Interview: Knights of Sidonia Mangaka Tsutomu Nihei

by Deb Aoki,

Mecha suits, space motorcycles, morphing space aliens, epic futuristic cities, and talking bears with guns – this and more are the product of the imagination of manga artist Tsutomu Nihei. The creator of mind-bending science fiction series like BLAME!, Biomega, and Knights of Sidonia was the special guest of San Diego Comic-Con International in July 2016 in Southern California.

Nihei, along with Hiroyuki Seshita from Polygon Pictures, and director of the Knights of Sidonia anime came to San Diego to promote the new over-sized Master Edition of BLAME! published by Vertical Comics, debut the new teaser trailer of the BLAME! anime series, and show off a limited edition G.I. Joe / Cobra figure from 1000 Toys designed by Nihei at the BAIT Store in the nearby Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego.

Nihei also received an Inkpot Award from Comic-Con International, the organization that runs San Diego Comic-Con and WonderCon. Given to creators for “contributions to the worlds of comics, science fiction/fantasy, film, television, animation, and fandom services,” the Inkpot Award is an honor that Nihei now shares with other comics, film, and sci-fi legends such as Osamu Tezuka, Moebius, and Ray Bradbury.

Nihei sat down with Anime News Network to talk about his beginnings as a manga creator, how his artwork and storytelling has evolved over the years, and how he's working closely with Polygon Pictures director Hiroyuki Seshita (who was also responsible for the Knights of Sidonia anime series, and was also there for the interview) to tell his first story BLAME! in a new way with animation in 2017. And yes, I asked him about the talking bears too.

BACK TO HIS BEGINNINGS: NOiSE,  BLAME! AND NYC

Welcome to San Diego! It's very exciting to have you here!

Tsutomu Nihei: I'm very happy to be here.

So first off, wow! This new Master Edition of BLAME! that Vertical Comics is publishing -- It's really something else to see your art in this larger format!

Nihei: Yes, it's presented in the same size as AKIRA.

This series was originally published in the US almost 20 years ago by TokyoPop in a much smaller page format. It's pretty neat to see your art in a much larger page size, because you really couldn't appreciate your fine linework when it was presented on smaller pages.

Nihei: Personally, I'd like to have the line work not be so clear, because I'm not so sure I like having people looking at my drawings from that time so closely! (laughs)

This is a relatively early work by you, yes?

Nihei: BLAME! is actually my first published work.

Really? I thought NOiSE came first! (a prequel to BLAME!, also originally published in print by TokyoPop, now available as a digital release on ComiXology and Amazon Kindle via Kodansha Advanced Media)

Nihei: Actually, the setting and timing of the events depicted in NOiSE do come before what happens in BLAME!, but I drew BLAME! first.

I was doing a little research about your career, and it sounds like you took a really interesting, unusual path to becoming a professional manga artist. You worked in construction, you went to New York to study, you worked at an architecture firm…

Nihei: I wouldn't go so far as to say I worked as an architect! (laughs)

Heh! True, but I can see the influence of these work experiences in construction and architecture in your manga -- the details of the buildings, the epic scale of the settings of your stories.

Nihei: Yes, that's true. That influence is there.

I was reading some of the commentary about your manga, and other critics have praised you for creating such complete and detailed worlds, that they can get lost in them.

Nihei: I wanted to draw things that don't exist in the real world.

What made you decide to leave your job in construction and move to New York City? Why New York, versus staying in Japan?

Nihei: After I quit my job in construction, I worked on becoming a manga artist in Japan for about a year. When I decided to become a manga artist, I thought, maybe I don't have to stay in Japan or do it in Tokyo. I can do this anywhere; maybe I can even do this in New York! When I compared the cost of living between living in Tokyo and living in New York City, it seemed about the same, so I thought, why not go to New York?

What did you do when you were in New York City? Did you go to art school? Did you work as an illustrator?

Nihei: I went to art school – I attended Parsons School of Art and Design in Manhattan.

You stayed in New York for how long?

Nihei: 11 months.

Wow. I think you and I lived in New York City around the same time! Around 1989? I was also taking classes in art school across town at School of Visual Arts.

