Defying Expectations: Talking with Manga Creator Aya Kanno

otomen“Otomen” is a portmanteau that combines the Japanese word for “woman” and the English word “men.”

Aya Kanno (self-portrait)

Manga fans know that Otomen is also the title of Aya Kanno’s series about a teenage boy who struggles with his love of things that are traditionally considered feminine—cooking, sewing, and reading shoujo manga. Asuka overcompensates with manlier pursuits—he’s the captain of the kendo club and can lay a bully out flat with one blow. His girlfriend Ryo is better at fighting than cake decorating, but that doesn’t bother her as much. The story curls around itself when we learn that their friend Juta is writing a shoujo manga about their romance—with the gender roles reversed—and reading that very manga is one of Asuka’s guilty pleasures.

Otomen is Kanno’s best-known manga at the moment, but she recently launched a new series, Requiem of the Rose King. While very different—it’s based on Shakespeare’s Richard IIIRequiem is also about challenging the roles others assign us. Her earlier series Blank Slate features an outlaw whose cold-blooded disdain for human emotion enables his life of crime.

Although all Kanno’s manga are published in shoujo (girls’) and josei (women’s) manga magazines in Japan, and under the Shojo Beat imprint in English, her work is far from the standard high school romance. That’s not surprising when you hear her history: she set out to draw seinen (men’s) manga, and she apprenticed with a shonen (boys’) manga artist, Masashi Asaki.

I had the opportunity to talk to Kanno during the Toronto Comic Arts Festival a few weeks ago. Jocelyne Allen, who is translating Requiem of the Rose King, was the translator for the interview.

You are both a writer and an artist. Which comes first to you—when you are creating a manga, do you think of it in pictures or in terms of a story with a script?
It depends on the manga actually. For example something like Otomen, where the story is really important in making people laugh, I tend to go from the story perspective there.

Is there one that’s more visual, where you thought of the images first?
Actually, in Requiem of the Rose King, the one I’m writing now, the images tend to come first.

Looking at Blank Slate, Otomen, and Requiem of the Rose King, the styles of art are very different in all three. How would you describe the way your art is changing, or what you think your art is moving towards?
There are a lot of things I have changed, both for the good and the bad, in my work, and that’s just a natural process. For me personally what I am trying to do is make my work more appealing, more attractive somehow.

Maybe more beautiful?
It depends on my work. With Requiem of the Rose King, right now, I am really working to make it more passionate, to have more power behind it.

What sort of manga did you read when you were young?
Right at the beginning, way, way back I was maybe in elementary school, I really was into Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix. Also Akira and Barefoot Gen, these were huge for me. I read them constantly.

What is the first comic you ever made? Not the first comic that was published, the first comic you made for yourself.
It was probably when I was in elementary school, grade three maybe—I was about eight or nine years old. I don’t even know why I wrote this, but the usual shoujo—the way things played out with shoujo—I was really kind of in opposition to, I was like “Ah, I hate this,!” but the details were very shoujo: This girl falls in love with her senpai [an older student], but he is moving away, so she knits him a scarf. That is the first thing I drew.

How did you know you wanted to be a professional manga artist?
Right from that initial time, when I was drawing manga when I was eight years old or so, I wanted to be a manga artist. I always wanted to be a manga artist.

What was your training like?
It’s a bit of a complicated story! I was actually first really interested in doing seinen manga, and I went to a manga school specializing in drawing manga, and I was introduced to this position as a shonen assistant, so it wasn’t as if I had any particular desire to work in shonen—that is who I was introduced to.

Do you still want to do a seinen manga someday?
I did want to do seinen manga originally, and I do have a few ideas kicking around in my head for those. As for the shoujo manga label, I am not particularly in love with shoujo, I don’t hate it or dislike it. I don’t really feel it’s important to separate things into genres like that.

Otomen is about defying gender roles, but aside from Ryo, all the characters who are defying their gender are male. And Ryo seems less conflicted about it than the others—she’s just sort of tomboyish, and she doesn’t seem to notice how awful her cooking is. Why is that? Do you think that men are more bound by their gender than women? Or were the men just more interesting to you?
With Otomen, the theme was obviously “otomen,” the feminine man, so that’s part of the reason that I took up so much of the time with the male characters. And of course girls also face similar discrimination in Japan. I don’t know if it’s a matter of people acknowledging that, but there’s an environment where people can at least talk about that and be a little different, but that same environment where men can speak up about their own gender experiences isn’t there. I don’t feel it’s there. So I picked that up and put that into the work.

