The best of his years . . .

Groundbreaking manga artist Izumi Matsumoto's ongoing lost decade began with an unfinished masterpiece. Will it end in creative redemption?

by Dreux Richard

Special To The Japan Times

This summer, my translator and I stood in Izumi Matsumoto’s home-cum-office in Tokyo, where he had just been searching in vain for any original drawings from “Spring Wonder,” which was, 27 years ago, the first manga serial he pitched to leading comics magazine Weekly Shonen Jump.

Its prompt rejection back then paved the way for the next series he conceived, “Kimagure Orange Road,” an instant success that came to be known as “the Bible for Japanese teenagers” throughout the 1980s.

“But ‘Bakumatsu,’ I think I know where those sketches are,” he told us mid-search on that occasion, the last of our several meetings with him.

Matsumoto had agreed to let us take some unpublished drawings with us for our article, and we were especially interested in ones for “Bakumatsu Rashamen-musume Jyoushi” (“The Far Eastern Romances”).

Publication of that unfinished masterpiece was canceled 12 years ago — when his currently ongoing absence from public view was about to begin. Then, too, Matsumoto had been on the brink of a personal and professional catharsis that was destined to vanish along with “Bakumatsu.”

“Leaving that series unfinished is my deepest regret,” he said as — still in search of those sketches -he navigated a maze of piled boxes overflowing with every physical representation of the 40-odd years he has spent drawing comic books. They were a visible reminder of the slow and winding road he is on as he struggles to return his work to publication.

“I just moved here in March,” he said. “I haven’t had time to unpack.” It was late July.

The story of his disappearance from publication is not lurid. Matsumoto (born Kazuya Terashima) is not an addict or an egomaniac. Now aged 52, he is soft-spoken, humble — and singlemindedly dedicated to his work. He blames his absence on a spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak that can be traced to him being struck by a car at age 3 while crossing the street in front of his family’s house. Among the reasons for his inactivity, this certainly looms largest.

But his story is also that of a consummate artist and habitual innovator attempting to reconcile his vision with the thoroughly commercialized industry it must inhabit. He’s still troubled, too, by his initial stratospheric success that began to seem impossible to replicate.

In 2005, Matsumoto spoke for the first time to the media about his condition, and also announced that he planned a return to creating manga. His comeback series, “Tobyoki” (“Recovery”), which in part chronicles his health struggles, has since found a publisher. However, a closer look at his plans for the series reveals that “Tobyoki” is nothing less than an autobiographical work. The portions of its narrative that occur in the protagonist’s youth recall Kyosuke Kasuga, the beloved, vulnerable narrator of “Kimagure Orange Road”; “His nature was always my own,” Matsumoto told us.

Kyosuke’s world is a thinly-fictionalized version of the capital’s Setagaya Ward, where Matsumoto feels so deeply rooted. Recently, he was our gracious guide around that west-central part of Tokyo, taking us to all the places that inspired the whimsical universe of “Kimagure Orange Road,” and through the many years that have passed since he last visited or paid tribute to the area by citing it in his manga.

“Tobyoki” is now long overdue to its publisher, and the boxes that crowd the desk where Matsumoto works do not bode well for this artist’s imminent emergence from a decade of time lost — and he an artist whose body of work includes more ideas and first volumes than completed series.

Although Matsumoto’s broader popularity has waned predictably in his absence, within the manga industry he remains among a pantheon of artists whose contributions reshaped the genre. “Tobyoki” may stand no chance of matching the commercial success of “Kimagure Orange Road,” but it will almost certainly determine whether this chapter of his life story ends in triumph or desolation. Can a master storyteller, lauded by his peers, overcome two decades of difficulty and absence to tell the world his story — and get innumerable others to share in it through his own words and images?

“I am not finished creating,” Matsumoto insisted when I first met him. Then, I wasn’t convinced. The years had had their say. “But I’m always thinking about how different things could have been if I hadn’t stopped working,” he continued.

