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Thursday, Aug. 10, 2000

Japan's favorite schlemiel goes international

Staff writer

The great manga artist Fujio Akatsuka sits casually, a glass of Chivas Regal in one hand, for all the world as if he were drinking at an izakaya with friends rather than sitting in his hospital room in Tokyo.

Cartoonist Fujio Akatsuka's gullible but lovable character is an icon of dauntless haplessness.

"I'm happy that my manga will be read in English by foreigners," says Akatsuka, referring to the bilingual edition of his popular comic book "Tensai Bakabon (The Genius Bakabon)."

Published in July by Kodansha International, the book is the first in a planned series of three volumes. The English translation of the original Japanese dialogue in most cases succeeds admirably in conveying the nuances of Akatsuka's wacky brand of humor, although the meaning behind some of the plays on words might be hard for English-speaking readers to grasp. However, the unique and likeable characters and the loopy situations in which Akatsuka places them have a universal appeal.

Since being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus (caused by heavy drinking and smoking) in 1998, Akatsuka has been in and out of the hospital repeatedly, undergoing surgery to have his entire esophagus removed and other treatment. Yet his enthusiasm for pursuing his interests has not flagged in the slightest.

Known for famous manga books such as "Himitsu no Akko-chan" and "Osomatsu-kun," Akatsuka, 64, is charming, quick-witted and full of new ideas.

"I always like to try new things that no one else has done before," he says, knocking back his third glass of whiskey with ease. "It's no use being the second person to do something."

The manga artist has, in fact, achieved a number of firsts during his career. In 1962 he produced "Osomatsu-kun," the first of the so-called "nonsense manga," and in 1967 created "Tensai Bakabon," the first manga ever to feature a fool as the main character.

One of his recent endeavors is a groundbreaking comic book "Akatsuka Fujio no Sawaru Ehon: Yoi Don!" with regular text, Braille text and illustrations in raised relief, making it possible for the sighted and the blind to read it together. It is scheduled for publication by Shogakukan Aug. 10; Akatsuka says that he first came up with the idea for the book when he was daydreaming. He believes that it is the first volume of its kind in the world.

Akatsuka holds to a definite philosophy when writing manga: For him, perfection is not the issue.

"Just go ahead and create something," he says, "and if the reader feels some kind of impact or shock, then that's more important [than trying to do everything perfectly]." His own work has certainly succeeded in this, making a major impact on the Japanese manga world and bowling readers over with its originality.

Japanese manga art has garnered acclaim worldwide, but Akatsuka is concerned that, even though an increasing quantity of work is being produced these days, the quality is deteriorating. Young manga artists tend to produce similar work, he feels, and unique themes rarely appear. He believes this is because young people have a more restricted range of action nowadays, simply shuttling back and forth between home and school, and aren't adventurous enough in seeking out new ideas and interesting people.

"Youngsters don't have enough curiosity or lust for life," he says.

An inquiring spirit and lust for life have always been driving forces behind Akatsuka's own work. When starting out as a manga artist at the age of 20, he led a poverty-stricken life but says he never felt poor inside.

He made ends meet by living mainly off cabbage, adding it to miso soup, eating it raw as a salad and frying it. However, even in these difficult circumstances he always managed to scrape together enough money to go to the movies, fulfilling his desire to stimulate his imagination.

Akatsuka believes that it is important to write with a child's heart and an adult's sensibility. From his point of view, one must be able to look at one's work objectively and write something that each age group of readers will be able to appreciate; otherwise one cannot truly be called a professional.

In addition to keeping the various interests of different age groups in mind when creating his works, he also bears in mind the individuality of different people. Akatsuka turns a very warm eye toward all human beings, which makes it possible for him to draw and characterize such unique and appealing characters.

Now, with the new bilingual edition of his work, he is sure to gain an appreciative audience overseas to add to his many fans at home.

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