Down and out with Tokyo's manga artists

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

That Japanese movies are often adapted from Japanese manga is no secret. Less well known is the subgenre of films about the lives of some Japanese mangaka (manga artists), which is informally known as mangakamono. Many of these fictional biopics have gone on to become local blockbusters, but we’ll get to that later. These films reveal what is required to become a manga artist, how to make a living and keep the creative flames burning — despite the overwhelming odds of failing.

The genre emerged with the unexpected box-office success of Jun Ichikawa’s “Tokiwa-so no Seishun” in 1996. It’s an elegant, if superficial, look at the youthful beginnings of manga giants Motoo Abiko, aka Fujiko Fujio (part of the creative duo who dreamed up “Doraemon”), Fujio Akatsuka and Hiroo Terada, when they all lived in the same, dingy apartment building — named Tokiwa-so — in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district. This apartment was to Japanese manga what the Chelsea Hotel was to New York’s underground art scene: It was where all the cool people lived and where their friends came over to hang out. One of the earliest manga celebrities who took up residence in that apartment was Osamu Tezuka (creator of “Astro Boy”), whose editors used to camp out in the corridors of the apartment waiting for Tezuka to finish his latest installments.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the mangakamono genre came into its own, though by this time the actual manga world was littered with struggling manga artists portraying their real lives and careers.

“Tokiwa-so no Seishun” skipped over the gritty aspects of mangaka life. In it, the artists lived like monks in tiny but pristine rooms, brewing tea in tin kettles. In the early 2000s, bolstered by that movie and the Tokiwa-so legend, not a few aspiring mangaka came out to Tokyo and looked for rooms around Ikebukuro. But they had to find menial jobs to survive — the dream of finding a publishing house and editors willing to stand by their work was often quashed in the process. Stories about such manga artists’ struggles eventually came out and alerted wannabes to the harsh realities of the mangaka life, which can be described in two words: no food. On-screen, however, things were brighter and much more optimistic.

The 2008 film “Gou Gou Datte Neko Dearu” (“Gou Gou, the Cat”) was adapted from Yumiko Oshima’s autobiographical manga and told the droll story of an established middle-aged mangaka (Kyoko Koizumi) living in Tokyo’s Kichijoji neighborhood with her cat. Then there’s “Onnanoko Monogatari” (“Your Story”), released in 2009, a whimsical take on the life and memoirs of the enormously popular artist Rieko Saibara, starring Eri Fukatsu. “Mainichi Kaasan” (2011) was also based on the Saibara’s nonfiction manga series, this time concentrating on her day-to-day work and home life with an alcoholic husband and two kids. Kyoko Koizumi starred in the title role, and her real-life ex-husband Masatoshi Nagase played her spouse, which surrounded the proceedings with gossip and helped boost box-office takings.

On the whole, women mangaka fare much better than men, both as artists and in the movies. The 2013 film “Ore wa Mada Honki Dashite Nai Dake” (which roughly translates as “I’m Just Getting Warmed Up”) is a hilarious but discomforting portrayal of what happens when a 41-year-old salaryman quits his job to become a mangaka. Shinichi Tsutsumi played the protagonist and, start to finish, he was not a pretty sight. More than anything else, the film drives one point home: Quitting your job in middle age is risky, but becoming a manga artist is suicide.

On a cheerier note, “Aoi Hono” was a mangaka eye-opener. This late-night TV Tokyo miniseries featuring Yuya Yagira as manga artist wannabe Moyuru (based on real-life artist Kazuhiko Shimamoto when he was a student at Osaka University of Arts). “Aoi Hono” is an underrated gem and a manga geek’s wet dream. Here was “Tokiwa-so no Seishun” all over again, updated, full of fun and sexy to boot, telling the story of a period when anime maestros Shimamoto, Hideaki Anno (of “Evangelion” fame) and Hiroyuki Yamaga (current CEO of anime production company Gainax) all went to the same university, hung out together and tried to make movies based on their manga.

Those were the days when manga artists relied on their two bare hands and sheer funk, besides investing a significant amount of time trying to get a foot in the door of a major publishing house like Shueisha, which is famed for releasing manga masterpieces like “Slam Dunk.”

In 2015, young mangaka are more likely to depend on phones and tablets to peddle their work. You can now download the first installments of a series from young artists free of charge, and choose to support them further and create a fan base, which can trigger a publishing deal. The odds of a talented youngster making it on the manga scene used to be astronomically tough but now the door has opened a little wider.

The life of mangaka, however, still involves voluntary enslavement — it demands more than resolve and determination, as amply demonstrated in “Bakuman,” the latest in the mangakamono genre.

The “Bakuman” protagonists fit the prototype of the struggling mangaka, but although they achieve some success by getting published in real-life magazine “Shonen Jump” (“Weekly Jump”) — Japan’s most important manga publication — only a fortunate few ever make it in the real world.

As an editor at “Shonen Jump” once told me, “The basic prerequisite for a manga artist are nerves of steel, a very strong stomach and the ability to work for days without sleep, cash or food.”