Interview: Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches creator Miki Yoshikawa

by Deb Aoki,

As you might guess from the story, the main character of the story is a high school roughneck named Ryu Yamada. Yamada meets cute, quiet, and studious Urara Shiraishi, who is his complete opposite in almost every way. But after an accident that knocked both of them out cold, Yamada wakes up to discover that he has switched bodies with Shiraishi.

But Yamada-kun is not just another body-swapping/gender-bending, fanservice-filled shonen series. As the story unfolds, Yamada and Shiraishi discover that there are other students in their school who have 'witch' powers, and they must find each one and understand the personal problems that make their abilities more of a curse than a blessing.

Besides Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches, Yoshikawa also had another successful, long-running manga series called Yankee-kun to Megane-chan (a.k.a Flunk Punk Rumble), about a roughneck named Daiichi, and Hana, the too-earnest class representative who tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. Despite her glasses and frumpy braids, Hana is a former delinquent herself and is not as smart as she looks.

Similarly, Miki Yoshikawa, the creator of these offbeat manga high school delinquents is not quite what you'd expect from a manga creator. For one thing, she bucks the usual stereotype of the shy/introverted mangaka. Yoshikawa, a slim woman in her 30's with light brown bobbed hair, is outgoing and energetic.  She brought a bag of Japanese candy to her spotlight panel and passed it around as a gift for the fans who came out to see her chat and crack jokes with her editors. Amidst the chaos of a very busy Anime Expo, she cheerfully did a drawing demo at the Crunchyroll booth, got to see some cosplayers dressed as characters from Yamada-kun ("That made me so happy! Please do some more!"), and she seemed to genuinely enjoy meeting fans at her first U.S. convention appearance.

Anime News Network had a chance to chat with Yoshikawa and her editors: Kazushi Suzuki, Senior Editor of Weekly Shōnen Magazine, and Takuya Nagamori, Yoshikawa's current editor for Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches at Anime Expo, to talk about her beginnings as a teen manga creator and as an assistant to Hiro Mashima, the creator of Fairy Tail, her creative process behind her manga-making, and get a few hints at what's next for this magical, humorous romantic comedy series.

Deb Aoki: How did you get started in manga?

Miki Yoshikawa: When I was 19, I just drew manga and submitted it to a contest!

Are you self-taught?

 I just studied a little bit from books, and I thought, "Oh! This is how you do it!" and I just kept going from there.

My editor, Suzuki-san, he contacted me immediately after receiving my entry and he said, "Would you like to make manga as a professional?" I automatically responded with a big "Yes!" and here we are!

Suzuki-san, what did you see in her early work that made you feel like this young newcomer was worth contacting right away?

Kazushi Suzuki: Her work was just super energetic! But I didn't understand what was going on! It was about two guys like Shinagawa (from Yankee-kun to Megane-chan) and Yamada-kun, who were just hanging out and causing trouble. Other than that, I didn't understand the story! (laughs)

What kind of advice did you give her to improve her manga?

KS (to MY): What did I tell you? Do you remember?

I told him that this was my very first time drawing manga like that, so I know that it's really rough! He said, 'Yeah, you're right. This IS really rough!" (laughs)

That's really quite remarkable! To be 19 years old and with your very first submission to a manga magazine to get that kind of reception from one of the editors…!

Yeah, and we're still connected to this day! (smiles)

Was Suzuki-san the editor for your very first published series?

Yes, he edited Yankee-kun to Megane-chan, and then leading up to the early chapters of Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches

In Japan, editors have very close relationships with manga creators. Is there anything that he has told you over the years that really sticks with you, that has really influenced your work?

 He's not the kind of person who'd flatter you or give you false praise just to make you feel good. I appreciate his honesty. That's what makes him easy to work with.

Suzuki-san, thinking back to Yoshikawa-sensei's debut work, and what she's doing now, how would you say she has progressed, changed the most?

