Welcome back to the third and final post of this interview with Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju’s manga artist, Kumota Haruko! In Part 1 and Part 2, Kumota talked about her origins, her style and influences, her drawing techniques, and the aesthetics she tries to convey in her art. In this section she discusses the characters and the process of writing the story.
The interview was originally published in 2013 by Tokyo Manga Lab. For those interested, the original text of the interview can be found here. Again, many thanks to fellow blogger, translator, and anime-enthusiast Karice for finding the interview, editing my translation, and letting me host it on this blog.
And as always, please let me know of any errors or suggestions for improvement. Enjoy!
The making of the Rakugo Shinju characters
Now I’d like to ask about the making of the narrative and characters. In what order did you create the 4 main characters, considering they’re so inextricably linked?
Kumota: Yakumo was the first one I thought of. Next, I was wondering what kind of person could have such an aura about him, that this master who never takes disciples couldn’t help but change his mind, and so I came up with Yotaro. With Konatsu, I was thinking that since this wasn’t going in a BL magazine I might as well make a female character. To tell you the truth, I was originally thinking of writing Rakugo Shinju as a one-shot. Of course now that I think about it that was a pretty amateur way of thinking: there’s no way it would have worked as a one-shot, but at the time I didn’t know (laughs). So I drew the thumbnails to the point where the master has brought the disciple to his home, and he slots into the space between the master and the daughter he gets along badly with. I showed it to my editor, who told me “this isn’t going to be a one-shot. Could you expand it to around three chapters?” and then “why don’t we serialize this?” And that’s how the story gradually got larger.
Then, if it weren’t for the editor, we’d be reading a totally different Rakugo Shinju!
Kumota: When the manga first started serializing, I didn’t think it would go over three volumes, but now it looks like we’re going to continue for a while (laughs). I’m still getting used to the pacing of manga.
Let’s talk about Sukeroku next. He’s become something of a foil to Yakumo.
Kumota: That’s right. I’ve purposely made a strong sense of contrast between them.
Going by your preferences, was Yakumo, whom you came up with first, close to your ideal of a master?
Kumota: Normally, rakugo performers have an image of being entertainers, or comedians, but when I started writing Rakugo Shinju I also wanted to show a side of rakugo without the comedy, to depict a more charming style of performance with Yakumo.
If you had that idea, why didn’t you make Yakumo the main character?
Kumota: If I made him the main character, he’d probably come across as being emotionally “weak.”
What do you mean by “he’d come across as being weak?”
Kumota: As a main character, the story would be told from his point of view, and his feelings would show through his monologues and whatnot. This way, his inner frailty would show. Of course, that’s good for creating empathy within the audience, but I didn’t want to depict Yakumo that way. I wanted to keep him at a bit of distance. With the backstory part that I’m doing now, I have made him the main character, and through his monologues we’re gradually getting to know his insecurities. This way I think we can understand Yakumo at a deeper level.
It seems like you wanted to depict Yakumo in the present day as an enigmatic character, who the average person would not be able to understand. Besides him, there are also many other fascinating characters. Were there any character settings you had planned but didn’t feature in the story?
Kumota: I don’t usually develop my characters before writing the story. In fact, there are many things about them that you often wouldn’t know until you put them into the story and get them in action. So in one-shots or with supporting characters, many of them have such brief appearances that even I couldn’t grasp what kind of people they were.
In Rakugo Shinju, which characters were easy to write?
Kumota: That would be Yotaro. He’ll come to life even if you leave him be, which makes him quite valuable to me as a writer (laughs). And also Yakumo: I gave him an influential role, so on the rare occasion, I found myself inadvertently surprised. “He really is a good actor…” I thought (laughs).
Yakumo’s appeal–even the writer has fallen for him!
The secret of the Kumota-style of story creation, as seen through the storyboarding process!
Next I’d like to ask about how you go about creating your narrative. What is the process by which you create the narrative and the thumbnails?
Kumota: I use one notebook for each chapter. Once I allocate the space for the number of pages in the chapter, I can use the remaining free space to explore the ideas as I want.
