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Masashi Kishimoto at New York Comic-con
The Anime News Network Interview

by Deb Aoki,

For manga fans, Masashi Kishimoto and Naruto needs no introduction. It is simply one of the most popular manga series ever created, not just in Japan, but throughout the world.

Masashi Kishimoto first drew Naruto as a one-shot manga in 1997, then it was added as a weekly series to Weekly Shonen Jump in 1999. Kishimoto's story of a plucky young ninja orphan who has the power of a nine-tailed fox god locked in his body and his path from being a brat to a powerful ninja leader. It is an epic tale that spans over 72 volumes and 700 chapters, has been adapted as an anime TV series and movies, video games, and novels, and is one of the best-selling books (not just comics or manga) ever.

For Masashi Kishimoto's first visit to North America, much less New York City for New York Comic-Con, Viz Media arranged several special opportunities for fans to meet and listen to the creator of Naruto speak about his comics, his creations, and his future plans. ANN's coverage is in 2 parts:

On Wednesday night, before the start of New York Comic-Con, Kishimoto was a special guest at the Apple Store in downtown NYC. This was a ticketed, intimate event that less than 100 people were able to attend and see in person. The audio of the event will be available as a podcast from Apple's iTunes Apple Store podcasts page.

The moderator for this event was Christopher Butcher, the Director of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF). He was joined on stage by Jo Otsuki, the editor for Naruto from Weekly Shonen Jump magazine, and Mari Morimoto, the translator for this event, and also the translator for Viz Media's English editions of the Naruto manga.

While no photos were allowed for these events, Kishimoto is a slim man who just recently turned 40. He initially seems a bit quiet, but is friendly and easy-going. He cracked a few jokes with fans, and seems to take his great fame and success in stride.

Butcher began by asked Kishimoto whether he was aware of the impact that Naruto has had upon fans worldwide, and his role as an "ambassador of Japan" to North America. Kishimoto laughed, saying that he thought it was kind of amazing that fans in North America were interested in Japanese manga and culture, and that he thought most people would be more familiar with "Naruto" (spiral fishcake) as an ingredient in ramen rather than Naruto the boy ninja.

Kishimoto's humble perspective perhaps comes from his early efforts to create a manga for Jump. He explained that he had tried several times to create a hit manga, exploring everything from sci-fi to action to sports manga. After many misses, Kishimoto said his editor encouraged him to give it one more try. That last try was the one-shot manga that eventually became the weekly series Naruto that we know and love today.

Butcher also marveled at Kishimoto's cinematic style of drawing. Kishimoto explained that his style was influenced by manga masters, including Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball), Katsuhiro Ōtomo (Akira) and Hiroaki Samura (Blade of the Immortal). Kishimoto  expressed admiration for Star Wars, and American comics movies like Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Batman.

He also talked about his friendly rivalry with Eiichiro Oda, the creator of One Piece.

"One Piece debuted about a year earlier than Naruto did, even though we're the same age. He beat me to it. I was very envious in the beginning and yet, at the same time, I wanted to not only be like him, but I wanted to surpass him. In some ways I feel like the reason Naruto was able to be published and was able to succeed was because of One Piece." He continued, "Perhaps we both kind of supported and bolstered each other over the years and lead to both of our successes because we had that rivalry. When one of us did something, the other one had to out do the other, and that kept both series going."

Kishimoto then described his creative process, and revealed that the entire process, from sketches and rough storyboards to finished artwork is all done by hand, not digital processes.

"I'm actually quite analog. I don't draw manga digital yet at all. We do get these sticker sheets with different tone and shades. It's not just me doing it; my assistants and I will get together and we have fun putting on the tones manually."

But Kishimoto had this bit of advice for up and coming comics creators:

"I don't recommend the manual method anymore. It's quite costly and it's quite a lot of work and takes a lot of time. I definitely recommend, for those of you who are just getting started or are not yet started, to go digital."

However, he also warned of the limits of digital tools for comics creation.

"There's no software out there, no digital technology is going to help you make a better story," he said.

Bakuman., the manga about making manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata was also mentioned in conversation. When asked if Bakuman. was an accurate representation of what it's like to be a Shonen Jump manga creator, Kishimoto replied, 'I definitely had the experience of having an editor yell at me, about deadlines especially. I guess about 99% of it might be true." So what's the 1% that's not true? "I really don't think it's feasible for high school students to really make it professionally and still go to school at the same time! But certainly I had to work even while I was sick."

