Fish Fry


Friday, June 26, 2009

A Conversation with Yuichi Yokoyama.

One fine day in Lucerne, Switzerland I gathered Frank Santoro, Lauren Weinstein and CF around a table to interview Yuichi Yokoyama. Via his translator he responded to all of our various questions. What we didn’t know was that later, after a few beers, his English got a lot better! Alas, we didn’t record his musings on soccer, baseball, fishing, and Donald Judd. Next time. For now, herewith a conversation with some of the best bugged out minds of my generation and one doofus (me).

April 2, 2009

Dan Nadel: Maybe we could talk for a few minutes about adventure and motion, since everyone here does adventure comics, often involving action — approaches to action.

[Everybody stops to think]

Yuichi Yokoyama: Being here at this moment, at this table, with the publisher, Dan Nadel, this is an adventure. I am surrounded by foreigners, this is also an adventure. I cannot speak your language, that is also an adventure. I have never thought about it before, why it’s an adventure… I don’t think I’m going to draw any so-called “actions.” Not anymore. I’d like to draw an impression of something very quiet, philosophical.

CF: Well, it’s hard to think about what action is, because anything that’s moving is in action, or is an adventure. And everything’s some kind of quest of the will, even if it’s a very unimportant thing. And at some point, it becomes adventure or it becomes action, but it’s always that way. So, in some ways I feel like the hardest thing to do in comics is to make nothing happen, because the panels are always moving forward, so you always have that energy of action, and you always have that energy of adventure, and it’s very hard to “still” that. I think I’ve been trying to do that. The way you show pacing, how fast you make a fight move, is a really strange thing. How the time between panels can be so many different things — it could be like a half second or a number of seconds and the only way you can tell is by the drawing itself. So it’s very weird . . . it’s not rational.

YY: What you have said is very interesting. It’s rather human, very human. After forming actions with rapidity, then you have to read from one panel to the other, quickly — that is very exciting, but you like to go back to another side of humanistic . . . you like to think about “quiet”.

CF: I like to think about everything, but the problem is that, I think, some things are harder to get than others, harder to achieve. I think one of the hardest things to achieve is a sense of stillness. Let’s not say that, even, let’s say a sense of non-action. And quietness is action, too, in a lot of ways.

YY: In my case, I do not have any “stories,” as such. There are no stories in my manga–just the impressions in each panel, that is what I want to consider. In a Hemingway story two friends of Nick Adams get out of a train somewhere in a very humble, dirty, small, coal mining town and they go to the bar. It’s a very rough bar, and they are treated very badly, and they plot their revenge. But don’t take revenge; there’s no story. They go back to the train. Such a simple thing, there’s no story, but there is something lurking in the background anyway. That is what I want to take out of the story. I want to express this sort of thing without words, so readers have to “read between the lines,” between the panels.

CF: And why do you want to not draw action anymore? Because of that?

YY: No, I wouldn’t say that I want to stop completely 100%. For instance, I would like to draw a war for 1000-2000 pages. From the beginning, only scenes of fighting, and the end, the last page, after 1000 pages, they’re still fighting. For that, I need a tremendous amount of time. With my present technique, it takes an enormous amount of time. If I find out I can employ a special technique within a very limited amount of time, I might start action manga again. If I use a magic marker, like in Baby Boom [A new book he’s drawing in a different style], maybe it’ll happen. I’d like to make my own technique to draw faster for this special idea of the 1000 page war comic. I’m very ambitious, I always want to compete with time.

DN: Do you want to compete with other artists or just yourself?

YY: I don’t want to compete with others, I want to draw for myself.

Lauren Weinstein: With the war comic, would you re-enact a battle that’s already been fought, or is it your own war?

YY: It would blend what I have seen in the past through movies, on television, the newspaper, and in photos. I don’t want to describe any humanistic feeling, but at the same time I don’t want to describe any death scenes. For instance: Take an empty town, but the person in the manga thinks that there must be a lot of enemies in this dead town. In this case, nobody can be dead, there are no enemies there. I’m trying to think of how I can avoid a scene of dead bodies lying on the floor. So many things I have to solve technically. If I figure out a technique for that kind of scene, then I can start drawing it.

CF: Why are you avoiding the human? Why is the deleting of human concerns in the work important?

