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Interview: Assassination Classroom's Yusei Matsui

by Todd Ciolek,

Yusei Matsui does wonders with weird creatures. His widely successful Assassination Classroom poses an inventive battle: misfit students take on a Koro-sensei, a grinning yellow alien who threatens to destroy the world unless they can murder him within the year—during which time he proves to be an amazing teacher. Matsui's previous series, Neuro - Supernatural Detective, filled 23 volumes with the misadventures of a demon who devours mysteries.

Assassination Classroom recently wrapped up Koro-sensei's story with its 21st volume, and VIZ's ongoing release of the series received an Eisner nomination for Best U.S. Edition of International Material (Asia). Matsui recently attended the New York Comic-Con, and we talked with him about his monstrous creations and what they have to say.

Koro-sensei has an iconic yellow smile, and we were wondering what the inspiration was behind that. Were you inspired by the smiley emoji or Watchmen, the comic which has a smiley face with a gunshot wound, or the Evolution smiley? How did you come up with his design?

It wasn't on purpose, the similarity. Even in U.S. cartoons, you have the Minions and the Simpsons…everyone's yellow! So there seems to be an attraction for kids to like yellow funny things. A combination of being simple and a yellow character just hits at a very basic place.

Do you see bullying and elitism as problems in Japanese schools, and did that influence the creation of Koro-sensei and the world of Assassination Classroom?

Yes, I do believe that there is a problem. It's not a direct commentary, though. Rather, it's about how you're in that sort of situation and trying to get through it.

Some manga get nostalgic about school, but Assassination Classroom is more violent. Why did you decide to go that route?

I felt that I had to go the serious route or else the issues I tackle wouldn't connect with readers. Aside from the portrayal of school, portraying family life can be difficult because it can get into deep, dark, heavy issues. But at the same time I was confident that Koro-sensei would be a counterbalance with his comedy.

One thing about Koro-sensei is that he's actually a very good teacher. Did you base him on any teachers you had when you were younger? Or is he the sort of teacher you wish you'd had?

Unfortunately, I didn't have anyone like Koro-sensei. So I just built upon ideals of the kind of teacher I had wanted. I think that if I was an invincible, extraterrestrial being that could move at mach 20 and wanted to be a teacher, I would be like Koro-sensei.

Did you ever consider becoming a teacher yourself or going into education?

Well, even in the manga Koro-sensei says…well, this is in a future volume, so hopefully it's not giving away too much, but Koro-sensei says that there are two reasons people become teachers: because they have their own successes, and because they have their own failures. Me, I feel that I've had a lot of failures, and that's why I have something that I would like to convey from those failures. In that way, I feel that I want to teach school even just once.

Your previous major series was Neuro - Supernatural Detective, in which the protagonist has to consume mysteries to live. Do you like mysteries yourself?

Personally, I'm really not great at them! I'm not going to go all the way over to hate, but I'm really not great at them!

So was Neuro a commentary on classic detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Detective Conan, or Edogawa Rampo, where main characters always run into mysteries?

What inspired me to write Neuro was, a friend of mine lent me a detective novel by Seishi Yokomizo, and I ended up keeping it for seven years! I realized I should give it back to my friend, so I just read the last two or three pages where the mystery was solved, and I realized that I just didn't like mysteries.

And I felt that there were a lot people who though similarly, especially for the audience of Shonen Jump, because there's never been an orthodox detective manga there that's done very well.

So in a way, it is the antithesis to what orthodox detective manga like Conan and Kindaichi, which ran in Shonen Sunday and Shonen Magazine respectively, usually provide to the reader., It's my take on a detective manga—but not in a bad way! On one hand, Sherlock Holmes and Conan always find themselves walking into these sorts of situations, but Neuro uses magic to hunt them down. As for why people would create such complex tricks in order to murder someone, I wanted to convey the extent to which humans will go in pursuit of a goal.

Both Neuro and Assassination Classroom revolve around monsters with larger-than-life powers. Why do you prefer that sort of character?

After trying figure what the audience likes and what I'm good at, I realized that I'm actually good at conveying paternal relationships.

When you ask what a father figure is for a child, it's a character with absolute power and a big heart. So in that sort of father-child relationship, the child is always able to grow, and it's a story that is easy to relate to.

Another character in Neuro is Akane, a sentient braid of hair that attaches to a body. How did you come up with that?

My editor at the time told me I should create a cute mascot character to boost the manga's popularity. I didn't necessarily think it needed one, but I tried to figure what would be cute within the Neuro world, and I came up with Akane.

What I first thought of wasn't a sentient braid but a being that latches onto your skull and rips into it, and I realized that's not very usable as a mascot. [laughs]

Like a brain parasite?

It would be like this [draws picture shown above]...and just envelop their head.

It looks a little like an octopus!

Yes, and he could squeeze them and crush their skulls…but you don't want a mascot that can crush skulls! [laughs]

Was that the origin of Koro-sensei?

Well, not directly, but they are very easy to draw and usable in lots of situations since they don't have a specific form!

In Neuro, the hero is looking for the ultimate mystery. What do you think that might be? Would it be something scientific or supernatural?

I think it's possible to make it, but I don't think it would be human in origin. I think it'd be more from a computer. It's a natural progression as we're more dependent on machines. In the future, I could see a human just telling a computer to spit out an incredible murder trick that the human would then perform.

You've written science fiction and mystery series. Is there a genre you'd like to try next?

I think it's more about finding the genre the audience wants to read about. In Shonen Jump, different genres come and go, but Neuro and Assassination Classroom were in genres that weren't covered. There's a possibility that I might tackle a genre not often tackled, one that tends to end rather quickly, or one that few manga artists have found success with.

Would you create a 
shojo manga?

In general, I would like to try my hand. For example, Neuro was more for adults, Assassination Classroom was more for kids but adults read it, so I would like to try shojo manga. Whether I can do it is a different story, but I'd like to try!

How did you feel when you learned that you'd been nominated for an Eisner Award, and what do you think of the success that Assassination Classroom has had in America?

I actually hadn't heard about it before today! I'm very happy to hear that! Even my editor hadn't heard about it!

I was really surprised in the last couple days by meeting my fans and hearing how much they love Assassination Classroom. But, it is still true that when it comes to Japanese manga in America, the stereotypes are Dragon BallNaruto, JoJo, and those big titles. But to bring them something like Assassination Classroom and say “Hey, there's something else that's coming out of Japan,” I would like to make every effort to continue that.

I was at a signing at a bookstore yesterday, and I was looking at some U.S. comics…the non-Marvel ones. And I realized that there's a want and need for these artists, that there's more to comics than Marvel. So I hope that the newly emerged artists in the U.S. as well as Japan influence each other and create the manga of the future.

What is your opinion of digital distribution for manga? Do you think it's a good way to reach an audience, or is the potential for piracy too high?

In general I think it's good. Right now tablet technology isn't that great. It's a little hard on the eyes to read and a little bit sluggish. So I think the technology will come along, and I think there will be software to prevent piracy. So as a manga creator I'm really relying on people in technology to develop that anti-piracy software!

Is there anything you can tell us about your next project?

[laughs] Nope. Right now I really just want to relax!

Is there anything you want to tell your American readers?

Assassination Classroom
 has an odd name that might make some people reluctant to pick it up, but inside it has lessons upon lessons about how to get through life's challenges, and I believe those are important lessons. I use the word “kill” to add a little spice to the story.
I hope if you pick up the first volume you'll follow it all the way to the end. I'm very happy with the way everything ends, and I hope you'll follow Koro-sensei on his journey!

 © 2012 by Yusei Matsui/SHUEISHA, Inc.

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