So I went to Tokyo. (I'm usually in Kobe, three bullet-train hours from the capital.) I went to Tokyo and met with Mary Kennard, whom you read about on this page in September; Yukari Fujimoto, an editor at Chikuma Publishing who's written a number of great essays on shojo manga; and Keiko Nishi, the artist behind Promise, the shojo manga I translated last year. It was an intense little trip (weenie that I am, I was sick much of the time), but this month I'll just give you taste of my meeting with Nishi. Nishi is 27 (I don't think she'd mind me telling you that), small, thin, somewhat boyish, very stylish, and very intelligent. When I asked her if people tell her she looks like pop idol Fumiya Fujii, she made a sour face and replied, "Yes. They do."
"But Fumiya's very sexy," I pointed out.
"But he's a man," she retorted.
"Oh, yeah. He is, isn't he?"
"No one ever tells me I look like a woman celebrity."
I sat trying to think of a woman celebrity she looked like.
"Don't strain yourself," she said.
Matt: What kind of manga did you read as a kid?
Nishi: Actually, we weren't allowed to read manga in my house. My father was a teacher, you see [LAUGHS], and as far as he was concerned, manga were no good. If he caught [my little brother or me] reading a manga, he'd take it away. So I had to read manga in secret. [LAUGHS] It wasn't until I entered college and rented my own apartment that I was able to really read manga openly. I got a really late start. So the first time I read, say, Keiko Takemiya or Moto Hagio—the kind of artists who are now considered the gods of shojo manga—was in college, and then I read them all at once. All the classics.
Matt: Hmm. So your reading of them must have been different [than if you had read them as a kid].
Nishi: Yes. I really read them practically all in one sitting. They were stories that were being serialized when I was in elementary school, but I hadn't been allowed to read them then, so I bought a huge stack of the graphic novels at a used book store and—
Matt: But why did you suddenly get into manga if you hadn't read them much as kid?
Nishi: I had a friend in high school who was an aspiring manga artist, and I had been writing fiction for a little fanzine of hers. When we were seniors, she told me about a new manga correspondence course being run in the manga magazine JUNE, and encouraged me to try my hand at manga and send something in. So I did. One of the instructors was Keiko Takemiya, and she had some nice things to say about my contribution, so they printed it—the first manga I ever drew.
Matt: By this time you were in college?
Nishi: Yes. I was studying to be a school teacher, like my father. Where I come from [Kagoshima, a rural area on the southern tip of Kyushu], public servants, such as teachers, are considered to be elite, so everyone expected me to become a teacher like my father.
Matt: But you debuted in college, didn't you?
Nishi: My 'official' debut was in Petit Flower, around 1988, yes. I graduated college in... 1990? I took the civil service exam for teachers, but failed the first time, so I got a part-time job as a visiting teacher for half a year, took the test again, failed again, got another part-time teaching job... In the meantime, I drew manga for Petit Flower and JUNE.
Matt: Pretty difficult exam, huh?
Nishi: It's not that difficult. I just didn't have the drive. I finally passed the third time, got a real teaching job, but quit after half a year.
Nishi: It just wasn't what I wanted to do. I had just been following the path my parents had planned for me.
Matt: Your parents must have taken it pretty hard.
Nishi: Yeah. It was rough.
Matt: Did you switch from teaching to manga because you wanted to draw manga, or because you just didn't want to teach?
Nishi: I just didn't want to teach. To be honest, for I long time I really didn't like drawing manga.
Matt: So when you were writing "Promise" and your other earlier works, you didn't enjoy what you were doing?
Matt: It's incredible that you were able to draw such... intense manga with so little motivation.
Nishi: Manga was an outlet for me. It was a difficult time for me, and, in a way, I took out my feelings on my manga. It's only in the past year or so that I've really begun to enjoy my work. I'm very happy about that.
Matt: You're now working on your first long work, The Beauty in the Hagiwara Shop in District No. 3, for the magazine Wings.
Nishi: District No. 3 is kind of a weird manga, in that I use the basic setting [a merchant town in late 19th-century Japan] as a stage for a lot of different things I want to write about: comedy, tragedy, a little philosophy—everything.
Matt: You were on TV a couple of weeks ago, on Investigative Night Scoop. I watch that show all the time, but I missed it the day you were on. [On this show, viewers send in postcards asking to have something investigated by the show's team of comedian investigators.]
Nishi: [LAUGHS] Yeah. I had heard that there's a giant yogurt carton on top of a building in Osaka—
Matt: I know that building! It's right by the expressway!
Nishi: Well, I sent in a postcard asking them to find out if there's a production date stamped on the lid.
Matt: [LAUGHS] Is there?
Nishi: Well, they could have just flown a helicopter over it or gone to the building and checked, but of course they had to do it in the most roundabout way possible. It involved flying me from Tokyo to Osaka, from Osaka to Tokushima (where I was forced to do a Tokushima folk dance), then back to Osaka. Finally we went directly to the building where we found there was no lid on the carton at all. So we made a lid, wrote a production date on it, and dragged it to the top of the carton.
Matt: [LAUGHS] That's a pretty tall carton.
Nishi: It was scary as hell. [LAUGHS]
©Matt Thorn 2004