YY: I’d like to read such a manga myself, nobody else writes such manga, that’s why I write, so basically the purpose is to draw manga for me, not for others. Self-contemplation.

CF: Are there any artists working today that you feel connected to, in any way, any kind of artist, contemporary artists?

YY: I mostly feel kinship with Japanese artists.

CF: Who?

Y: Tadashi Kawamata, he lives in France. He used to he used to make oil paintings. Now he’ll use a a piece of a tree, a broken board, or other scraps to create a new building. He’s always invited by art festivals all over the world, he’s considered one of the top artists in Japan.

CF: I realize this might be an impossible question to ask, but why is it that the manga that you want to read has those aspects, no story or anything, like that war comic?

YY: It’s very difficult to describe, but in my personal life I don’t respect human feelings. I’m very far from human society, I’d rather appreciate natural phenomena. I’m very interested in understanding how a bird might see things. I want to delete the human feelings because the reader wants to emotionally take sides with one particular person and I’d prefer they remain neutral. That’s why I don’t want to produce a scene where people feel sympathy with a particular person.

CF: I feel like I’m trying to do the same thing: Creating these situations where people would feel drawn to root for, or side with certain elements, but in the end hopefully there’s no one to side with. Hopefully there’s no one to say “this is good,” or “this is bad,” but still have those human elements in there, and draw people out.

YY: Not to be obnoxious, but I’d like to go up even higher than the human consciousness. What we all can do, as humans, is sort of very limited.

CF: That’s true, but I’m young and I think that’s where I have to begin. That’s how I feel right now.

YY: If we have another ten days, maybe we can go into more details, but I have to go back to Japan tomorrow.

DN: You started manga when you were 31, how did you first learn to make it, was there anyone you were looking at to help you learn to tell stories?

YY: 12 years ago, I switched from oil painting to making manga. I went to a second-hand bookshop and I bought this manga techniques book with a little money and started to train myself.

Frank Santoro: Well your style seems to have come fully-formed. It doesn’t bloom, it just… arrived. It’s just so unique that that’s, I think what we’re trying to…

YY: The first panels I drew, they’re not in a book. Of course, you didn’t see the original drawings, from when I was starting 12 years ago. I still have them but they’re so terrible that nobody would want to buy it or make it a manga. So you only saw the first book, that’s why you think it’s the way you described

FS: I think I’m speaking for everyone, but I speak for myself too, but I don’t see any influence from another style. I see you taking things from modern art, but not necessarily from other manga. So the synthesis of modern art and manga is very unique, and that’s what I think it’s fully formed.

YY: I believe you.

FS: Thank you!

DN: The thing about the Hemingway stories is that most people would say that those have a lot of emotional content because it’s all in the subtle interactions between the two men. Do you see those as having emotional content, or do you only see them as plotless sequences of actions?

YY: Yeah, from the beginning, I delete or disguise this emotion. I don’t see it.

CF: He just likes the grilling of the fish.

YY: All of the conversations in the Hemingway stories, I don’t find them to be very humanistic conversations. I don’t see the humanity. I feel they’re very cold and inhuman. There is something sticking behind the conversation which has nothing to with the warmth of human interaction. There are a lot of short stories with scenes of just people talking in a restaurant, and then I can’t detect any meaning behind those conversations; they’re meaningless. There is one scene in a Hemingway story, this one station scene: Tourists arrive in the station and they decide to go into the local bar and they sit and they encounter three or four local people from the city. They start to talk to each other. The tourists, this group of people, have ordered a very very expensive gorgeous champagne that they give to everybody. One of them explains, “I have just divorced, that’s why I’ve taken this journey” and he talks to the local people about married life. Then he leaves because the train comes, but before he leaves the bar, he tells the locals that they have to share the champagne that is left. But instead the locals bring the half-drank champagne bottle back to the counter and ask for money back. It’s a very humanistic story but it’s also very cold, extreme coldness.

CF: This is a fascination in your work that you’re actively pursuing at all times, and maybe this is inappropriate, but in your personal life I know you have a girlfriend or something. How does it relate to personal human relationships with your family, for instance?

YY: My daily life with girlfriend and with my mother and with my friends, it’s an absolutely normal human relationship, I respect my friends, I feel very warm feelings towards my friends, my girlfriends, and my mother, I eat regularly….

CF: I know that!

