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Traveling Whimsical Roads with Izumi Matsumoto

by Kat Callahan,

Earlier this week we learned Izumi Matsumoto, creator of the iconic manga and hit anime series Kimagure Orange Road, passed away. Matsumoto's work profoundly influenced the person I became and the life path I chose. Although the natural inclination is to lay the blame on this terrible year, Matsumoto suffered for decades from the debilitating disease cerebrospinal fluid hypovolemia. This made it difficult for him to produce work after Kimagure Orange Road and limited his public appearances. The universally meaningless yet personally momentous coincidence that he died on my birthday certainly hits me hard.

I met Matsumoto in person in February of 2012 when he visited Washington, D.C. to attend the anime convention Katsucon. I had first become a fan of his work 15 years earlier as an adolescent in the mid-90s, and had gained something of a reputation as being one of the more knowledgeable fans of the series by the mid-00s. In 2011, Matsumoto himself became aware of who I was after I contributed to an English language Japan-based article on his work, as I offered context to the interviews conducted by the author of the piece who was, at best, a casual fan. Prior to these interviews, Matsumoto was largely unaware of the depth of North American and English language Kimagure Orange Road fandom.

I had previously been a volunteer at Katsucon around ten years earlier, and I didn't hesitate in asking them to bring me back on board when I heard he had been secured as a guest. I explained that I was coming to see Matsumoto specifically and mentioned our indirect contact. To my delighted surprise, Katsucon inquired if I would serve as Matsumoto's Guest Liaison, a combination of handler, assistant, and interpreter for the convention. While I am not clear on the details of the negotiation, Matsumoto and his manager either agreed readily or initially suggested the idea themselves due to my positive reputation with the artist. In engaging with his work critically and speaking to him in person during our time together at Katsucon, I gained a greater understanding of the manga which had so moved me.

In the mid-90s, I was new to suburban North Dallas, a child of the deserts of New Mexico, when I discovered Kaboom Comics N' Stuf, a local comic book store which carried anime and manga. I was already interested in Sailor Moon, and I was at first attracted to the work of Matsumoto's contemporary, Rumiko Takahashi. I enjoyed both Ranma ½ and Maison Ikkoku, but they lacked direct relevance to my life. Ranma is intentionally ridiculous, and Maison Ikkoku focused on characters older than myself. But then, I found Kimagure Orange Road. The story of an uncertain boy in a new town trying to figure out life, friendship, and love.

It was only in Japanese, but as I leafed through the pages, I could tell I had something special. It had some slapstick silliness, and from what I could make out, maybe the boy had special powers. Unlike Ranma or some of the other anime or manga I knew, it mostly seemed to be about everyday adolescent life. A reflection of my teenage trials and tribulations without too much wackiness. More than anything else, this was the story I had really wanted to read since the day I learned what Japanese comics had to offer.

I became majorly engaged in online fandom to hunt down panel by panel translations for the manga and to locate and then collect the anime series. Realizing how much of the context I was missing, I began to learn Japanese. In time, this would become my functional, daily second language. And while I'll be the first to tell you my ultimate move to Japan was more economic than aspirational, I also credit Matsumoto with the interest and ability to make that move work. Enough realism (including social problems) was found in his work to make me feel like the adjustment was possible.

Although he would tell you that many aspects of Kimagure Orange Road were drawn from his own life, Matsumoto was not from Tokyo. Rather, he was from the city of Takaoka, in the prefecture of Toyama, on the Sea of Japan all the way west across the country from Tokyo. The series takes place in some made up part of Tokyo based on Matsumoto's time in Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward. Some regional variances aside, post-war Japan entered a time of significant homogenization during his youth. Matsumoto's experiences in Takaoka would not have been terribly different from those in more suburban and residential areas both within and directly outside Tokyo Prefecture.

The artist viewed his own background as typical, standard, or default. Takaoka was not extremely rural, urban density in Japan precludes this, nor was it a sea of glass towers like the major hubs of a city found in Tokyo or Osaka. He viewed himself as middle-class, neither wealthy nor poor. His interest in drums and rock music was not unusual for his time or place, and certainly not for his gender. His love of rock music would play an important role in all of the early drafts of Spring Wonder and then its eventual rebirth as Kimagure Orange Road. And the anime version benefits from this greatly, with a score by Shirou Sagisu, famously known for his work on Neon Genesis Evangelion and other Gainax properties, as well as insert songs from some of the greatest pop singers of '80s Japan. Music itself could be thought of as a character in Kimagure Orange Road, a way of honoring the road not taken, perhaps.

