NYCC: "Death Note" Artist Takeshi Obata on Building Characters

Takeshi Obata's appearance at New York Comic Con caused something of a sensation among manga fans, as it was the first U.S. appearance for the artist of "Hikaru No Go," "Death Note," and "Bakuman."

Obata shot to prominence in Japan in 1985, when he won the prestigious Tezuka Award at the age of 16. His work first came to the U.S. ten years ago, during the height of the manga boom, and it has remained popular ever since.

In "Hikaru No Go," written by Yumi Hotta, a young boy strives to become a champion in the world of Go, a traditional Eastern board game, with help from the spirit of a Heian-era Go master. In "Death Note," written by Tsugumi Ohba, a teenager finds a notebook that gives him the ability to cause anyone's death--and soon winds up in a cat-and-mouse game with an eccentric detective. Obata's other series with Ohba, "Bakuman," is the story of two teenagers who set out to become famous manga artists, and in a tale that winds across 20 volumes, they show readers life behind the scenes at the magazine where their manga was actually published, "Shonen Jump."

Obata's most recent work to be released in the U.S. is the manga adaptation of "All You Need Is Kill," the light novel that was the basis for the Tom Cruise film "Edge of Tomorrow." CBR News recently interviewed the legendary manga artist behind the scenes at New York Comic Con.

CBR News: In Bakuman, we got to see Ohba-sensei's original storyboards and the way you refined them. Did you get storyboards for other series as well, or do the writers sometimes look to you to express how the story will be told visually?

Takeshi Obata: A lot of the writers submit their storyboards in more or less the same way as Ohba-sensei, so actually what is depicted in "Bakuman" is pretty accurate.

What about character designs--does that come totally from you, or does the writer give you guidance?

Generally speaking, my first draft of a character's design comes from reading the original work--it is inspired. That first image then goes through a few different manifestations through conversations [with the writer]--but we always gravitate back toward that very first image.

You mentioned in yesterday's panel that when you were designing Ryuk in "Death Note," you were inspired by Italian fashions. Was there a particular designer you had in mind?

Actually I am not specifically interested in fashion, but I like designed clothing, and like a lot of people, I read magazines and then I'll see stuff I like. I like looking at fashion, and if I see something I like, it ends up in my work sometimes.

The clothes I put the characters in obviously become part of the characters, so I am really careful about how I dress them, for sure. I take a lot of care in that.

Do you ever find that you have designed a character and then found that he or she was difficult to draw as you went along?

Definitely, especially with the shinigami [the grim reapers in "Death Note"], I always end up drawing something really detailed in the beginning, and it gets really difficult as I keep doing it and I think I should have done something a little bit simpler.

One of the things that has always interested me about your manga is that you draw things that shouldn't be very visually interesting, like a board game or drawing manga, and you make them exciting. How do you do that?

In the case of "Hikaru No Go," I actually think that motion of striking the stone on the board is really beautiful, and capturing that was really fun, and I even think just taking the stone out of the pot and putting it on the board, that movement is really exciting. So I wouldn't say there is no movement, because that one movement struck me as really exciting.

In the case of "Bakuman," I tried to animate the transitions between frames, so there was movement in that sense. With the characters, I try to capture their reactions between each other through really subtle expressions that I hope the readers find engaging.

In "Bakuman," it's sort of a very specialized detail, but I made sure to structure the characters and frames in a way so that the eyes naturally went in the direction you are supposed to read, because there is so much writing, and I made sure the characters were staged in a way that you didn't get tired of reading.

In "Bakuman," did you add in any details from your own life as a manga artist?

In that I see just my own drawing style and how I work, the way the characters hold paper and pens and the way the desktop looks is based on my own actual work space. I definitely try to communicate that to the reader.

It's so honest that I even depict the clutter on my desk pretty accurately. It actually does turn into what Yoshida-san [Obata's editor] calls "these mountains of paper." It's a lot of trash and clutter.

What was the first comic you ever drew, not for publication, but for yourself? Did you make your own comics as a child?

I tried my hand at drawing manga when I was a kid, before I thought I was going to actually go out and become a manga-ka but I have thrown them all out. I don't keep those things.

I have noticed that often your characters are a little off balance. How did you learn to accurately depict different poses and movements, such as the hand putting the Go stone on the board?

I come up with a lot of that actually from my own imagination, but then I watch a lot of movies and [read] manga and read books and I'm sure somehow that has its effect. I remember some of those things. It's a difficult question. I feel like it comes from my own imagining that what might look interesting or eccentric or beautiful or touching.

Actually, I try to convey these movements that will evoke those feelings that I think good movies, good manga, and good novels depict well.

(Anne Ishii served as the translator for this interview.)

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