YY: So you’re suspicious that I’m also a very cold person

CF: No. I just think that when you’re doing something creative, when you’re exploring things that you’re fascinated by, it’s because you have questions about them; questions are inspiration. I have a desire, I think, to merge what I’m doing in my work and my personal life to some extent. If you’re always in your work trying to get to these higher levels that are beyond humans, to me sometimes it’s kind of sad that you can’t achieve them in your normal life.

YY: Have you ever been to Japan? I think the Japanese are very very emotional people. If you ever watch Japanese television, you will encounter every second, such a scene of appreciation, emotional extremes, emotional expressions. Always crying and uh, emotional. That is our national character. This emotionality disturbs me and I think that that I would say that within me there is an unconscious protest against this tendency.

CF: And you’re making art to reflect that.

YY: I think I do that very unconsciously, but I have to admit that it reflects in my work, as you’ve pointed out. Our emotionality is not like yours in America. It’s so shadowy; even if we express ourselves with joy, appreciation, excitement, somehow a shadow is behind it all. This is not like your emotional life, you express joy, sadness, pathos, enjoyment very differently.

CF: What’s the shadow, the shadow is infinity?

YY: It’s very ghostly. Our emotional environment in Japan doesn’t go up and down so much. It’s relatively balanced. Anyway, I think that geographically Japan is also a nice place to live. Very pleasant place. Under these circumstances, in time, humans become lazy, unambitious, very comfortable. Too comfortable. That weakens us. Like you, in America, when you laugh you open their mouth and the laugh comes out from here. Our laughing is not like that, but I find that your style is more healthy. It explodes. That’s much healthier than ours.

CF: But what’s funny is that “healthy” does not get results that are interesting or tell you things that are new. I think that being healthy or maintaining vitality doesn’t necessarily, or in most cases doesn’t give you results that are interesting or answers that you weren’t aware of, new information, I think, comes out of sickness and out of imbalance.

LW: You’re talking about asceticism though.

CF: It’s just an extreme, it could be decadence.

LW: A search for purity doesn’t mean decadence.

CF: I’m just saying limits of human ability just to survive, I just wanted to make the point that healthy is maybe a little bit beside the point, in creative work.

YY: “Mentally and physically,” this is very important to my creativity.

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13 Responses to “Fish Fry”
  1. ULAND says:

    Interesting. I sort of wonder what C.F means by "new" or "interesting"; ideas, emotion, sensation?
    To what end? For the sake of it?

  2. blaise says:

    This was wonderful. If you're anti-humanist, you're still mainly concerned with the human aspect, only in its absence. I think this is what CF was trying to get at. You don't explore things in your work that you are sure about. You explore the things you are unsure about. Things are interesting that are outside of, or on the edge of, oneself.

  3. ULAND says:

    The irony is that he seems sure that being off-balance will yield good results. So it's more about placing the self in a certain position than letting it go. You have to consciously seek out an imbalance, lest you return to a default setting of seeking balance and health.
    I don't know, I guess I'm a little skeptical about his rhetoric.
    Yokoyama seems to be very certain of what he'd like to present. As I understand it, he seems to be saying that the human in Japanese culture is to be, or is being, subsumed by a hyper-modernity; one that entails action and sensation more than finding a "healthy" expression. He doesn't say this is good or bad, just that it is. He's frightened and excited by the implications of these developments; Japanese are not emotionally healthy, yet technology might offer ways to transcend the question all together, but what will be lost? That tension is interesting.
    So it's critically engaged work. The human narratives are overwhelmed by actions; building, travelling, fighting,manufactured spaces. I'm thinking Tom K. was more spot on about the Ballard comparison than I knew when I read his article.
    I like C.Fs' drawing and comics a great deal, but I'm not so sure about any of it being "new" in a meaningful way, or to what end the "new" is pursued if not for a meaningful exchange; something I think is contingent upon approaching shared or common conceptions, if only to pervert them. What exactly is being made perverse? What is being imbalanced? To what end, if he doesn't ultimately have a "good" in mind?
    Is it just a matter of personal liberation from these concerns?

  4. Paul Karasik says:


  5. Dash Shaw says:

    Obviously Yokoyama's comics are very emotionally moving. I wonder if he considers this a failure or a success or (more likely) he isn't concerned in them "succeeding" in any way for the reader.

