Something About Shojo

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An aura of pop culture, talent and exclusivity make manga artists like rock stars in Japan, and manga creator Natsuki Takaya can now boast of a new generation of devotees worldwide. The creator of Fruits Basket, a best-seller in North America, debuted in the early 1990s with manga in the Japanese magazine Hana to Yume (Flowers and Dreams) to become one of the industry's top shojo authors, creating manga for women that now sell in bookstores across the globe through publishers such as Tokyopop. In the creator's first U.S. interview, TIME's Coco Masters talks with Takaya (a pen name) about her experiences as a manga creator, the television series CSI and what makes manga far more than inking characters on a page.

TIME: What was it that got you started in manga?

NT: It wasn't anything specific, per se. As a child, because manga was always around and I was reading it, I naturally thought, "Hey, I'd like to draw manga — I'd like to be a manga author!"

TIME: Have you ever drawn "dojinshi" [self-published manga] or worked as a mangaka assistant?

NT: Before and after my debut, I've helped out other manga artists from time to time, but I have no experience of being exclusively an assistant. Nor have I done individual or self-published manga.

TIME: How do you define manga in terms of storyline, characters and visual style?

NT: I try to make it so that I don't hold a firm definition. Rather than be locked into that and have my creations become clumsy and awkward, I want everything to have a certain softness — a freedom.

TIME: What do you think about manga being attempted by non-Japanese creators? Do you consider it manga or another form?

NT: Simply put, I'm glad that manga as an expressive form is expanding. I think that nationality has no relation to that which gives rise to manga. Even among the Japanese, manga creators are making their creations everyday reflecting their own individuality, with none being the same. What is important isn't the differences between the creators but their love for manga.

TIME: What inspires the Fruits Basket storyline?

NT: I've been asked this question many times in the past, but I still don't have a very clear answer to it. It's just something that occurs to me, through the process of living for myself — as "me."

TIME: How long will you continue Fruits Basket? Are you ready to move on to something else?

NT: I plan to conclude it within the year. I don't really think that I'm particularly sad about it drawing to a close. If I don't follow through with it until the end, my work won't stand on its own. I always want to be able to draw new projects.

TIME: What do you like most about drawing manga?

NT: Coming up with the plot, making the characters move and dividing up the panels. The "name"[storyboards] is what I like the most.

TIME: What kinds of books and manga do you read, and from which do you find your inspiration?

NT: I like looking at work that I could never draw myself. I really like the CSI series, Las Vegas in particular. It's really interesting. I'm at the point where I'm considering buying every episode on DVD. I'm the sort of person that doesn't really have specific "inspiration." It probably comes more from my doubts and my desires.

TIME: Do you have assistants? And if so, do you have to train them in your style of drawing and inking?

NT: I have two. There's nothing in particular that I teach them, but they're always a great help to me.

TIME: Fruits Basket has quite a following in the U.S. What do you think are the reasons for its popularity?

NT: That definitely flatters and pleases me. Thank you very much. As for a reason, I can't clearly distinguish one, but if people read it and think "I like this" then that alone is enough to bring me joy.

TIME: Why do you think that manga is increasingly popular outside of Japan?

NT: I wonder if it's just because manga has come to be circulated more in the world than it was before? If it is because manga is being recognized for its merit as a medium capable of expression, then I'm happy as someone who loves manga.

TIME: How do you think that you've influenced a generation of Japanese girls?

NT: How can I put it, I think that my work has a stronger sense of "touching" rather than "influencing."

TIME: What do you want your readers to feel or understand from reading your manga?

NT: Above and beyond drawing my creations, I try to incorporate some kind of message. I try not to end as merely a question but try to provide a conclusion within the work. Furthermore, I try not to supplement this understanding outside of the work. This is because I believe that readers are free to respond to the work in their own way and that this is part of the pleasure... Of course, there are unintended misunderstandings and the occasional thing that completely confuses, but as much as possible, I want to value the sensitivity of all readers.