Interview: Nami Sano, Author of Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto

by Deb Aoki,

Nami Sano, the manga creator of Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto made her first visit to an overseas comics convention at Anime Expo 2016 in Los Angeles earlier this summer, as a guest of BookWalker Global. While she didn't have a spotlight Q&A panel at AX, Sano did sign books and drew sketches for fans at several autograph sessions.

Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamato (a.k.a. Sakamoto desu ga?) is a 4-volume comedy manga series about a super cool, super stylish high school student named Sakamoto. All the girls love him, all the boys want to be like him – or they're completely jealous of him. Sakamoto's haters would love to knock him down a few pegs, but no matter what they do, they always fail, sometimes in spectacularly hilarious ways. Sakamoto does everything so perfectly, handles every situation with complete confidence, it's almost… freaky. Maybe there's such a thing as being a little bit too perfect?

Sakamoto desu ga? was originally serialized in Harta magazine (formerly Fellows!), the same magazine  published by Enterbrain/Kadokawa that serializes A Bride's Story by Kaoru Mori and Wolfsmundby Mitsuhisa Kuji.  It received the Comic Natalie Grand Prize in 2013, and was featured in as a top title for male readers in the Kono Manga ga Sugoi survey in 2014.

Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto is published in print by Seven Seas Entertainment, and is available in digital format on BookWalker, ComiXology, and Amazon Kindle. Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto was also adapted as an anime series by Studio DEEN in Spring 2016. You can watch it online on Crunchyroll.com, and it has been licensed for release on DVD by Sentai Filmworks.

Sano sat down with Anime News Network on the first day of AX in early July. Along with her editor, Tatsuya Shiode, Sub-Editor in Chief of Harta, Sano shared some of her first impressions of her overseas fans, revealed how she got her start as a mangaka, and the moment when the Sakamoto anime was in production that made her weak in the knees. She also revealed that this interview was her first interview, ever – in or out of Japan! So pull up a chair, and see what the creator of Sakamoto had to say about her kind of kooky comics creation.

First of all, welcome to Anime Expo.

Sano: Thank you to BookWalker for inviting me!

What do you think of this event so far? Any first impressions?

Sano: Everyone is so energetic here! I can tell that they really love manga and anime.

When you first got invited to come to Los Angeles for Anime Expo, what did you expect it to be like?
 
Sano: I knew that there would be a lot of cosplayers. Everyone was telling me there was a lot of cosplayers here, but when I got here, it was beyond my imagination! There's much more cosplayers than I thought.

Have you seen any Sakamoto cosplayers yet?

Sano: Yes, I did.

What did you think when you saw them?

Sano: I was pleased to meet with fans who cosplayed sub-characters from Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto other than Sakamoto.

Oh really? Did they really capture the spirit of your characters?

Sano: oh yes. Very much. I was quite surprised to see the cosplayers depicting even the tiniest details of the characters, such as the earrings and their underwear and everything.

Oh wow. Did you take a picture of these cosplayers?

Sano: I took a photo with them today. (shows photo of Yuya Sera and Sakamoto cosplayers)

Oh wow, that's great. With the bumblebee pants even. They went all out to make it look just like your manga!

Sano: I've never seen Sera-kun's cosplay before in Japan. It's my first time seeing this. I never thought that I could actually meet Sera-kun here. I'm very thankful.

And this is only the first day of Anime Expo and you've already seen this.

Sano: That's true! I've got three more days to meet all the characters.

HAVEN'T YOU HEARD? SAKAMOTO IS KIND OF… STRANGE

That's impressive considering that Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto is your first manga series, yes?

Sano: Yes, it is.

So how did you pitch this story to Shiode-san, your editor at Harta? How did you describe this story concept to him?

Sano: I sent him some storyboards first. He said that they're not funny at all, so he returned it to me and I changed the whole story.

What was the story like originally?

Sano: It wasn't a gag manga at first.

Oh, what was the original story like?