  6. Frank Santoro says:

    He's very "Warholian" and it can seem like an act in person, almost, but, man, it's so real. He was staring at the vending machines in the room we were in like they were alien life forms. When someone put money in the vending machine and a cup of coffee came out, Yuichi was transfixed. The first paragraph of this interview, when he spoke it, was (to my ears) him saying "I'm out on a limb here and I'm having so much fun" He's such a warm, friendly person. It was hard to really, fully understand what he was saying through the translator. Some things were hard to unpack.

    And Christopher really pushed him, it was great. He really had the strength to ask Yuichi questions that I was too intimated to ask, honestly.

  7. ULAND says:

    Just for the record, I'm not trying to turn what C.F had to his mission statement, just toying with the implications.

  8. ULAND says:

    "what C.F had to say", I mean.

  9. Will says:

    Uland: agreed. I think it's good to not turn it into a mission statement, because I think he's doing what Frank says, just trying to 'push' Yokoyama. This applies to my comment as well:

    It's interesting that CF sees art and life as so separated in the case of his work and Yokoyama's. It's very clear to me that you're living while you're working, and the degree to which one part of your life resembles the other — in this case, comics and relationships with others — is pretty much beside the point. Or it at least confuses me that he seems to suggest the more his work resembles his behavior, the better. He finds it sad that Yokoyama doesn't deny human feelings in all aspects of his life? Really?

    It's also interesting to imagine that drawing comics is almost a form of 'talking the talk' and then living your life like your comics is the follow-through, 'walking the walk.' Seems satisfying enough to me that they draw their comics at all! I see comics as both the talking and walking.

    That said, to me the most haunting part of this conversation, the one I can't stop thinking about, is the 'shadowy' nature of human interactions. Glad to hear him speaking about that part of his work, I see it as almost overriding, oppressive at times.

  10. looka says:

    Good to listen, you said it all.

  11. Mark P Hensel says:

    Yokoyama has to be one of the most interesting people in comics! I think that this idea of depicting inhuman points of view opens up all sorts of possibilities for cartoonists to explore.

  12. CF says:

    to clarify:
    i don't think being off-balance or unhealthy predictably yields "good" results.

    I only meant… to see something unknown you go into the dark…sometimes there's no telling if it's healthy or not…it's unknown, something you've never experienced before. It would be "new" information because it would be unprecedented, from a secret place, like traveling into an outer space frontier. it may very well be useless. If your goal is security, longevity, predictable repeatable results…things you know to be "good" or "healthy"…you must deny experimentation on some level in the service of that goal. Likewise if you want to dedicate your life to pushing boundaries, you must be prepared to trade predictability and security. Madame curie … "Only a couple of months later, Sk?odowska-Curie died. Her death on July 4, 1934, at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, in Haute-Savoie, eastern France, was from aplastic anemia, almost certainly contracted from exposure to radiation. The damaging effects of ionizing radiation were then not yet known, and much of her work had been carried out in a shed without any safety measures. She had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the pretty blue-green light that the substances gave off in the dark."

    I make absolutely no claims to my work being "new" or "important". I'm not sure to what degree it's even experimental by my own definitions of the word. I agree that comics are walking and talking. Its just that I can't help being interested in the everyday life of a person who represents such a unique world-view in their work. To what degree is the work yearning for that world, (true fantasy) and to what degree is it an organization of ideas, distinct from dearest loves and fond friends? I had to try to ask, clumsily. It's quite difficult to represent yourself accurately in a moment, and difficult to form your questions into words….judging by the comments above i did a bad job i think, ha ha.

  13. ULAND says:

    I didn't mean to imbue what you said with too much meaning. I was just thinking about the implications and drawing them out a bit, trying to see if what both you and Yokoyama said could be applied to your respective comics.
    I still have questions about your ideas of experimentation; yeah, you might not know what is going to happen, but it couldn't be completely random. Curie was trying to make specific discoveries by applying a to b in novel ways. There was an idea of a good that was being sought after, and it seems like in order to go after that, one would have to think a and b are good/healthy.
    Maybe I'm letting it spin too far off here, I don't know. I just wonder to what end the experimentation is meant for; if it's to come up with something new and interesting, what makes it interesting?
    Would it be less interesting to you if you could describe it?
    Hope I'm not coming off as a blow-hard. I like your comics and prints a lot; just trying to dig into them a little more.

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