Interview: The Legend of Zelda's Akira Himekawa

by Jacob Chapman,

Despite the single alias, the artist behind Nintendo's beloved long-running Legend of Zelda manga series is actually two women, A. Honda and S. Nagano, who work together to create not only the art, but the original story behind Link's adventures on the comic page. After they helped cut the ribbon for opening ceremonies, we sat down with both Akira Himekawas to discuss the legacy of their work on Zelda and other fan-favorite comics.

ANN: Since you've been working together for a long time now—you both write and you both draw—how do you split the artist and writing workload between yourselves?

Akira Himekawa: At the beginning, we just noticed we were looking at each other's art a lot, and we noticed our art was very similar. So it's like “hm, we can probably work together,” you know, simultaneously. For the characters, Honda is drawing Link and Nagano is drawing Midna in Twilight Princess for example, but the inspiration, image, the overall concept is Honda. And when it comes to the script and more detailed elements, Nagano is in charge. And that's how we work together.

Sounds like a good mix. In working with Nintendo to adapt The Legend of Zelda, has the process changed over time? What freedom are you given to make original material, and has Nintendo loosened up or have they tightened over the years?

So the first time we submitted a draft for Ocarina of Time, it was 16 detailed pages, packed full of red marks, change this and this and this. It was like totally torn up. They were very controlling. But then when we returned it with all the revisions that they wanted, from the second series on, there was almost no complaints. So after that first round, they have been very quiet and given us freedom to do all we want. So we think they must be happy with what we're translating to manga. Before we started adapting this story, we were used to just doing whatever we want, we had the freedom to just go for it. So it's like we turned from that to real detailed nitpicking to freedom again to create what we want with Zelda as well. Mr. Aonuma is in charge, and he keeps saying, “You've got freedom, you have total control.” However, his assistants and others will come back and say, “well I think you need to change this here and there,” so we can't just publish our ideas 100% after all. That's for writing, however, when it comes to artwork, we've never had complaints from them.

That must be a really exciting opportunity, because that's a big responsibility to convey aspects of the Zelda world that are not in the games to fans. Do you ever feel that responsibility to what fans think something should be like when you make the manga?

Zelda's image is conveyed solely through a game, it is a game story. Now when it comes to the story for a manga, you can't just directly translate from a game, because what makes a game fun and engaging belongs only to playing that game. But the story still has to be told, it just can't be translated 100% from what you do in the game. You have to add more dialogue and other stories that readers can enjoy without playing them. So there is actually a rule of manga, it is very hard to explain in one word, but it is the secret that started Japanese manga, from the original pioneer Osamu Tezuka's work on Astro Boy. The creative method that the manga artist and creator must always remember is that no matter where you open the book first, what you see has to be catchy and convey the story. The reader has to be mesmerized with one shot, no matter what page. It has to be like “wow!” so you want to keep reading the story. That is the method of manga, one of many untold rules that a professional must know. Plus, you must add your originality to that method, and you have to arrange your impactful images to be inviting to the audience. So there's so much difference that comes from translating a game's story to this method, but I don't know how the audience accepts our work. However, we've been doing this for twenty years, so I guess we're doing okay.

Source: Akira Himekawa's official Facebook page

I would say that sometimes, original things in the manga can come back in fun ways to game players. There's a race of bird people in the Ocarina of Time manga and I remember that was very new, that was like “what?", kind of weird to people in the '90s. But now there are several races in Zelda, like the Rito and Ooccoo's people. So looking back on that choice now, it feels totally natural. So I think that those things can and should communicate back and forth.

Yes, you're absolutely right.

So the Twilight Princess manga being delayed was a strange case from an outside perspective. You started to work on it and then it just disappeared until very recently. What happened, and how did it come back into publication just last year?

