Kumeta Kouji, author of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, talks about his manga career and how he draws manga. Interviewed late March 2016 and published in Kuigaten, his artbook.
This artbook represents 26 years of your artistic career, but it’s not in chronological order, and more like reverse chronological order. What’s it like looking back?
I’m surprised at how little I remember.
It made me realize that humans are forgetful creatures, and forgetting things lets us remain stable.
I hope I can quickly forget everything I remembered from looking at this artbook.
Are any of your drawings particularly memorable?
Hm… nothing jumps out. Seeing my old drawings is really moving. Before, I had to carefully stick the color tones on, but now I can do it in one click, and all of my Mac skills have become obsolete. It hurts that hard work doesn’t pay off.
Haha… So let’s start with your childhood. What were you like as a child?
I was born in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture and moved to Yokosuka when I was five. I liked to draw since I was little. There were no video games then, so I played with my friends outside, kicking cans and so on… Oh, I guess I used to be what they call a “normie”. Elementary school was when I was the most normie.
Kumeta Kouji’s normie period, haha.
Yes, my only one. I liked playing inside too. We played store with kaijuu action figures made out of soft vinyl. My Kanegon [kaijuu from Ultra Q] would always run a movie theater, but everyone was merciless, so there would always be a lot of people going to restaurants, but nobody went to my movie theater… That might have been when I started to feel the decline of modern media, haha.
If you’re poor, you won’t watch movies or read comics. You’ll go for food before that.
You were already pessimistic back then, haha. The movies they had around then would be…
Star Wars came out when I was in fourth grade, and it was pretty popular. I liked the Battlestar Galactica movie better, though. Star Wars had too many long explanations for a grade schooler. It wouldn’t work as a manga with so many setting details and long explanations, haha.
What manga did you read?
The first manga I read was Doraemon, which my father bought at Aomori station on his way back from visiting his family. That was Weekly Shounen Champion‘s golden age, so I really got into it. But now I don’t remember why I liked it so much.
It still holds up now! Do you remember the first manga you drew?
I posted my first manga on my elementary school bulletin board. That was the first time I got cancelled too.
Your first cancellation was in elementary school!
Yes, I was badmouthing my friend in it, so my homeroom teacher axed it.
So you already had a sharp tongue back then, haha. What about after that?
I didn’t draw manga for a long time after that, and the first time I drew manga with actual panels was in Wako University’s manga club. Before that, I drew illustrations with a little dialogue, like Fujiwara Kamui’s early work.
Why did you join the manga club?
It’s because they had a club room and I wanted to try drawing manga.
But almost nobody took it seriously. We just practiced kickboxing.
I think someone there liked kickboxing. That was probably when I could kick my legs the highest, and I was in good shape, haha.
That’s why everybody who was serious about manga quit. Like Matsumoto Taiyou [author of Ping Pong] and Iwaaki Hitoshi [author of Parasyte]
Oh, you were in the same year as Matsumoto Taiyou, weren’t you?
Yes, but because of when he quit, I didn’t actually meet him.
Did you plan to become a manga artist when you graduated?
No, I wasn’t thinking that at all.
I wanted to be a manga editor though, so I applied to this production company called Ginkichi, but they didn’t accept me. Oh yeah, I heard Akamatsu Ken [author of Negima] also applied there.
Looking back, they made the right decision not to hire you two, haha. Were you considering other careers?
I actually wanted to be an art teacher. But there weren’t many openings, so I looked for other options.
While I was job searching, I drew some manga on the side and won contests, so I thought I would try manga.
The economy was doing well, so I decided to try different things, so even if they didn’t work out, I could figure something out.
So you went to Weekly Shounen Sunday. Did you walk in with your manga?
Yeah. I didn’t like making phone calls in college, so I just walked into the editorial department with it. They took a look at it, which I’m grateful for.
Have you worked as an assistant before?
I only worked for as an assistant for two days for Mitsuda Tatsuya [author of Major]. At the time, he worked in a really dirty apartment where the bathroom was shared. That was during the financial bubble, so it made me not want to be a manga artist, haha.
What was it like when you debuted in Sunday?