Sano: The original story was a romantic comedy about this boy who can see the five seconds into the future, and how he falls in love with other girls.

Boy, you're resilient! To try again and come up with a new concept for a story after getting shut down by an editor who told you that your manga was “not funny at all.”

Sano: Driven by regret (after receiving that critique), I drew something new. My second idea was a story main character becomes a perfect human when he puts on his glasses, and his classmates try to take off his glasses.

That became the basis of Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto. My editor, Shiode-san started saying, ‘This character, he doesn't need special abilities or powers. Why don't you just make it a perfect boy who goes to high school?’ And that's how it started.

That's very interesting, to start from your initial ideas about a boy who's perfect when he wears glasses to the story you ended up with in the end, where Sakamoto is this bizarrely perfect, always cool high school student who just happens to wear glasses.

I've read a lot of manga set in Japanese high schools, but I've never read one like Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto. I first heard about this manga when it was selected for Kono Manga ga Sugoi (NOTE: Kono Manga ga Sugoi, or This Manga is Amazing! is a yearly guide to the best manga worth reading, as recommended by manga publishing professionals and booksellers) I thought, ‘What is this manga about?’ I saw the cover, but I was really surprised when I read it. It's such an unusual story!

Sano: It's based on the Japanese culture. There are probably parts of this manga you can't understand if you don't know what it's like in Japanese high school. For example, in Japan, students have to have to do fitness tests every single year, doing stuff like jumping sideways.  I didn't really know if fitness tests like that were done in high school overseas, so I was quite surprised to hear that people outside of Japan could understand such things.

Speaking as an overseas reader of manga, I think it's because many of us have read enough manga and watched enough anime that depict Japanese high school life that some of this stuff isn't new to us. For example, we know about school festivals, that the school year starts in April not September like it does in the States, and girls give boys chocolate on Valentine's Day.

Sano: So did you know about the hopping thing?

Not that particular activity in particular, but I knew that fitness tests like running sprints and such are a part of Japanese high school life.

Sano: Did you understand it? Was it still funny?

It was probably not as funny to me as it was to you! (laughs) Seeing that sort of scene and the absurd lengths that Sakamoto takes it, my impression was more like ‘Eeh?’ Then the situations that Sakamoto are involved in get more and more absurd, more and more ridiculous, to the point where it's just strange! It's kind of like improv comedy, where it starts with a basic premise, then the comedians try their best to come up with more and more absurd twists to that premise on the spot.

For example, a bully does something mean to Sakamoto, and then Sakamoto responds in a cool, nonchalant way, like it was no big thing. Then the bully decides to up the ante, and he pulls away Sakamoto's chair, thinking that it'll make Sakamoto fall on his behind. But Sakamoto instead seems to sit in mid-air, as if like he's levitating. As a reader, I see that and I think, ‘Wait, whaaa?’ I'm not exactly sure what just happened, but it's surprising and silly.  So, hm. Maybe I can explain it this way -- Have you heard of Monty Python?

Sano: Yes, yes, yes.

With Monty Python, there are a lot of jokes that are based on British life and British people, but you don't need to live in the UK to appreciate the humor. It's kind of like that with Sakamoto. I can read it and appreciate the Japanese spirit of the humor in this story.

Sano: Kind of like pantomime comedy? Or slapstick?

Yep! Slapstick humor is sort of universal. When I talk with manga translators, they say humor is the hardest thing to translate, so it was pretty neat that the translator for Sakamoto tried very hard to retain the Japanese spirit of the jokes and make it funny and understandable for English readers.

Sano: I really appreciate the translator who translated my work.

Yeah. You should probably meet the translator someday, huh? Shake her hand and stuff! (everyone laughs)

So Shiode-san, what kind of suggestions did you give to Sano-sensei to develop her initial concepts for her manga story into what eventually became Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto?