“Kimagure Orange Road” was a global phenomenon. Besides its incredible commercial and critical success in Japan, its anime adaptation was broadcast on television around the world, airing in Singapore, Italy, France, Spain, Australia, Turkey and elsewhere. It’s mentioned in the same breath as “Dragon Ball” in Europe, where the two series were responsible for introducing entire generations to anime and manga. In fact just last year the manga was reissued in France — shortly after the anime was re-run on TV in Italy.

Akemi Takada, arguably anime’s most accomplished character designer (best known for her era-defining collaborations with multi-award-winning filmmaker, TV director and writer Mamoru Oshii), reports that sketches of Madoka Ayukawa, the most popular character in “Kimagure Orange Road,” are still what her fans most frequently ask her to do.

“Madoka’s popularity has endured because of the way her beauty belies a delicate sensibility. She’s fulfilling in both heart and shape,” Takada said.

The success of “Kimagure Orange Road” was as unexpected as it was quick. When it struck in 1984, Matsumoto was working out of a one-room apartment. “We had four people on staff and the publisher would send over a couple more to make sure we stayed on schedule,” he said. “Crowded doesn’t quite capture it. I had to go in the bathroom to draw.”

Out in the wider world, upward of 600,000 people were reading the “Kimagure Orange Road” manga every week. “I never got used to that,” he said. “The most incredible thing was, on the train, someone would be reading Weekly Shonen Jump, and they’d flip through until they got to ‘Orange Road,’ then they would stop and read every last page of it. I could never believe my eyes.”

It was a remarkably short road to success for a young artist whose relationship with that magazine had begun improbably when he cold-called their offices and managed to strike up a relationship with the late Toshimasa Takahashi, at the time a lowly junior editor tasked with answering the phones.

Matsumoto’s “Live! Tottemo Rock ‘n’ Roll” shortly thereafter won a Weekly Shonen Jump contest for emerging artists, -which led to the 1982 publication of “Milk Report” in sister-title Fresh Jump. Other short pieces followed, many of them direct precursors to “Kimagure Orange Road.”

Then, paradoxically, it was after his failed pitch for “Spring Wonder,” that Weekly Shonen Jump commissioned “Kimagure Orange Road.” Matsumoto was 25 when it first appeared.

The manga is first and foremost the story of high school student Kyosuke Kasuga and his classmate, Madoka Ayukawa. Kyosuke pines for Madoka, who warms to him over time. In the process, readers glimpse a charmingly naive adolescence lived in the fleeting economic certainty of 1980s Japan — a growing-up rendered with immense empathy and driven by a nuanced, episodic story. It has aged well, and remains a wistful, nostalgic snapshot of youthful innocence and yearning.

“It was a kind of manga no one had seen before,” said Michitoshi Isono, chief producer at Gallery of Fantastic Art (GoFa), an influential Tokyo art gallery in upscale Aoyama that’s dedicated to anime and manga of exceptional aesthetic quality — and where “Kimagure Orange Road” figures prominently.

“It was a calm, quiet, contemplative series. It wasn’t action-packed. It wasn’t zany. It was subtle and slow-paced. Everyone was shocked at the level of its success; we were especially surprised how well it did in the West. It changed everyone’s minds about what kind of stories could appeal to the mass market.”

“Kimagure Orange Road” ended in 1988 and Mastumoto embarked on a new serial for Super Jump magazine titled “Sesame Street.” Although this retained his understated, character-driven storytelling, and many consider it the critical heir and equal of “Kimagure Orange Road,” it never approached its predecessor’s level of commercial success, nor its longevity.

When Matsumoto stopped writing “Sesame Street,” he left it without a final volume or recognizable ending.

The projects that came after that, in retrospect, reveal an artist hewing closer and closer to commercially successful formulas that left little room for the depth that characterized his best work.

Among Matsumoto’s fans, his perceived oeuvre is dominated by “Kimagure Orange Road,” “Sesame Street” and “Graffiti,” a collection of his short works that includes many early predecessors of “Kimagure Orange Road.”

In 1994, Matsumoto became fascinated with the idea of creating a digital manga product. Some of the genre’s publications had toyed with novelty offerings on floppy discs, but Matsumoto was convinced that a feature-length retail manga product, distinctly digital in content and presentation, could revolutionize the industry.

