Yoshitaka Amano, the Japanese artist whose distinctive painting style has graced Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman: The Dream Hunters,” the “Vampire Hunter D” series of novels, “Final Fantasy” logos and box art and more, explores a strange near-future landscape in “Shinjuku,” coming in March from Dark Horse. The original graphic novel is written by director Christopher “mink” Morrison, whose previous comic book credits include “13 Chambers” and “Dust.” CBR News caught up with mink and Amano to discuss the book, as well as the real-life Shinjuku that inspired it.
“The word Shinjuku translated to English (I know there are better-speaking Western Japanese linguists who will correct me) basically means ‘new city.’ I called the project ‘Shinjuku’ as it represents a place where the new order will rise; also, Shinjuku was my inspiration for wanting to write it,” mink said. “It really is not that heavy-handed, but that is the basic idea. It also represents the idea that ‘new city’ can be anywhere a movement happens, be it art or life.”
mink and Amano’s “Shinjuku” is set in the year 2020, so the landscape of the flashy Tokyo ward may see some changes, both physical and cultural, from what is now in existence. “My future in the story is a vivid world with fantastic technology, but [also with] many of the same problems we face in our current society,” mink said of “Shinjuku’s” near-future setting. “It takes place a little over ten years from now, so there are no flying cars, ray guns, vast atomic wastelands, or people wearing fingerless gloves & trench coats huddled around bonfire trash cans – just a cool city ten years from now. I kinda am an optimist, so I think the next ten years will bring great things for mankind and I wanted to reflect those in the story. Good drinks, taste, and food is good now or in the future.”
mink told CBR that, in his book, “Shinjuku is the entertainment capital of Tokyo, controlled by three Japanese corporations which are in turn controlled by organized crime families overseen by a secret pact with the Japanese government. Much like America’s fabled Las Vegas, both legal and illegal vices are available in Shinjuku for the right price. What happens in Shinjuku, stays in Shinjuku, and it’s all about the money.”
Though set in the somewhat stylized future, artist Yoshitaka Amano said that his take on Shinjuku will be recognizable to readers familiar with the district. “I did change some details, buildings, etc., but tried to keep the atmosphere as is,” Amano said. “I wanted the reality of today’s Shinjuku kept in the story.”
Many of Amano’s works in comics, such as the recent “Mateki: The Magic Flute” for Radical, “Hero” at BOOM! Studios, and the Greg Rucka-penned “Elektra/Wolverine: The Redeemer,” make use of full-page painted illustrations running alongside or alternating with text pages, rather than the panel-to-panel format more usual to comics. “I prefer not to illustrate what’s written in the story exactly as is, nor just go hand in hand with the storyline like comic books do. Rather, I’d like to give a different perspective and dimensions to the story through my illustrations,” Amano said. “I think the graphic novel style (full page paintings with the story) works better for my intention.”
mink told CBR that the origins of “Shinjuku” come from his experiences in the district itself, though the shape the book eventually took depended equally on Amano’s full involvement. “A few years ago, I directed a movie in Tokyo. The hotel I stayed in was in Shinjuku, so on my days off I would go to small restaurants, bookshops, toy and sneaker stores – Japan has the best Air Force 1 sneakers in the world. Hard to find size 13, though,” mink said. “While browsing the various art book sections, I found some of Amano’s works that have never been published stateside for various reasons. I collected a few for reference and thought little of it other than being an otaku (fanboy) and loving his work.