Nihei: Huh! No kidding! Do you remember Forbidden Planet? That's such a great store. They sell American comics, figures, toys and Japanese manga too.  They have a lot of comic artists signings there. In fact, they had a signing with William Gibson (sci-fi author, Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition) the day after I left New York. I was disappointed to have missed that.

You did some concept art for a movie adaptation of a William Gibson novel, Neuromancer, right?

Nihei: Yes, I did, though that movie project (helmed by director Vincenzo Natali, director of Haunter and Splice) didn't get that far, as far as actually getting produced.

So your manga are definitely science fiction stories, and you've mentioned that you enjoy reading science fiction novels. Any particular titles you enjoy?

Nihei: Anything that doesn't place too much emphasis on human drama. I generally prefer to read stories that explore the settings, and the universe where the action takes place, what's the environment of the world that the author has created. I prefer these types of stories because they let me immerse myself in a different world.

You mentioned that you wished you had met William Gibson earlier – is he one of your heroes?

Nihei: Yes, that's right. I really like his work.

What do you find inspiring about his work?

Nihei: This contradicts what I just said earlier, but I like how Gibson elaborates on the human condition in his drama. I also like his ideas. He's always exploring very innovative, breakthrough ideas. His settings, and everything is just so cool. I'm always trying to do something similar. I also notice that there are a lot of other creators are trying to follow what Gibson is doing too.

Well, you have a lot of followers and admirers too! Several of my friends who are comics creators are super excited that you're here at Comic-Con.

Nihei: Well… I've been doing this for 20 years, so I guess I'm starting to notice that there are other creators out there who are inspired by my style of artwork too. (laughs)

How does that feel to have people pay tribute to your work like that?

Nihei: It makes me really happy! That makes me much more comfortable as a manga creator. For example, when I'm working on anime adaptation of my work, I'm finding that some of the artists and producers on the animation team are also fans of my work. That's really gratifying. It makes working on this project easier and more fun.

Have you seen this game? (NaissanceE, an PC game created by indie developers Limasse Five – I show Nihei the video trailer for this game)

Nihei: I knew about this game, but I didn't know that the game developer had said that he was influenced by my work!

In this interview, Mavros Sedeno, the game developer of NaissanceE describes his game as being a cross between Portal, Antichamber, 2001: A Space Odyssey, M.C. Escher, and BLAME! I'm actually surprised that more of your work hasn't been adapted as video games. There's a certain epic quest quality to your stories that might lend itself well to games.

Nihei: I really like playing video games. I really hope that we can get a game based on my stories developed someday.

Naho Yamada (Licensing Manager, Kodansha): We're trying!

What kind of video games do you like to play? Or what games in particular are you playing now?

Nihei: Elder Scrolls Online. But those online games take up a lot of time, so they're dangerous! (laughs)

I bet! (laughs) Time is a valuable commodity for a manga artist, especially one who is as busy as you are! 

So going back to your beginnings as a manga creator -- You also once worked as an assistant to Tsutomu Takahashi (creator of Jiraishin, a.k.a. Ice Blade) – do you remember anything you learned from working with him?

Nihei: I learned that one of the key concerns for a manga creator is how much they can produce. Up until then, when I drew my manga, I wasn't concerned with working on deadlines. I was very slow when I drew! When I was working with Takahashi-sensei, I watched him as he was working toward his deadlines, and as the deadline neared, he would accelerate his production speed. I was really impressed by this. I learned what it really meant to draw manga as a job, versus just drawing for myself.

ON CREATING A DISTINCTIVE MANGA STYLE AND EVOLVING FOR ANIME

You also recently were a judge for a manga contest for newcomers, yes?

Nihei: Yes, that was a contest sponsored by EVENING, a manga magazine published by Kodansha.

You've mentioned in past interviews that at the start of your career, you went through several years of submitting work to editors, and getting rejected, and trying again. While judging this contest, you were in a position to be the one who was assessing new manga artists who are possibly going through the same things that you experienced at the beginning of your career. How did that feel?