I don’t really remember. I think I won a contest with the prototype for Yuke!! Nangoku Ice Hockey Bu and then they serialized me.
Nangoku was serialized for 5 years, which is a long time for a debut work.
It got harder and harder to make dirty jokes. It couldn’t hold up to the low cost-effectiveness of dirty jokes. Dirty jokes just aren’t cost-effective.
I’ve never heard about the cost-effectiveness of dirty jokes. What do you mean by that?
There are a lot of people who can’t stand dirty jokes. So you already lose potential readers when you do something that’s not mainstream. There were complaints, too… Nowadays criticism on the internet doesn’t bother me, but seeing handwritten letters with things like “gross” or “just stop” really affected me. And at events for manga artists they treated me like a villain.
That must have been tough. But why did Nangoku start shifting to dirty jokes?
When I tried romantic comedy elements and sports elements, it wasn’t very popular and I didn’t think it was good, so I thought about it a lot and decided to do it to survive… maybe this will be easier to understand: “Unpopular idols take their clothes off.”
Haha. At the same time as Nangoku, you also wrote Root Paradise and Sodatte Darling, and then after Nangoku ended, you wrote Taiyou no Senshi Pokapoka, and Katte ni Kaizou one after another. I feel like Kaizou is when you settled on your “Kumeta Kouji style”.
Right, where there’s a topic for each chapter. And a list of jokes. I’ve really fallen into a pattern. You could even call it a rut. Whatever I write, I forget about the foreshadowing, so I like to tie things up at the end of the chapter.
Let’s call the time from when you started serializing Nangoku to when you finished Kaizou, so 1991 to 2004, your Shogakukan [company publishing Sunday] Era. What do you think about it, looking back?
13 years, huh. To sum it up, “Time flies.”
Oh, at the time, when I was going into my thirties, I was worried about getting old and not having transferable skills. But now I’m worrying about how to spend the time until I can collect my pension. I’m getting older, but the minimum age keeps getting pushed back.
So after you left Shogakukan, you wrote some one-shots, then went to Kodansha. What happened?
Well… because of various circumstances, I tried working at other companies.
I wanted to draw shounen on a weekly schedule, so an editor from Hakusensha introduced me to Takeda [who became his editor], who had just transferred to Weekly Shounen Magazine.
And 2005 is when you started Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei in Magazine. Did the editors ask you to write something with a teacher?
No. At our meeting, I brought up the idea of writing a love comedy with a positive girl and a negative boy, but gag manga only got 12 pages by default, and I wanted 16 pages, so I needed a catchy premise. So I decided to make the negative man a teacher.
That idea might have contributed to Zetsubou quickly becoming a big hit.
I felt relieved, more than anything. I thought I could get by for 3 years.
And in 2007, Zetsubou got adapted as an anime. What was it like to have your work animated?
I was really happy, of course. At the time there weren’t many time slots for late night anime, so I thought it would be hard to get an anime. When the voice actors read their lines, it felt as embarrassing as having someone read my diary. Oh, but Hata’s [his former assistant] Hayate no Gotoku got animated first, so I was half as happy as I might have been.
That was also the year when you received the Kodansha Manga Award. Your “living funeral” at the afterparty became a legend.
To be honest, I didn’t really understand how manga get ranked or ordered for the Kodansha Manga Award. So when I got the award, I thought that it was because another manga artist was being difficult and declined it. Oh, but as a precursor, I had been nominated (in 2001) for Kaizou, but Akamatsu was the one who got it (for Love Hina). So when I did get the award, I thought it would cancel out Akamatsu’s glory.
Haha. You make a lot of jokes about Akamatsu, and he seems to be aware of you too, but have you actually met?
Nope. Apparently, we’ve passed by, though.
Going back to your living funeral, I was a new employee at the time, and that was the first time I saw you. Not many people in the editing department had seen you at the time. Whenever we proposed a project, it would go through your editor, Takeda, who was kind of difficult and would tell people off, haha. So we thought you must be a scary person.
Ah, so these rumors affected my reputation, haha. All I cared about was if the projects were interesting or not.
I realized that later when I became your editor. So did you do your living funeral because it was interesting?
More or less. And to ward off misfortune. Things were going too well, so I died ahead of time.