Tatsuya Shiode: She had a few funny stories, like that first scene in Sakamoto, when the chalkboard eraser falls from the doorsill and Sakamoto catches it before it lands on his head. So I told her to just leave the interesting parts, and remove any other unnecessary elements.

There have been a lot of manga set in high school, and quite a few about bullying, but I don't think I've ever seen a hero like Sakamoto, who handles bullying in the way that he does.

Sano: Is that right? (laughs) Hmm, maybe so. Maybe in other manga stories, a person who gets bullied becomes the victim, and he does stuff to overcome that bullying. So maybe my manga is more about overcoming obstacles with humor, which makes it different.

Did you actually know someone like Sakamoto when you were in school?

Sano: Nooooooooo. (laughs)

Not even close?

Interpreter: Sakamoto is her ideal image of a high school boy, I guess. He's kind of a super boy.

Oh really? Would you date a boy like that?

Sano: I don't want to be killed by all the girls who'd like a popular boy like that. It's dangerous! (laughs)

What threw me off about Sakamoto is that sometimes it's a little frightening how amazing he is. You don't know whether to laugh or be creeped out by what he does. Was that creep-out factor on purpose?

Sano: I really like horror movies and manga, so yes, I guess I was going for something mysterious!

You created four volumes of Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto. How were you able to keep the joke going, keep the humor fresh, chapter after chapter?

Sano: I would think and think and think about what would be interesting if I put Sakamoto in certain situations, kind of like squeezing, squeezing, trying to get those last drops of ideas or jokes out of my mind, like I was squeezing a damp towel really hard. Plus, I'd add my own experiences to the mix, and that makes it into a story.

What do you do when you get stuck? How do you get over artist's block?

Sano: I take a bath.

Showers work for me too. (laughs) The best ideas come in the shower!

How did Japanese readers react to Sakamoto's antics when they first read it?

Shiode: She was surprised to see fans posting images mimicking Sakamoto sitting in mid-air without a chair.

Oh right! I think I've seen that! Sakamoto's main personality trait is that nothing seems to bother him at all. Does he have any secret weakness that you haven't shared with readers yet?

Sano: He doesn't like sweet things. He can't eat sweets. (laughs) And he likes cute stuff, like animals, like birds.

So Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto ended after four volumes, and at the risk of spoiling things for readers, let's just say that it pretty definitely ended. What made you decide to end the series?

Sano: In order to keep Sakamoto stylish, 4 volumes was the limit.

So not like Kochikame! (laughs) (NOTE: Kochikame, a.k.a. Kochira Katsushika-ku Kamearikouen-mae Hashutsujo is a long-running comedy manga series in Shonen Jump that's currently up to 199 volumes)

Sano: Not like Kochikame! (laughs) I couldn't keep drawing a long series like that.

So now you're working on another series. Can you tell us a little bit about it? Or do you have any ideas?

Sano: I don't have any concrete plans or storyboards yet.

Shiode: She's got several ideas in her mind at the moment, but she can't say which she's using yet. She's still deciding.

Is it going to be a comedy as well?

Sano: It'll be a comedy, but other points will be increased.

How so?

Sano: Sakamoto-kun was the sort of character who doesn't show his feelings. I want to draw, or create, something that shows more about people's feelings and the character's feelings.  I want to write something where the character has something he wants to earn or get in his or her life, and work towards that goal.

I see! Well, I'll look forward to seeing what you come up with next!

‘I'VE ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A MANGAKA’

Because this is your first interview, there's a lot that we don't know about you. So now, I'm going to ask some basic background questions. For starters, how did you get your start as a manga artist?

Sano: When I was twenty years old, I brought my manga to Shiode-san.

Why did you decide to work with Shiode-san and Harta Magazine?

Sano: I went to three publishers, sending my comics to magazines like Comic Beam and Afternoon. The guy who replied was Shiode-san from Harta.

So, Shiode-san, what did you see in her work that made you want to call her back?

