The Enigmatic, The Essential… Kyo Machiko

Self-portrait courtesy of rn press.

It’s mid-morning in late December of 2019. My place of employment at the time was having its end of the year Christmas office party/banquet. Admittedly, the introvert in me wasn’t too keen on sticking around for the pre-feast festivities (i.e. aimless socialization, small talk, etc.). Luckily, where I worked was located in walking distance of a Barnes & Noble. So that’s where I went, and, with it being the holiday season, I thought I’d gift myself with a brand-new book purchase. Bargain-priced at $14.98, 100 Manga Artists was the book that caught my eye. During this time, I was in the planning phase for a black-and-white graphic novel that I was making and I knew that studying manga art could positively influence the aesthetic direction for the project. So, I bought the book. And after flipping through the book’s nearly 600 pages of 100 different artists and their artworks, one artist stood out to me. Her name was Kyo Machiko.

Kyo Machiko first caught the attention of readers through Sennen Gahō, a one-page-per-post manga blog that she began in 2004. The series was published in book form beginning in 2008, and was most recently reprinted for its 10th anniversary in 2018. In the meantime, Kyo began working with large outfits such as Kōdansha, which published her color slice-of-life series Mikako-san beginning in 2009. The same year, the publisher Akita Shoten began serializing cocoon, a WWII-era drama of young nurses; the story would later be adapted for the stage by the theater company mum & gypsy. In 2014, Kyo won the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize's New Artist Prize for her poetic post-cataclysm manga Mitsuami no Kami-sama, which was adapted into a short film in 2015 by the prominent anime studio Production I.G. Titled Pigtails for international release and rich with allusion to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the film won numerous festival prizes. Also in 2015, Kyo picked up the Japan Cartoonists Association Award's Grand Prize for her war-themed picture book Ichigo Sensō. More recently, Kyo has been collaborating with rn press on a series of Japanese/English bilingual comics which depict daily life in the COVID-19 era in the form of a color picture diary. The first of these, Distance My #stayhome Diary, was released in 2021, while the follow-up, Essential My #stayhome Diary 2021-2022, was published this past May.

It took me some time to figure this out, but I believe what made Kyo’s work instantly capture (and retain) my interest out of all the other manga artists in 100 Manga Artists was how her art seemed to be in total juxtaposition with itself. It was unapologetically cute yet unabashedly cruel (e.g. cocoon). It was unquantifiably organic yet unquestionably refined. It was visually minimalist yet emotionally maximalist. The most impressive thing, however, was that these juxtapositions were not in the least bit jarring. They were charming and strangely... calming. A calmness I’ve only ever felt before by listening to the songBlinkby Yoshimura Hiroshi. A calmness that is unparallelly presented in Essential, which you can sample just below.

This interview with Kyo Machiko was conducted in English, by email. Many thanks to the artist and rn press. Kyo's bilingual works may be purchased here.

* * *

GALLERY: Pages from Essential My #stayhome Diary 2021-2022
(click and drag to see the images)

All images ©️Machiko Kyo.

* * *

MATTHEW HILL: For those unfamiliar with you and your work, may you give a short summary of where your creative journey started and how it led to where you are today?

KYO MACHIKO: I started drawing one-page comics on the web in 2004. In 2008, my work was published in book form which is Sennen Gahō (センネン画報), and I began working as a professional cartoonist in earnest. Since then, I have mainly worked on long stories, one-page comics, and illustrations for books and advertisements. Since becoming a Corona Disaster, I have continued to draw and publish single-panel drawings of daily life on SNS [social media services].

What were some of your biggest artistic influences growing up and what are some of your biggest artistic influences currently? Also, what other interests or hobbies do you have when you’re not busy making art?

Growing up, I enjoyed all the anime and manga that Japanese children watch. I lived in the suburbs, so I was familiar with nature, such as rivers and fields, which I think still influences my style today.

As a student, I majored in contemporary art and was strongly drawn to the atmosphere of the works of artists such as James Turrell and Damien Hirst. Currently, I find pleasure in noticing something in the casual scenes of everyday life.

In the social media age, personal branding has become a big part of the way cartoonists connect with their fans. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that there seems to be very few (if any) pictures of you on social media or online. Is this a conscious decision and if so, why?

I intentionally keep my face out of the picture. Maybe it's just a Japanese thing, but I don't want people to complain about the author's appearance and how it might affect the reputation of the work. I try to avoid unnecessary information (such as my appearance) so that readers can connect directly with the world of the work.

Your acclaimed World War II manga cocoon was adapted into a stage play. Also, your award-winning manga Mitsuami no Kami-sama was adapted into an award-winning animated short film. How do you feel about adaptations of your work and about manga adaptations in general? Should a work stand on its own artistic merit or are adaptations necessary to extend the overall fan experience?

I try to think of it as giving away everything but the copyright. I always look forward to seeing the interpretations and worldviews of different artists from my own through anime and stage adaptations. I am also happy to see them grow through collaboration. They show me ideas that I had not thought of at all, and that inspires me to create my next creation.