Matsumoto became quite a fan of manga and anime as he grew up, and his interest increased after he admitted a career in music would not be possible and enrolled in a design school instead. He noticed that while you could find plenty of adventures, giant robots, superheroes, and samurai on the “shonen” side, and plenty of romance and drama and school life on the “shoujo” side, there were few works which seemed to cross these boundaries. Matsumoto wanted to read a story with a teenage male protagonist dealing with these same issues. When he was unable to find a story that met with his satisfaction, he decided to create one.

This may seem difficult for younger fans to really grasp when there are now hundreds of these stories. But aside maybe from Mitsuru Adachi's Touch, roughly contemporary to Kimagure Orange Road, about two boys competing for one girl, all these later stories owe a great debt to Matsumoto's work. Not just for the archetypes that his characters of Hikaru Hiyama and Madoka Ayukawa would set for female protagonists in “shonen” works, but also for the idea that a series could focus on serious, if also amusing, adolescent romantic entanglements from the teenage male perspective, and also be wildly popular.

Popularity, of course, as Matsumoto told me, was not his goal. His goal was to make the story he wanted to read. Being a famous manga artist was not something he dreamed was possible. Even when, through several revisions, the final draft of Kimagure Orange Road did get picked up by the famous Shonen Jump, Matsumoto was told to keep his expectations low. A male-oriented romance story? Aimed at the Shonen Jump readership of mainly junior high school boys? May not last, but sure, we'll try it out and see how the readers react.

As it would turn out, the publisher had no reason to be concerned. Matsumoto endowed his characters with depth that is not necessarily apparent at an initial glance. Kyosuke, who isn't Matsumoto himself per se, was really meant to be a kind of “every-boy” character. A character the readers/viewers could see as representative. I would go further, of course, and argue that “every-boy” is more limiting than Matsumoto's actual success, because Kyosuke's feelings are so universal that “every-person” is certainly possible. Especially in a queer reading. Kyosuke is a protagonist many, if not everyone, can see as representative. To view him as hapless, boring, and devoid of distinguishing identity is a failure to understand Kyosuke's narrative purpose and the ambiguity of adolescent identity. It also fails to take into account his actions at the end of the series and in later additions to the canon.

Similarly, we get complaints about Matsumoto's female characters, Hikaru Hiyama (the girl generally believed by other characters to be Kyosuke's girlfriend), and one of the most iconic female anime protagonists of all time: Madoka Ayukawa. On first look, both of these characters seem fairly flat. Hikaru: the immature, silly, clingy, possessive girl Kyosuke doesn't want to rebuff, and Madoka: the mysterious, mercurial, martial, intelligent, and sexy girl who Kyosuke really loves—and who secretly loves him in return. Both of these characters intentionally have stereotypical veneers, but these veneers, rather than confirm teenage male biases, are supposed to bring attention to them and show how little Kyosuke understands the girls in his life—who exist outside of his objectification. And I don't deny Kyosuke does fall into objectification and even misogyny, though we aren't supposed to see this as a reflection of Matsumoto.

Almost from the beginning we as the readers/viewers see cracks in both these images. Hikaru, like Madoka, is a known delinquent when we meet her. She is at least somewhat uncouth, aggressive, and mean initially in the manga, and especially so in the anime adaption, where Hikaru is more aware and very intentionally manipulative. We don't see much of her home life, but what little we do see suggests she might have a poor relationship with her parents. Both types of her behaviors are acts and her unwillingness to see truth in the manga, and her overt attempts at manipulation in the anime, lead to both stories' final conflict resolutions. Hikaru isn't inherently a bad person, of course. And she eventually does become someone we, and she herself, can like.

And then there's Madoka. She's the very epitome of a latch-key kid. Her parents don't even live in Japan, and she is largely ignored by the older sister tasked to take care of her. There's a distinct class difference between Madoka and Kyosuke which repeatedly comes up, with Madoka playing the “poor little rich girl turns Bad Girl” act. There is even some evidence, though Matsumoto was unwilling to give me specific details even in private, that Madoka is biracial. Not only is she based on a combination of Japanese and American idols Akina Nakamori and Phoebe Cates specifically, something Matsumoto confirmed, but characters also hint that her father is not a native Japanese speaker and may not be Japanese. While good at everything (or perhaps earlier driven to be), her parents largely don't appear to care or even notice. They're not even there. Madoka has serious abandonment issues and a major inferiority complex which is at the heart of her “whimsical” or mercurial nature. Not to mention her substance abuse issues, specifically drinking.