Sano: Yeah, I wanna hear this story too. (laughs)

Shiode: I saw her work and my first impressions was that it's not a professional work, because she was only twenty years old. It wasn't polished, but I felt a lot of energy in her drawings. I thought, ‘If she's got this much energy, she can become a mangaka.’

So Sano-sensei, are you self-taught or did you go to art school?

Sano: I did go to art school—or, rather, I studied art in university. I studied cartooning instead of drawing manga.

Oh, what's the difference?

Sano: You know, like political cartoons that are featured in newspapers and magazines, where there's only one picture?

Oh, did you want to be a political cartoonist at first?

Sano: Not really. (laughs) There were two courses, the mangaka course and the cartoonist course. For the cartoonist course, they teach students more of the basic stuff about drawing people, so that's why I took that course.

Hm. This is hard for me to wrap my brain around, because in America, drawing cartoons and comics are kind of the same thing…

Sano: In Japan it's totally different. They're created totally differently. It's sort of like the difference between manga and children's book illustration.

What prompted you to start drawing manga?

Sano: I've always wanted to be a mangaka from when I was little, an elementary student.

When you were young, what kind of manga did you love to read, that inspired you to want to be a manga artist?

Sano: Mahōjin Guru Guru by Hiroyuki Eto.

Ah, a magical girl manga? What did you like about it?

Sano: It's a fantasy manga, but the story is very down to earth – it's not set in a fantasy world, but in an everyday life setting. I liked the humor in that story.

Let's think back to when you were a little girl and you thought ‘I want to be a manga artist.’ What did you think it would be like? And how is that imagined life of a manga artist you had then different from how it's really like for you as a working professional today?

Sano: It's not that different. I'm really enjoying it all the time. I've been writing manga a really long time now, and there's not much difference from what I imagined and the real mangaka life.

How many years have you been drawing now?

Sano: I started drawing manga from when I was in high school.

Did you make doujinshi and sell them at comics shows? How did you build your skills?

Sano: I did it a little bit of selling doujinshi, but not so much. I just enjoyed writing manga in my spare time.

I gotta say that's really gutsy for a newcomer to just decide to show your work to a manga publisher very early on in your career. For example, at Anime Expo, there are many artists in Artists Alley who would find it difficult to get up the courage to do what you did. How did you find the courage to send out your early work to manga publishers?

Sano: I didn't think anything else about becoming a mangaka, since I was little. It's just what I was supposed to do, I guess.

So what's your favorite thing about being a manga artist?

Sano: I had the voice actors from the Sakamoto anime series­ talk to me in my ear, so that was really exciting.

Oh, which one? Which character?

Sano: Sakamoto. (NOTE: Hikaru Midorikawa was the voice of Sakamoto in the anime)

Oh, wow. What did it that feel like?

Sano: It made me weak in the knees! (laughs) It was so much more than I had imagined.

It must be really exciting to see your characters move and speak as animated characters. What was your reaction when the studio came to you, and said, ‘We want to make an anime out of this? ‘

Sano: I was really, really happy.

When you watched the Sakamoto anime for the first time, did seeing your characters talking and moving, and seeing them in color, did that make you see your characters in a different way?

Sano: It was just as I imagined, although Hayabusa-senpai was more handsome than I thought. (laughs) They put in so much effort into the anime, in creating Hayabusa-senpai. The anime staff really liked Hayabusa-senpai, so that's probably why.

‘I'M NOT WORTHY!’ PLUS A LOOK AT HARTA MAGAZINE

One thing you mentioned in your comment for the press release from BookWalker announcing your appearances at Anime Expo was that you didn't feel worthy of all this attention. This is partly why you opted to not have a spotlight panel, but just had autograph sessions at AX.

However, your manga has been published in several countries, it has received a lot of critical acclaim, it's sold very well in Japan, and it's been adapted into an anime series. That's a lot of ‘worthy’ there! So what goal or milestone do you feel like you have to reach before you can feel like, ‘Wow, I'm a big-time manga artist!’?

