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Hoshino Yukinobu:

Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure

In October 2009, the manga master Hoshino Yukinobu (born in 1954) travelled from Sapporo, Japan to the British Museum. It was his first time in London and indeed his first trip outside his homeland. He came over with his editor from Shogakukan, publishers of the bi-weekly Big Comic magazine, to prepare for an exhibition of some of his original comic artwork from his Big Comic series Professor Munakata.

While he was here, I was lucky enough to meet him and find out a bit more about his life and work. He also showed me some brilliant ink drawings he had made while in London, showing his Professor character encountering some of the Museum’s ancient treasures, including a promotional poster for the exhibition. Tadakusu Munakata is a fictional ethnologist who unravels the mysteries of Japan’s past, but he was inspired appropriately by the real Kumagusu Minakata (1867-1941), an ethnologist/naturalist who worked for the British Museum as a researcher after visiting London in 1892.

“Manga: Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure” opened in November as part of the 2009 Comica Festival and is being displayed in Room 3, the Asahi Shimbun gallery, first right as you enter the Museum. If you have the chance, do catch this free exhibition before it concludes this Sunday, January 3rd. Who would have suspected that film-director Ken Russell turns out to be an enthusiastic reader of Japanese comics? Russell wrote with admiration about Hoshino’s work in The Times:

“The professor’s adventures at the museum are excerpted in the exhibition in a series of framed 35cm paintings: Hoshino’s satisfyingly elegant black and white graphics, delineated with exquisite detail, shading and emotional subtlety. The cover art is rendered in full colour, orange-drenched and glowing like solar flares. We follow the professor in each frame as he shifts among revered locales such as the Izumo Grand Shrine and mythic beings such as the two-faced deity, encountering mystical challenges and making deductions - you can see him thinking in close-ups. He has an intelligent hot-babe assistant (delicious to look at, blown up to 5m) as well as an innocent niece with whom to consult. Explosive sound effects in Japanese calligraphy dance across the paper canvas like knife-edged Ninja boomerangs.”

Accurately described by Russell as “a massive bald-headed man in a black cloak and moustache - a kind of Sherlock Holmes meets samurai linebacker”, Professor Munakata is dominates the gallery as you walk in. His imposing full-length figure, in bowler, cloak and cane, stares at you as you enter and his presence stands out in the dramatically enlarged panels which fill the high walls. Another image of a speeding bullet train, with high-impact perspective, fills much of the gallery floor. It’s proof of Hoshino’s outstanding artistry that his manga stand up so well to being magnified to such a grand scale. Below these, at eye level, are a selection of framed original pages from his Munakata series, allowing you get up close and admire the deftness of his ink onto paper. In the far right corner of the gallery, a manga kissa or “comics coffee-house” is set up to allow visitors to browse through copies of Big Comic and see how they appear in print and are enjoyed by the public.

Disappointingly, though some twenty years old now, none of his Munakata comics have so far been translated. I am convinced that Professor Munakata could be a crossover hit in English, especially if it is published more as a graphic novel appealing to older readers. In some ways, he is similar to the popular Italian investigator Martin Mystere. The good news, however, is that, as part of his visit here, Hoshino is developing a series of new episodes for 2010 featuring his Professor’s adventures at the British Museum, in which he will delve further into the mysteries of certain artifacts in their world collections. The plan is to publish these “cases” in both Japanese and English. Let’s hope this might lead to more of this fascinating manga coming out in translation.

In the meantime, if you want to sample some of Hoshino’s earlier oeuvre, I thoroughly recommend his science fiction series 2001 Nights. Serialised in Japan in Monthly Super Action from June 1984, it was issued first in America as comic books by Viz and then in three paperback collections by Cadence Books, a former graphic novel imprint of Viz, in 1995-6. Translator Fred Burke wrote an insightful introduction to the first volume.