KS: (thinks hard). She's generally the same as she was then. Her work and her personality has been constant, but in the past few years, she has really started to perfect the quality of her artwork. It's just getting better and better!  If you look at her old work now, you can totally tell that it's her work, but at the same time, the manga she's drawing now is much more advanced.

Q (to Yoshikawa): That's true. I was looking at the first page of Yankee-kun to Megane-chan, and looking at what you're doing now, your lines are much more confident!

Oh, thank you! You're really looking at it closely! When I first worked on Yankee-kun, I was much more focused on the comedy aspect of the story. With Yamada-kun, I am more consciously going for a romantic comedy.

I was looking up your entry on Wikipedia and it mentioned that you were also an assistant to Hiro Mashima, the creator of Fairy Tail. Is that true?

Yes, that's true. So when my editor picked my first work up, I thought, 'Wow, I really can become a mangaka!' But I also thought, I have to get better.  So around that time, Mashima-sensei was looking for assistants, so I asked him if I could become his assistant and he agreed to bring me on.

That's interesting! When I first read Yamada-kun, I thought that your drawing style had some echoes, some similarities to some of Mashima-sensei's style.  Mostly the rubber-y, exaggerated mouths (when the characters sigh or look shocked)! (laughs)

(laughs) I guess Mashima-sensei and I, our taste in art and our style of art might have been kind of similar to begin with.  Back then, there weren't too many people who were drawing in this style in shonen magazines. By that, I mean other's people's artwork had more details, more sparkles in the eyes. My work, like Mashima's, is simpler and cleaner. So I thought if I have to be an assistant to any other artist, it has to be Mashima-sensei.

So when you approached Mashima to be his assistant, what did he say? Did he immediately say yes or no? Did you have to convince him?

Before anything, we just got along. We liked some of the same movies. I had no skills back then, but Mashima wasn't the kind of person who hires someone just based on their skill level. It's more about whether you were a good fit with the rest of the team.

How old were you when you started?

I was about 20. I worked with him for about four years. I did a lot of backgrounds, inking… drawing patterns, sound effect lettering, and screentone. All the characters are drawn by Mashima-sensei. Including myself, there were four assistants helping him. Mashima is super-fast at working, but he has a lot of fun too.

Were you drawing your own series at the same time while you were working as an assistant to Mashima-sensei?

Yes, I was trying to draw my own work while I was working as an assistant.

Wow, that sounds like a LOT of work at one time!

(laughs) Yeah, but I was kind of slacking on doing my own work at the time so, it wasn't THAT bad.  It was so much fun to be an assistant!  Everyone talks and chats while they're working. When we took breaks, we'd all play video games with each other.  Some days, we'd just play games and that's it. "What happened to drawing manga?" (laughs). 

What kind of games would you play?

Because we were a team of five people, we would play games that we could all play together, like Mario Kart and Mario Party! Everyone started to get so heated up, they'd even fight over it!   Playing games with Mashima-sensei was the only time I could get even with him! That was the most fun that I had at a workplace.

Do you stay in touch with Mashima-sensei?

Yes! I recently got a chance to work with Mashima-sensei on a collaboration manga, and that made me so happy.

Is this your first time doing an anime convention in US?

Yes.

What do you think of it so far?

I never really go to this kind of events in Japan, even though I know they do have such things there. That said, hearing about this event, and experiencing it in person is quite another thing! The scale of the event here is nothing like what I imagined when they described it to me!

I'm still walking around the convention and seeing what it's like. It's kind of a refreshing experience. As far as visiting Los Angeles, this is my third time visiting L.A.

What do you like about being in L.A.?

Everyone is kind of dynamic! (laughs) I love coming here every time.

L.A. is full of celebrities. Is there any celebrities you'd be thrilled to meet while you're here in Los Angeles?

I like American TV dramas like 24. I want to meet Jack Bauer! (laughs)

Are your manga stories inspired by American TV dramas?