Who was your favorite character in Otomen?
I guess the fun character, someone I really enjoyed drawing, would have to be Yamato Ariake. He’s such an interesting character.

Because of the way he looked or because of the things he did?
The things he did.

When you create a story, do you have the whole plot laid out beforehand or do you improvise as you go along? How do you think that helps your work?
I have generally a rough idea of how things are going to go up to the end, but I do give myself the freedom when I am writing—settings change, characters will change, and I can adjust those sorts of things as I go along, and then I bring it all together at the end.

Can you give me an example of a story or character that started out one way in your head and ended up a different way in the manga?
For the ending, for the father in Otomen, I wasn’t really sure how his story was going to end up, where I was going to take him, at the beginning, but it did end up with him dressed as a woman, that just was a natural development. That’s just how it came about—it wasn’t something I had thought of at first.

We have heard that Requiem of the Rose King was inspired by Shakespeare’s Richard III and Henry VI. How did you come to read Shakespeare and what attracted you to those particular plays?
Shakespeare isn’t really taught in school in Japan, as a general rule. The first time I encountered Shakespeare in any real way was through the theater—I saw a play, and it was just so fascinating. I think that if I had encountered Shakespeare in a book first, I wouldn’t have gotten into it at all. You really have to see it as a play to really feel it.

How long will Requiem of the Rose King be? Will it be a longer series like Otomen or a shorter, more self-contained series like Blank Slate?
Because there’s the original work I’m working from, there are certain beats and episodes that I am obviously going to get in there and make a part of the story, so right now I’m thinking 10 volumes.

In the sidebar to Blank Slate, you mention that you wanted to create a story with a villain as the main character. Can you explain that a bit more?
Actually before Blank Slate I was doing a story on the shinsengumi and that was a story with some seriously stoic characters. So I really wanted to do something with not-stoic characters, I wanted to go in a bad boy kind of direction. As for how do I make people empathize with that kind of character, the villain, I’m not a bad person, I don’t do bad things, but it’s just who I am, I break rules, it’s part of who I am. So it wasn’t anything especially deep or complicated about it, it was just sort of that level.

Your books have very interesting and distinct characters. Do you start with a character and then build the story around them, or do you start with an idea for a story and create the characters to fit?
It is different for each work. For example, with Blank Slate, that was a story that I tried to create from the character first. I discussed it in a meeting with my editor, and we went in the direction of “What is this character? Let’s start here.” With Otomen it wasn’t the story or the characters, it was the topic, the point of the otomen that I was going from, but I think as a general rule I tend to work from the story.

How involved is the editor in shaping the story?
I think it really depends on the person. I know there are some people that the editor thinks up the entire concept and then they move forward with it, but for me personally, I pretty much do everything on my own and my editor is there in more kind of a “fixing it up for me” capacity, I will bring it in and the editor will say “This scene is a bit difficult to understand” or “Maybe we can add something here,” but as a general rule, I think I tend to do the majority of it on my own.

Do you work with assistants?
I do.

Can you tell me about how you work with them, what your procedure is?
I think once again depends on the person. In general, though, the assistant will just work to match the art style. That’s their job. For me, we all work in different places, we all work on different things, so we can pull it together and match it all up, and everyone has that kind of flexibility in their art styles so it can come together.

Most of your stories are in magazines that are targeted at teenage girls, and the themes that you write about would have resonance for them. When you make a story, are you thinking about yourself or are you thinking about those teenage girls who are reading it?
I think how it usually works is these themes and those ideas, they come from inside me, and they are important to me, but to have my work enjoyed, to allow my readers to enjoy my work, I am obviously thinking of them as well. So there is that combination. The result is the things I am thinking about are surprisingly things we all have in common. In my work in manga, and I think this applies to a lot of manga artists as well, we have a chance to come together there and those ideas all come together and mix in the work.

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