Zetsubou got 3 seasons on TV, and Kaizou got an OVA. You got a lot more readers.
I’m happy for that.
And while you were writing Zetsubou, you also worked on Joshiraku, the first manga where you only did the story. After you finished Sekkachi Hakushaku to Jikan Dorobou, you switched magazines, writing Studio Pulp in Rakuen, Kakushigoto in Monthly Shounen Magazine, and the story for Nankuru Nee-san in Young Magazine the 3rd.
I started having trouble keeping track of what I was working on, haha.
I’ve heard that you moved to digital fairly early, but when was that, exactly?
It was in the middle of Nangoku. I didn’t have enough assistants because they were all getting serialized and quitting.
But even after they said they debuted, I didn’t hear back from them, so maybe they just didn’t want to work for me…
Back then I was too pure to stop them, and just congratulated them.
It must have been very expensive to go digital back then.
Yes. You needed at least a million yen [about $10,000]. The editorial department couldn’t take in digital manuscripts yet, so I had to buy a high-end printer and do phototypesetting on the prints…. I had no idea what I was doing. Even though it was digital, the text would be crooked.
Who taught you how to go digital?
One of my assistants at the time. They also worked as an assistant to Rokuda Noboru [author of F], and Rokuda taught them digital.
Apparently, during summer break, Rokuda would escape the heat and take his equipment with him to work on manuscripts. But he submitted the manuscript files by motorbike. Apparently, it was quicker than sending them online. That’s how things were like.
So pioneers have their own challenges. Going digital so early must have been hard.
Yeah, the machines were slow and would sometimes stop working, and it took a long time to print things out.
Are there disadvantages to going digital?
Hm, not really. But I do like drawing in analog too. If I had infinite time, I would draw in analog since it’s more fun and there are some things you can only do with analog. I want to have a hand-drawn feeling, sort of like pink noise. I don’t want it to look too digital.
Oh, but it’s a shame that I won’t be able to go on Manben [documentary series about manga artists]. I wanted to look stylish like Asano Inio [author of Oyasumi Punpun] and have Urasawa [host of Manben, author of Monster] say “Oh, you’re changing that?”, “I see”, and “It’s like they’re connected on top.”
You’re kidding me.
Yes, I’m not disappointed at all. I’m relieved.
What really surprised me is how you have your assistants zoom in on your lines and make them completely smooth.
I also think that’s overdoing it. It’s an ordeal that my previous assistants started.
How many assistants do you have now?
I have 7 or 8, but they all work from home. I’m drawing all by myself in my new workplace. Some of my assistants live in the countryside, so I haven’t even met them in person. It’s different from the old days, when everyone was getting busy in the same place.
The times have changed.
That’s not it, it’s because I lack good character. I realized I have bad character and no communication skills.
Now here are some questions sent in beforehand from readers.
“Many of your manga have impactful endings that had a lot of foreshadowing. When you start a manga, do you plan the ending?”
I decide the basic idea ahead of time, but sometimes I change it later. I forget about foreshadowing, so I have to make sure I remember the general idea.
Even with Kaizou and Zetsubou?
Yes, I always leave it open to change, but they both ended the way I had planned. …Let’s just go with that. Like how a striker kicks a goal in and always says “I was aiming for it” in the interviews, haha. But episodic manga like those don’t really need endings.
“Are there rules or anything you keep in mind as you draw?”
When I wrote dirty jokes, I had a rule of “dirty jokes aren’t sexy.” I was proud that dirty jokes were different from eroticism. Lately, I decided to stop doing jokes about current affairs. There’s no way I can win a joke war against a hundred million people [approximate population of Japan]. On the other hand, I do use some more aged jokes, for example about Obokata [scientist involved in 2014 scandal]. It’s like cured meat, haha. I’m done putting fresh jokes on sushi, now I’m writing manga with aged jokes on Edo-style sushi.
“You change your drawing style in a single manga, but is that something that happens naturally? Or do you do it on purpose?”
Some of it is natural, but I just get tired of drawing it the same way. Don’t all artists have that to an extent?
So it’s not that you’re simplifying it.
