Sakura-Con 2017 – Hiroshi Nagahama and His Love for American Comics

Kicking off my Sakura-Con panels for 2017 was “Hiroshi Nagahama and His Love for American Comics,” where Nagahama-san gushed on for the full hour, showing us classic American comics and figurines on the overhead projector.

Nagahama-san is well known for his directing in shows like Mushishi, Detroit Metal City, and Aku no Hana, as well as his key animation in Fruits Basket (OP/ED), Revolutionary Girl Utena, and Birdy the Mighty (episode 1). In addition to discussing American comics, he also touched briefly on his upcoming work with Stan Lee, The Reflection.

Despite the majority of the panel running in the style of a lecture, I greatly enjoyed witnessing his exuberance for the topic. His passion shone through his voice and gestures. He did answer a couple of questions at the end of the panel. If you enjoy this transcription, please be sure to come back and read my coverage of his panel on The Reflection.

*Any transcription below is provided first through a translator’s words, then paraphrased as needed by me.

This was the first time I transcribed a full panel, instead of focusing only on Q&A. Please notify me if you see any discrepancies in translation.

Hiroshi Nagahama:

I have loved American comics for a long time and that’s part of what made me come to SakuraCon 15 years ago in 2002. I’m happy to have been invited back so many times and I think it’s because of my love for American comics that got me the invitation. Being here has really let me experience American comics first hand, buy and see them first hand. I keep saying that I love American comics, but sitting up here showing to you, for example, this issue of Spider-Man that Stan Lee was involved in and knowing I’ll get to work with him in an anime coming up this summer is a miraculous feeling. Lately I’ve been feeling these miracles happening not just here, but also in other places.

This is the very first American comic when I was in Japan: Fantastic Four. In Japan, these issues were repackaged as regular manga-sized volumes. The sizes were completely different in Japan. The basic rule for American comic individual issues was that they were in full color, but in Japan they were in black and white, matching the manga standards at the time. The Japanese translator of Fantastic Four was Oonokose….I was actually able to meet him relatively recently and talk with him. He was incredibly pleased to meet somebody who had read his work and was affected so much; it was great to talk with him. I told him that I had met Stan Lee, so here’s another story.

When I met Stan Lee and told him about this first Fantastic Four,  he said he remembered when it was published and wondered who on earth would read that. When he met me and talked, he said, “Oh! It was you!”

[Laughter]

Stan Lee is someone who is always young at heart, making jokes, laughing, and making others laugh. So all of you, most of you, are Americans, but despite being Americans, you love Japanese animation and manga. I personally might like American comics better. Among all of you, what do you think about American comics? Do you think you like Japanese manga more, or American comics more? Where do you stand there on that?

[Mixed response]

[Response on lack of manga for women]

…It’s true that teens tend to think of American comics versus Japanese manga in terms of different genres. In Japanese manga, you can choose among many different genres. In American comics, the main genre seems to be superheroes. I have loved superheroes from when I was a kid. In Japanese manga, for example, towards children there’s Doraemon, Pokémon that kids would be exposed to. They have big eyes, tiny noses and mouths, and are very stylized, “chibi, ultra-deformed.” I actually didn’t understand that style as a kid. When I was a kid, as part of what we did in class was an art section where you drew each others’ faces. If you look at your friends’ faces, real people have nostrils, two lines that connects the nose, lips. If you draw that carefully and realistically and show it to each other, everyone laughs because it’s not what you’re used to seeing.

“Oh! You look like a pig.”

“No, you look like a pig!”

When we were drawing each others’ faces, we were drawing human faces. My face is human, your face is human, but when we were practicing drawing, what I took away was that human faces were uncool. To make them cool, you had to change the features, like in Doraemon. There’s something about human faces that makes you draw them that way. That’s what I took away from that experience. That understanding that I came to as a child was not the correct understanding. That wasn’t the intention of the Doraemon artist. They were trying to make drawings as simple as possible and have as few lines as possible for maximum impact. That didn’t come across to me as a kid. I couldn’t connect to the Japanese manga I could see.