The Internet was not then in full bloom, so he focused on the medium of choice at that time: CD-ROM.

The series of digital manga that resulted, titled “Comic On,” once again proved that Matsumoto was, for better and for worse, ahead of his time. It was, verifiably, the first digital manga product ever released. It took full advantage of the new medium, presenting a wide variety of semi-animated content set to music and dialogue. It also represented perhaps the earliest example of a trans-hemispheric manga compilation — Matsumoto partnered with U.S. animator Jan Scott Frazier to produce it (Frazier’s work was also included), and American comic artist Lea Hernandez also contributed.

The first of the series’ five volumes took more than a year to develop, and from the beginning it tested the limits of the technological architecture it depended upon. In a moment of near-prophetic insight, Matsumoto took the project in search of a platform that would allow him to create a product compatible with gaming consoles and cell phones. But alas, he found no such technology existed.

Then, as the release date neared, he discovered that the relevant retail architecture was equally underdeveloped. Matsumoto was unable to persuade a manga distributor to take the product on. “They just didn’t see what we were offering as a book,” said Frazier — “and they were in the comic book business.” Instead, Matsumoto partnered with Toshiba EMI, who sold the product in computer stores, primarily alongside gaming software.

“Comic On” also brought Matsumoto face to face with a number of difficult truths about the manga industry. Unable to find an investor for his untested product, he had largely bankrolled the project himself through Genesis DPC, a company he set up for that purpose. Manga publishers did not behave charitably toward Matsumoto’s start-up, which was technically a competitor. Indeed, he even struggled to get permission to use his own “Kimagure Orange Road” characters — which were the intellectual property of Shueisha, Shonen Jump’s publisher — for “Comic On.”

By 1998, Matsumoto was back to publishing serially. “Eternal Eyes,” another action-driven franchise that lacked Matsumoto’s characteristic thoughtfulness, debuted in Ultra Jump magazine early that year. From the beginning, “Eternal Eyes” was troubled, and he only produced two installments before skipping an issue and replacing it with a “Kimagure Orange Road” special in the next.

Though he ultimately produced two more episodes, Matsumoto began complaining about Ultra Jump’s editorial practices and publicly opined for a return to the writing of subtler manga like “Kimagure Orange Road” and “Sesame Street.” In May of that year he also revealed that his years of trailblazing work via Genesis DPC had left both him and the company financially vulnerable. By October 1998, “Eternal Eyes” had disappeared from Ultra Jump’s pages entirely.

Matsumoto, however, seemed poised for a return to form with his most ambitious project yet — “Bakumatsu Rashamen-musume Jyoushi” — which would chronicle the life and times of Henry Heusken, the ill-fated Dutch translator for Townsend Harris, the first U.S. Consul General in Japan. Heusken was famously assassinated in 1861.

Matsumoto immersed himself in preparation for the series, staying for months in Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture — where Harris had his residence — poring over municipal records that date back to 1863, and scouring temple records and graveyards in an effort to reach even further into the city’s past.

In the process he compiled a series of painstakingly detailed maps of 1850s Shimoda exclusively for the purpose of crafting a manga that would brim with unquestionable authenticity.

“If I was drawing a scene with two characters talking, I absolutely needed to know precisely where they were in the city, and everything that would have been there at that time,” he told us as he spread the maps out in his at-home office. The prodigious effort involved in their creation was impossible not to recognize.

But “Bakumatsu Rashamen-musume Jyoushi” wasn’t just a return to the character-driven milieu Matsumoto knew best; it was an exploration of a fascinating, potent topic that only he would have thought to render into a manga serial. That was, no less, his answer to 11 years of failed attempts to apply his comparatively literary storytelling ability to a series whose sheer dramatic setting and historical drama had the potential to recapture a mass audience.