When I'm watching those shows, I don't want to watch them from a creator's perspective. I'm just another audience member, I just want to enjoy it!  I usually watch it again, and THAT's when I think 'oh, that's what the plot was!' or 'that's what they did to make it a cliffhanger.' The first time is just for purely entertainment?

Do you find that otherwise without this mindset, do you end up thinking about making manga all the time?

That definitely happens. Sometimes, I'll be watching a character and noticing when that character takes a certain path or action, I start to second-guess what will happen to that character later in the series.

So Hollywood movies and my manga are quite different, because my stories are set in Japanese high schools, and Hollywood movies are… well, they are completely different contexts. However, in terms of characters and character development, there's a lot to learn from Hollywood movies and TV shows that can be applied in making manga.

Do you have an example of this in your work?

I watch 24 so often – maybe I've watched each episode four or five times? So I'm sure that influence must be there, but I'm also sure that you can't tell where that influence is in my work either! (laughs) American movies and manga are quite different! But the build up, the suspense that makes the reader ask, "What's going to happen next?" I guess that's where the influence of 24 comes in!

Weekly shonen manga is so good at cliffhangers!

Especially when you're publishing at the weekly pace. The reader is not waiting a whole month to see what will happen next.

Kind of like reading TV series, when I first read your manga online on Crunchyroll, I just ripped through chapter after chapter! It sucked me in good! Then I got to the end of what was available, and went "arrgh!"   So that says a lot about your skill as a storyteller, because you kept me wanting more.

I nearly die every week! (laughs, holds her head as if in pain)

Can you give me an example of a time when you felt totally stuck about what to draw next?

Almost every week I struggle like this! I'm always thinking, 'Is this the right thing to do?' 'What's going to happen next?'  I spend a lot of time contemplating things like this. It's not like the story just comes from me – the stories come out of the fact that each of these characters have different personalities. I have to think about, if I was this character, or what if this other character was there, what kind of actions he or she would they take next? I think about it based on how it would be based on their personality, and how it will bring their charm, their likeability as a character. That gets me through my struggles because the answer is always there, within these characters that I've created.

Do your characters talk to you in your head?

Whenever I'm drawing a character, I become that character! I'm not even me! For example, Yamada is a bad boy, he speaks roughly, so I pick up on it in my daily life and I start to talk like a roughneck too. (laughs) So people might think I'm always mad or something!

That's true! In Yamada-kun and in Yankee-kun to Megane-chan, you have these 'bad boy' characters!

That's not quite the theme that I choose for my work, but every time I think about a main character for my manga, it ends up being a bad boy character!

What attracts you to that sort of personality?

It probably has to do with my background! When I was growing up, everyone around me spoke like that! From the outside, you could look at those people and think, 'Wow, they're scary!' but for me, that was kind of normal! To me, they were totally cool, normal people. But if someone looked at us together, they might think we look really scary!

You have a lot of characters in Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches. If you had a choice, which of these characters would you most enjoy hanging out with?

(thinks about it for a while) Yamada-kun, because he might listen to all of my commands! In my mind, Yamada is the kind of guy that you can say, "Please! Will you do this for me?" and he'll grumble at first, but he'll give in and do what you ask.  The other characters would just outright say, "No!" (laughs)

On the other hand, which character would you hate to be stuck in an elevator with?

Hm! That's hard! I can't imagine not liking any of these characters, because I put little bits of myself into each of them! Because of that, I feel for each of them, at least a little bit. When I work on a chapter, usually, there's a focus on a particular character. So for that week, that character is my favorite character!

One thing that I thought was intriguing about Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches is that each of the witches' powers come from each characters' real problems, real hang-ups and emotional issues, rather than being just purely about "magic" for its own sake. How did you decide what powers each witch would have, and how would it relate to each character's personal issues?

