For the next highlight of Features from Electric Ant #1, I wanted to post some excerpts from the big interview article. TALKING WITH THE MASTER OF MANGA is a 16 page interview with author and translator Frederik Schodt. Fred was gracious enough to meet up with me last winter and discuss his unique personal odyssey with Japan, manga, and Tezuka over coffee for a few hours.
Photo courtesy Jenn Yin
Here are a few excerpts from the longer interview, available in Electric Ant #1:
ANT: In the 80s and 90s, it was en vogue to study Japanese. What was it like as an American in the late 60s to be over there studying?
FRED: Well it wasn’t like it is now, that’s for sure. People who wanted to study Japanese tended to be a little bit, I won’t say unusual, but you had to have some powerful motivation. Actually, I’m always fascinated by people who come from these environments that have nothing to do with Japan, and of all the countries in the world for some reason they just feel this affinity and they go there. Say they come from Iowa or somewhere, maybe they saw Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and they just decided that in a former life they were a samurai or something. There are a lot of people like that and they always fascinate me. I wasn’t like that at all. I was nearly dragged to Japan.
FRED: [Dadakai] had this really lofty, kind of idealistic and hopelessly utopian idea that we could introduce this wonderful entertainment called Manga to the outside world. We actually approached some artists in Tokyo and began translating their works. And that was really the beginning of manga translation. But we were unable to get anything published. It was way too early.
ANT: You tried to reach out to some U.S. comic book companies?
FRED: We tried. But we didn’t have the wherewithal to really make the rounds at American publishers. In America, people weren’t even eating sushi yet – the idea of Japanese comics was like, “They read comics? They read? Where is Japan? Isn’t that China? YOU MEAN CHINA?” [LAUGHS] It was kind of another level. We were way, way, way too early.
But some of the things we worked on, for example Tezuka’s the Phoenix, are actually completing publication now. Dadakai was really short lived, but for Jared and me, translation of the Phoenix is an over-30 year project. And I think the last volume is scheduled to come from Viz early in 2008. It’s been over 30 years, which is amazing.
ANT: You make it sound like you just sort of approached these artists directly. But if we’re talking Tezuka, it seems like a really wild thing to do. Do you think it’s simply if you were there at a certain time and you’re an audacious foreigner, you can do things that a Japanese couldn’t do? Wasn’t going to Tezuka Productions like someone going to Disney and saying “Um Hi, I’m from Brazil and I want to put your story out in Portuguese”?
FRED: Well at the time, it was completely audacious. And I don’t think now you can do that sort of thing. So I think a lot of it had to do with timing and position in history. I didn’t realize until fairly recently apparently how difficult it was to approach Tezuka. Because we had Shinji Sakamoto, who was the “business manager” of our little group, and he was the guy who made the initial contact. And the fact that we were a group of Japanese and Americans helped us. According to Shinji, he actually had quite a bit of difficulty making the contact and getting the meeting at Tezuka productions. But when we first went there, we met with Tezuka’s manager and as I recall, Tezuka sort of popped into the meeting and we met him. We probably weren’t at the time as aware of how unusual that might have been.
ANT: I’m personally interested in the technical act of translating. Nowadays, it seems easier with scanners and Photoshop and Wacom tablets. But for you guys it was just paper and whiteout. And I read that you and Jared decided to pick certain characters to translate for and would each stick with them for the whole translation. I’ve never heard of anyone doing that, and I’m curious how you guys came up with your process.
FRED: Well, nobody had done it before, so it was pretty easy to think of something unusual, I guess. At the time, nobody was using computers – It was basically a typewriter and hand-written era. And we weren’t able to flip the pages. Even making photocopies in those days was expensive. We tore up our books, whited out all of the word balloons, and then we xeroxed it. Then we wrote in the dialogue so that nothing was flipped or flopped.
It was all done in pen – I think we may have started with pencil and then overwritten it. But we actually tried to fit the dialogue in the balloons and tried to make it look as much as possible as a normal comic book. But like I said, we weren’t able to flop anything, and we delivered the first five volumes to Tezuka Productions in this format. And Volume 4, which we thought was the strongest volume of the Phoenix, we actually had printed.
FRED: Yeah, because it was actually cheaper to get it printed than xeroxed. But again it wasn’t flopped, and the print was of very poor quality from xeroxes and it really didn’t look very good at all. Actually, I have a copy if you’d like to see it sometime. It’s very crude. But it gave people the idea that it was possible to read it as a comic book.
ANT: Talking about rivalries and people that worked with Tezuka, I heard that there was a beef between Tezuka and Kazuo Umezu.
FRED: Oh really?
ANT: I read somewhere that Umezu never liked Tezuka because when Umezu was a student he sent a story to Tezuka and he claims that Tezuka ripped him off?
FRED: Oh? I never heard that. But I knew that there were lots of people in Japan that didn’t like Tezuka. If you wanted to do something different, you almost had to not like Tezuka because everybody’s roots were so linked to Tezuka’s work. Hayao Miyazaki is a classic example. He has written in several essays about how he’s part of this sort of anti-Tezuka faction but realizes that he’s very influenced by Tezuka as well because almost everyone was really.
ANT: Like, if you want to be anti-authoritarian, you have to shake off years of Tezuka influence.
FRED: That’s right – that’s not so true now, but it certainly was true if you were doing something in the late 70s or early 80s.
ANT: Have you ever met Umezu? What was he like?
FRED: I have met him. I actually met him at a Viz party in San Francisco. He lived in San Francisco for a while, in Pacific Heights and he had a very nice place. I remember he was quite thin and he was wearing, I don’t know how you describe it...
ANT: Was it red and white stripes?
FRED: It was something striped, yeah. I could draw you a picture but I can’t describe it. I don’t know what the right word is for that shirt. I remember he was very cheerful – he seemed like a really nice guy, you’d never think he’s the one creating the characters he did.
Electric Ant #1 will be debuting at APE and online this weekend!