Interview: Blue Exorcist Mangaka Kazue Kato

by Deb Aoki,

Kazue Katō, the creator of Blue Exorcist made her N. American comic/anime convention debut appearance at Anime Expo 2016 in Los Angeles on July 4th weekend. She came to meet fans and to promote the Blue Exorcist manga, which is currently featured in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine, and as print and digital graphic novels published by Viz Media.

She was also featured at a Blue Exorcist anime spotlight panel hosted by Aniplex, where Kato, her Jump SQ. editor Shihei Lin, and Miho Matsumoto, the producer of the Blue Exorcist anime series announced that a new season of the Blue Exorcist anime is in the works. This second season will focus on the Kyoto Saga of the story, where exorcists Rin and Yukio Okumura and their friends battle the Impure King. This new season of Blue Exorcist will debut in 2017, more than five years after the first season aired in 2011.

The Blue Exorcist manga series as we know it today debuted in April 2009 in the pages of Jump SQ., a monthly magazine that is part of Shueisha's Jump family of manga publications. The story focuses on twin brothers Rin and Yukio Okumura, who are both exorcists and half-demons with none other than Satan as their father. The story follows Rin and Yukio's adventures as students at the Holy Cross Academy, a private school that trains exorcists. It also focuses on Rin, Yukio and their classmates’ many encounters with demons who threaten to destroy the world.

Like many manga artists from Japan, Kato requested that no photos be taken at her events. However, this slim 30-something comics creator was clearly moved when she saw huge rooms full of fans eager to see her and hear what she had to say about her creations and her creative process.

At one point during the Blue Exorcist anime panel, a moderator from Aniplex asked her, “Did you ever imagine that Blue Exorcist would be popular outside of Japan?” Kato looked out into the hall, where over 2,000 fans gathered to see her speak. She seemed visibly moved by the sight and said, “Not at all! At the beginning, I was just wondering when they'd fire me! I didn't expect to have these many fans.”

Anime News Network sat down with Kato and her editor Shihei Lin on a Sunday morning before the Aniplex Blue Exorcist panel to talk about the early days of creation of her manga series, her creative process today, and her first impressions of Los Angeles and the fans she met at Anime Expo.

First of all, welcome to Los Angeles and welcome to Anime Expo! You've already had a panel on Saturday, and then you had a few autograph sessions, and another panel with Aniplex later today. Very busy weekend for you!  So, can you share some of your impressions of Anime Expo so far?

Kazue Katō: There's a lot of people!  Yesterday around noon or so, I kind of walked around… Japan's conventions have a lot of people too, but it's definitely a lot more than what I've seen in cons in Japan. It's really hard to walk around! <laughs>

I didn't realize there's so many Americans who are into Japanese anime and that whole world.

Have you had any interesting interactions with your fans at Anime Expo?

Kato: Yeah, but I haven't been able to talk to them a whole lot. I tried to talk to a fan, but he was so nervous that he couldn't really reply. <laughs> Everyone's such a huge fan that it kind of makes me a little nervous!

Too much love?

Kato: Yeah, that sounds about right. (laughs)

Have you met some of the cosplayers that dressed up as Blue Exorcist characters?

Kato: Yes, I have met them. There were two cosplayers who were my escorts at the panel yesterday.

Oh, very cool. So let me just dive right into Blue Exorcist. You've mentioned in other interviews that you initially got the idea for Blue Exorcist from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Which story was it?

Kato: I think there was a little miscommunication. There's the film Brothers Grimm that came out in 2005. The director of that was Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, Brazil, 12 Monkeys). It's not actually The Brothers Grimm original stories but the Brothers Grimm movie.

The basic concept was about brothers who are up against demons; that basic good-versus-evil premise was very interesting to me. The movie itself was a bit cynical overall. (laughs)

Oh really?

Kato: Yeah, a lot of black comedy in there. I thought, instead of taking this cynical approach, like what if you handled this premise seriously? I thought it'd be really interesting to approach it that way. So that was my initial thoughts on it, and of course, the story evolved from there.

The two main characters in Blue Exorcist, Rin and Yukio are brothers who are opposites, who have very different personalities. One is more serious and restrained, the other is more carefree and straight-forward. How do you come up with how their relationship dynamic works? Are your friends like that, or are your relationships with your siblings like that?

Kato: I have this habit of creating characters who are completely opposite of each other. And of course, I'm sure I'm influenced by my friends, and I have my own habits as well.