Without minding the sequence of events too much?
Kumota: That’s right. I write the rough sequence of events on a big sticky note, and stick it to the left side of the notebook. If one sequence takes a good 10 pages or so, then once I have about 4-5 large sticky notes, I’ll pretty much have one chapter’s worth of story. Having done that, on the right of those large notes I stick smaller notes which I gradually fill with the details of those 4-5 sequences, divided into pages and then into frames. I also write down the lines I want the characters to say and allocate them to the appropriate scenes. These elements are basically the overall plot and the script.
Do you have to pick and choose which ideas to keep and and which to cut?
Kumota: No. I try to use all the ideas that I come up with in that chapter. If I can’t, I shift it to the next chapter.
So it’s because you try to fit all your ideas in that the story becomes so densely packed with them. How do you proceed from the script to the thumbnail stage?
Kumota: I start by roughly sketching out something that looks like a storyboard (with the panels the same size, like the ones for movies), and then I divide the panels as needed to make the thumbnails.
Why do you start with the panels the same size?
Kumota: Because in reality, dividing the panels is a task that requires a lot of care and attention. When I try to work on the dialogue, the composition of the image in each panel, and the panel layout all at once, I often find myself unable to keep drawing, and the work just stops. Hence, I only divide the panels after everything else is done.
Specifically, what kinds of things do you need to pay attention to?
Kumota: There are a lot of small points to pay attention to, like not using the same image composition too often in a row, or not turning big panels into two-page spreads too often, keeping page turns in mind, writing dialogue that’s easy to read, or drawing the kinds of big panels that hook the reader to turn to the next page.
When I make the thumbnails, I (turn the notebook vertically and) use the bottom page for the two page spreads, leaving the top page for doing whatever I want. This way I can express what comes to mind or what I think is important in the way I like, be it in storyboards, drawing, or prose. This is also where I stick the notes on which I had written dialogue during the plot-writing stage. If I hadn’t written anything I’d leave it blank, and move on to the next spread.
That’s really systematic and easy to understand.
Kumota: This system I use is pretty much in its completed form now. Of course the method depends on the manga artist. I’ve met some who write the plot in the style of a proper screenplay, but the one I use is the best for me. Although I don’t really do any edits once I’ve drawn the images, it’s all pretty time-consuming, so it’s not something I would want to recommend.
What do you do when you’re at a loss for ideas?
Kumota: I’m usually not at a loss for ideas. Rather, what I find hard is trying to figure out how best to connect the ideas together. I’ve gone as long as far as three days with no progress, sprawled out on the floor trying to think of what to do…If you saw me you’d think I was slacking off (laughs).
Is there a way to deal with situations like these?
Kumota: In the end, the only way is just to continue thinking about what would work best. When your thoughts are engrossed in the work and you interrupt them, you have to start from the beginning again. There are lots of manga artists who do their thinking in cafés, but I think that’s to stop them from thinking about anything else.
And one final question: Rakugo Shinju is in the climax of its backstory right now, and this kind of storytelling that starts in the present before going into the backstory has been done previously, including in BL works. Could you comment on that?
Kumota: That’s true, isn’t it…I was drawing without thinking about it, and the next thing I know I realized “I’m doing a backstory again! It’s just like all the others!” (laughs). There was one time I seriously consulted my editor about this, and they told me “there are tons of similar stories out there.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized they were right, and I was satisfied with that (laughs).
In any case, I thought about why I want to write backstories, and I think it’s because I like writing about “processes.” On the other hand, the stories that I’m not good at are the ones that have your heart racing wondering what’s going to happen next…in any case it seems that I like writing stories about the kinds of lives these people led that made them who they are today. In Rakugo Shinju, I dive into the past of the current Yakumo: why did that frail child from long ago become none other than this extreme sadist  of a teacher? I’d be glad if readers could pay attention to this as they read Rakugo Shinju.
Thank you for answering all our questions in this long interview!
 TL note: the term “sadist” has a slightly different connotation in Japanese than in English. See link.
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is available for free legal streaming at Crunchyroll.