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Interview with Fumio Obata

Fumio Obata (born 1975, Tokyo) is a graphic novelist who focuses on cultural differences and social issues. His style and work are influenced by both Japanese and European aesthetics. His graphic novels include Just So Happens (Jonathan Cape, 2014) which is now translated into 9 different languages and The Garden with Sean Michael Wilson (Liminal 11, 2020).

"A beautiful and observant graphic novel." The Guardian (on Just So Happens)

“Wilson’s words and Obata’s illustrations compliment each other wonderfully and create such a beautiful read.” Northern Plunder (on The Garden)

Fumio will be talking about his work at Medway River Lit in June.

Photo of Fumio Obata
Fumio Obata

What made you first get interested in graphic novels?

I grew up in Japan and comics were everywhere - but they were all Manga comics. I have three siblings and we all read Manga, sharing across so many different genres. It was a perfect environment to nurture a sense of pictorial storytelling.

What made me do one myself was when I was at school, where every kid read Manga, so I wanted to become the best connoisseur and drawer. That enthusiasm got disrupted after having left Japan for the UK, but at art school over here I witnessed that graphic novels (GN) were gradually becoming a platform for artists and illustrators who aspired to tell complex stories with their illustrations.

Within GN as a storytelling form, there is a stronger aspect of Visual-led-narrative over Word-led-narrative, and the illustrations would become individual and different from each other. This really led me to feel its creative potential; whereas in Manga the methods and art style have become so established, it is harder to break into a new style. That reason first got me really interested in GN, as it is far less saturated compared to Manga style illustration, where I find refinement and finesse are much in favour, and the personal touches and rawness (of graphic novels) are not currently encouraged.

Photo of 'Just so happens' by Fumio Obata
'Just so happens' by Fumio Obata

Is there a graphic novel you've enjoyed that you think everyone should read?

I have so many… May I pick two? Epileptic by David B, and Paul in Quebec by Michel Rabagliati.

David B is a French comic artist with a distinctive illustration style of his own. His work first caught my attention among the great names in the French scene. Epileptic is an autobiographic story about David B’s older brother who suffers from extreme epilepsy, and how the author’s family copes with this. David B combines his personal story with recent French history, which his ancestors also lived through. The story is captivating and insightful, but the illustrations are hugely inspiring to me.

I adore Michel Rabagliati’s comics. Rabagliati is a Quebecois comic artist. He is a great storyteller who meekly touches on humanity with the backdrops of contemporary issues that anyone can relate to. I normally like Science Fiction, great plot driven narratives, and more than anything, surreal concepts that drive stories to unexpected endings. But at the bottom of my heart I feel very close to character interplay and their mutual reliance on each other. Rabagliati’s stories quietly tell these aspects in our lives that we normally tend to forget, but hugely matter, universally and personally.

Do you have a favourite place to write and draw?

Any library would do. I like being among books. But in many cases storylines emerge while I take a long walk. Walking is another form of writing. For drawing I like being outside and sketch at various locations. I like reflecting on random things just as they are in front of me, and I like pursuing them with lines and brush strokes. I don’t have to think anything else, it really calms me down and makes me humble.

Photos of pages from 'The Garden'
Pages from 'The Garden'

What comes first - the words or the pictures?

That really depends on the project I'm dealing with. If I am doing my own personal project, then I most certainly prioritise visuals and construct a storyline with imageries leading the way. And when I depict the key moments in a story, I try to think of it in a visual way. I almost require no words to describe certain scenes, and the more key moments they are, then less reliance or presence of words in my head. I have to trust my illustrations to deliver what I want to communicate.

Fumio will be talking more about his work at Medway River Lit's Graphic Novels and Comics day on Friday 9 June.


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