So what is Kishimoto doing during his well-deserved break from the weekly manga-making grind? For one thing, he's minding his health, by taking up jogging and weight training. He's also been spending time reconnecting with his family. He mentioned that the Boruto movie is inspired in part by his relationship with his sons.  Kishimoto confirmed that his next manga project will probably be a sci-fi story, but opted to not share more details because he didn't want anyone else to take his idea and run with it before him.

After a lively Q and A with audience members, the evening came to an end. Kishimoto was whisked away. The following exclusive interview happened the day after the first event at the Apple Store in SoHo, but before his appearance before a packed house of over 2,000 fans at New York Comic-Con.

With the help of translator Mari Morimoto (who also translated the Viz Media edition of Naruto), and Jo Otsuki, Kishimoto's editor from Weekly Shonen Jump, we talked about Kishimoto's reactions to his first encounters with his overseas fans, what does and doesn't exist in Naruto's world, how Boruto was influenced by his relationship with his sons, and he offers a few hints at his next series in the works.

I know this is your first trip to an overseas comics event -- How did it feel to get a taste of your overseas fans' enthusiasm for your work at the Apple Store yesterday, and so far today at New York Comic-Con?

Masashi Kishimoto: It was a very mystical experience, a very interesting experience!

I know you must know that Naruto is very popular all over the world – but as I listened to you talk at the Apple Store last night, I got the sense that this didn't really feel real to you. What do you think now that you've met some of your fans?

Of course, I have been told that it's popular overseas, but it really hasn't felt real to me until now. Even now, it's still hasn't quite hit me yet. I feel like even the people telling me that there's this many people wanting to see me, I feel like it might've been a setup?

(laughs) What do you mean by that?

Kind of like when there's a studio audience when you're filming a sitcom?

You mean like a fake audience?

A planted audience, yes.

Oh my goodness! (laughs) When I told people that I would be doing this interview, I got so many comments like, "I'm so jealous that you get to even be in the same atmosphere as Kishimoto-sensei!"

I really don't feel like it's sunk in yet, even now.

Wow. Well, you'll definitely get a taste of it today at your afternoon event today at NYCC!  So I wanted to follow up with some of the things you said about your artistic influences from your chat at the Apple Store last night. You especially mentioned Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama, Akira by Katsuhiro Ōtomo, and Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura. What do you take from their work? What do you love about their work?

 I would say I've probably picked up a little bit from each of them, and perhaps a little bit different thing from each of them. For example, with Dragon Ball, I was reading that when I was in grade school. What Dragon Ball taught me is what was fun about manga, what makes a fun story in manga. In fact, I was reading it as it was coming out in weekly installments in Weekly Shonen Jump, so it really taught me what entertainment is and how to keep an audience captivated—and of course the art influenced me as well.

What did you learn from reading Hiroaki Samura-sensei's work?
I think Samura-sensei really taught me about the craft of manga making, in terms of what's cool. Especially in terms of splash scenes, he really taught me the importance of splash scenes. In his splash page scenes, a lot of times he doesn't focus on the faces of the characters – he usually focuses on their hands. He taught me how one can focus on the hands and how important expressions using just hands can be.

Oh, that's fascinating. This also brings up an interesting question about the world of Naruto -- Blade of the Immortal is a very traditional Japanese samurai story, while your ninja world is very fantastical. How did you come up with that?

So of course, a realistic ninja is someone who wears all black with only the eyes visible, kind of lurks in the shadows, and they are assassins. That's cool in its own way, but it's not necessarily appropriate or really makes up for a shonen manga series. That kind of story, it would be a different genre. So I was thinking about what would be appropriate for not only a shonen manga series, but a Jump shonen manga series. I figured I wanted to take a polar opposite approach, and portray this character who wears orange.

(laughs) Yeah! I was gonna say that Naruto's bright orange outfit isn't very stealthy for a ninja assassin!

It's an orange jumpsuit, and Naruto goes 'Hey, I'm here!' Which is totally opposite of how a ninja should behave! It's a paradox. But I figured, 'Why not make this another type of real ninja?' Of course, I had some hardcore ninja fans who were like, 'Dude, get lost.' (laughs) They were really upset because this is not how ninjas are supposed to be!

Another thing that's interesting about Naruto's world is that there's technology, like ways to view videos, communicate over long distances – it's definitely not something that exists in traditional samurai-era Japan, but it's not a typical 'modern' Japan either. What definitely does NOT exist in Naruto's world?

It would actually take too long to really go nitty-gritty into details, but for example: one of the things I focused on was that anything that's NOT possible to recreate, or to do, using ninjustu, ninja skills, I would not develop for Naruto's world. So no cars. Because they have shuriken, the throwing stars, there's no guns either. So there were certain things I had clearly in my head that I didn't want to have available in their worldview.

