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Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011

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Past and present: Manga artist Izumi Matsumoto against a collage of previously unpublished sketches for his upcoming "The Far Eastern Romances." They show 1856's first U.S. Consul General to Japan, Townsend Harris (top right); his ill-fated translator, Henry Heusken (center); and the young geisha Okichi, who figured in his life. DREUX RICHARD; ALL SKETCHES COURTESY OF IZUMI MATSUMOTO


The best of his years . . .

Groundbreaking manga artist Izumi Matsumoto's ongoing lost decade began with an unfinished masterpiece. Will it end in creative redemption?

Special to The Japan Times

This summer, my translator and I stood in Izumi Matsumoto's home-cum-office in Tokyo, where he had just been searching in vain for any original drawings from "Spring Wonder," which was, 27 years ago, the first manga serial he pitched to leading comics magazine Weekly Shonen Jump.

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His: A page rough from "The Far Eastern Romances" showing Harris and Heusken.

Its prompt rejection back then paved the way for the next series he conceived, "Kimagure Orange Road," an instant success that came to be known as "the Bible for Japanese teenagers" throughout the 1980s.

"But 'Bakumatsu,' I think I know where those sketches are," he told us mid-search on that occasion, the last of our several meetings with him.

Matsumoto had agreed to let us take some unpublished drawings with us for our article, and we were especially interested in ones for "Bakumatsu Rashamen-musume Jyoushi" ("The Far Eastern Romances").

Publication of that unfinished masterpiece was canceled 12 years ago — when his currently ongoing absence from public view was about to begin. Then, too, Matsumoto had been on the brink of a personal and professional catharsis that was destined to vanish along with "Bakumatsu."

"Leaving that series unfinished is my deepest regret," he said as — still in search of those sketches -he navigated a maze of piled boxes overflowing with every physical representation of the 40-odd years he has spent drawing comic books. They were a visible reminder of the slow and winding road he is on as he struggles to return his work to publication.

"I just moved here in March," he said. "I haven't had time to unpack." It was late July.

The story of his disappearance from publication is not lurid. Matsumoto (born Kazuya Terashima) is not an addict or an egomaniac. Now aged 52, he is soft-spoken, humble — and singlemindedly dedicated to his work. He blames his absence on a spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak that can be traced to him being struck by a car at age 3 while crossing the street in front of his family's house. Among the reasons for his inactivity, this certainly looms largest.

But his story is also that of a consummate artist and habitual innovator attempting to reconcile his vision with the thoroughly commercialized industry it must inhabit. He's still troubled, too, by his initial stratospheric success that began to seem impossible to replicate.

In 2005, Matsumoto spoke for the first time to the media about his condition, and also announced that he planned a return to creating manga. His comeback series, "Tobyoki" ("Recovery"), which in part chronicles his health struggles, has since found a publisher. However, a closer look at his plans for the series reveals that "Tobyoki" is nothing less than an autobiographical work. The portions of its narrative that occur in the protagonist's youth recall Kyosuke Kasuga, the beloved, vulnerable narrator of "Kimagure Orange Road"; "His nature was always my own," Matsumoto told us.

Kyosuke's world is a thinly-fictionalized version of the capital's Setagaya Ward, where Matsumoto feels so deeply rooted. Recently, he was our gracious guide around that west-central part of Tokyo, taking us to all the places that inspired the whimsical universe of "Kimagure Orange Road," and through the many years that have passed since he last visited or paid tribute to the area by citing it in his manga.

"Tobyoki" is now long overdue to its publisher, and the boxes that crowd the desk where Matsumoto works do not bode well for this artist's imminent emergence from a decade of time lost — and he an artist whose body of work includes more ideas and first volumes than completed series.

Although Matsumoto's broader popularity has waned predictably in his absence, within the manga industry he remains among a pantheon of artists whose contributions reshaped the genre. "Tobyoki" may stand no chance of matching the commercial success of "Kimagure Orange Road," but it will almost certainly determine whether this chapter of his life story ends in triumph or desolation. Can a master storyteller, lauded by his peers, overcome two decades of difficulty and absence to tell the world his story — and get innumerable others to share in it through his own words and images?

