Tsutomu Nihei on Blame!, Knights of Sidonia, and Viewing Japan Like an Outsider

blameTsutomu Nihei is a master of space, both the literal kind—the empty areas between solid things—and outer space, the setting for his most recent manga, Knights of Sidonia.

His first series, Blame!, is set in The City, a structure that was constructed on earth but has become so enormous,  it effectively has become a new, artificial world. The characters are small in comparison, and they wander a vast landscape of concrete and wires, dodging their enemies as well as cyborgs that are curious blends of organic and computer elements.

Biomega has a similar look, with the lead character rocketing on a motorcycle through a decaying urban landscape in search of people who are immune to a virus that is destroying the world. And in Knights of Sidonia, a group of survivors of the human race, some genetically engineered, live out their lives in an enormous spaceship, fighting giant baby-faced aliens called Gauna as they try to keep their species alive.

Nihei’s approach comes in part from his life experience: While most manga creators learn their craft in a series of apprenticeships, Nihei started out working in an office, then worked in construction for a while before moving to New York for a year to focus on making manga. During his years in construction, and later working for a design firm, he learned to think about structures and interior spaces as well as how to draw them. His technical training shows up in the worlds he creates for his manga, vast spaces filled with jumbles of wires, ducts, and structural elements such as girders.

In September, Vertical Comics will release a new, large-format edition of Blame!, which was much acclaimed when first published by Tokyopop in the 2000s. An anime film based on the manga is scheduled for release next year, and will stream on Netflix.

We had the opportunity to talk to Nihei at Comic-Con international in San Diego last month.

It seems like you had quite a journey to becoming a manga-ka. Did you always want to do it, even as a child?
It was more like I suddenly felt like I wanted to be a manga-ka. It wasn’t from when I was a child.

When did you get that urge?
At the time I was working in an office at a company for two years, and I felt like I was not really suitable for working [there]. I wanted to do work independently and tried to find such a job.

And then you went into construction?
General construction. My role was to be at the site of the construction. [Nihei worked under the foreman.]

And why did you go to New York in 1990?
After I quit the job I wanted to … just to focus on creating manga. Then I thought it doesn’t have to be Tokyo, it can be anywhere else, and maybe New York is the other place.

What impressed you about New York when you first got there?
The metro [subway] and ATM system in New York were open for 24 hours, and it wasn’t like that in Japan at the time. That was something that impressed me.

How did living there influence your work?
Not only my art style but it also influenced the way I think. I [began] to see Japan from outside.

As an outsider?
Yes, and I now get a third person perspective on many things about Japan. So that made me think someday I want to draw manga that shows Japanese culture from the outside.

Which of your manga have done that?
Knights of Sidonia.

Everything is so big in Knights of Sidonia. The spaceship is huge. How did you get that feeling?
Before I actually started drawing Knights of Sidonia I designed the spaceship and then I [scaled] it to the size of Manhattan. If you roll Manhattan into a round shape, [that’s] how large it is going to be. Based on that size [I determined] the population size of the spaceship.

How does their society reflect Japanese society of today? Or does it?
The answer is kind of no and a little yes. The Knights of Sidonia setting is the far, far future. It can be separate from the current Japanese society. But as you know, I was born and I am Japanese, so when I draw something maybe it’s based on the way past society works, it’s not easy for him. It might be some of the essence.

The spaceship is out there in space, preserving civilization, and it’s very encapsulated, very contained. Is that how you feel Japan is?
Oh, that’s kind of a new way of thinking, but at the time I didn’t really intentionally do it.

You have a lot of futuristic concepts in Knights of Sidonia, such as new genders and humans who can feed themselves through photosynthesis. Where do they come from? Do you read a lot of science fiction?
Yes, I like reading science fiction, but there isn’t necessarily where I took those elements. Of course there are so many science fiction books there might be the same concepts.

Which came first with Knights of Sidonia, the world or the characters?
The setting came first.

And then you had to come up with a story to go in it?
Yes. The rest of the elements, the story and the characters, are kind of happening at the same time.

So the story kind of flows from the characters?
And vice versa.

And then the Gauna. Everything seems very clean-lined, and then the Gauna are very hard to see. They are so vague. Why did you draw them that way?
Gauna is from space, it’s a space creature, it’s not coming from any planet, not from earth, so it is going to look so different from everything else in the story. Since it is from space, it has to be huge.

Their faces make them look like huge babies with the faces. How did you come up with that particular look?
I wanted to make the audience feel creepy. When people feel creepy, there are always some sort of elements from human beings, something that you know. That’s why I wanted to have that.

Did you know at the beginning how the story was going to end or did it evolve as you went along?
In the case of Knights of Sidonia, I knew how it was going to end when I started, but with the rest of the books I didn’t know.

Your style of drawing in Knights of Sidonia is different than Blame! It’s smoother. How did you develop that style?
When I drew Knights of Sidonia for the first time I wanted to make it easy to read. Until then I didn’t really think about that.

What are you working on now?
I am working on the next new series.

Will it be science fiction?
Yes. I did a one-shot story in Young Magazine in May, and that one-shot story is supposed to be a prequel to the new series. The direct translation of the title would be The Country of Dolls.

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