Rin and Yukio… I tend to think like Rin, and I have a friend who kind of thinks like Yukio. I really find it interesting when there's that kind of misunderstandings. That's always fun. I have siblings too, and my siblings have completely different tastes and personalities as well.

For example, what are your brother or sister like?

Kato: I have a younger brother that's one year younger and a younger sister who is eleven years younger. My younger brother, we're close in age, and of course being siblings—he's only one year younger—we've lived with each other for a while.

My brother's a complete sports person. He's not an otaku or anything, he's a normal person. He'll just kind of browse through manga; he's that kind of person. There are areas where we completely don't have anything to talk about, but you know, they're still family. So at the heart of it all, we're still siblings or family. If anything were to happen, we could definitely help each other out, no matter what. So I really wanted to show that in my work.

Blue Exorcist is featured in Jump SQ., so you're basically drawing a story with mostly male characters for a shonen manga magazine. How do you tap into the feelings of male characters? How do you create stories that male readers would like?

Kato: When I actually meet my fans, they're actually more women than men.

Oh, is that right?

Kato: I think there's probably boys in there, men who read Blue Exorcist too, of course. They're probably not that vocal about it, so I don't always get their feedback. It's kind of like… “according to other sources…” that's how I hear about my male readership.

So, getting back on topic. That male/female difference, for me, I actually approach male/female, their personalities, pretty much the same. Other than their physical characteristics, I treat them pretty equally. Other than the physical attributes of their different genders, I tend to draw them pretty similarly. So I treat them as human beings with different personality types. As a person, you're a different type of person from other people—that's how I treat them. I don't really split them by gender.

An interesting thing about your work in that you treat both your male and female characters with equal care. I've read manga where sometimes there's a very definite strong, well-written female characters but weak male characters. And on the other side, strong, interesting male characters and weak, bland female characters.— What makes your manga very enjoyable is that your male and female characters are equally interesting, likeable and complex.

Kato: I'm glad that you perceive it that way.

How much thought do you put into creating these characters, developing their backstory?

Kato: I'm trying to always consistently think about their backstory. I'll talk to my editor, and I also have a third artist, and the three of us will sit down and we'll hash it out, all that backstory as well. So when I say, ‘You know, I want to do this,’ we'll put it up on the board. We'll figure out the story arc so you can actually visualize the story arc of a character. If I don't do that, there's so many characters I can't keep track of everything. That's how I approach their backstories too.

Blue Exorcist is a mix of Japanese and Western magic. How did you decide on exorcists as the main focus of the story? What kind of research do you do to make this world?

Kato: As I mentioned, the Brothers Grimm film was an influence for that. Essentially, I wanted to have someone trying to beat demons. That's the basic premise. But it got really hard to explain all that within one chapter; defining who the bad guys, the demons, are. Had I stuck with that basic premise, it would've been hard to communicate to readers within one chapter. So as it developed, the idea changed. It was just easier to say they're teen devils, they're demons, the bad guys. The people who beat demons, good guys, are exorcists. Make it very clean delineation between who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys.”

Do you do a lot of research into different types of magic as you're developing stories for Blue Exorcist?

Kato: There's an encyclopedia of different demons that have various names for demons. I look for ones that sound interesting. I pull the names out, research the name, see what that demon's about, and go from there. It's like a straight encyclopedia, but it's just all these known demons from all over the world into one book.

That sounds like some book! You do a lot of planning when developing the story arcs in Blue Exorcist, it sounds like. How far in advance have you planned the story of Blue Exorcist?

Shihei Lin: We've thought it out pretty far.

Kato: We've talked about the ending a couple times, many times. At this point, half of the entire story arc has been completed.   

So do you have an ending in mind right now? Or is it going to run forever and ever? <laughs>

Kato: There's a couple patterns right now for the ending, and we're hoping one of those will solidify eventually. Of those patterns, sometimes it's just like ‘Oh, that's not going to work.’ So that gets deleted.

That's a lot of threads to weave together.

Kato: Yeah, it gets really difficult.

.

There are some stories in your short story collection Time Killers, in particularly the story that's illustrated on the cover of the book, that looks very much like a precursor to Blue Exorcist.  That said, there are some key differences between this early story and what Blue Exorcist turned out to be. Why did you decide to make these changes?