Nihei: Winning that kind of contest can change an aspiring mangaka's life! It was a huge responsibility, and I felt a lot of pressure. So I made sure to spend a lot of time reading each entry. It was interesting, because my comments and observations about the entries were very different than the Kodansha editors who were also reading the same manga. For example, there would be a story that I thought wasn't much fun to read, but the editors thought it was the entry that was the most fun to read! I'm not sure why our opinions were so different. (laughs)

At the beginning I thought, ‘Maybe I should listen to what the editors have to say, and try to find a middle ground.’ But I changed my mind and thought, ‘Oh, forget about it!’ (laughs) I just decided to pick what I thought was fun and interesting to read. So in the end, the entry and artist I felt really strongly about received a special ‘Tsutomu Nihei Award.’

In the end, it really just comes down to luck. When I got the award, I later found out that Jiro Taniguchi (manga artist, creator of A Distant Neighborhood), who was judging the contest that year and my editor were the only ones who were really pushing for my work.

Did they explain what they thought was special about your work?

Nihei: Taniguchi-sensei just said that my paneling and framing was excellent, and didn't really elaborate further. (laughs) To this day, I really don't know what he saw in my work!

(laughs) Well, maybe because your manga has such a distinct look that is unique to you. I read a lot of manga, but when I look at your work, I know that it's definitely drawn by you, and no one else. That's not very common in manga. It's quite special and rare when an artist draws in a completely distinctive style.

Hiroyuki Seshita: Yes, I absolutely agree. He has a very distinctive style. That's why I proposed to him that I wanted to make an anime based on his manga.

Oh, tell me about that. How did this anime project start?

Seshita: Polygon Pictures, back then, we were mostly getting work from movie studios outside of Japan – not animation projects, more like feature films. At the time, Moriya-san, the executive producer and I were trying to create animation based on Japanese manga. There weren't many manga that could really take advantage of the strengths of CG animation.

I already knew about BLAME! of course. But when the third volume of the Knights of Sidonia manga was published, I took a look and I was surprised at how Nihei-sensei's art style had changed to one that would be more approachable for general readers.

This is very true. As I was looking over your manga over the years, I was struck by how your art style has evolved. It's still definitely your work, but, for example, Knights of Sidonia looks very different than BLAME!

Nihei: That's true. I'm intentionally changing my art style.

What's going through your mind as you're making these changes to your art style?

Nihei: As my art style evolves, it changes what I want to draw. You can see that at the time I drew BLAME!, I really liked using a lot of black in my art. The early chapters are especially dark and black. But as the story progresses, you'll see that the artwork has less black in it. It's really tough work to paint all this black in the background. (laughs) Nowadays, I'm more into expressing things, telling stories just with lines.

Yes, that's definitely noticeable in Knights of Sidonia! Why did you opt to move toward this more line-driven style of artwork?

Nihei: When there's more linework than dark blacks in the artwork, I'm able to convey more information. For example, if in this particular scene in BLAME!, it's drawn so dark, you can barely see that there are stairs there.  When I paint a lot of black in the background, it looks cool and stylish, but it creates a situation where I am not able to draw as much information and details in the panel.

When I first read Knights of Sidonia, I noticed the change in your art style. Then I heard that this series was being adapted into an animated series, I thought, ‘Oh, did he change his drawing style so it would be easier to adapt as an anime?’

Nihei: Ah, you're right. When I transitioned from drawing Biomega to creating Knights of Sidonia, my thinking was that I wanted to make something that was more accessible, and easier for people to read and enjoy. 

The protagonist in Knights of Sidonia, Nagate Tanikaze is much younger than Zoichi Kanoe, the main character in Biomega too.

Nihei: BLAME! and Biomega, those were series that I personally really wanted to draw. When I created them, I wasn't thinking so much about WHO I was creating these stories for. As a manga creator, it's a pleasure to create work that many people enjoy reading. So when I started drawing Sidonia, I changed my stance toward my manga, and aimed to create a story that a wider range of readers could enjoy.

Do you still want to create works like Biomega and BLAME! that are more about your personal, artistic expression?

Nihei: (laughs) Well, I've been doing that style of work for over 15 years, so I'm okay with moving on, doing something different and more accessible to readers.

So now looking back on those early years in NYC, if you had a chance to talk to the 20-something you back then now, what would you say to him?