These clues are not subtle in a Japanese context. While I became more and more aware of them prior to moving to Japan because of the amount of time I spent poring over the series, my time in Japan, knowledge of sociocultural norms and behaviors, experience with the language, and being a visual minority, has colored these concepts. Kimagure Orange Road reflects upon the Japan where Matsumoto grew up and lived, a Japan that still exists today. A country where fictional and real teenagers are struggling with family obligations, class identity, and racial and social identity. The real reason Kimagure Orange Road became so popular is thanks to Matsumoto's willingness to approach underlying social realities with humor and love, and from a perspective not often seen in manga and anime at the time: a teenage male protagonist. These issues may be instantly recognizable to a Japanese audience, but they resonate with any human audience despite cultural and linguistic barriers.

Matsumoto told me he first became aware of how popular his work had become not when he had been signed, but when he was on the Tokyo subway one day. All around him were people on the train reading Shonen Jump, specifically reading Kimagure Orange Road. Then it hit him, not only was his work out there, people genuinely liked it. The manga would run for 18 total volumes, inspire an anime adaptation, major motion pictures, and be picked up by licensing companies around the world. The anime even aired on television in France and Italy dubbed into those languages. And it would pick up a cult following in North America years before Matsumoto truly understood how wide his series spread.

Even today, Kimagure Orange Road is popular enough for new merchandise or special events to be held periodically, as evidenced by a new merchandise line announced coincidentally by Japanese book and media store Tsutaya on the day of Matsumoto's passing (also my birthday). The sustained interest which could support such financial investments was something Matsumoto still had trouble really believing in 2012. He set out to make something for himself, and was both baffled and delighted that so many within Japan would find it relatable and memorable. That it would touch the lives, even divert the lives, of those outside of Japan? This was simply outside of his ability to comprehend. He still seemed in complete awe of that reality when we met.

Away from the panels, the vendor's room, and the autograph lines, he and I had many private hours to speak about his work, his life, and the nature of life in general. One thing that struck me in particular was that despite his soft-spokenness and constant surprise at his own fame, he remained singularly driven. He was full of big ideas and talked both about revisiting Kimagure Orange Road as well as other major projects. There was annoyance and sadness at his debilitating illness, but neither in public nor in private, did I ever see him give hint that he saw it as anything but a temporary condition. He gave no clue that he saw the end of his mortality as something that would come before he would do his Next Great Work. He was proud of Kimagure Orange Road, and he loved its characters deeply, but his concern about his legacy was something he did seem unable to escape. Perhaps because Kimagure Orange Road was always intrinsically internal, and the rest of us were lucky to be allowed along for the ride. Perhaps because he wanted a purposeful masterpiece--Kimagure Orange Road had been a largely unintended one.

The Matsumoto I came to know over those hours and days had a keen interest in history, and as such showed his interest in my own graduate work on pre-war Japanese constitutionalism and Japanese radical ultra-nationalism, urging me to go on and on during both a dinner and a subsequent van ride back to the hotel. His interest in my work did not come from any kind of exhaustion from discussion of his own work, but from a place of deep humility. He wasn't shy about saying that he did not consider his career more valuable or more world-changing than whatever I was producing.

This is how I will ultimately remember him, as someone who endeavored to create the story he wanted to read, whether anyone cared or not, and never stopped being shocked and delighted that so many people did. Someone who easily could have devolved into cynicism and aloofness at the same questions about the same work for decades. Instead, he was someone who took me aside and thanked me sincerely for understanding and loving his work. Yet also someone whose optimism that another grand work, a purposeful one this time, was just around the corner when his illness finally broke, never ended up matching reality. As a fan and as a human being, and as one with rare moments of privacy and intimacy with the subject of my fandom, my heart breaks for what might have been but wasn't.

Still, I'm eternally grateful Matsumoto lived long enough to come to know how many people around the world understood and loved Kimagure Orange Road as he did. As I did. As I always will.

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