You're pointing out something interesting. You've noticed that the witches powers, they're not very physical, they're all psychological – things that each of us carry within ourselves. This is something I wanted to incorporate into the series from the very beginning. I wanted this to be something that kids could relate to, especially kids who are in middle school or high school – I wanted these readers to realize that they're not the only ones who have these kinds of issues. If it was strictly about fantasy magic, then the message (of Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches) would have been totally different.




When I read the first chapters of Yamada-kun, I thought, 'Oh, it's one of those gender-switching, fanservice-type comedies.' Then I read further in, I discovered that your story is more involved, more complex than that. Was that on purpose? Like your way of "sugar-coating the pill" of what would follow later?

(laughs) Absolutely! That was totally my strategy.  So when the first part of the story, people thought, "I got this! This is so easy! This is such a simple story to understand! Gender-swapping! People switching personalities!" I was grinning inside when I heard this because I knew that the story would change later and they didn't know that.

Shonen manga is typically by and for boys. Are there challenges that you have to deal with, in order to bring a female perspective to drawing comics for boys?

I was never a girly girl to begin with, so it didn't bother me in the first place! But when I started to draw manga, I didn't think I could draw stories for a female audience to be honest. All of my friends that I used to hang out with when I was growing up, they were all boys. And all the manga I used to read when I was growing up, it was shonen manga, like Dragon Ball. I love Dragon Ball!

Yamada-kun is an ongoing series – do you have an ending in mind?

Roughly… I have an idea. However it changes all the time as the story progresses. So I don't know for sure how it will end.

Later, I spoke with Yoshikawa's current editor on Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches, Takuya Nagamori about what its like to work with her.

So how did you get introduced to working with Yoshikawa-sensei? You were handed the reins from Suzuki-san, yes?

TN: I started work on this from Yamada-kun Volume 7. I had no idea what this story was when I first got assigned to work on it, but I started reading and immediately got into it!  Right away, I fell in love with the characters, so it was relatively easy for me to join the team to work on this series.

Any hints for readers on what we can expect to come in upcoming volumes?

TN: Like Yoshikawa-sensei said earlier, we think about what's going to happen next each week, so I really don't know what's going to happen next!  The latest volume in Japan is volume 18. At this point, if we get any ideas from fans, that may end up being incorporated into the story! (laughs)

When I read the story, I thought it was really surprising that all seven witches' identities were revealed quite early on in the series.  So when the seventh witch's identity was revealed, I thought, "Oh, the series will end soon…" but as we know, it didn't! How do you keep things fresh and surprising for readers given the structure of the story was originally based on Yamada being on a quest to discover the identity of seven witches… and then that quest was completed?

TN: There are initially seven witches, but afterwards there are seven more revealed… and maybe more after that. So there's that. Also, Urara-chan and Yamada like each other, but we don't necessarily want them to have a totally stable relationship all the time, so there are always new characters who come in and try to interfere with them, get between them. It keeps things fresh and exciting.

Yamada-kun is now up to volume 18. Do you see this series going longer than Yankee-kun to Megane-chan, which went up to 23 volumes?

TN: Well, Yoshikawa-sensei says that she'd like this series to continue longer than Yankee-kun, but we don't know yet. It's not decided.

You've been working as a manga editor for a while. What makes this series special?

TN: One thing about her series, both Yamada-kun and Yankee-kun to Megane-chan is that they've been adapted into both anime and live-action drama series. That means her stories are appealing to many types of audiences. Even though they are shonen manga series, they are very well-liked by a variety of readers and viewers, and that's kind of special.

One thing I asked her about was the challenges of being a female creator making manga for boys. Do you find that it's different working with female or male shonen manga creators?

TN: People may not know this, but there are many female artists who create shonen manga.

That's very true. But what's interesting about Yamada-kun for example is that it has fanservice, but the fanservice is cheeky and fun, not offensive or gross to female readers.