Nihei: I would say, ‘Quit painting everything black as soon as possible!’ (laughs) ‘You'll just get bored with doing that for 20 years!’  But then again, the me from 20 years ago probably wouldn't listen to me anyway!

Is that what you think is the biggest difference between the you then, and who you are now?

Nihei: It goes back to the reasons why I drew manga before, for more selfish reason, or drawing for myself. Now I've come to realize that I have to draw manga that is entertaining for others to read.

Seshita: Speaking as a fan, when I read BLAME! or Biomega, I feel like I'm sneaking into Nihei-sensei's world. But when I read Knights of Sidonia, I felt like I, and other readers, were more welcome in Nihei-sensei's world. With Sidonia, there are more scenes of the characters’ living spaces, and they feel more cozy and comfortable to be in. But maybe you didn't do that intentionally?

Nihei: No, not really. (laughs)

CREATING THE WORLDS OF KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA & BLAME! IN CG ANIMATION

So back to the anime: Knights of Sidonia, and now BLAME! feature a lot of immersive worlds filled with large scale architectural structures and machinery, which certainly lends itself to CG animation.

Seshita: We were trying to find a manga series that we could adapt with CG animation, and Nihei's work is very cinematic. His framing and storytelling lends itself well to animation like this.

So Nihei-sensei, you didn't get the offer to adapt Knights of Sidonia as an anime until the third volume was published. Did you purposefully simplify your line-style and storytelling so it could be more easily adapted into an anime?

Nihei: As I was drawing Knights of Sidonia, I was thinking that it could be turned into an anime, but I didn't really have a lot of high hopes that it would actually happen! (laughs)

When Polygon Pictures approached me about adapting Knights of Sidonia into an anime, I went to visit their studios with VERY low expectations! I remember from that day, that Seshita-san was SO confident about pitching this idea to me, it made me think, ‘Okay, maybe this will really happen. I think I can trust them to make something good.’

The end result was beyond my expectations, so I'm completely happy with how it turned out.

NIHEI MANGA MYSTERIES: WHAT ARE GAUNA? AND WHY BEARS?

Seshita: I read all of Nihei's works, so I asked him lots of questions about what he was thinking about when he created them. Nihei-sensei replied, ‘Oh, I really didn't think that much about it when I was drawing!’ (laughs)

Ha! I know what you mean. I was re-reading a lot of Nihei-sensei's manga to prepare for this interview, and a lot of questions came up for me, about the deeper themes and ideas behind his stories. But I'm realizing that if I asked you about them now, you'd probably say, ‘Uh, I really didn't think THAT deeply about it when I drew that.” (laughs)

Nihei: Of course, when I create the manga, I think about those themes, but I think it would kind of spoil things for readers if I explain too much about the hows and whys of what happens in my stories. I think the most interesting science fiction stories have a certain degree of mystery to them, where they don't completely explain everything to the reader.

Still, I was wondering – what are “gauna?” (NOTE: Gauna are the gigantic, shape-shifting space creatures that threaten the space colony in Knights of Sidonia)

Nihei: I can explain it to you, but I think it's more interesting that people don't know exactly what gauna are.

I just thought it was interesting because it seems like a completely original concept for an alien being.

Nihei: At the end of Knights of Sidonia, I wrestled with the thought of whether to really explain what gauna are, but I thought it would be more interesting to leave some mystery.

Your recent stories represent evil in an interesting way. In the worlds you create, humanity lives in very sterile, cold, man-made environments. Meanwhile, the villains are organic, but they're not natural creatures per se – they look like cancers or diseases, like nature mutated and violated. In your earlier works like NOiSE and BLAME!, the villains look more like demons, or kind of like H.R. Gieger-type creatures.

Nihei: The villains in Sidonia, they come from outside the world of man. So that's why I tried to make them look completely different than the human characters.

Okay, that makes sense. But I have to ask this question… why do you have bears in some of your stories? (Bear characters are featured in Biomega and Knights of Sidonia)

Nihei: Bears!! (laughs) Aaahgh… Hm. Hm.

I don't object to the bears being in the story, but I was just wondering why they're a recurring motif in your recent works.