"I am not finished creating," Matsumoto insisted when I first met him. Then, I wasn't convinced. The years had had their say. "But I'm always thinking about how different things could have been if I hadn't stopped working," he continued.

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Hers: A page rough from "The Far Eastern Romances" showing bathhouse scenes.

"Kimagure Orange Road" was a global phenomenon. Besides its incredible commercial and critical success in Japan, its anime adaptation was broadcast on television around the world, airing in Singapore, Italy, France, Spain, Australia, Turkey and elsewhere. It's mentioned in the same breath as "Dragon Ball" in Europe, where the two series were responsible for introducing entire generations to anime and manga. In fact just last year the manga was reissued in France — shortly after the anime was re-run on TV in Italy.

Akemi Takada, arguably anime's most accomplished character designer (best known for her era-defining collaborations with multi-award-winning filmmaker, TV director and writer Mamoru Oshii), reports that sketches of Madoka Ayukawa, the most popular character in "Kimagure Orange Road," are still what her fans most frequently ask her to do.

"Madoka's popularity has endured because of the way her beauty belies a delicate sensibility. She's fulfilling in both heart and shape," Takada said.

The success of "Kimagure Orange Road" was as unexpected as it was quick. When it struck in 1984, Matsumoto was working out of a one-room apartment. "We had four people on staff and the publisher would send over a couple more to make sure we stayed on schedule," he said. "Crowded doesn't quite capture it. I had to go in the bathroom to draw."

Out in the wider world, upward of 600,000 people were reading the "Kimagure Orange Road" manga every week. "I never got used to that," he said. "The most incredible thing was, on the train, someone would be reading Weekly Shonen Jump, and they'd flip through until they got to 'Orange Road,' then they would stop and read every last page of it. I could never believe my eyes."

It was a remarkably short road to success for a young artist whose relationship with that magazine had begun improbably when he cold-called their offices and managed to strike up a relationship with the late Toshimasa Takahashi, at the time a lowly junior editor tasked with answering the phones.

Matsumoto's "Live! Tottemo Rock 'n' Roll" shortly thereafter won a Weekly Shonen Jump contest for emerging artists, -which led to the 1982 publication of "Milk Report" in sister-title Fresh Jump. Other short pieces followed, many of them direct precursors to "Kimagure Orange Road."

Then, paradoxically, it was after his failed pitch for "Spring Wonder," that Weekly Shonen Jump commissioned "Kimagure Orange Road." Matsumoto was 25 when it first appeared.

The manga is first and foremost the story of high school student Kyosuke Kasuga and his classmate, Madoka Ayukawa. Kyosuke pines for Madoka, who warms to him over time. In the process, readers glimpse a charmingly naive adolescence lived in the fleeting economic certainty of 1980s Japan — a growing-up rendered with immense empathy and driven by a nuanced, episodic story. It has aged well, and remains a wistful, nostalgic snapshot of youthful innocence and yearning.

"It was a kind of manga no one had seen before," said Michitoshi Isono, chief producer at Gallery of Fantastic Art (GoFa), an influential Tokyo art gallery in upscale Aoyama that's dedicated to anime and manga of exceptional aesthetic quality — and where "Kimagure Orange Road" figures prominently.

"It was a calm, quiet, contemplative series. It wasn't action-packed. It wasn't zany. It was subtle and slow-paced. Everyone was shocked at the level of its success; we were especially surprised how well it did in the West. It changed everyone's minds about what kind of stories could appeal to the mass market."

"Kimagure Orange Road" ended in 1988 and Mastumoto embarked on a new serial for Super Jump magazine titled "Sesame Street." Although this retained his understated, character-driven storytelling, and many consider it the critical heir and equal of "Kimagure Orange Road," it never approached its predecessor's level of commercial success, nor its longevity.

When Matsumoto stopped writing "Sesame Street," he left it without a final volume or recognizable ending.

The projects that came after that, in retrospect, reveal an artist hewing closer and closer to commercially successful formulas that left little room for the depth that characterized his best work.

Among Matsumoto's fans, his perceived oeuvre is dominated by "Kimagure Orange Road," "Sesame Street" and "Graffiti," a collection of his short works that includes many early predecessors of "Kimagure Orange Road."


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