Higashimura Akiko and the art of shoujo manga writing

By: Seiko December 20, 20171 Comment
A cartoon collection of many female characters clustered together. labelled HIGASHIMURA ALLSTARS

Higashimura Akiko is in many ways an exceptional mangaka. You can catch a glimpse of it from her recent success with Princess Jellyfish and Tokyo Tarareba Girls, but there’s so much more to be told about this hitmaker.

Although her exposure to the western fandom is fairly recent, Higashimura is a veteran with nearly 20 years of experience and has published over 90 comics across multiple genres. It may also surprise you to learn that this shoujo manga author has always had difficulty writing romance, and that her breakthrough hit was in fact not a shoujo romance but a hilarious manga essay about her motherhood.

Equally little-known is that, for over ten years, she’s been running multiple serializations simultaneously, outputting a total of about 100 pages every month with the help of her assistants. A 2,000-word article is not enough to cover the entirety of this powerhouse mangaka’s career, but you may find something new in here about her earlier key works and their significance, as well as her working style and a recent controversy surrounding her mangaka-assistant relationship.

Higashimura made her debut as a professional manga artist in 1999 in the shoujo manga magazine Bouquet Deluxe; it was her childhood dream come true. After publishing several one-shots, the artist landed her first serialization with Kisekae Yuka-chan, a light-hearted comedy featuring a sixth-grade heroine who loves fashion (the word “kisekae” means “to change clothes” in Japanese, as in “dress-up” dolls). The author chose a young protagonist because she felt shy about writing romance, which is one of the defining themes of the shoujo genre.

a longhaired girl in a tube top wielding a squirt gun. a cowboy hat is flying off her head
Kisekae Yuka-chan, Volume 1 cover

It is noteworthy that even today Higashimura continues to have ambiguous feelings about shoujo romance. In an interview published earlier this year in culture critique magazine Eureka, Higashimura was asked if she still has trouble writing romance:

Yes. I can write Tokyo Tarareba Girls because it’s not really a romance. I don’t think I can [ever] write a heavy romance. You know, shoujo manga magazines have this atmosphere of, “We will kill you if you don’t write love stories!” But I also enjoyed reading romance in shoujo manga [growing up], and as a fan of the genre, I want to write what people want to read. Some female mangaka who cannot write love stories move to shounen, but I want to write shoujo. In shoujo manga, as long as romance is included in the main plot, you are free to write anything you want. I find it appealing and that’s one of the reasons I continue to write shoujo.

Fortunately for Higashimura, the editors at Cookie took note of her sense of humor early on in Yuka-chan and encouraged her to write more gags. Recognizing both her weaknesses and strengths, the author developed her own style of shoujo manga—fashion, humor and low-key romance all in one—and navigated the genre creatively.

In 2006, while Yuka-chan was still running, Higashimura debuted in the weekly seinen magazine Morning with a semi-autobiographical comedy Himawari: Kenichi Legend. Originally an eight-week series, Himawari (“sunflower” in Japanese) eventually ran for four years, and from this point on, publishing both shoujo/josei and seinen serializations simultaneously became her routine.

According to shoujo manga expert Yukari Fujimoto, writing for a seinen magazine allowed the author to acquire a sense of “open” humor that appealed to a diverse readership. (To give some context, seinen as a genre generally attracts a full range of readers, while shoujo and josei are primarily supported by female fans.) Fujimoto theorizes that Higashimura finds the best balance when she applies the skills learnt in writing seinen to her shoujo/josei manga writing, pointing out that all of her career-defining hits so far have been titles targeted at women, including Mama ha Tenparist, Princess Jellyfish, and Tokyo Tarareba Girls.

three manga covers. one with a schoolgirl leaning forward with her hands on her knees. one with two women at a table (one young and one old) and one with a head of a young girl with her hair done into two antennae
Higashimura’s Works on seinen magazine Morning: from left, Himawari, Omoni Naitemasu (translation: I mostly cry) and Meropon dashi! (I’m Meropon!), Volume 1 covers

Mama ha Tenparist is the author’s first mega-hit and an important milestone in her early career. Launched in josei manga magazine Chorus in 2007, MamaTen is an ikuji (child-rearing) manga, an established sub-genre in Japan, documenting her daily life with her then-two-year old son, Gotchan. (His real name is Goku, by the way. The name was inspired by the character in Journey to the West, not the famous Saiyan from you-know-what.) Loaded with humor that appealed to both parents and non-parents alike, the series (four volumes in tankobon format) eventually sold more than one million copies in a genre where selling 50,000 copies is called a success.