Sano: I'm thirty or so right now. When I'm fifty and I'm still writing manga like I am right now, then I can finally say that I'm a professional mangaka.

Very nice. Do you have any professional manga creators that you look to and think ‘I want to be just like them?’

Sano: Yes, a lot. Kaoru Mori (creator of Emma and A Bride's Story). I really look up to Mori-sensei. She is published in Harta as well. I hear a lot of stories about her, so that's why I look up to her.

Some ANN readers might not have heard of Harta, so to help provide some context for them, how would you describe Harta? What makes it a unique magazine?

Sano: Harta is called a “manga dojo.” A dojo is a place where you practice martial arts. So you have to work really, really hard.

Because Harta has high standards for the manga that they publish?

Sano: Yes, and because all the mangaka work very hard. All the mangaka and the editors are very hardworking, striving to be the best they can be, like athletes do.

So Shiode-san, as a Harta editor, can you describe what you're striving for?

Shiode: I want all the mangaka I work with to become professional mangakas, working at a very high level. That's what drives me towards creating good content and manga.

Harta is an interesting manga magazine because its content is very eclectic – it has a mix of drama and comedy, very detailed art next to very free and loose style drawings.

Shiode: We have everything! It depends on the mangaka and what sort of style that mangaka is very good at. We have all different kinds of styles.

So what's the thread that holds it all together as a magazine?

Shiode: We don't have a concrete theme or anything like Shonen Jump. Stories in Jump are primarily about friendship, effort, and victory. At Harta, we publish manga that Jump doesn't really carry, but are really, really good stories.

So all it has to be is really good or interesting to read?

Sano: Harta isn't about media mixes.

Shiode: In Japan, a lot of the manga publishers do comics first, and which then get adapted into anime series, and live action movies, and so on. We don't do that with Harta. When our editors pick a manga to publish in our magazine, they don't think about whether it can be adapted into an anime later.

That's true. It's very rare that I see manga stories from ­Harta adapt­­ed as anime series.

Shiode: This is only the second manga series from Harta to become an anime.

Oh really? What was the other one?

Shiode: Kenzen Robo. (a.k.a. Daimidaler: Prince vs. Penguin Empireby Asaki Nakama)

So maybe another way to explain this point of view might be that for many of the stories serialized in Harta, manga is the ultimate expression of these creators’ stories? If it becomes a movie, that's great. But Harta editors don't think about stuff like, ‘I'm not interested in publishing this manga because it has no potential to be a movie.’

Shiode: Yes.

Huh. That's interesting.  That's kind of refreshing, actually.

A MESSAGE TO NAMI SANO FANS

I've asked you a lot of questions, so thank you for taking the time to answer them all. So to sum up, would you like to share any messages with your fans who couldn't meet you this weekend?

Sano: I never thought that so many people around the world would read and like—love—this title, this manga. So I just want to say thank you. I do appreciate everyone reading this manga. Another thing is, well, my next manga series is coming up… maybe not soon, but I'm thinking about it right now. So, please look forward to it.

Also, you go downstairs in the artists alley section of Anime Expo, there's a whole lot of artists who dream of becoming professional, published manga creators. Do you have any advice or words of encouragement to pass along to them? Many of them are in their 20's, or roughly about the age you were when you first showed your manga to the editors at Harta.

Sano: Please create something that you'd like to read yourself.  If you enjoy writing the manga yourself, the readers will definitely know that you enjoyed it and they'll enjoy it themselves. Ganbatte kudsai. (Please do your best)

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Thank you to Norika Suzuki for translating and to BookWalker Global for setting up time for this interview.

Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto Volume 1-4 are available now in print from Seven Seas Entertainment, and is available in digital format on BookWalker, ComiXology, and Amazon Kindle.

Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto anime is streaming online at Crunchyroll.com

Harta Magazine is also on Twitter: @hartamanga


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