Animerica Archives: Interview with Yukito Kishiro | The Beginnings of Alita’s Mangaka (and His Hollywood Dream)

Little did Yukito Kishiro know back in 1993, that the dream of seeing his manga on the silver screen would not only come true, but would take almost two decades to fulfil since the production was officially announced back in 2003.

In 2005, director James Cameron announced that he is working on another production concurrently with the Battle Angel Alita live-action film; the rights to which he presumably acquired back in 2000 (the domain name ‘battleangelalita[dot]com’ was registered to his name by 20th Century Fox around June). This ‘Project 880’ would later become the 2009 film Avatar.

In an apparent show of rampant indecision, Cameron spent the next decade waltzing between the planned Avatar trilogy and Alita as his next directorial production; repeatedly stating his unwillingness to hand the latter over to another director, citing his worship-esque love for the source material, ever since fellow filmmaker Guillermo del Toro first introduced him to the manga. Meanwhile, Cameron also casually decided to add a deep-sea exploration world record under his belt.

Finally in 2015, Cameron conceded directorial duties to Robert Rodriguez of Sin City fame, having hired him on to help condense his screenplay (reportedly 186 pages, accompanied by 600 pages of notes) into an actionable script for shooting. Full production began in 2016, with shoots taking place late that year to early 2017.

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Now, with Alita: Battle Angel released globally to warm public and critical reception, and a little recent history on the film’s production out of the way, ATMA & Funomena presents from the archives of Animerica magazine, an extensive interview conducted with Yukito Kishiro back in 1993, for a glimpse of the beginnings of the mangaka’s career, as well as a little look into what he would’ve wanted the live-action Alita to be like back then.

Foreword

(Interview and words by Seiji Horibuchi. Editor’s notes are from yours truly in the present year, unless indicated otherwise.)

“When I was in high school, my big goal was to win a manga award before graduation,” Kishiro says. “It’s not as though I felt I was ready to become a real manga artist or anything, but I did think that, after I’d finally mastered the art of inking, I was ready to enter some kind of contest. That’s how I came to enter and be nominated for a ‘Best New Artist’ award from Shogakuban’s ‘Shonen Sunday’ magazine in 1984.”

Like Rumiko Takahashi, whose ‘Urusei Yatsura’ predecessor ‘Katte na Yatsura’ (‘Those Selfish Aliens‘) won the same award in 1977, Kishiro was soon deluged with offers to “go pro”. Unlike Takahashi, however, Kishiro postponed the chance to jump right into the daily grind of a professional manga artist in favour of finishing high school, going on to design school, and then working a newspaper delivery job.

“In the long run, I’d won an award at the age of 17,” Kishiro says. “In the long run, it was something of a disappointment. I’d reached the point where I was satisfied with my art, but my ideas on how to structure content were still vague. I didn’t really know how to shape a story, and there wasn’t anything in particular that I’d wanted to say. I was uncomfortable with the level of my work.”

In 1988, Kishiro made his second debut as a manga artist with the publication of his story ‘Kaiyosei’, described by Kishiro as a “horror story with somewhat of a profound theme.” The story went on to receive an honourable mention in the same contest he’d entered four years earlier.

“At the time, I was flushed with confidence and so full of myself,” Kishiro admits with a smile. “I marched right up to the editor and demanded, ‘What do you mean “honourable mention”?!'” He laughs. “Fortunately, that particular editor was a very understanding person. When he told me that he thought it was a wonderful story I was somewhat mollified, but then I happened to see some of the notes from the selection process. One of the judges had actually written ‘It’s the work of a madman!’ That’s when I realised I had to try to create a more uplifting story.”

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Yukito Kishiro with director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron

In Kishiro’s case, it was editorial influence that defined the final shape of what, up until this point. remains his best-known work: ‘Gunnm’ (literally ‘gun dream‘), better known in English as ‘Battle Angel Alita’. Eluded by an approach to a story he was asked to draw for a Shueisha publication, one of his editors suggested he use a character from a previous, unpublished story. That suggestion – and that sketchily depicted cyborg police officer – eventually became the character of Gally, or as she’s called in English, Alita (something Kishiro himself was to humorously reference later in the Japanese version of the series).

A hit in Japan, ‘Gunnm’ was quickly translated into English, Spanish and Italian-language editions and greeted overseas with amazing enthusiasm, especially given Kishiro’s ‘unknown’ status. A strange but somehow beautiful tale of a gamine cyborg, ‘Gunnm’ inhabits the kind of world which might now be called cyberpunk – a ‘Max Headroom’-like scrapyard world filled with crumbling mechanised warrens and dubious underworld figures, hulking cyborgs, bounty hunters and misfits of every stripe. Hovering over the entire landscape is a vast technological dream city, which casts its junk down onto the heads of Kishiro’s junkyard denizens, who spend their lives searching not only for a way to survive, but for a reason to live. Dark stuff.