The answer is very technical. Twilight Princess was given a B rating in Japan, which means for ages 13 and up. Our manga story was meant to be for a magazine that ran for 6th-grade kids and younger, so we couldn't translate the story to that demographic. We had to wait ten years. In Japan, there are many different types of manga magazines, but the format we were going to publish in was weekly, so we had already missed the chance to find a new publisher that's geared for 13 and up audiences, because we had never published a manga for that demographic and it couldn't be arranged in time. So as years passed and passed, we would search through e-mails, twitter messages, from everybody asking "Why? Why isn't it coming out? We've been waiting!” So many fans were questioning for a long time, so finally we were able to go to Nintendo and ask them to reconsider and find a publisher to release Twilight Princess weekly, so the tankōbon could also be successfully released afterward. So that's how it ended up.

Alright, well I'm glad we have it now.

Did you read it?

I've only gotten the first book, so I'm very early in. We're a little behind in America and won't have the second book until August.

Really, the situation was gyaku-lucky. That means “reverse lucky.” Because if we were to create Twilight Princess ten years ago, then the story would end in one year, with just one tankōbon, because of the contract we had with the magazine. However, the new publishers don't have any restrictions, so this can go on and on and on, and ten years have already passed from the original process, so we can develop out from that beginning to go on forever, as long as we like. So Twilight Princess is going to have a long life. That's why it's gyaku-lucky.

Since it's going to go on much longer than the other Zelda volumes, are you more attached to the story of Twilight Princess? Have you found more material in it to draw out into a manga?

Well, I want to ask you a question: do you want to read it?

Yes!

Even if it kind of departs from the Zelda game?

Yes, my only problem with the previous Zelda manga is that they're too short. Majora's Mask is my favorite game, and its adaptation is one book, but I would love to have had more books. So if Twilight Princess is going to be more books, that's great. More is good.

We're sort of fishing to see what the audience wants, so your opinion is very important to us.

Well, I think for people who play the Zelda games, they spend so many hours in the world, even Ocarina of Time or Link to the Past, which seem more straightforward, they still spend so many hours in that world that when they read the manga, it's over so fast, and they want to spend even more time there, like the time they spent in the game. I think that's how many fans feel.

For the American audience, someone like yourself giving us that much feedback and appreciation, we thank you. We're very, very touched. Because in Japan, they do not understand the meaning and depth of manga as itself. What a lot of critics do when they are introduced to a new manga, they just focus on “here's the difference between the gameplay versus this.” So they always compare our work to the original gameplay, saying that you have to stay close to the original to be good. For us as creators, that's not very welcoming.

There are also Americans who are like that. I want to say the people that are primarily gamers are more like that. This is just personal, but I consider that joyless. However, I think that people who are into anime and manga for its own sake, people who like the Zelda games, but they're not really into gaming with a more engineer-like mindset, they like art for its own sake in different mediums, those people enjoy the Zelda manga for what it is instead of only for comparing. But yes, there are definitely American fans like that too, it's not just a Japan thing. The people who just want to appreciate different kinds of art don't feel that way.

Just to hear that, we're so happy and touched that people would understand the creative side in the United States.

I know people that didn't read much manga, but they had read the Zelda manga because it was something that they grew up with, it was part of their childhood. I think you have to be a little young at heart to understand that it's not about what's "correct", it's all stories. You need to let an artist be free to make their own story.

We're very touched by your feedback. We go to a lot of European countries as well to hear how each audience feels about it. In the United States, their heroes—so like Batman, Superman—they are in that timeless category. Now, Japan on the other hand, they don't love or treat Zelda as a hero per se. The franchise has thirty years of history already, so Zelda is treated like a legend, but Japanese people in general are always looking for something new, something current, so they don't have time to go back and look back at the past. They don't want to revive things past a certain time, they don't appreciate that practice as much. But when we look at sales of our manga worldwide, we see that they are consistent between all the old titles and the new titles, Zelda is still selling consistently across each story, there's no ups and downs based on date. Just to have that feedback, we're very encouraged and thankful.

Speaking of the global market, one of the things that really strikes me about the Zelda manga is that it isn't especially "anime"-looking. The humans have that look to some extent, but the spirits and animals and depiction of nature all have this sort of old-world, folkloric look to them. I wondered what kind of research or influences go into such an art style. There is somewhat of a Western feel, but it's like an artistic reference that is older, like reminiscent of native cultures and stuff like that.