TN: That's a nice aspect to female artists working on shonen manga. As (male) editors, we can work with Yoshikawa-sensei, and explain what the expectations that male readers might have in shonen manga, so she can better understand and address those needs. At the same time, she can write stories that capture the rich emotional life of characters like Urara, a quiet girl who has complex feelings. This makes for a good fusion of strengths that make it a better story.

Do you have a message for the American fans of this manga series?

TN: There are a lot more witches to come after the second volume, so look forward to meeting them, and hopefully becoming fans of these new characters too!

Do you have a favorite witch?

TN: Nene! She's very cute because she can't be honest with herself. She always struggles with her feelings, so I feel very sympathetic to her, and want to understand her better!

What were your feelings when you first saw it adapted as an anime?

I thought, "is it going to be okay?" Because there's a lot of kissing! Will this be a good anime? I didn't think about it being adapted into an anime when I first started drawing it.

What was the concern about the kissing? That it would be controversial to have an anime where the boys would be doing a lot of kissing, even for comical reasons?

Yes, that would be a somewhat… challenging part of adapting this story as an anime.  Shonen Magazine is mostly for boys, so if you think about the audience, they might not appreciate seeing two boys kissing! But actually, when I tried it, it made the series even more popular! I couldn't have predicted it at all! 

There's so much kissing in Yamada-kun! Is that to make up for the tension that's standard in most manga and anime, where there's a lot of waiting for that moment when the characters will actually kiss?

The story is based on a certain style of storytelling. Once that's done, then the REAL story begins. But with every kiss, Yamada really feels nervous. He always feels really excited about each kiss.

How did you get the idea for the kissing to activate the witches' powers?

When I was starting this series, we knew that it would be based on the main character switching bodies with another person. But how to make this happen? We knew we wanted this to be romantic comedy, so we thought kissing would be the most obvious, iconic way to activate this power. I don't know about how it is in America, but in Japan, to kiss someone, you have to go through so many hurdles and hoops. (laughs)

It's not that easy in America either! (laughs)

I thought kissing was something like everyday conversation or something! (laughs) I've been to Italy, but when I went there I was under the impression that Italian people would be kissing each other all the time! As soon as I got there, I asked the taxi driver, 'Is it true that Italian people kiss each other all the time when they greet each other? Do guys kiss each other too?' He started laughing. The drivert told me, 'The only time when there are guys who kiss each other is the Russians.'  So now I want to go to Russia and see for myself! (laughs)

How did you feel when it was decided that Yamada-kun would be adapted into an anime series?

I was definitely happy when I first heard about it. But I also knew that by adapting it into an anime, that meant that the story would be handed off to someone other than myself, so that was a concern. But, the people who made the anime, they were quite friendly. They incorporated me into the production meetings and discussions about the anime, so I feel like we made the anime together.  They really took the time to understand the story and get into the depths of it.

Did they see things in your story that you were surprised that they noticed?

For example they asked questions about stuff that I didn't even think about before. They picked up on every facial expression of Yamada-kun that I drew in this series, and they gave it to the production staff as the reference for their drawing. Like 1,000 cuts!

Do you have any messages to your fans who couldn't be here today?

Coming here made me sure that there are fans who love this series who live outside of Japan. Now that I've seen it for myself, I really know that it's true. This gives me energy! I appreciate it, and want to work hard for you!

Any advice for aspiring artists?

The most important thing is always have fun doing what you do. Making manga is very hard work. If you keep drawing, you'll get better and better, and maybe you can become a manga artist someday!

Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches is now available in English in print from Kodansha Comics. It's also available online via Crunchyroll Manga, on various eBook platforms like Kindle, Nook and iBooks, and via the new Yamada-Kun and the Seven Witches iPhone/iPad app from Kodansha Advanced Media/Madefire.  The first season of the anime is also available via Crunchyroll. The series has also been adapted into a live-action TV drama in Japan.

Thanks to Kodansha, Miki Yoshikawa and Anime Expo for the opportunity.


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