I always advise them, ‘Be positive,’
‘Keep exploring,’ and ‘Don’t hesitate.’
A Japanese comic book author who started and established her career in the U.S., Misako Takashima, aka Misako Rocks!, is a self-made, modern samurai girl. Her achievements are now being recognized in her home country, and last year she was selected as one of the 15 Women of the Year 2009 by the prestigious Nikkei Woman magazine. At her studio in Brooklyn, she chatted with Chopsticks NY and shared her inspirations, influences, and new projects.
What made you become a comic book artist?
It’s a looooong story. To make the looooong story short, I would say it started in the darkest moment of my life. I was so desperate and was working seven jobs at once to get out of a horrible situation. One of these jobs was at the Children’s Museum in Madison, Wisconsin, and there I happened to notice that Japanese manga and anime were popular among young Americans. Then the idea flashed in my mind: “This must be IT!” Right after that, I started putting all my effort into depicting the sweetest moment of my life in a 16-page comic. Though the style was not sophisticated, it’s powerful in its own way. To tell the truth, this was the process of overcoming my depression and beginning to heal.
Anyway, I pulled together my sketches and my cartoons for The Onion, which I was already working for, to make my portfolio, and I kept calling publishers to make interview appointments. When I would be lucky enough to get an appointment, I spouted story ideas and what I wanted to do, this and that, as you see now. The editors who did interview me were usually surprised because I was not the standard Japanese girl they were familiar with, and they got to like me in the end. This is how I got contracts with two publishers, Disney’s Hyperion and Henry Holt and Company. Since my books were published, I have gotten a lot of requests to lecture at libraries and schools, and I was mentioned in The New York Times, so my life turned 180 degrees. It’s a stream of light in the darkness.
I believe you are often asked by your fans,
“How can I be a comic artist like you?”
Yes. Though my personal career path is not something that can be applied to anybody, I always advise them, “Be positive,” “Keep exploring,” and “Don’t hesitate.” The good thing in this country is that parents are so supportive of their children pursuing their dreams. That makes me envious. [laughs]
Some ask me how they can write good stories, but such young people tend to stay at home rather than go out for exploration and adventure. They try to write within their imaginations. I think that stories written in their imaginations would lack reality. Even if it’s sci-fi, it has drama and it’s necessary to depict human psychology. Unless they communicate with others, create their own networks, and experience their own drama, they cannot write good, realistic stories. Being rejected is not a great experience, especially for teenagers, but it might be a good resource for their stories. So, I encourage them to experience failure and rejection.
Speaking of your visual style, how did you get drawing training?
It’s totally self-taught. I was brought up reading comic magazines like Ribon and Nakayoshi and soaked up Japanese manga. I don’t really remember, but according to my mother, I often sent my illustrations and drawings to manga publishers and they appeared in magazines. So, I think my love of drawing started even at that age. In a way, I have improved my drawing technique by continuing to draw. Take my first manga, Biker Girl. I blush when I look at it because the drawings are so unskillful. But at the same time, I feel my passion everywhere. It’s the most powerful book in terms of the momentum of my enthusiasm. In my opinion, as we make more work, we can polish our styles, but we also become more conscious of marketability and modify our styles according to what’s more appealing to readers. The first work of an artist has nothing to do with such extra thoughts. At least I don’t see that in my first book. It has extraordinary force. I’m so ashamed to see it now, but I look at it sometimes just to remember how strong my original intention was.
What will your next project be like?
It will be an art comic for eleven-year-old children and older. It’s a series of stories based on my childhood and adolescent memories. It will be full of Japanese culture. For example, it shows how the lives of Japanese primary, junior high, and high school students compare to those of Americans. I’ve noticed that there are so many young people who want to go to Japan, while young Japanese are eager to come to the U.S. I am a good role model for them. It would be fun for them to read my new project in that sense. Style-wise, I’d like to mix different formats––collaging manga and photographs, for example.
So, wouldn’t it be manga?
I’m not conscious of a manga format in the beginning, although I would say I am a manga-infused comic artist. My style is categorized in the graphic novel genre. I don’t think creating manga is my task because there is already a flood of manga coming from Japan. Manga are dynamic in the way they play with frames, composition, and scale to tell stories, but that is not always accepted by comic book readers. Comic books use somewhat fixed framing compared to manga, and the people who get used to the style want to read in that style. Six- to ten-year-old children, the target readers of my next project, are not so familiar with the manga style, so it’s better to avoid the manga style, I think.
How do you map out your future career?
I try projects that will drive my career forward rather than creating what I would like to create. I develop stories and styles through careful market research and always try to understand what’s best for the market. This is why I place great importance on attending workshops and lectures and communicating with children. This gives me a lot of inspiration. Their brains absorb everything like sponges, and their power of imagination is incredible. So, I try eavesdropping on and observing them to investigate what they like and take notes and so on. [laughs] Their expressions are so amazing, and that’s beyond grown-ups’ imaginations. However, children cannot make what they imagine into forms of art, while grown-ups have the technique and ability to do that. So, it would be better to inspire and cooperate each with other.
Would you recommend a destination to Chopsticks NY readers who are planning to visit Japan?
Definitely Shibamata*. When I was in high school, I was so taken with the Tora-san** movie series. That is “THE JAPAN.” That symbolizes the life in downtown in Japan, where a taste of the commoners’ life in the good old Edo period still remains. Visit Taishakuten [Daikeiji Temple] in Shibamata and enjoy the spirit of Japanese people. It’s totally non-metropolitan, but it would be inspiring.
——– Interview by Noriko Komura
*Shibamata is a district in Katsushika Ward located in downtown Tokyo. With locals’ favorite temples, shrines, and parks, the area has the atmosphere of the good old days. It is known as the setting for the film series Otoko wa Tsurai yo (“It’s tough being a man”).
**Tora-san is the name of the protagonist in the Japanese film series Otoko wa Tsurai yo, which is comprised of 48 episodes produced from 1969 to 1995. Torajiro Kuruma, aka Tora-san, is a kind-hearted vagabond who is always unlucky in love. The series was once considered the longest movie series in the world.
Born in Tokyo, Misako Rocks! at 19, receuved a scholarship from Hosei University to study English Literature in the U.S. for a year. After she graduated, she moved to the U.S. and worked as a puppeteer, face painter, animal-balloon maker, and art teacher. Her first break came when The Onion decided to use her illustrations for its “Savage Love” column. Shortly after, her career as a comic artist bloomed. Her publications include Biker Girl (Hyperion, 2006), Rock and Roll Love (Hyperion, 2007), and Detective Jermain (Henry Holt and Company, 2008). This latest book is listed in “Books for the Teen Age” recommended by the New York Public Library. Misako Rocks! actively conducts workshops and lectures and enjoys mingling with her fans. www.misakorocks.com
Misako’s first graphic novel depicts a bookish girl’s transformation
into a biker girl through a magical bike.
Rock and Roll Love
Misako’s autobiographical comic book features the story of
a Japanese girl who wins her love against cultural differences.
Jermain, Sixteen-year-old daughter of detective parents, solves a mystery at her school
with the help of her friends, Andy and Travis.