Yeah. But I don’t like drawing unnecessary lines. I think manga artists are like baseball pitchers, they can only draw so many lines in their life. You can’t get new shoulders after all.
Like Zou no Jikan Nezumi no Jikan. [A book that explains biological rules about animal size]
Right, like the number of breaths an animal takes [bigger animals take less breaths?]. Simple is best. Eventually, I want to draw everything in one line.
The more I aspire to that, the more I appreciate the styles of older artists like Tezuka Osamu [author of Astro Boy] and Fujiko Fujio [authors of Doraemon]. It’s just right. It wouldn’t work if you added or removed a line. That’s my ideal.
“Do you have any favorite books, either manga or novels?”
(whispering) I don’t want to say this, but Casa Brutus [Japanese design magazine]. I really like interior design and architecture.
Haha, why don’t you want to say it? Do you read manga?
I used to read any manga I could get my hands on, but I don’t really read manga anymore.
I can’t read anything that’s too good. Or else I get depressed.
“What have you read or watched again and again?”
Nothing really… I don’t really get input from famous works. If something was good, I’ll think it was good and that’s it.
But I like watching things that are bad, because I get all these ideas about how to make it better, haha.
“Where do you get your information?”
I wonder… it’s not the internet or TV…. I mostly overhear it from crowds.
You do choose to live downtown.
Did you know? When kids these days see each other, they say “Have you seen my insta?”. Hearing that makes me wonder what an insta is.
“What’s your workflow like?”
After my meeting [with his editor], I draw a vague storyboard. For Zetsubou, I used to start from the rough draft, but I have too many pages now. But a lot of the time I change things from my storyboard.
It’s too hard to make a proper storyboard. By the time I draw the storyboard I get tired. It’s like I run out of burst power.
I never show my storyboard to the editor. If I do, I’ll feel accomplished.
When I work, I do everything up to the rough draft in analog, and then I scan it and ink it on a drawing tablet.
“Do you listen to music when you draw? If you do, what do you listen to?”
I think when I draw, so I don’t listen to music. Or I listen to easy listening without lyrics. (whispering) I don’t want to say it, but like bossa nova. I don’t want to say it, but like cafe select [?].
“Is there a manga chapter you drew that you really like?”
Of course not! No way.
That was quick, haha. Even if you had to pick something in this artbook?
So your next work will always be your best.
…That sounds horrible.
“You seem to be challenging yourself with new things like writing with Joshiraku and Nankuru Nee-san, and with childrearing with Kakushigoto, but do you have a new direction right now?
To always make my packaging look new. The inside and essence is the same, so it’s a lot of work. It takes time to be able to do something new.
But you’re not going to do Nangoku 2, Zetsubou Sensei 2, or Joshiraku 2 are you?
Right. I need to keep changing the packaging.
“Do you have any future plans?”
It’s too late for me to change careers, so not really. I couldn’t become a soccer player now if I wanted to.
While I still could, I thought about switching careers, but before I knew it my only option was manga artist.
You haven’t really thought about when you’ll retire, have you?
Even if I picked an age to retire, I don’t know if I’ll be alive then, and I can keep drawing if they want me to. To be honest, I don’t know what will happen to comics as a medium… Eventually I want to draw a newspaper comic strip. That’s my goal.
Then your career as a manga artist would begin on a school bulletin board and end in a newspaper.
It would. I’ll try not to get axed this time. I don’t want the teacher to get angry, haha.
It would be nice if I could get to the level of Kobo-chan or Chibi Maruko-chan [popular with a wide audience].
So that was your dream.
Yeah, I can’t get to Asano Inio’s level anymore.
Haha, you really think of him as a rival, don’t you?
Fashionable high school girls like him, and trendy cafes in Kichijouji and Shimokitazawa discuss him… I hate it, haha.
Finally, after 26 years of your artistic career, is there a subject you definitely want to portray?
…That’s a secret.
Aw, that makes me curious.
I don’t really have anything, but it’s like how a ramen restaurant talks about their soup, I haven’t thought of anything but I have to make it seem like I do.
Haha. Then that’s it. Thank you for so much of your time.
I wish I could say something more interesting.
It’s plenty interesting. Thank you.