The word “tenparist” in the title is coined from a verb “tenparu,” which means “to feel flustered,” reflecting the author’s sentiment as a first-time mother with a demanding career (she once commented that raising a child was “more than one-thousand times harder than manga-writing”). Higashimura was also the primary and mostly sole caregiver of her son because her marriage soured soon after the child was born. This is all hard to imagine just from reading MamaTen, because the series is plain hilarious. The author, however, recalls her early parenthood years as “rock-bottom” in her recent autobiographical manga.

“I truly believe I wouldn’t have been able to keep working if it weren’t for them,” said Higashimura in an interview published last year in women’s magazine FRaU, referring to the assistants who worked for her in those days. By the time she had her son, Higashimura had already been working as a mangaka for a few years and was able to hire assistants. “That made the biggest difference,” she said, because she was able to ask for help when she felt overwhelmed or wanted to be alone for a little while.

manga cover of an infant wearing a bunny hat and sitting on a small armchair their size; next to a back cover of another volume with a baby in the foreground and a chaotic jumble of homemaking items in the background
Mama ha Tenparist, Volume 1 cover (left) and Volume 2 back cover (right)

To illustrate just how busy Higashimura was in those days, the summer 2007 workload at her office included the following: three 18-page episodes of Himawari, one 16-page episode of Yuka-chan, three 4-page episodes of MamaTen, two one-shots (an 8-page and a 60-page piece), and several smaller assignments.

This tally was recorded by one of her assistants in the postscript of Himawari Volume 5, published in October 2007 (yes, she was so busy she asked her assistants to contribute to the postscript pages). The assistant, who knew Higashimura from college, described her as a people-pleaser who can’t say no and jokingly blamed her for the “insane” schedule. Given Higashimura’s personal circumstances, however, being a single parent might have also affected her decisions.

Since then, Higashimura has been running multiple serializations simultaneously, outputting a total of about 100 pages every month for over ten years. In the aforementioned Himawari Volume 5 postscript, she drew six assistants, commenting that two or three of them came to her office in rotation before a deadline every week. Today, she has a roster of 36 assistants, which she manages through the message app LINE. Some days she works with a handful of assistants, and before deadlines she works with as many as sixteen. You can watch how the Team Higashimura works in this behind-the-scene video posted on the Higashimura Production YouTube channel.

The covers of two manga series by Akiko Higashimura, in English. On the right is the cover for "Princess Jellyfish Volume 1": it features a young woman in braids, clasping her hands to the side of her head and looking flustered, while a beautiful feminine person with poofy hair leans confidently behind her; in the far background is a cluster of women holding a banner that says "We are Amars." The right cover reads: "Tokyo Tarareba Girls Volume 1" and shows three women in the center with Tokyo Tower to the right. the woman in front has her hands to either side of her face, looking shocked, while the women beind her wear makeup and nice dresses, posing confidently.
The English covers for Princess Jellyfish Vol. 1 and Tokyo Tarareba Girls Vol. 1

Both her productivity and the size of her team far exceed the industry norm. According to one of her editors, shoujo manga artists usually write one 30-page chapter per month and no more. Another testifies that in a weekly seinen magazine, mangaka usually hire three or four assistants on average, plus a few more on deadlines. That editor says what Higashimura does is “unthinkable,” because giving precise instructions to each and every assistant, while doing your own work, is a complicated task.

Asked how she maintains her popularity over 15 years in the Eureka interview, the mangaka answered that manpower is the key:

Because we fully work as a team, I don’t get tired, feel stuck, or miss deadlines. Working with younger people inspires me to work harder. More than anything though, working in a team is so much fun. I sometimes feel I write manga because, before delivering it to my readers, I want to hear my assistants say, “This koma (panel) looks great!” … I cannot write manga without my assistants, even if it means exhausting all my earnings. My only weakness is that if my assistants go on strike [for example] and nobody comes to work on a deadline, my work won’t be completed, one-hundred percent. In that sense, I’m a very imperfect and incomplete artist.