“Bakumatsu Rashamen-musume Jyoushi” was scheduled for publication in Super Jump magazine in 1999, but Matsumoto — who had experienced occasional headaches and dizziness for years — suddenly found his physical health deteriorating by an order of magnitude. He began to experience excruciating pressure and pain in his neck, as well as a plethora of other unfamiliar symptoms that made even sitting at his desk to draw unbearable.

He visited dozens of doctors. Diagnoses included depression, dental problems and dust allergies, but no prescribed treatment brought substantial relief.

Finally, unable to keep up with the tremendous workload entailed in the launch of a new serial, Matsumoto was forced to shelve “Bakumatsu Rashamen-musume Jyoushi.” Then, on the verge of introducing his great masterpiece to the world, he vanished into a convalescence that would last more than a decade.

Before we went to his house in search of sketches, Matsumoto conducted us on a walking tour of Umegaoka and Gotokuji, the Setagaya neighborhoods where he worked before and during the production of “Kimagure Orange Road.” They were the inspiration (along with nearby Shimokitazawa) for most of the fictional town south of Tokyo where he set the series.

“I haven’t been here in 15 years,” he said as we left Umegaoka Station. He repeated himself often as we wandered through the nearby neighborhoods, changing only the number of years as he tried to remember how long it had really been. Everywhere we went, at least a decade had passed since his last visit. “Natsukashii,” he said, over and over, investing that “takes me back” word with heartfelt meaning.

Yurinoki-dori in Gotokuji was the spitting image of the imaginary, tree-lined avenues familiar to anyone who’s read “Kimagure Orange Road.” A tramway crossing close by at Yamashita Station seemed to have sprung straight from that manga’s pages. Matsumoto stopped again and again on each block, taking in what had changed and what had stayed the same.

The building where he spent his most productive years was still standing, and he pointed out to us where his office had been, then looked incredulously at the surrounding buildings — as if that one alone had been plucked from his memory and dropped here, in the faraway present. He was bewildered and nostalgic, but he was also smiling and talkative in a way I only ever saw Matsumoto, by nature soft-spoken and mild-mannered, in the presence of long-lost memories or while discussing plans for his eventual return to regular manga work.

In 2004, he finally received a diagnosis that led to an effective treatment for his health issues after his sister sent him an article about cerebrospinal fluid leakage, which has only recently been recognized by Japan’s medical establishment as a potential consequence of childhood physical trauma. However, though his worst symptoms are now gradually disappearing, he has been slow to return to work. “I have to be careful with myself,” he said. “I’m taking things gradually.”

Since I finished interviewing Matsumoto and left Japan for the United States, where one feels deeply the absence of people like him, my thoughts have frequently reprised the times I spent learning his story, and I’ve more fully realized how privileged I was to watch him find his way back to the people, places and ideas that made up the best of his years.

This return to the source seems to have begun in 2009, when, following a GoFa event, he went to dinner with Akemi Takada and his editor at Sangokan, the company that’s set to publish his autobiographical “Tobyoki.” It was the first time he’d seen Takada since the very early days of “Kimagure Orange Road.”

This summer, as I watched him wander among the memories of his youth and past success, it was hard to imagine that these were anything but brief stops on the long road home. Matsumoto will break through his hiatus, eventually finish “Tobyoki” — and then offer up the most compelling story he’s ever written: his own.

I most often recall parting ways with him one night in Shimokitazawa after he showed us the building that used to house Genso Katsudo Shashin Kan, the cafe that inspired ABCB, its fictional counterpart where Madoka and Kyosuke worked in “Kimagure Orange Road.”

As I knelt down to take his photograph, he pointed out that the facade of the upper floor remained unchanged. He looked from my lens to the top floor, then back again. A sudden smile engulfed his face, and the details of his early encounters with the building poured forth.

Afterward, I was not surprised when he didn’t follow us into the station, but disappeared back into the bustling hip streets of Shimokitazawa — leaving us to ponder the last thing he said before we exchanged goodbyes: “Even now, I want to come back here.”

This story would not have been possible without the interpreting skills of Erina Suto and Kensuke Kumagai. It also benefits greatly from Kevin Callahan’s and Spencer Hastings’ warm understanding of Izumi Matsumoto’s work.