Are you saying that our way of drawing animals is more like traditional Japanese art?

Yeah. It's more like indigenous kinds of cultures than anime-like. It has this inspiring old-world feel to it, I guess?

We're not actively aware of it, or we're not purposefully doing this, but we have this culture of "animism" in Japan, where every living thing has a different soul and they all have their own meanings, like the god or spirit of any given creature. So even though we're not consciously drawing to reference Japanese folklore, it's probably in our mind or blood, or drawn what we observed as a child and all the folk tales that we've been absorbing for years and years, so the characters are just kind of translated that way. But we didn't really mean to make that as a strong point, to make folktale creatures or animals. But even anime is from Japan, so maybe that's why, unconsciously, our Japanese roots of how to characterize the animals came through even in anime-style.

I had wondered if there were specific artistic references behind different game worlds. The monsters from Link to the Past would look very different from the spirit in the prequel to Majora's Mask you invented: this four-legged beast with long, wavy body hair and a mask on its face. You had to come up with that, but it feels very ancient. So I was wondering what the influences are behind those sorts of things.

Yes, that was not in the character of the game as you know. While it is our original creation, it's inspired by a beast that's rumored to roam Indonesia called a Barong, it's a kaiju from Indonesian mythology, a fierce beast that fights with god. If you see the Majora's mask, it's a very Asian-like monster, so the inspiration for its origin came to us from Indonesia.

Oh, okay. Interesting.

Now we have a question for you. We don't usually go away from the story of the original games too strongly. Maybe there's like a few things that are different, but global fans will always ask about the inspiration behind these differences. Why is that so special and why are these changes so popular to discuss among Americans? Like the Majora's Mask beast specifically.

I think he's just one example of a thing that people see in your manga, which is that its influences are so different from what Nintendo is doing in a good way. It feels like you have studied nature or indigenous cultures from different lands or different legends than what is presented in the games sometimes. It feels like the Zelda manga has a unique aesthetic, and I think people want to know where it comes from so they can learn more about what makes it different. What kind of history are you drawing from? That kind of thing. They can tell it's different, they just don't know why, and they're curious, right? They're like “oh, what is this from?”

So something you've never seen before is a good thing for Americans, is it?

Oh yeah. I think people who are interested in anime and manga are naturally curious to some extent. Because the kind of Americans who only care about America don't tend to be interested in Japanese culture at all. But people who are interested in Japanese culture are often somewhat interested in different cultures in general. So they want to see something different, they want to learn about a world different from their own.

Well, our motto is the same. Not just in Japan, but we are looking all over, globally, for something very interesting and different, like the Indonesian Barong. So we're always looking for something new and different from our perspective as well, and we put that into our art. Everybody uses the term “unique” when we go to an international convention.

It's true.

Very, very happy to hear that. So you're going to be the first to hear about this. Other than Zelda, we're going to have the worldwide introduction of a brand-new manga we've just created tomorrow. It's about much of what we've talked about, that core of Japanese animism is in this work. But well, you know Honda, so she mixes it all up with other stuff too. But this story will be so original for us that we want to see the reaction of the American audience first. We hope that you'll feel the same spirit of Zelda in this new manga. We'll be so happy to show you all, and we'll be so honored to be featured on Anime News Network.

This new manga was later announced as "Kamdo (Kaze no Kamdo)".

Yeah, our team will definitely put that news on the front page the same day.

Thank you very much. So have you been playing Breath of the Wild? How do you like it?

Oh yes. It's my new favorite Zelda game. I've played so many hours. A hundred hours, maybe.

(laughter) A hundred hours?

Yeah, I'm obsessed. I did want to ask you about that. Are there plans for a Breath of the Wild manga project?

We only have one body each, so if we could do it simultaneously, that would be great, but when you see the ending of Twilight Princess, you will see that story coming. It will be a hint.

A hint?

Cliffhanger.

