domestic violence) household, or that I got hurt. It gets too serious, and not funny.
You said that, considering your rebellious lifestyle, “Mainichi Kasan” is the best that you can be as a good person.
Yes, I hope that I can be regarded as a good person from now.
What would you do then?
Well, I hope my cartoon characters are selected as image characters for a rich corporation like a bank, and I get lots of stable, easy income.
Would you really do that?
Of course! I would even do it for a nuclear-power plant! [which, as a leftwinger, she is very much against]. It all depends on the money. I need to make money for my family and myself. I can’t ignore that.
You’ve said your biggest markets are people in poverty and those who are discriminated against, like the gay people in Shunjuku’s 2-chome district.
I didn’t have the intention to address to them, but people in western Japan, where it is poor compared to the capital, tend to like my jokes. Kansai (west Japan) jokes are self-deprecating, and so are mine and gay people’s. We expose our weakness to make people laugh.
In one of your stories, you write about a prostitute who gives birth to a child despite everyone around her urging her to have an abortion. At the end of the story, she shows the baby a beautiful landscape and teaches him words like mountain, saying, “I am going to teach you a lot of words because you are human. Because I am human.”
That kind of scene is like an archetype for me. I hate poverty. Education and finding work are the only ways to leave poverty behind and raise children as humans. Otherwise, they grow up like stray dogs. They can’t become human without it. (She sniffles; may be crying.)
You said you were also raised in a poor area.
Yes Uradoko in Kochi is a typical port town where young people leave to find work and the old and the children are left behind. It was worse 20 years ago when I lived there. There were no industries except for the yakuza gangs’ rackets and drugs from the North (Korea). It became a model for my work “Bokunchi.”
Is your rebel nature behind your attacks on famous restaurants in “Ura Michelin” and your tax evasion in “Dekirukana”?
It’s embarassing to pick fights with groups that are weaker than me, right? I don’t bully those who are weak.
Didn’t you experience lots of problems with the tax authorities after you so openly criticized them?
No. After the book they stopped coming (to audit her assets).
Do you think they got scared of you?
I think they were more afraid of the alcoholic who was running amok [her husband]. They take money from places that are easy pickings. They also don’t go to Yamaguchi-gumi [Japan's largest yakuza faction].
At the beginning of your career, you portrayed yourself as a little girl in a red mini-skirt, then a bird in a gambling comic whose feathers were plucked out when it lost a mahjong game, and as a shaven-headed Buddhist monk in a travel piece. And now that you have children, you are dressed in a kappogi (old Japanese housewife’s apron) both in your comics and in your PR photos. Why is this?
I can’t picture myself as a little girl at this age, right? Readers would be turned off if I did that. But this is the fun thing about comics — that you can express yourself how you like with a single picture.
You have written many comics about gambling. Do you like it?
I got bored after losing about 50 million yen. I also couldn’t gamble while my children were young. I guess I could buy a house thanks to the children!
You mentioned that you want to think more about your future work than what you’ve done in the past. What kind of stories are you thinking about?
I like to go abroad and write stories. I am inspired by Sebastiao Salgado [a Brazilian photojournalist famed for his images of manual laborers and poor and vulnerable people]. I want to be something between Salgado and Yonesuke (a Japanese comedian who on TV suddenly visits unknown people’s homes and asks them to let him eat dinner with them).
I want to go to people’s homes all over the world and eat with them.
Do you already have plans to do that?
Not now. There’s a bit of complication at home.
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“Rebel” cartoonist Rieko Saibara