Re-reading them, I was struck by their foresight and depth in examining how humanity will realise the goal of interplanetary travel and how we will struggle to cope, for better or worse, with surviving, colonising and humanising other worlds. Hoshino’s choice of title 2001 Nights of course combines references to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey filmed by Stanley Kubrick with Tales of the Arabian Nights, but Hoshino does so much more here than pay tribute to the classic SF novel and movie, by taking on new themes and questions and arriving at answers all of his own. Each story deals with a different discovery or issue and is complete in itself, but they build upon each other to form a suite of hard-science speculation and powerful emotions. They are clearly still ahead of their time a quarter century later, because only in October 2009 two stories, Symbiotic Planet and Elliptical Planet, have been adapted by Vexille director and Appleseed producer Fumihiko Sori into two 3D CG anime films, released directly onto DVD and Blu-ray Disc in Japan. View the YouTube trailer here.

It was an honour and a pleasure to meet Hoshino Yukinobu, a charming man, patient and sincere, smartly attired in a shirt with classical sculptural motifs. I started by asking him about his British Museum assignment.

Hoshino Yukinobu:
I am thinking of using Munakata’s presence in England and coming to the British Museum in London as a basic framework for the story, but I also want to work with specific objects here in the Museum and use history and how history is best served through these objects. I am going to use it in Big Comic for Men which comes out every other week and do a story about this. I can’t say right now how long this storyline will run for, but I don’t want to complete it in just one episode. It’s still early days. This is my first visit to London. My character Munakata has not investigated anything in England before in the series.

Paul Gravett:
Both of your major manga, Professor Munakata and 2001 Nights, are based on science, in the case of Munakata archaeology, folklore, myth and legend. What fascinates you about science?

History is a type of science for me and looking at the assumptions and processes is what fascinates me. I want to arrive at an idea of what might have happened in the past, and to put the facts together to come to another conclusion. I enjoy the process of science and deduction in history, and this is the same when I deal with the future in 2001 Nights.

In 2001 Nights, you consider the risks of space exploration, and point out the potential future for humanity in space if we can only learn to use science properly. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about mankind’s future in space?

I am rather pessimistic about the situation as I see it right now, but my pessimism is not ingrained or permanent. I feel that there are many factors and if there were a sudden change, a shift, then I would not be pessimistic at all. If there were some set of circumstances that could shift the discourse, not necessarily a close encounter, then I would be much more optimistic. There are a lot of possibilities ahead. Just the situation now is not ideal.

I was so moved by the scene on the moon in your second story, Sea of Fertility, where astronauts on the moon come across a gigantic meteorite which can survived impact. It made my spine tingle when you show how it has been sheared on one side to reveal within a seam of whole preserved fossilised fish, proof perhaps that mankind is not alone in the universe. Do you consult with experts for both of your series?

I didn’t consult scientists while I was writing 2001 Nights, but afterwards there was quite a backlash from certain scientists saying this wasn’t scientifically feasible. But I feel that what I wrote was quite spot on! I felt that while I was writing this series, if I listened to other people’s advice or criticisms, my storylines would change and lose their flow. So I made a conscious decision not to consult and to go with my own knowledge and that is what I have done ever since, for Munakata as well.

How do you feel about your two stories being finally adapted this year by Fumihiko Sori into anime?

I met the director a few times and talked about adapting the stories. I am very happy with them. I asked them to, and I believe they will, stick closely to my original story. They have not tampered with it. Some of the spaceship design has had to be redesigned to be more contemporary but basically it is true to what I wrote 25 years ago. That’s the only way I would accept this. Ten years is a long time in science fiction and things change a lot, so to have a story that is still relevant ten years later is quite remarkable. And 25 years is extraordinary, so I am incredibly happy about it.

I was wondering, has Munakata ever been adapted for film or television?

Yes. I have done two series of Munakata. The current Chronicles are the later series. The earlier series that ran for about 8 volumes on more of an ethnology theme was adapted two or three times into live-action television dramas.

