Full color, 600 pages long and almost impossible to describe: ‘interw@//’ is a ground-breaking debut manga by Fukuoka-based comic book artist Mitsuhiko Sasaki.
The protagonist (known simply as Boku, or “I”) works at a kind of service sector commercial facility called Riverside City. One day he encounters murder in an elevator. Following this incident, Amihoshi, the girl he has a crush on, vanishes. And then so does Boku, disappearing from the world of reality into something else. The story accelerates as we search for the protagonist and Amihoshi in a landscape where the past, present and future all melt together.
After starting to read, you will be immediately overwhelmed by its energy, even if you do not understand it. Upon finishing it, you are assaulted by a feeling hard to put into words. It is both a manga and also something that goes beyond the usual bounds of a comic. You find yourself wondering just what is it you’re reading! To try to solve this mystery, we spoke to the author, Mitsuhiko Sasaki.
‘interw@//’ was first published on a website. What was it that made you think to put it online?
The catalyst for starting the manga was initially because I was depressed. (Laughs) When I was around twenty I was writing ‘interw@//’ as a novel. I was working at Starbucks and couldn’t become a full company employee, and then afterwards I entered the design industry and didn’t continue it. When I was around twenty-five I was really alone. I wasn’t a full working member of society and it was a period when I almost gave up on life. I wanted to make something so I had the idea to turn ‘interw@//’ into a manga. I started writing it in spring 2009 and published the final part in spring 2012.
You received a Japan Media Arts Festival award in 2011 for the parts of ‘interw@//’ published online up to the third installment. After that you stayed at home for a year and wrote Part Four, right?
After starting ‘interw@//’ when I was twenty-five, I drew the first three parts over around three years while working as a company employee. But for the fourth installment I wanted to get right into it so I quit my job and stayed at home for a year to do it. I’d drawn up to the third part and had the draft of the novel, but I actually hadn’t decided how it would end. I wanted to complete it with the fourth part so I felt that I really wanted to concentrate on it. In the end, just that part became 250 pages, about the same as the previous three parts all together.
When you were writing the fourth part, it wasn’t fixed that ‘interw@//’ would be published, so it must have been quite a decision to quit your job and dedicate yourself just to your manga.
Well, it’s because I’m the protagonist in the story. There are also actual models for the other characters (Amihoshi, Mogura, Tanai), and the cafe that appears in the manga is based on the Starbucks where I worked. It’s a very personal manga, so I wanted to finish it properly. It’s not a true story but there are real-life experiences in it, so I had a sense for how it should end. It’s like a manga I wrote for myself.
All the publishers I showed the finished manga to said no, but then I got contacted out of the blue by another one, Pie Books. I’d given up on getting it published so I was very glad that it could be.
Perhaps it’s because it didn’t pass through the filter of third parties like existing media or a publisher before it was published, but ‘interw@//’ feels more like a novel than a manga. Is it that it has a kind of purity?
Yes, that’s right. I published it online but there wasn’t much of a response, like readers’ comments, so it also wasn’t especially influenced by that. I started to get reader comments almost only after it was published, so I didn’t hear any serious impressions on the art or the story till then. For the publication, I spoke with the editor, and supplemented parts where there wasn’t enough explanation and added pictures. But apart from one or two places, it was me who decided what to add.
The art style also has this very nostalgia, “Japanese” feel to it it.
Yes, people often say that. They ask me if I’m a fan of Leiji Matsumoto. It’s the feel of the lines, the way I draw faces. I was trying to draw something new, though! (Laughs)
The two-page spreads are amazingly detailed. This kind of manga style is very special, isn’t it? It must take a lot of effort and time.
I took photos as I was making it and when I show these at talk events, everyone is always surprised. For one page on a two-page spread it would typically take two or three days, which I’d then scan into the computer and add colors, which would take another two or three days. I was working on the premise of publishing in color so I tried as much as I could not to have too many detailed lines. I decided to have ‘interw@//’ in full color from the start, so I drew it like this.
While it’s on the one hand drawn in a lot of detail, there are some parts without many lines so you can add color. There are places, such as the story itself, the background and the character’s eyes, where the style of portrayal is extremely minimal.
Before I started drawing the first part I thought about the character design. This is like a first-person narrative novel and I thought that if there were eyes it would fix the characters, so I decided to have no eyes for the main character. For the other characters’ design I tried to draw eyes but in the end I couldn’t decide, so thought that I’d do it with all characters with no eyes (Laughs), since there are no other manga like that and it’d be interesting. Before I started drawing the only thing I was thinking about was doing something new, so I decided some rules by myself, such as putting all characters’ dialogue except the protagonist’s in kagikakko [a type of parenthesis in Japanese used to show speech], since this was a first-person manga, and also not using frames [komawari] or onomatopoeia [gion], and doing it all in full color. I just decided to try things that had never been done.
Why did you try so hard to do something new?
Well, because I wasn’t working with a publisher, I was doing it all myself, and because it was my story, my ‘interw@//’.
The framing is also very special, aren’t they? Each spread has a sense of being complete, a view of a world, like you are looking at graphic art rather than a page in a comic. The framing is really different to typical manga koma.
Normally with manga you draw the right and left pages on separate pieces of paper, but for ‘interw@//’ I thought of a two-page spread as a single unit. For pages that I didn’t draw as one spread I drew each frame on one sheet of paper, scanned this into my computer, and later put them together. I don’t think this is normal but it was the only way I could do it. After I’d scanned it I then trimmed the images, so actually I cut a lot of the detail. And it wasn’t just one frame for one sheet, I drew the background and main character on separate sheets, layering them up like in anime. Layering then wastes parts of the background you draw but I thought that doing this would create a feeling of reality in the art.
While reading it I thought this was a manga that doesn’t give much information to the reader, but it’s not just the reader who doesn’t know anything, it is also “Boku”, the protagonist. The reader synchronizes with the protagonist, which drives the story forward, and this is perhaps the appeal of the manga.
Yes, I also thought that this was a manga with a lot of secrets. The protagonist is based on me and there are also models for the other characters, and for the reader, whether they know this or don’t know it doesn’t matter. There are lots of places that aren’t made clear but I thought that would deepen the story.
In this way we could say that this manga is a mystery story, a fantasy story and also a love story.
Well, I was actually trying to write something heavy but my editor told me it was a boy-meets-girl manga.
‘interw@//’ is certainly in many ways a manga of the kind you wouldn’t have read before, something that is hard to describe. Are you currently writing a new manga?
I’m having a little rest. If I’m to write a story in the way as ‘interw@//’, I’ll start writing after I’ve thought of the story, so I think it’s going to take me a while before I write a manga.
Is there something you want to write in the future?
I’m thinking of a few things, perhaps something for children or a story like ‘interw@//’. For now, ‘interw@//’ is finally over, so I think I’d next like to do something different so I don’t become just known for ‘interw@//’. Perhaps a comedy manga! (Laughs)
Thank you, Mitsuhiko Sasaki!