Pokemon Adventures - Kusaka & Yamamoto Gotta Draw Them All!

Pokémon seemed to go into hibernation for a while, but it came out roaring with the July release of the mobile game Pokémon Go. For the "Pokemon Adventures" team of writer Hidenori Kusaka and artist Satoshi Yamamoto, though, the pocket monsters have been a steady presence for almost two decades. Kusaka has been writing the "Pokemon Adventures" manga (known as "Pokemon Special" in Japan) since the first volume came out in 1997, while artist Satoshi Yamamoto came on board with volume 10, after the original artist, Mato, retired.

Kusaka and Yamamoto were special guests at Comic-Con International in San Diego this year, and during their panel, they were presented with Comic-Con's Inkpot Award, which recognizes creators for their contributions to comics, movies, and other media. "This is the first time we have received a trophy," Kusaka said afterward. "This project has been ongoing for 20 years. It has been received so well, in so many aspects, but we have never actually won an award for it."

"It almost feels too big for us," Yamamoto added.

During SDCC, CBR had the opportunity to have a behind-the-scenes interview with Kusaka and Yamamoto about how they came to work on the manga, how they manage the hundreds of characters, and the ups and downs of working on a mega-popular series. We didn't get to talk much about "Pokémon Go," though: The game had just come out a week before in Japan, and Kusaka and Yamamoto were too busy signing autographs and meeting their public at Comic-Con to have time to play.

CBR: How did you discover the personalities of the different Pokémon? Was it difficult to learn to write and draw so many characters, each with its own personality?

Hidenori Kusaka: In the first game, there were 151 [Pokémon]. It was one of the first series where everyone memorized all the characters and all their names. There are other games, for instance "Dragon Quest," [where] even if you played the entire game, there are a lot of cases where 100 or so new monsters come out, but you don't really memorize every single one. So as a phenomenon, it was amazing that everybody was memorizing all 151. I think they created something that was really easy for people to memorize. To get back to your original question, I think we were really helped by that easy-to-remember aspect that they created. But now they have made so many Pokémon -- it's a little different compared to the original.

Yamamoto & Kusaka pose after winning their Inkpot Award (Photo by Brigid Alverson)

Satoshi Yamamoto: To be completely honest with you, I haven't memorized all of them. There are various series, and if we are talking about the series we are working on right now and the few Pokémon that are especially important in the plot, then I definitely do remember how to draw them, [but] when I'm done writing one series, it kind of goes in and out the other side.

How do you make them convincing? With humans or animals, you can draw from a model, but how do you draw an imaginary character?

Yamamoto: [Pulls out his iPad and shows a Pokémon app that displays the characters in different poses] This is a regular application for the iPad; anybody can download it.

[In addition,] Game Freak, the game company, and the Pokémon company have a style guide available for all of the characters. Even that is still not enough. I think of the animal the Pokémon might have been based off of and look at how they move, perhaps watch Animal Planet or National Geographic, and look at how the Pokémon might move, like a real animal. I also own dogs, and I look at how the dogs move and what kind of facial expressions the dogs make. And then, on top of that, in order to get the emotions across, sometimes I will also use human-like facial expressions to convey that.

Do you use yourself as a model sometimes?

Yamamoto: When I draw humans, I take pictures of myself for reference.

Do you strictly follow the game, or do you get to make up your own stories and add your own details?

Kusaka: I think these days we have been following pretty close to the game. We have been doing this for 20 years, now. Within that span of time, it has changed a little in each period. In the beginning, for a couple of years, we really did whatever we wanted, but since then -- the Pokémon business itself has become worldwide, and now that it is worldwide, we have to really think about different components and different issues. So the amount of freedom we get now is different from the amount of freedom we got in the very beginning.

But at the same time, to have these limitations in place but think about how can we make this the most exciting thing within those [constraints] is also a very interesting thing to think about.

You must be doing a good job, because I don't play any of the games but Pokémon Go, and I can follow the books just fine.

Kusaka: We are very happy to hear that. We do think about how to make something that everybody can enjoy, whether they have played the game first and then read the comics, or they haven't played the game at all and they are reading the comics.

Did you work on manga before you did Pokémon Adventures?

Yamamoto: "Kaze no Denshousha," Denshousha is someone who passes things to the next generation -- kind of like Luke Skywalker. From generation to generation, Jedi to Jedi. It was a manga about Japanese martial arts.

Kusaka: "Pokémon Adventures" was the first manga comic that I was involved in, and that's the one I have been working on for my entire career.

How were you selected to be the artist and writer of the Pokémon manga?

Yamamoto demonstrates the app he uses for Pokémon reference (Photo by Brigid Alverson)

Kusaka: Before working on "Pokémon Adventures" I was in contact with the people at the publisher Shogakukan for a couple of years. I really wanted to work in the manga industry, but you can't start doing that just off the bat. There are these magazines for children, and I would work on the columns, the bonus items such as small booklets and craft papers, and the special events in the magazine.

Were you writing about Pokémon?

Kusaka: This was before Pokémon was popular. I was writing about all kinds of things. There was an editor who thought a lot of my ideas were really good and really interesting. Just by chance, the timing of the editor thinking my work was really good and the timing of Pokémon becoming really popular just kind of happened. That editor came to me with this project, saying, "We are going to start doing a manga series of the Pokémon story. Would you like to work on it?" I was really lucky.

Yamamoto: My previous series, "Kaze no Denshousha," had just ended, and we were starting to work on a different project that didn't make it through the initial planning process. Because that project wasn't going through, my mentor introduced me to an editor at a different magazine and said, "Do you have any jobs?" That was right when the former artist for the "Pokémon Adventures" series was saying she wanted to retire, so I took over.

What is the biggest challenge in writing and drawing Pokémon manga?

Kusaka: When in my mind I think, "OK, we are done, we have really ended this story" -- but then someone else says we have to write a continuation of it. That's hard.

Yamamoto: I don't like to draw the exact same kind of facial expression, the same thing twice. To avoid that is hard.

What is your favorite part?

Kusaka: The fact that everything is connected, so we are able to continue working on this story without really getting rid of anything we have built up to this point. I like that. A lot of American comics will reboot and revamp their series. [In America], they like to put all that they have written in the past aside and totally think of a new story, but I like the fact that our story really takes in all that has happened in the past and just continues that.

Yamamoto: I always think about what the Pokémon are thinking or saying, and then make expressions that would really make the readers think, "Oh, that is exactly how it would look, how it would be." When that match is made perfectly, I really enjoy it.

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