This is, of course, not to say Higashimura herself is unskilled or untalented. She is a trained artist with a natural talent for name (storyboard) writing in particular. While many mangaka find the process agonizing and time-consuming, Higashimura enjoys it and on one occasion completed the name for a 60-page-long chapter in just one day. She’s good at time management and maintains high productivity while following an eight-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week work hour—a schedule she adopted after childbirth—with little or no overtime. She is also a gifted multitasker and writes manga while entertaining her assistants “like a DJ.”

A cartoon collection of many female characters clustered together. labelled HIGASHIMURA ALLSTARS
From the linked video “Higashimura All Stars no dekirumade (The Making of Higashimura All Stars)” on Higashimura Production YouTube channel

Another important skill of hers is the ability to mentor aspiring artists. She is committed to help her assistants achieve their dreams of becoming professional mangaka and says she thinks of them as her apprentices. Over the years, more than a dozen of her assistants have debuted as manga artists in various genres.

Lemon Haruna, for instance, followed in the footsteps of her master and wrote ikuji manga on her postnatal depression, as well as a comedy series on zuka-ota, the fangirls of Takarazuka Revue. Shizumu Watanabe, the artist of the hit shounen series Real Account, is also Higashimura’s ex-assistant. She even advised her brother and fellow mangaka Takuma Morishige (My Neighbor Seki) to write a manga essay as a means to widen his fanbase, and the idea was materialized into a report-style gourmet manga in 2011.

The apprenticeship came under scrutiny, however, when the mangaka started a new series featuring some of her assistants in 2015. In this documentary-style manga, Higashimura tried to give her male assistants (and other men) who follow their dreams and lead unstable lives training and a makeover so that they could meet the needs of career-driven single women in their 30s. When a couple is born, the series proposed, the man would play the role of homemaker and pursue his dream in his spare time between chores and childcare, while the woman would play the role of breadwinner.

A magazine spread featuring a photo of the artist with a cover of her art (of a female character in a track suit) laid overtop
On Media: February 2017 issue of Da Vinci (bottom) and March 2017 special edition of Eureka (top)

The series caused an immediate stir on the Internet because of its title: “Himoxile.” The word “himo” refers to a man who is financially dependent on woman (similar to a “parasite”), and the “-xile” is a play on the male J-pop group Exile. By featuring her assistants in what the magazine called “a himo-raising” project, Higashimura was criticized for publicly humiliating her subordinates and the series was mostly perceived as a form of harassment. Given that housework and childcare have traditionally been a feminized—and largely undervalued—line of work, opponents also argued that calling homemakers “himo” was an insult to both men and women who have devoted themselves to unpaid domestic labor.

After the second episode was published, the mangaka tweeted her apology and announced that she was putting the project on hiatus because she could not continue without examining the feedback first. Since then, the author has expressed her interest in resuming the series, which she originally intended as an inside joke similar to Himawari and MamaTen, but it has not been actualized at the time of this writing.

In an interview published earlier this year in book magazine Da Vinci, the mangaka commented that nowadays she mostly writes manga in the first half of the month and spends the latter half building up Higashimura Production, a talent agency representing several comedians and actors. To promote the performers, she co-hosts a podcast, writes skit scripts for the company’s manga-themed live events, and stands on stage. In the past few months, Higashimura also debuted as a talk show co-host on an Internet TV channel and made an appearance on a TV commercial.

an image from the author's website, featuring a sketch of the author as a strict looking woman glaring over her shoulder
From Higashimura Production website

Of all the roles she plays, however, Higashimura first and foremost identifies herself as a shoujo mangaka, and with the recent conclusion of both Tokyo Tarareba Girls and Princess Jellyfish, I wonder what stories she will bring us next. After Himoxile, I am slightly cautious, but remain mostly hopeful for her future works because she is after all a proud mangaka who believes the art form to be the most entertaining and powerful on earth. As a fellow manga fan, I can’t help but root for her.

Higashimura Akiko is currently writing two fictional manga series: Yukibana no Tora (Snow-Flower Tiger), an intriguing historical fiction—especially for feminist fans—based on a popular myth that a feudal warlord Kenshin Uesugi was actually a woman; and Bishoku Tantei Akechi Goro (Gourmet Detective Goro Akechi), a crime mystery in which a killer who calls herself “Mary Magdalene” challenges a gourmet detective with food-related murders.

If you’re interested in Higashimura’s unlicensed titles mentioned in this article, I recommend sending your request to localization companies.

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