Kato: When I was developing Blue Exorcist, today's Blue Exorcist, I was approached by Jump SQ., ‘Hey, can you do one story for our magazine?’ And that story was the result.

It was during the development process that that particular story came to fruition and was published, you know, the exorcist beating demons story. Then I borrowed some character designs and made it a stand-alone story. I was at a place where it was really hard, especially if you have a new story. It was really hard to put Blue Exorcist out there right away. It was kind of a test for the publisher to say ‘Hey, this is what the story is about? What does the public think?’

What kind of reaction did you get from readers? What kind of comments did you receive from either your readers or your editors that influenced you toward the final direction for what eventually became Blue Exorcist?

Kato: It was super positive feedback. There was some momentum from that, and the publisher said to me, ‘Okay, this might be something good for us to put in our magazine.’ Previously when I tried Blue Exorcist out, it did not make it to publication.

Oh, why was that?

Kato: <laughs> Because it was boring. It just didn't have enough depth to make it into a series. So I think, looking back, it was probably good it got cut at that point, at that time. But, I really couldn't let go of that basic premise at that point.

And then I got the opportunity—‘Oh, we have some space (in the magazine),’ they said. For me, I wanted to try it out with the fans again. This time, the results were positive, the publishers were happy with that. Then after that, I went back and developed Blue Exorcist further, and we figured out at least the story arc of the first two volumes. We had a meeting with the publishers, they green-lit it as a series from there.

What was that extra special ingredient that made it better?

Kato: Hm. Let me see if I can remember…I have to remember if it was significantly different… In the first story, right off the bat there was Yukio, Shiemi, and the dad.

The second version of the story, in the first chapter, there was the dad, the second chapter introduced Yukio, and the third chapter introduced Shiemi. So I separated them instead of squishing them all in the first chapter. I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, the first version was just too heavy, it had too much front-loading (of the characters).’

When I compare the current version of Blue Exorcist with this early version in Time Killers, there's more layers in this story. There's action and then there's an emotional, dramatic component, there's family conflict, there's everyday school life, set against a magical backdrop. It's very multi-dimensional.

You've invested a lot in making this series what it is today, but if Blue Exorcist ended tomorrow, what kind of story would you like to draw instead? Would you like to draw another fantasy or would you like to draw a slice of life modern story?

(Lin and Kato laugh)

Interpreter: They're all just laughing, saying “if it ended tomorrow, oh my god!”

Kato: Hmm… Well, that's a hard question. Fantasy is something that's kind of part of me, a habit, so maybe that's the fun part. Drama's hard. It's a struggle to write.

Why is that?

Kato: I think I just suck at it. It's just maybe my personality, I'm not good at it. I need to study more. I need to be a student of drama?

Is that right?

Kato: In the manga world, there are people who are just great at the comedy. Sometimes I compare myself to the mangaka who are really good at comedy, and I think, ‘Man, I still need some work on my comedy (writing).” But drama's hard for me too. Incorporating humor into a story can be hard, but you need that… drama, fantasy, comedy, they all have their special uniqueness. The sensibilities of drama and comedy are different, so it's difficult for me to create that in my stories sometimes. When it comes to what's enjoyable… all-in-all, I'm still enjoying the entire process, including the struggles.

That said, if Blue Exorcist ended tomorrow, maybe my next series might be a period drama… Edo period. Or maybe like animals, for example like Zootopia.

That sounds like fun! I would love to read that. Perhaps someday. In any case, you're very humble about your skill, so I will ask this question to your editor instead. What is her greatest strength as a creator?

Shihei Lin: She says she really has to raise her level as a mangaka, but she's already at a really high level as a mangaka. As you can see, her art is really accessible. She says she's struggling with the drama, but she can still do it. And the comedy—a lot of the time, the first time I read her storyboards, I'm laughing. So I think she is already working at a really high level. I love the fact that she's still striving to be better. It's great that she feels ‘Oh, I need to be better and better.’ That just means she's yet to become a greater and greater mangaka.

Very nicely put. Speaking of animals, Kato-sensei, you draw yourself as a rabbit, and Time Killers has a rabbit story. So why rabbits?

Kato: Back in the Time Killer days, I was just starting out my career, so I did want to have some of my personality in there somewhere. I wanted people to associate me with ‘Oh, that's the mangaka who always draws rabbits.’ So I wanted to be kind of a brand. I use it as an accent. It's not a great answer, it's pretty simple, but…

I guess that makes sense. Rabbits are fun to draw. For me, my favorite character in Blue Exorcist is Kuro, the cat! I bought this when I was in Japan a few years ago… (pulls out a small stuffed Kuro plushie)

Shihei Lin: That's the one that's sold in Japan, the official one.