With such success, it should have come as no surprise that ‘Gunnm’ would be chosen for animation. But when KSS approached Kishiro making his story into an animated feature, he admitted that the idea of his work being animated “took a little getting used to.”

“Manga and animation are so different,” Kishiro says. “When you are drawing manga, the units you work with to pace your story are the two opposing pages. I just couldn’t see how the pacing for the animation could possibly work by looking at the storyboards alone. But then, when I saw [the finished animation], I was very impressed with its sense of timing.” In the final product (titled ‘Battle Angel’ for its U.S. release), Kishiro’s eclectic character designs are interpreted for animation by Nobuteru Yuki, already well-known for his work on ‘Record of Lodoss War’, and who would later go on to design for the TV series ‘Escaflowne’, as well as the big-budget, animated ‘X’ movie.

At the time of this interview, Kishiro’s ‘Gunnm’ had been running for two and a half years in Japan. The story’s publication in English under the ‘Battle Angel Alita’ title was only just reaching the segment of the story with which Kishiro himself seems most taken by – the Motorball story, in which armoured warriors in cyborg bodies equipped with roller-blades fight a no-holds-barred battle that’s somewhere between roller derby, football and gladiatorial combat.

“‘Gunnm’ is an introspective story,” Kishiro continues. “To be honest, when I was first approached about allowing it to be published in foreign-language editions, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. It’s kind of an experimental for me and I didn’t think it could be popular, especially not in the United States. To me, it’s a never-ending wonder that my work is being translated and read by all sorts of different people.”

Full Interview

(Editor’s note: the character Alita will be referred to as Gally, and the ‘Battle Angel Alita’ manga as ‘Gunnm’, respectively.)

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By now you’ve seen ‘Battle Angel Alita’, the English version of your manga ‘Gunnm’. What do you think of it?

Kishiro: I’m unsure what to make of it, actually… I can’t read English (laughs). I do notice all the mistakes in my art, now that it’d been flopped. [Flopping it] really brings out the skew in the line drawings. Looking at it now, I wonder if this particular work isn’t a little immature, artistically speaking.

In the U.S., flopping pages is simply a fact of publishing life. The pages which open to the right in Japan are opened to the left in America. There’s no getting around it. There are some artists who hate flopping so much, they refuse to let their work be published abroad.

(Editor’s note: kind reminder that this interview took place in 1993. Nowadays, it’s much more conventional for English manga releases to retain the original right-to-left reading format.)

Kishiro: Well, imperfections in the artwork do become more noticeable when flopped. But then again, they’re usually the kind of mistakes which would be there anyway. They just don’t stick out as much in the original.

As far as your English-speaking readers are concerned, I don’t think anyone regards ‘Gunnm/Battle Angel Alita’ as “artistically immature.” The fans seem to love your art.

Kishiro: Okay, then – it’s my perfectionism that’s immature (laughs).

Was it always your ambition to be a manga artist?

Kishiro: I’ve been drawing manga since before I can remember, but it wasn’t until high school that I started to ink my work seriously. I’ve always liked mecha – ‘Mobile Suit Gundam’ had an incredible effect on me – and my art has been affected by it for years. I couldn’t draw people, but I could sure draw mecha (laughs). That’s why I used to avoid the problem by drawing monsters instead of people. My monsters spoke and walked like people… they just happened to be monsters. Eventually it dawned on me that it would be pretty hard to make it as a manga artist if all I ever drew were stories set in reptilian worlds, so in high school I started to concentrate on drawing the human form. Yasuhiko’s (Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, character designer for the ‘Mobile Suit Gundam’ and ‘Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam’ TV series – editor’s note from original publication) fully realised characters were a big influence on me; Rumiko Takahashi has also been a big influence.

So you’re saying your manga has been influenced by animation.

Kishiro: Oh, yes. Up until high school I watched practically everything. There was a flood of it back then, wasn’t there. I guess it reached its high point in the few years immediately after ‘Gundam’. It’s probably fair to say that the golden age of animation ended in 1984.

I can’t help noticing that you keep referring to ‘Gundam’.

Kishiro: Well, I like all the Sunrise shows, really. I loved ‘Xabungle’ and ‘Votoms’. In fact, I think ‘Votoms’ might have had more of an effect on my then ‘Gundam’ ever did. [‘Votoms’] had a four-part composition – the story would conclude at the end of each part, and a new story would start off in a different world for the next. ‘Gunnm‘ borrows quite heavily from this style of storytelling.

(The interview continues in the next page. You can find the page numbers below the ‘related articles’ section.)

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