Can you tell me more about the particular Professor Munakata story dealing with the dogu, mysterious ceramic figures from the ancient Jomon culture of Japan? You have had four original pages from this manga also on show at the British Museum in their exceptional exhibition of dogu pottery from 8000 B.C. to 300 B.C.

Yes, and the scene from my manga about dogu also appears in the exhibition catalogue. The story takes place in Aomori, in northern Japan and is based on the goggle-eyed dogu, which is quite striking and unusual. There has been some big controversy about it because it is not known what it represents or what it was used for. So I wanted to take this unknown, mysterious quality and think about it and juxtapose that with some of my own ideas. I used the vehicle of an itako or shamaness, a blind woman who can speak with the past and with the ancestors, particularly those from Tsugaru. Because she is blind, she can use her other senses of touch, so not by viewing with her eyes but by feeling she could tell that the dogu itself was blind and was in fact representative of some of the past lives, and was a shamanistic representation. So I was trying to explore different possibilities towards understanding dogu, not just visually but through touch to give new interpretations of its potential meaning.

One very important Jomon site, Sannai Maruyama in Aomori prefecture, was only recently unearthed and the discovery fundamentally shifted the way the Jomon era was envisioned. One of the biggest symbols of this was a structure that was found that must have been more than ten metres high. It’s an architecture of a tower, and by looking at the immense moblisation of people and materials to achieve this, what was Jomon life and how we interpret that totally changed. I also showed this in my story.

What I find amazing is that you are producing a fresh episode of this series every two weeks?

I have a very wonderful editor! Who keeps me on time (laughs). Sometimes, my stories end in two parts, or three, but in general they run for four parts, so over eight weeks. So I don’t have to think up a story every two week, I can develop stories over more pages. My editor keeps a careful watch and I like to keep on schedule!

I am also hugely impressed with the meticulous detail and delicate control of your drawing, which is all the more amazing because I understand you are using a “fude” or small Japanese brush. I couldn’t quite believe the modest size of your original manga pages, because you put so much detail into them. Do you have assistants to help you?

Yes, with deadlines every two weeks, it would be very hard for me to everything myself. So I have sometimes one assistant, sometimes two. But I draw all the main things and things that are close up, while my assistants draw the distant detail. By doing that, when I draw all the close things and the assistant fills in the background, I feel this gives more of a sense of depth and spatial play.

That was a system that Tezuka also used in his comics. I know you are a great admirer of his Phoenix series. You have said in an interview I read that you also want to create a major epic of this kind. Are you developing this? Can you tell me anything about what you’d want it to deal with?

At this point, I do not have the luxury of being able to think very much about this. I have a careful watchman over me, so I have not let my imagination take flight yet!

Did you ever meet Tezuka?

I met Tezuka three times, at different events. I made my debut in 1975 with Kotetsu no Queen and I won the Tezuka prize with my series Harukanaru Asa, so I met him at the Award ceremony. In particular, I attended a later event where I was on a panel with Tezuka and we had a discussion about manga. That was a real highlight for me.

Will your new British Museum stories of Munakata investigating mysteries from ancient Europe be made available in English?

I am feeling under a bit of pressure right now, as I am still thinking about the story! But yes, that is what I am planning and I would very much like it to come out in English. I hope to launch the new series next Spring.

I wonder if you would agree to sign my copy of 2001 Nights?

Of course. (He signs the book and draws this head-and-shoulders portrait of one of the female protagonists, all in a matter of seconds).

Thank you so much - amazing! Now I see how you are able to draw your manga every two weeks! (laughter).

As of Monday, January 4th, I have just learnt that the total number of visitors to the Manga display over two months was 94,869, which I understand is a record among the 21 displays so far done in that space. So that should give more encouragement to the British Museum to spotlight comics again in the future.

With much gratitude to Timothy Clark and Hiromi Uchida at the British Museum, and to Nicole Rousmaniere from The Sainsbury Institute, Norwich, who kindly acted as interpreter and who instigated this exhibition and project.

Posted: January 1, 2010

Photos © Nicole Rousmaniere.

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