Mari Morimoto (translator): So I brought up the fact that in the Seventh Hokage and the Scarlet Spring sequel story, there's that one line when Naruto complains about how Sasuke's so analog, and Shikamaru's says, "Oh, but he goes to areas where you can't charge anything."

I asked Kishimoto-sensei about that and he said, 'Well, you know, I wanted to show that time had passed. So some things may have developed in the intervening time between the last chapter of Naruto and fifteen years later when the Seventh Hokage story happens. Also, there's the fact that the story is set during a time of peace, so there's now more money available, because the funds that were being pushed into the war can now be used for things like developing technology.

So another thing that struck me about your conversation with Chris Butcher last night was when you mentioned that you made several tries to create a hit shonen manga series until you created Naruto.  What kept you going during what sounds like a discouraging time in your career?

I don't know if I ever really got THAT discouraged or depressed during that time! (laughs) I always had the thought in the back of my head, 'Eh, so they rejected me this time, I know I'm going to be a mangaka someday. That's all right, I'm just going to move on.' Partly because I thought that was the only thing I had to market myself. Maybe that makes me a little naïve or stupid. (laughs)

Mari Morimoto:
I told him, 'That's very Naruto-like attitude!'

(laughs) That's true! So most of the story in Naruto is told from Naruto's point of view, with him as the central character. However, there's a lot of different and interesting characters in Naruto! It made me wonder, would Naruto be a completely different story if it was told from another character's point of view? If you could tell the story from another perspective, ala Rashomon, which character would you choose to tell a different version of the Naruto story from their point of view?

I suppose one possibility would be to write the story from Sasuke's perspective, or even the mentors, the teachers, especially like Jiraiya, because there's a generational difference there too.

How would the story be different if you told it from these characters' point of view?

This actually just came to me but, for example, if I were to draw the story from Jiraiya's viewpoint, from what we've already seen of Jiraya he's very… not so much arrogant, but overconfident, blusterous, and very, very skilled. But there was a time when he was still young, when he didn't really know much and he was kind of dumb too. So it'd be interesting to show that contrast.

Also, Jiraiya grew up in a time when the jutsu that we know now in the current Naruto worldview had not been refined, or even developed in some cases. So I think it would be fun to show that gap. In fact, there's a very famous TV series in Japan called Oshin.

(NOTE: Oshin is a live action historical drama that aired in the early 1980's about an orphan girl who grows up as a servant in the Meiji era, and follows her rags-to-riches life from pre-WWI Japan to the 1980's.)

I'd forgotten this aspect of that show until now, but in the very beginning of Oshin, you see the woman as a very old woman, very rich, and all of a sudden it flashes back to when she was a kid and she was poor and destitute. It kind of triggers this thought in you, 'Oh, how did she get there?' That's the kind of story I think would be fun to draw.

That would be interesting to read! With Naruto, you've created a very rich universe with many characters, and YOU just did a Seventh Hokage and the Scarlet Spring side story, the Boruto movie, which you wrote the screenplay for, and there's also the Kakashi Hiden side-story novel that Viz Media is also publishing. That's a lot to enjoy, but are these sequel stories the last of your Naruto stories, or do you think there's more stories left to tell? Or after 15 years, are you just DONE with Naruto? (laughs)

There are infinite possibilities right now. If I decide that I want to do more Naruto stories, perhaps I will, perhaps I won't. That said, there is nothing firmly in the works at this time. Just that there is always the possibility…

I see! So I guess Naruto fans can keep their hopes alive to see more someday, maybe. As I mentioned, Naruto has many, many wonderful characters. But were there characters in Naruto that surprised you that were very popular with fans?

Rock Lee.

Ah, right! So did you decide to include Rock Lee in the story more because he became so popular?

No necessarily. It's just what I heard. It kind of surprised me how popular he was, but it didn't necessarily lead to more plotlines with him in it, or anything like that. That's not to say that I didn't consider writing him in more or creating more stories about him, but the timing was never right, so I never had the opportunity.

Speaking of new characters, I also noticed as the story evolved, there were more multi-cultural characters introduced to the story, like Killer Bee. Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to do that?

When I started expanding on the world, especially through introducing other ninja villages, the very nature of doing that kind of forced me to widen the perspective. I wouldn't say it was necessarily a deliberate decision, but I was definitely conscious of the fact that if I wanted to have my Naruto world reflect actual society more, then it might be easier for fans to accept, to see, other cultures or races as well. So while it wasn't necessarily an outright deliberate decision, I think I was conscious of the fact that I wanted Naruto's world to reflect, at least a little bit, the world at large.