Speaking of animated films, have you ever been interested in working in animation?

I love to watch animation, but I have to admit that it is not my job. I am more interested in creating a story from scratch and how much imagination I can evoke in the reader from a picture that doesn't move, rather than making it move. All animators are very good at drawing, so I use them as a reference.

You’re a manga creator based in Japan who creates stories in Japanese. As a western, English-speaking fan, I’ll admit that it’s difficult to find any domestic, physical copies of your books to purchase online. Have any publishers been interested in translating and publishing your work in the west?

For many years I wondered if my work would be accepted outside of Japan, as I am not a super major author in Japan. I maybe gave up from the beginning. However, recently I have received a great deal of access from people outside of Japan on social networking sites. Now, my books (cocoon, Anone, etc.) have been published in Spain, Italy, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, and other countries. I have also finally published books (Distance and Essential) in both Japanese and English, and am ready to ship overseas if ordered by individuals.

Before Corona, I had the opportunity to exhibit at book fairs in Europe and the U.S. outside of Japan, and I am hoping that this will resume soon. I still don't know which publishers in Europe and the U.S. are interested in my work. I'm waiting for an offer!

Your new book Essential My #stayhome Diary 2021-2022 just released with publisher rn press. Firstly, I’d like to say congratulations. Secondly, it’s pretty apparent from following your social media posts that this new book is a continuation of your previous book Distance My #stayhome Diary. Both books are collections of picture diary entries that depict people going about their daily lives in a city impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting social distancing guidelines. May you tell me about how the idea for this series came to be and about your relationship with rn press?

Thank you! In Japan, there was a period in 2020 when a state of emergency was declared, and the city was quiet. At the same time, most of the population was angry and saddened by all the situations concerning COVID-19. I wanted to record the swirling emotions that contrasted with the quiet city and the daily life that I had never experienced. It is not just a record, but also a mixture of the unique perspective of a cartoonist and the fictions that came into my head. I want to depict how COVID-19 come to and leave our world.

rn press is a publishing company founded by the editor who was in charge of my debut book, Sennen Gahō. They understand my line of "comics with few words" very well and publish carefully crafted books that are almost like art books, even though they are comics.

There are two things about the artwork in Essential that I believe make it one of the most enjoyable visual experiences in both comics and manga this year (so far). The first thing is your bold, beautiful, and admittedly awe-inspiring use of color. The second thing is how masterful your ability is to take what would generally be seen as mundane moments of city life and turn them into these stunning showcases of spontaneity, intimacy, and wonderment.

Because of how organic your artwork generally looks, I’ve always assumed it was traditionally made. However, you’ve made comments on Instagram posts that suggests your artwork is made digitally. May you explain your process of creating the art in Essential and, more specifically, may you explain how you approach color in your artwork? Also, I’m curious to know how many of the scenes in the book are created using photographic references?

I am usually confined to my workroom, so perhaps when I go out, even an ordinary scene in the city looks fresh to me. Such feelings cause me to take pictures unintentionally. The pictures are all based on the photos I have taken. However, they are not made as they are, but are arranged by combining photographs, greatly modifying them, and adding new writing. The colors are completely original to me, unlike the photographs. The photo may show daytime, but the created image may be nighttime. All the work is done digitally, but I try to give it the same warmth as analog. I am aware that I tend to use blue as the base color of many of my pictures, perhaps because of my own taste.

Your #stayhome diary series primarily focuses on naturalistic depictions of everyday life. However, among these slice-of-life scenes you’ve included an element of the supernatural. What do the angel-like beings in this series represent?

As for the angels, I leave it up to each reader's interpretation. But for myself, I have them appear as a kind of presence that is close to the hearts of the characters. In my past works, I have repeatedly depicted the motif of a best friend who is close to the main character. The best friend has become a more abstract presence, perhaps an angel.

Is there anything else that you want readers to know about Essential My #stayhome Diary 2021-2022?

The global spread of the Coronavirus has been distressing for us, but at the same time, it is a shared global experience. The experience of caring and thinking about the infection situation in different countries has expanded my world. Through painting this series, which continues with Distance and Essential, I have received many comments and feel as if I have connected with people all over the world. I have depicted daily life in Japan, mainly in Tokyo, but I hope that one day I will be able to depict daily life in the cities where you, my readers, live, as well as in cities around the world.

Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Here’s my last question (feel free to answer it in any way you’d like). What do you want your legacy to be?

Being a cartoonist is not an "Essential" profession, but imagining, creating, talking to each other, and living an ordinary life are "Essential" things that are essential to living like a human being... I chose the title because I have been thinking about this for a long time with the COVID-19 Disaster. Most people are not "Essential" in their professions, but there is no such thing as a person who doesn't need to be in this world. By depicting the ordinary lives of ordinary people in the city, I hope to convey the message that all people are indispensable to each other.

I would like to continue to create works while moving back and forth between the big swell of society and very familiar landscapes. Hopefully, I will have something that can be read and reread over a long period of time, one year, ten years, fifty years, a hundred years... and delivered to the reader at that moment in time.