Nihei: They're not so cute, but bears have expressive faces. (pauses) I can't say the true reason why I draw bears… it's kind of a secret. (laughs)

NOTE: In his spotlight panel at SDCC, Nihei was asked again, “Why bears?” His reply then? He laughed, then shook his head, and said ‘It has absolutely no meaning at all.’

In a lot of your work, there can be pages and pages that go by without any dialogue or narration, or explanation of what has happened. But I get your point – that leaves lots of opportunities for the reader to feel that tension, that excitement of seeing something mysterious unfold before them.

Seshita: When we adapted Knights of Sidonia as an animated series, we tried to make the story easy to understand. Perhaps because of that, it became more popular and reached new fans who may not have read the manga before seeing the anime. At the same time, there's a bit of tension because maybe that makes it less interesting, less mysterious…

I did read the Knights of Sidonia manga first, and then I watched the anime series after that. As I watched the anime, I thought, ‘Oh! The story makes more sense now!’ (laughs)

Nihei: I thought the same thing! (laughs)

Seshita: I think that's one of the strong points of Nihei-sensei's work. I can go back and read BLAME! and I can find all kinds of little details I didn't see before, like people I didn't notice in the background

Nihei: (laughs) When I was drawing BLAME! I was trying to see how small I could draw things! See here? This little guy walking across the walkway? (points to a page in BLAME!)

Seshita: In the case of BLAME!, I'm trying to incorporate this aspect of his art into the anime. But all the animators in my crew think I'm crazy for trying to do this. I'm asking them to animate HUGE buildings and settings and still have tiny, tiny people walking around in these settings. (laughs)

Heh! I can imagine the animators all in front of their computer monitors, all grumbling to themselves, ‘Damn you Nihei-sensei!” (everyone laughs)

Seshita: It's like a very expensive fan movie! When I first proposed Sidonia, I put up my own money to get the demo reel made. Same goes for BLAME!

It's a labor of love for you, isn't it?

Seshita: It definitely is!

Nihei: We're now working on a new animation for BLAME! that is coming out in 2017. The story depicted in the anime is re-constructed, revised from the original manga too.

Seshita: Nihei-sensei is really involved in the anime production of BLAME! – much more than most mangaka get involved in the anime adaptation of their work. I'm not sure I should say this in front of his editors and publisher, but I do worry sometimes that Nihei-sensei is spending a lot of time working on the anime that it's impacting his work on his manga! (laughs) He comes to the Polygon Studios offices a lot. He helps us with the story, and he is adding a lot of new elements to the animation. If you look at the covers for the new Master Edition of BLAME!, you can see how he has drawn the characters in full-body poses, front and back on the covers, with lots of detail on their costumes.

So we'll be seeing the BLAME! story re-told in a new way?

Seshita: The basic story and world setting is still the same, but together with Nihei-sensei, we are creating a new structure for the story, to put more focus on the human drama. Typically, when an anime studio makes a proposal to the manga creator and publisher, they ask to make some changes to the story to make it more popular. But in this case, these types of changes are coming from Nihei-sensei. This is very unusual.

He could have drawn these types of elements in the story back then, but he didn't. So this is a chance to expand upon things that were hinted at in the story.

Nihei: It was 20 years ago, so at the time, I wasn't skilled enough to tell a story with that kind of drama. But now, with the technology that's available, I can tell this story in a different way.

(NOTE: At his SDCC spotlight panel, Nihei revealed sketches that showed the difference between a character as originally drawn in the BLAME! manga that was changed significantly in the anime version.)

I would love to watch this anime as virtual reality!

Nihei and Seshita: Ahh, yes. That would be great.

----------------------

Thanks to interpreter Yae Sahashi and Marketing Director Misaki Kido from Kodansha Comics for their assistance with this interview.

For more Tsutomu Nihei manga and anime:

BLAME! Master Edition and Knights of Sidonia are published by Vertical Comics

Knights of Sidonia, Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on NetFlix

BLAME! anime will debut in 2017. Visit http://blame.co.jp/to view the preview trailer

NOiSE is available as a digital release from Kodansha Advanced Media on ComiXology and Amazon Kindle

Biomega is available from VIZ Signature / VIZ Media in print and via ComiXology, Kindle, Nook, iBooks and Google Play

Tsutomu Nihei is on Twitter at @tsutomu_nihei


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