As these characters appeared in Naruto, I noticed that lot of black and Latino cosplayers were very excited to see these characters, to have characters that they could dress up as that they could relate to.

(big smile) That makes me happy to hear that as well!

Did you expect such a divided reaction (in the U.S. at least) when you revealed whom Naruto marries in the future?

I actually didn't realize I caused such controversy.

Really? You had no idea?

Mari Morimoto:
 So the fans wanted Naruto to get together with Sakura?

Well, there's definitely camps of fans who felt that way, and there were also those that were very happy he ended up with Hinata. But there were quite passionate opinions on both sides!

I almost caused a rift in my own household too, because my wife was very upset also that Naruto didn't get together with Sakura. In fact, she complained quite vehemently to me!

Jo Otsuki:
Quite few of the female staff at Studio Pierrot that produces the anime, apparently were also upset.

Whoah. So how did you handle that, especially with your wife?

I tried to defuse the situation by assuring my wife that SHE was actually the model for Hinata. (laughs)

As you were saying that, I thought, I wonder if your family life was more like Hinata and Naruto's family or Sasuke and Sakura's? (everyone laughs)

Masashi Kishiimoto: Well… it might not actually be like either. My wife is quite strong as well, she's a strong character.

Oh, so kind of like Sakura!

So I think my wife might secretly realize that Hinata wasn't really the model for her… (laughs)

Did you decide this early on, that Hinata and Naruto would get together in the end, or when…?

From the middle, actually.

From the middle of the story? Hm! What sealed this decision for you?

I think what made me realize it was partly because, if you really look back and think about it, Hinata always supported and acknowledged Naruto, even before Master Iruka. She had the ability to see beyond his reputation and see the true person inside. I think I started realizing that they were meant to be.

Aw, that's nice. So you obviously care a lot about these characters and this story. It took up over 15 years of your life! Was it difficult to decide to end Naruto?

It was kind of decided—not necessarily early on, but I knew that it was going to be concluded soon. So it's not like that decision was unexpected. However, it took a while to smooth out the story to let it conclude the way that I want it to.

It was a slightly bumpy road, mainly because I wanted one of the themes of the end to be Naruto forgiving Sasuke. I wanted to make sure the intervening story lead naturally to that in a realistic way to make it plausible. Because if one minute they're fighting and then 'Oh, I forgive you!' would be weird. So definitely there were little bumps on the way to getting there.

Deb Aoki: Can you share an example of a bump that you ran into along the way toward the ending?

It would be the Pain Arc. It was difficult, because it was the very first time Naruto truly forgives his enemy. I didn't want the conclusion of their confrontation to be in battle, but through talking, so to bring that all about was quite difficult.

So now that Naruto has ended, you've hinted in other interviews that you're considering creating a sci-fi series next. You've mentioned that you like Star Wars, but are there other sci-fi series that you like?

It's hard for me to narrow it down to one or two. I actually like quite a bit of sci-fi movies, for example, Elysium and Chappie, two films directed by South African Neill Blomkamp.

Oh, what do you like about these movies?

Just the sense of this director, Blomkamp's cinematic view. I think what I like about it is there's still elements of real society within the movie and it's kind of merged with the fantastic elements -- it's really meshed. It picks up on current issues we're facing and expands further on it.

You definitely deserve some time off after so many years of drawing a weekly manga series, but when can we expect to see your next manga series debut?

Perhaps after my children finally acknowledge what I'm doing and acknowledge me… acknowledge the work I've done!

What? Really? They don't now?

Naruto took up so much of my time that I didn't really get to spend quality time with my kids. It's only recently that they really accepted my presence. So I think I might have to wait until my children give me permission to work on my next series.

Wow. Well, that's very important too, so I totally understand. I know that fans who'll get to see you at your New York appearances are very fortunate to have this chance to be here for your first overseas trip to a comics event. That said, you have so many fans around the world who are hoping to meet you some day, see you visit their cities or countries. Because these fans would have loved to have met you but didn't have a chance to be here this weekend, do you have any messages for them?

First and foremost, I wanted to thank all my fans out there for reading Naruto and for loving Naruto so much. It really is gratifying for me too. But despite how I answered the last one, I wanted to say it might not be so long until my next series to appear as my answer implied! After I spend enough time with my kids, they might be like typical kids and say stuff like, 'Okay Dad, you can go away now.' (laughs) So you might see my next series in the not-too-distant future!

Thank you – and I hope we will see you again soon at another event in the near future!

NARUTO © 1999 by Masashi Kishimoto/Shueisha, Inc.

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