Julian writes: Two things in particular worried me about researching and writing Tsunami Girl. The first was to earn the trust and support of affected communities on the Fukushima coast, and create a story that would do justice and respect to the heavy themes of loss, trauma, damage and recovery. If I hadn’t had such a positive reaction from the towns I visited near the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant, I would have abandoned the idea.
But secondly - even after winning that trust, and friendship – I also worried a lot about whether my idea of combining a prose and manga story could work. It took many, many notebooks, early abandoned drafts and plot diagrams to find a way to combine the main prose part of the novel (which tells central character Yūki’s story) with the manga inserts that show another angle – another world even – and highlight Yuki’s own creation, a diminutive superhero called Half Wave.
Even when I had the main shape of an idea, and a contract with my new publisher, Guppy Books, I still had to convince an experienced manga artist that this would work. It was at this point that a mutual friend introduced me to Chie Kutsuwada, and – after our own discussion about motivations and trust! - our collaboration began.
Below, we chat about the practical process involved in weaving manga and prose into one book.
JULIAN: Hi Chie! I’m still so delighted that I found you to bring the manga sections of Tsunami Girl to life. For a long time I worried whether the idea would work, and what a manga artist would make of my script. Did you have any worries about the technical aspects of tying prose and manga together? And was there anything that particularly excited – or worried you - about the task?
CHIE: Hi Julian! So do I! I’m still feeling honoured and lucky to be involved in your brave and epic project!
Well, I actually didn’t have many worries. I just liked the idea of prose and manga together. And when I read your text, I felt sure that it would work well. The aspect I was most careful about was this: I had to make sure that all the characters ‘looked’ the same in both the prose and in the manga parts where readers can actually see the characters’ faces. So, I tried to imagine the whole book visually first. By doing so, I could get an even approach to, for example, how each character makes their facial expressions. How about you, Julian? How did you make the text go back and forth between prose and manga seamlessly?
JULIAN: Through a long process of trial and error! I always knew there would be both manga pages and a manga storyline, but in early versions it was Grandpa who had created Half Wave, and it was the grandchild who helped him imagine one final great instalment of Half Wave’s adventures. At that point the manga story was a separate adventure that mirrored what was happening to our central character Yūki - (who incidentally started out as a boy in the first few drafts!)
Whilst I could make certain echoes between the prose and manga stories, they just wouldn’t interweave well enough, until I realised the manga story had to be more about the disaster itself, and just show a different, imaginative interaction with that disaster and the recovery. Suddenly I could feel it was going to work. But even then I wondered if the images and text would gel.
Your early roughs of characters and settings were really convincing and good to see. But I remember it took us a little while to find a version of Half Wave that worked for us all. Maybe you could say a little about developing the characters visually - particularly Half Wave?
CHIE: I know it is not the most practical way to do character design, but I usually wait for inspiration to hit me. In this case, I read the script a few times and repeatedly read some critical parts. I was thinking about the characters, almost all the time, until I started feeling that I knew them.
Usually when I feel I know characters, I can get to see them visually, then I start sketching several different versions. For the Tsunami Girl characters, I did not need to do much planning sketches. As I familiarised with the story, I quite easily started to see them visually because the way you describe them is very clear. I believe you know them very, very well. Because you are the creator, of course to come extent you must know them - but it is beyond that. I feel you really KNOW them, maybe it is because some of the characters were based on your actual friends? Also the image references you showed me helped me a lot.
As for Half Wave, the sketch of him by your son was everything. His sketch, and how Half Wave acts in the story, gave me inspiration - and I think I did not change much from your son’s initial image! What I did was to make him look more manga. That’s it really! I remember that our discussion was mainly his age and height, wasn’t it?
Practically, with Half Wave, getting his height right was really important - he’s an eternal (wise) child, forever on the cusp of growing up, with real wisdom and strength. What we did discuss was how Half Wave should look subtly different from Yūki, Taka, Grandpa and the other people from this world. Half Wave needed to look like he belonged in the liminal space between this world (konoyo) and ‘that world’ (anoyo). After two or three versions, suddenly he was there. A very exciting moment. (And as my younger son comes towards the end of his comic and character design degree at uni, he’ll be glad of that praise!)
It’s interesting, ever since reading Spiegelman’s Maus I’ve been in no doubt that all subject material can be tackled in comic/graphic novel/manga type approaches. I never worried that manga could help carry the weight of the story of the disaster, (especially after reading more widely around alternative manga or gekiga - and coming across works like the incredible Fukushima Devil Fish by Katsumata Susumu.) Are there any manga series or titles you’d love to see translated and brought into the UK market from Japan? Anything we’re really missing out on?!
CHIE: It was amazing when your visualisation of the characters and mine overlapped and merged to become what they are now…
Well, as for manga which I strongly believe should be translated... all of Yumiko Oshima’s work, especially short stories. She debuted in 1968 and is a very well-established manga artist. She is just one of the best storytellers… (Another manga artist who I think is in that category is Moto Hagio. Her work is getting translated more and more recently.)
Oshima’s work may look quite pretty and delicate, but often the theme is very heavy and philosophical, concerning love (not typical romantic type), birth, death, mental illness, aging, and the end of the world - which are not typical topics for manga works targeting towards young girls. I think this kind of heavy but realistic theme is picked as a theme for manga more and more recently, but she did it more than 30 years ago, and her work does not look dated at all…
One of many qualities I like about her work is even though she talks about those heavy issues, she does not use bang-in-your-face sensationalism. Her work is very poetic, her choice of words and drawing style is soft, but as you read, it feels like something has gouged at your heart. Very powerful. I hope one day some of her work is properly translated into English. I even want to volunteer to be that translator…!