Sayo Yamamoto became a household name in anime fandom in 2017 after Yuri!!! on ICE became an international phenomenon. However, even before that, she had an impressive career with series such as Michiko and Hatchin and The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, earning her a cult following for their stories about complicated, sexy women and feminist themes. AniFem staffer Caitlin sat down with her at AnimeFest 2017 to talk about Yuri on Ice, her themes, and her career.
The recent controversy around Logan Paul’s decision to film the bodies of the dead in Aokigahara forest has opened up discussion about Japan’s mental health crisis and the ways in which a lot of western culture has diminished, fetishized, or othered that issue. Makoto Kageyama, a former volunteer at Aokigahara, was kind enough to speak with us about their experiences living with mental illness, how the mentally ill are treated in Japan, and how those issues are depicted in anime.
Since her debut over 20 years ago with I.O.N., Arina Tanemura’s name has been synonymous with shojo manga. Her work, published primarily in Ribon magazine, is known for its elaborate linework and use of magical girls and idol singers. Her stories often touch on more mature themes such as mortality and trauma, while still remaining appealing and accessible to younger audiences. Two of these series, Phantom Thief Jeanne and Full Moon O Sagashite, have been adapted into anime.
We first encountered Masaki through his video “5 Things You Didn’t Know About LGBTQs in Japan” in which he debunks popular myths about the real history and experiences of LGBTQ+ people in Japan. We linked to it here on AniFem, then started checking out his other videos and social media. Learning more about Masaki, it became clear that he could give us insights into the experience of being not just queer, but a queer activist and self-identified feminist in Japan. We knew we had to interview him, and he was kind enough not only to agree but to respond in both English and Japanese so that we could open this discussion to a wider audience. It’s been a goal of AniFem since the start to showcase the voices of people talking about their own communities, and we are thrilled to be able to start here.
We’re keen to speak to anime and manga creators and fans from a range of backgrounds and perspectives. As such, we’re thrilled to start our interview series speaking to someone who is currently living the daily grind of an independent manga artist in Tokyo: creating comics, entering competitions, selling at comic markets, approaching editors for reviews, and creating even more comics. It’s an experience we don’t hear about as much in English, and even then mostly in passing from creators who have already made it big. What makes this even more unusual is that Sakai is one of a small number of manga creators from an English speaking country, and is creating comics in both Japanese and English. She was kind enough to take the time to answer our questions, telling us about herself, how she got where she is, and what she has learned along the way. AF: How did you first become interested in drawing manga? Like many people my age, I got into anime and manga in general through Sailor Moon. I always liked to draw, but I was mainly drawing Disney-inspired animals until my 3rd grade teacher introduced me to Sailor Moon and I was completely hooked. I would copy pictures from my Sailor Moon books and cards over and over again until things just stuck, I guess. But while Sailor Moon was the start, I’d probably say that CLAMP’s works were what really got me drawing manga itself. Their works were like the perfect combination of gorgeous art and exciting stories, and I knew I wanted to make something similar to that some day. AF: How did you get from there to attending a school to study manga? Part of it was simply just drawing. Honestly, in the beginning I wasn’t even that interested in drawing comics in Japan. I happened to place 2nd in Tokyopop’s now defunct Rising Stars of Manga contest in my first year of college, and for a while I was seriously trying to pitch ideas to companies. But when the manga bubble in the states broke, no one was interested anymore. I had also recently experienced a tragedy in my family so I decided to take a break. I loved studying abroad in Japan during my junior year in college, so I ended up taking up a job as a teacher through the JET Program. Once I was back there, I periodically met up with the friends I had made there, and some of them were either seriously trying to debut, or already had debuted in magazines. It was really inspiring. Another American friend of mine decided to enter a school to study manga, and I thought that was a great idea so I followed her footsteps. Drawing comics while working a full time job was really difficult, and since I couldn’t get a visa being an assistant I figured the next best thing was entering a school to refine my skills. AF: What was the school you attended, and what was the application process like? I attended Tokyo Design Academy in Harajuku. I remember the application process being really easy. They even had a page in English for international students interested in attending the school. I had gone to a few open houses and just filled the form to apply to the school and sent it in. Admittedly, I was a bit lucky because I already had passed the JLPT N1 (they require at least an N2 to exempt yourself from taking a proficiency test at the school), so that saved me a lot of time. AF: How do you feel being a black American woman affected your experience at the school, if at all? I thought about this a lot, and honestly, a part of me would say it didn’t affect me that much. But I will admit that compared to my friend, a white American, I felt like some of the (older) teachers tended to regard me as “tougher” (whatever that means). I suppose in a lot of ways they held me in pretty high regard considering I had to deal with not being Japanese on top of being an aspiring artist. All my teachers were great and inspiring, being professionals themselves, and the school gave me lots of opportunities to hone my craft through assignments, part time work, you name it. I wouldn’t trade those two years for anything. AF: How has attending the school affected your work? The school affected my work immensely. The thing you have to understand is they really start from the basics in your first year―things like how to hold a dip pen, how to tone, how to construct a basic story. Your first big assignment is four pages, then eight pages, then 16 to 32 pages. I stuck to it, and suddenly in my second year I just had this… leap in improvement. It surprised even me. I actually made the finals in a contest in a magazine at that time! I think I never had given myself time to really study the basics before, so going to the school really brought me to task on what I did and did not know. I drew entirely analogue for a good three years until recently, when I decided to switch back to digital. But amazingly enough, my digital art has improved greatly just because of everything I did by hand. AF: How do you think being a Black American woman has affected or will affect your experience as a manga artist in Japan, if at all? The odd thing is, I still don’t think Japan has a clear idea about what a Black woman is. Because of that, most people don’t know what to make of me. It has its good sides and bad. As I’m sure you can assume, I stand out in Japan. There have been so many editor reviews I’ve gone to where they assumed I was Japanese after speaking with me on the phone, and when they meet me they just have this …