Terrific. So on that note, I wanted to ask about a different project entirely, the My Little Pony manga. How were you approached about that project, and what was the process like?

Personally, we both love horses. We actually own a horse. So My Little Pony was like Honda's ultimate ego dream to draw, you know? Except, horses are not popular for animation or anything like that in Japan for some reason.

They are hard to animate.

So when My Little Pony came along for the second time, of course the first time was in the 80s, but then it got revived. So when Honda saw that, it was like “I've got to talk to my publisher.” She talked to the publisher like, “I want to do My Little Pony!” Then Hasbro's president came to Japan to meet us and he gave us the okay.

Have they heard about “Bronies”? It's an American thing. It's an anthropological study in itself.

Oh yes! (laughter) We've met many. They're like huge dudes wearing pony costumes.

It's one of the few things in America that's like true otaku culture for an American thing is My Little Pony. So it was a very unusual thing, it was a phenomenon that was weird for people to write and explain.

Oh, it's huge in Europe too. Canada, same thing, a big dude in a My Little Pony outfit came over to us for a photograph. There's so many all over, not just in the United States, but the world. Why?

It's like the Kemono Friends thing in Japan, it's like that. It's a thing that's very child-like, but there's a huge adult audience. It's like the perfect type of child-like thing that a big adult audience just goes nuts for. My Little Pony, Kemono Friends, same thing.

Okay, the Kemono Friends, you know why they're popular is the faces of the girls. If it was a dude-looking Kemono Friend, it's not going to be a phenomenon. My Little Pony is kind of girlish, but it's a horse, and in Japan, horses are not considered a very cute animal. They have to consider the cute element for stuffed animals or any merchandise like that in anime. So Japan, My Little Pony fandom is just so-so, but no dude dresses like bronies do.

Well, in Japan, little children's shows usually have a lot of human characters, even though there's monsters and things, there's still more humans. In America, we grow up with things like Bugs Bunny and DuckTales and it's mostly animals, so when they get older, My Little Pony is the same way. So in Japan they grew up with human characters, but over here, they don't care that it's a horse, it's still cute like a girl, and sometimes it's sexy. It's…(laughter) No it is, Bronies find the ponies cute and sexy because they don't think of them like an animal, they think of them as a cartoon girl.

Oh, Honda grew up in that environment, like an American child with Tom & Jerry and Roadrunner mostly. That must be why I like animals so much. (laughter)

So it's just like Kemono Friends. It's the same appeal. Even though it's a horse, it's the same.

But yes, it's sexy! You understand the sexiness, because when you look at it, yes it is a horse but—and if it was a Japanese cartoon and they were going to make a pony character, it's gonna look more like a human, the body type and movement is not gonna be a horse. But if you look at the tail and the hip of the American pony character, it's still that way. Even the way the horse eats, they eat apples like a horse instead of like a human, not like a humanoid anime girl. And they're wearing saddlebags, but they're cute saddlebags, doll-like and human without being human. So yes, I understand it, the sexiness.

Well, not to me personally, it's that way for bronies. But that's not my thing, I should clarify.

Oh you're not a brony?

I was explaining it, but I'm not—you know, I'm sorry, I feel like this took us on a journey I wasn't ready for.

(laughter)

So for one last question, what are each of your favorite Zelda games, and is it the same as your favorite Zelda manga that you've created?

Honda's favorite game is Ocarina of Time. For manga, it would be the Skyward Sword story I did for Hyrule Historia. That was all my story, my own creation, so that's my favorite. Nagano's favorite game is also Ocarina of Time. That was my first encounter with Zelda, and I just love that version. It's very soothing to be in that world. We're still playing the Breath of the Wild so we can't say, but our first Zelda had such an impact that we still can't compare it to the latest. But we're still playing Breath of the Wild.

It's very long.

Yes, very long.

Thank you very much. This was certainly the most interesting interview I've ever conducted.

Oh, we really loved it too, It was so much fun and very educational.

Thanks to Anime Expo and Viz Media for this opportunity.


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