When I was first exposed to American comics, it shocked me and reverberated through me. For example, here’s Gwen Stacy’s face; you can see her eyebrows are drawn, her eyebrows and lashes, the two lines connected to her lips. I saw this and thought it was still a beautiful picture. After a little while of being exposed to the art and paging through the different art of other American comics, I noticed a change in my original idea. It came across to me that human faces are not ugly. There was no rule that drawing real faces meant drawing ugly faces. They can be cool; there’s no reason to redraw them to change something like that. At the time, and looking back now, American comics showed me a ray of hope.

Another aspect that really affected me as a kid: when you’re a kid, you don’t have a lot of money. Manga and comics are pretty expensive for kids. Japanese manga, there are generally a lot of volumes. You start with volume one where the story starts, and there aren’t many kids who can afford all of the volumes to the end of the story. Instead, we’d find one volume we could read over and over and still enjoy. We’d read over and over until it fell apart, like Doraemon. In contrast with American comics, let me show you this older volume of Spider-Man. This was issue 67. This later issue, 362. Looking at those numbers, it made me realize that, as a kid, American comics had an amazing number of issues, several hundreds of issues talking about the same character. It because clear to me that they set up the story to start reading at any point. You don’t have to start at one; you can read in the middle and even go backwards. Some are so long, you can talk to your uncle or father about Spider-Man’s origins. This generational thing was cool to me, and made me wish manga was like this.

There are things like this collection of origin stories, where they needed to collect all the origins and put them in one place for readers to know where they all began: Hulk, Iron Man. Things like color changes were really interesting to me. It became clear to me that American comics want to present a low barrier of entry, something easy for anyone that is easy to enter. They’ve deliberately created ways for readers to enter at any point, like this collection. These are things about American comics that are obvious to you, and may be strange that I’m explaining to you.

[Laugh]

Because I’ve had these experiences and noticed these contrasts, I think it would be a great thing for us to deliberately do some of these things on what I’m working on with Stan Lee. I want you to start at any point, even in reverse order, and for it to still make sense, a Japanese animation constructed like American comics.

The truth is when I was working on Mushishi’s anime adaptation, the manga was constructed much like an American comic. Each episode is self-contained. If you read part way through, right in the middle is an origin story. You start reading it thinking it’s just another episode, but no, it’s about Ginko as a kid. It impressed me and reminded me of American comics. This aspect of Mushishi made it easy to adapt to anime.

Do you mind if I keep on in the same vein?

[Applause and approval]

This is something I really love.

Here’s another one of the amazing things about Stan Lee and the other creators. Spider-Man at one point is in all black! It seems that fans were divided about this costume change. Some said, “This is not my spider man, not the real spider man.” Others said, “Let’s give it a chance! Isn’t this cool?” After a lot of story development, this new costume became it’s own character, Venom, and Spider-Man returned to his original costume. It was amazing to me that Stan Lee and the others were able to pull this off.

On the show I’m working on with Stan Lee right now, we’re trying to be very aware of this, conscious of this. If a character changes their costume, that has meaning. What meaning does this change have? If two characters are enemies, what plot developments could happen that would make them allies?

We’re really having fun. People who know me well say, “You’re not working; you’re just playing around!” I’m just thinking of creating action heroes and thinking of what would be a great t-shirt. It’s a very low stress life!

One thing I like just as much as American comics are American action figures. But lately, figures have so many joints, are more pose-able than they used to be. I have very mixed feelings on this, half welcoming, half not. Here’s my personal philosophy on action figures: if you can do too many different things, you end up doing nothing at all. If the figure is too pose-able, you end up not putting them in many poses.

I have a friend who collects action figures. He’s collected lots of Marvel figures, and that friend, once he gets a figure, he poses it in the most “cool” pose and never once touches it again. And this friend is the character designer on the show I’m working on with Stan Lee and also worked on Mushishi.

This Daredevil is a figure released two or three years ago, but it deliberately has a limited range of motion. It’s a recreation of a historical style of action figure from the late 19th century. I actually think that this limited pose-ability is ideal for action figures. You saw me demonstrate how I can make him stand and jump; I think that’s about how much you should be able to do. This is what I think is the very best.