Kato: That's a cute one. There's a lot of versions of the Kuro doll where the faces look weird sometimes, but this is the official… it looks cute.

I was picky about finding one that looked good because it's my favorite character! (laughs)

Kato: Thank you for your effort.

So, rabbits and cats and you mentioned making a story about animals…

Kato: Yeah, I love animals.

Do you have pets?

Kato: I have a cat. I have two cats. Not just because I love cats or anything, but because they're easy to keep, they're really easy. Especially because I'll be out of the house…

I think in Japan, there are lot of people who have cats. It's just easier to have them as pets. I actually want fish and frogs too, but they can be a bit high-maintenance. I'd like to have frogs, but it's too much work ‘cause you have to have living animals like flies to feed them…

Huh! I didn't think of it that way, that having a frog as a pet would involve doing that…

Kato: They're cute, and especially the poisonous ones are really pretty, and I think they're cute.

Oh that's true, you've drawn frogs sometimes too.

Kato: Yes, yes.

If you weren't a manga artist, what kind of work would you think you'd do?

Kato: In the past, I've answered that I could've been an animator. There was a time around high school when I wanted to study anime. I did talk to my dad that I wanted to go to animation school at the beginning, and then my dad said ‘Uh huh.’ Then he came back to me and he said, ‘Are you… are you serious? Are you really serious about being an animator? I mean, I could pay for school, but are you able to convince me that you're serious about this?’

At that point, it was just kind of a hobby. I wanted to study animation, but I wasn't at the level of being able to convince him. I couldn't say I definitely wanted to be an animator at that time, so my dad was like, ‘All right, just go to normal college.’

My father, he feels that college is the way to be successful in life, so he told me to go to regular college and graduate. But that didn't last very long, and I ended up leaving college… and I'm going off topic…

No, keep going, keep going.

(everyone laughs)

Kato: And maybe, had I gone to the animation school, I might've become an animator, so there's that story.

But going back to animals… Maybe I could've taken up a career that involves caring for animals… like a breeder? So there's Silver Spoon (a manga set in an agricultural college, created by Hiromu Arakawa, creator of Fullmetal Alchemist) right now, is it in the US?

Yes, the anime is available, subtitled in English, but not the manga yet.

 If I read Silver Spoon in middle school, I would've probably gone to agricultural school. And then my life would've been completely different.

This is very true. (laughs) Let's go back to your life a manga artist! Your artwork is very, very detailed. How long does it take you to complete a chapter?

Kato: These days… at the most a week, and with the fastest turn-around, three or four days to draw the storyboards. After that, then it goes to the drawings. At my fastest, it takes ten days. I really want 20 days, though. (laughs) It's around a 14-day turn-around for the drawing. In reality, I'm supposed to turn it around in 10 days, but it ends up being 14 days. The entire process takes about 3 weeks or so.

Lin-san, do you have to chase her down to finish her pages? (laughs)

Lin: Oh, every day. (laughs)

Kato: Yeah, I'm kind of hard to find, so he really has to be on top of my deadlines for me.

Well, I guess that's the job of a manga editor!

Kato: There are other mangaka who are really on top of deadlines. Actually, a lot of mangakas are on top of their deadlines.

So when you're not drawing manga, what do you do to relax?

Kato: I'll watch movies and TV shows.

Such as?

Kato: US TV shows. For example, serial dramas. I also like games. I actually like different forms of entertainment.  I really like Big Bang Theory.

Oh really? What do you like about it?

Kato: Sheldon's really funny. I've only watched up to season five. In the beginning, the comedy was okay, but then Sheldon became more and more of a human, like a real person in the story. So all the normal people who are around Sheldon are kind of synching up with Sheldon's character, they're all kind of bonding throughout the series. It's a very natural. It's kind of like everyone's gravitating to each other throughout the seasons.

In season one episode one of Big Bang Theory, you have this normal girl who moves in. She's kind of a bit of a maniac, so everyone wants to distance themselves from her. Their relationships with her and Sheldon change over time, and they get closer throughout the seasons, so that's really interesting. And of course, the other characters are changing as well.