“After I wrapped the movie and came back to LA, I began to work on the story that I had written in shorthand while in Tokyo for fun,” mink continued. “It was about an American dealing with craziness in Shinjuku, which I had experienced first hand while actually filming in the streets of the city. So about a year later, through a series of events, I was presented with a chance to meet Amano thanks to some good friends. I had the project pretty well thought out by then, and when I had a chance after some small talk, I asked him if he was interested in doing some cover work like his work on ‘Gatchaman’ or ‘Yattaman’ (some of his early work, which is very different from his fantasy work). I knew this was a risk because he did mostly fine art now, and also most artists don’t like to do the same thing they have already done, so there was a real chance he would react adversely to the question, but I needed to take a shot. I had a book of his with me called ‘M,’ which is a series of massive paintings (from a few years prior) that he had done in black and white with red details on large sheets of aluminum. I also had a photography book of Shinjuku shot in remote parts of the city in very low light levels, creating fascinating and sinister photos. I spelled out the idea of doing a cover for the book that captured the spirit of the city using his technique from ‘M,’ married with my experiences as an American in Shinjuku. I had hoped he would agree to do the cover – well, the rest is history. He not only did the cover, he did 150 images, and we are working on the next installment already.”
mink added that the story of “Shinjuku,” which will be divided into twenty short chapters (a reference to yakuza’s origins, as the syllables “ya-ku-za” translate to 8-9-3, adding up to 20, the highest hand in a Japanese card game), plays well with Amano’s full-page style. “After Amano came on board, a traditional American comic would be too difficult to do,” mink said, “and I did not want to do manga – I am a rabid fan of manga, but I don’t think I am skilled enough to execute a manga at the highest level.”
The writer added that, thematically, the book-within-a-book aspect of his story would only benefit from separating the art from the text. “The format we settled on was the best way to tell the story when Amano decided to do the whole project. It also allows Amano’s art to be viewed separately from my words, which is a critical part of experiencing ‘Shinjuku’ properly,” mink said. “It will be the viewers’ own personal experience when they view the book. Amano has created a living gallery and his own inspired story that is a vast expansion of mine. They are two separate works living harmoniously together under one thought of storytelling which was the real inspiration once we had finished this installment.”
The central character of “Shinjuku” is a man named Daniel Legend, a bounty hunter who is, for once, on a very personal mission. “He is an amalgam of my favorite fictional characters, from Sam Spade to Jack Ryan,” mink said. “He is a retired Special Forces sniper who, after his discharge from the service with no work options, qualifies to become a SCOUT. A SCOUT is a government-licensed tracker (bounty hunter) who helps police and other organizations apprehend criminals for set prices. The SCOUT service was a necessary step in 2018 after the end of the Iraq occupation, due to shortages of police enforcement globally.
“We meet him working the streets of Los Angeles, when he receives a mysterious postcard with strange markings,” mink continued. “The postcard leads him to Tokyo to locate his long estranged sister who is in danger. Along the way, he tries to save her and accidentally saves the world from a supernatural force coming to destroy it.”
Both mink and Amano have plenty of history outside the comic book field, with mink directing films, music videos, and commercials and Amano illustrating the “Vampire Hunter D” series of novels, defining the look of Square-Enix’s “Final Fantasy” logos and packaging for more than 20 years, while still finding time for fine art and animation. With mink coming from a cinematic background, Amano noted that “his storytelling is very, very visual. That is the biggest difference I felt, compared to other writers I worked with in the past.”
With the release of “Final Fantasy XIII” and two tie-in games in 2009 (2010 in the US), Amano has been keeping busy on that front, as well. “I do not do character designs for the recent FF games, but do many of the promotional designs, posters, etc.,” Amano said of his current artistic duties with the frachise. “My role is to give an overall identity to the FF games and that hasn’t changed from the beginning. I think Square-Enix understands that and we keep a very good relationship to each other.”
As for his preferred artistic venue, Amano said there are different parameters to the sort of narrative work he does for “Shinjuku” and more commercial illustrations he does for other clients. “In the case of illustrations or other contract works, there are always some expectations from the clients, and I have to fulfill them or go beyond that expectation. When I work on my own concept, I’m free to do whatever I want to do,” Amano said. “So either way, it’s a challenge. In case of the former, it’s a challenge to the clients’ expectation, and in case of latter, it’s a challenge to my own imagination.”
Amano said there is one type of art, though, he’s always wanted to do but has not yet attempted. “I always wanted to create an American super hero. I’ve been working on an idea for some time now, so hopefully, it might be realized in the near future.”