I bought this just recently, yesterday, in Zanadu, the local comic shop in downtown Seattle. This is an incredibly rare figure. Just a few people know it, I see. Back in about 1987, this was part of a limited number of figures created by ToyBiz. It might have been realized in 1990. On the back, you can see the movie version of Batman, another one of the figures. In about 1984-6, there was the toy maker Kenner Products who made “Super Powers” figures and ToyBiz was sort of copying them. Now the Super Powers line of figures, those are what I think of the ultimate, best made, never surpassed figures at this point. If you take today’s 2D and turn it into 3D, I don’t think anyone has done it as well as Super Powers.

With that line of figures, they introduced a new idea. The word “action” no long referred to just the motion of the figures. It also included the power of that character, included as a gimmick, like this flapping wing action. By including this gimmick in this line of figures, they committed a fatal mistake. By including it, they took resources from other quality portions of the figures. I can see this, but like it. I think it’s cute, and part of the appeal. .

Now if we were to take this picture of Carnage, it’s technically possible to make it look exactly life-like with the detail and shape, but I think that would be less fun to play with than a figure that leaves you with more room for imagination on the baselines of the figure. I think it’s that baseline that has always been attractive to me. These things I’ve noticed about American comics and figures.

The thing I just mentioned about the gimmick, this is something influencing my thoughts when working on The Reflection. If we were to make figures of The Reflection, like a character with sparkly eyes, how would I make the eyes sparkle? This is something fun to think about as we work on the show.

Now I’ll show you some covers I really like. This is from Peter Parker’s graduation, as you can see. I think something prevented him from actually graduating, I’m pretty sure. I really like this dynamic pose. Also, American comics use yellow a lot, a color I’ve always found particularly wonderful.

Here’s another cover I really like. You can see how yellow becomes very important, highlighting the thought and speech bubbles. In just one image, they’re showing me an entire scene of Spider-Man being attacked by Vulture. This is a very dense image, something that makes you want to open and read it. This is something American comics do very well.

Here’s another cover I like. These are the giant hands of Mysterio threatening Spider-Man. Superheroes are always going from crisis to crisis, yet heroes keep on fighting regardless. This creates a lot of sympathy from the reader.

Here’s another collected item from early issues of Daredevil. Reading this kind of thing is very enjoyable to me. I’m actually unfamiliar with the origin of Daredevil and have read about the first half of these collected issues. I bought this for the extras at the end. Here are the materials creators would show each other so they were all drawing the character correctly. This is an image that Jack Kirby drew for a t-shirt design. This looks like it’s the very first sketch that John Romita [Jr.] drew of Daredevil in 1985. I paid about 40 dollars for this book for those few pages I showed you. I just couldn’t keep myself from doing it. I told myself not to do it, that it’s heavy and hard to take back to Japan, but I had to have it. If you all get the chance to come to Japan and you find an incredibe hardcover of your favorite manga, you might buy it if it has rough sketches in the back you’ve never seen before. I think you’ll understand.

I also bought this really interesting volume of this comic: Starve (Brian Wood, Daniejel Zezelj, Dave Stewart). The illustration style here is incredibly individualistic, original.  This is similar to the woodblock style of printing you might do if you took an eraser and carved away parts of it and were left with the negative image. This is something like what I might consider for The Reflection.

Q: Part of why American comics are really popular is because we’re a really young country, so superheroes are part of our mythology, and representative of the Everyman. How are you thinking about that kind of thing in works like The Reflection, since Japan is a country with a longer history?
A: That’s a really difficult question. Actually, The Reflection is mostly set in the U.S. There are going to be Japanese characters, but the basic approach we’re taking is what would an Everyman do if suddenly they developed powers, whether they’re Japanese or American. That’s sort of the axis as we develop the story line. In The Reflection, all the main characters start as very representative, Everyman, characters, then these mysterious things happen to them. How they develop from that point, that’s where Stan Lee and others make sure they go along perfect. Unlike other superhero shows, like on Netflix, this is a show that starts is the real world and goes on from there. We want it to very seriously start in normality and change from there.

Q: Since it’s a show set in America, will you take a more American approach to the animation style, more American than anime?
A: Yes, The Reflection aims to a more American art style. In fact, I have another panel, I think on Sunday, where I only talk about The Reflection, where I will show you a promotional video and hand out posters. I hope you get a chance to ask more questions at that panel.

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