The jokes are still really funny. Some of them are stupid jokes too, but they're still really funny. Their character development is really interesting too.

That's interesting. I would not have expected to hear that you like Big Bang Theory so much! You've thought about it very deeply. (laughs)

Kato: I mean there are other shows I like to watch. The Walking Dead is another show I watch. I watch a lot of shows, really.

Is this your first time in the US by the way?

Kato: Yes, it's My First Time.

Are you going to go to Universal Studios? There's a Harry Potter World that opened there recently.

Kato: Yeah, I've seen a lot of advertising for it. I wanted to go, but there are other places I wanted to visit while I'm here, so I had to choose.

So what places did you end up wanting to visit and where have you been so far?

Kato: The Hollywood sign, pretty standard stuff like that. The Chinese Theater, the Santa Monica Pier, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive. Your basic tourist spots!

Do you have any favorites sights that you've seen so far?

Kato: The Santa Monica pier was really fun. There's all these Americans hanging out at the beach. There was someone selling puppies at Venice beach. Skateboarders. It was really lively. Bodysurfing. All these grown adults, they're surfing or bodysurfing!

So when you go back to Tokyo and you're going to describe what you experienced this weekend to your friends, what will you say?

Kato: Everything is big. Everything is just… big.

Big what?

Kato: Food.

Big food. Yep, that's America! (laughs)

Kato: There's lots of food! And the air conditioning here is way too cold! (NOTE: The green rooms at AX were pretty frigid)

Also, maybe compared to Japanese, there's kind of a softness, or maybe it's more like a greater sense of freedom. If I were to compare choose an animal to represent America, the animal would be a lion.

And what animal would Japan be?

Kato: Maybe like mice… but not really. Maybe a little bit different? Comparable animals, hmm… well, they would definitely be herbivores. Herbivores or omnivores, definitely not carnivores! (laughs)

You've done a lot as a professional manga artist. Is there anything you would love to do that you haven't been able to accomplish yet? You've had your work adapted as an anime series and and a live-action stage show.  Do you have any other goals you're hoping to reach?

Kato: The anime and the theater, that's actually opportunities that have been coming from the outside to me. In those areas, maybe there might be something more, there might not be. But for me, personally speaking, I want to keep drawing, creating manga that is entertaining and fun, and also becoming a better mangaka. If I'm able to do that, and have good feedback from my fans, then I think it will connect to anime or theater and other media on other platforms.

Reflecting on your career so far, what do you think is the secret to great manga? What's the ingredient that makes a manga story great?

Kato: I'm not sure. I think it might depend from person to person. I'm always questioning my abilities. Really, I think if it's fun to read, that's one thing. That really communicates to my readers—if I'm having fun or not.

When I'm struggling with the material, I think that is also communicated to my audience. So I want to put it out there something that's fun, or something where I'm saying, ‘Hey guys, what do you think?’ When you create comics with that kind of a conviction behind it, I think that's the secret to good manga.

Having the motivation to create, and of course high-quality stories and drawings and techniques, are important too, of course. You need to be at a high level, mentally. To put in the intention, and to be able to maintain that energy, that is pretty difficult. So that's what I think.

Lin-san, speaking as a manga editor, what's your opinion about what makes a great manga?

Lin: I think to read a lot and keep trying. Similar with Kato-sensei, I think the secret to making great manga is to have fun while doing it.

Of course, you need to use your brain when you're drawing, because you could draw a hundred pages, but if you're just going through the motions, it's not going to do much. You have to apply yourself to the work, I think. It's a marathon until you get to that fun point. For three or four years when you're starting out, you might be struggling, but you have to be having fun with the process or you're going to sputter out. That's what I think.

There are obviously many fans who weren't able to be here in Los Angeles this weekend to meet you. What would you like to say to them?

Kato: I wasn't able to see you all, but thank you for reading, first and foremost, thank you for reading Blue Exorcist. We all have different cultures, there's an entire ocean between us. Being able to find something really fun in something that has a completely different cultural perspective… how should I say it? (laughs) I can't think of the words.

It's really a big thing for me that there are people out there who are willing to read something from a different culture, I'm really thankful that I have fans who are reading it. I believe Blue Exorcist is going to keep going for a while and I hope that everyone keeps reading. Thank you for your support. If you're able to relay that, that'd be great.

AO NO EXORCIST © 2009 by Kazue Katō/Shueisha, Inc.


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