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Hiroaki Samura: “There is universal enjoyment in seeing a weak character prevail over the powerful”

The rise of manga in France is generally associated with the publication of Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama, from 1993.

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Hiroaki Samura: “There is universal enjoyment in seeing a weak character prevail over the powerful”

The rise of manga in France is generally associated with the publication of Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama, from 1993. It was that same year that another major series arrived in our bookstores, The Inhabitant of the Infinite . Hiroaki Samura features Manji, an immortal samurai condemned to kill a thousand villains to atone for his crimes. This cult work of thirty volumes, republished by Casterman in a new double edition and now followed by the spin-off Bakumatsu, was celebrated at the last Angoulême International Comics Festival as part of an impressive retrospective exhibition. Le Figaro took the opportunity to meet its author, whose latest series Born to be on air!, currently published by Pika, tells the adventures of a beginning radio host.

LE FIGARO. - What moment do you prefer in designing a manga: the pitch, writing the script, cutting or drawing?

Hiroaki SAMURA. - What I like is writing the general outline of the episode and all the stages that lead to the development of the division. Once I have my breakdown, I have an overall vision of the chapter, which allows me to judge if my story holds up. Everything that follows these steps becomes a bit boring, forbidding, laborious.

Born to be on air! may surprise you in your bibliography… Do you have a special relationship with local radio stations?

My initial wish was to be able to tell a story that interweaves the city and the countryside, so that we can move from one to the other easily. This need to stage a local station (in Sapporo, capital of the prefecture of Hokkaidô, an island located in the north of the Japanese archipelago, Editor's note) emerged quite naturally. It would not have been the same with a national media outlet. This is something I became aware of when I started researching.

Your heroine Minare's program presents radio semi-fictions. For what?

It was a personal desire to challenge listeners, so that they don't know where to stand, wondering if what they hear is true or not. It's not something I was exposed to growing up and I think it's very marginal in Japan. I was rather inspired by the precedent of The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles, mentioned in the manga.

There is also a comedian that I like on YouTube, who does “documentaries”. He goes to see families and interviews them but all the people who intervene are actors and actresses. The public is confronted with extravagant and sometimes very uncomfortable lies, with abuse and other very serious things. I took a little inspiration from it.

Minare has very spontaneous reactions, a pronounced moral sense and a rather particular sense of humor...

My guideline was to invent a character who you wouldn't necessarily want as an intimate partner, but who you would like to hang out with and keep close to you. Someone both disturbing and endearing: it was the zone in between that interested me.

Why this braid covered by a funny four-color brooch?

With this braid and brooch, I wanted to give this character an easily identifiable characteristic. Little by little, I realized that these somewhat cute elements didn't really suit her! If you look closely, she still wears her brooch on the covers of the bound volumes but no longer in the pages of the series itself...

Regarding hairstyle, I have preferences that I tend to come back to again and again. If I'm allowed to do what I want, I'll have the same bangs and side parting all the time! With this series, I tried to go beyond my usual hobbies and strive to appeal to a female readership. This is why I chose to give Minare blonde hair, a color that is currently very popular among manga readers.

How many volumes of Born to be on air! are they planned?

I wanted to conclude the series in ten volumes but the tenth has already been released (in November 2023 in France, Editor's note) and an eleventh is being prepared. I think I have two volumes to complete the story, because we are already at the conclusion of the scenario.

Die Wergelder (Pika, 2024-) features violent, powerful, even dominating women. What interests you about this archetype?

This comes from the pleasure we take in seeing a character, who initially seemed to us in the position of the weak, prevail over the powerful. There is a kind of fairly universal enjoyment in seeing this reversal, this shift of domination.

Is this also a way of questioning the place of women in society, particularly male-female relationships?

This question interests me. I often talk with my wife when we watch the news and see the problems of sexual and gender-based violence. I am obviously for equal treatment between men and women, for example on salary issues. On the other hand, I am not necessarily for the desire to erase the particularities between men and women in the expression of masculinity or femininity; I find that there is a beauty specific to each genre. I have just as much admiration and respect for a woman who is entrusted with important responsibilities as for a woman who sells her charms. In my stories, I am interested in the way in which female characters use their assets to dominate men, through physical violence or seduction.

Snegurochka (Casterman, 2016), which takes place in Russia in 1933, gives a feeling of historical verisimilitude. What was your approach?

Part of the readership that loves historical manga fantasizes a little about Soviet Russia and I wanted to show how harsh that era was. What also interested me was telling a story of interdependence (between Belka, a young girl in a wheelchair, and Shchenok, her servant, Editor's note). In Japan, there is a niche of readers who are very fond of duos in which one of the characters cannot live without the other.

[The translator intervenes:] Can this interdependence be similar to that of the characters in The Inhabitant of the Infinite?

Effectively. There are fights and the grotesque on every level in The Inhabitant of the Infinite but, ultimately, what I wanted to tell were the links between the characters. However, we can't quite call Rin and Manji's relationship one of interdependence: while Rin needs Manji to survive as a bodyguard, the opposite is not entirely true, even if there is has a certain attachment.

The Inhabitant of the Infinite, which takes place in the Edo period, frees itself from a certain historical rigor, for example in the appearance of the characters and their language level. Have you been criticized for your casualness or have you, on the contrary, been praised for your audacity?

A bit of both. One journalist notably had very harsh words towards my series, which he took down sharply, saying that it was rubbish. Generally speaking, I didn't really take into account the criticisms of people attached to the historical manga genre. It was more the young readers that I was trying to seduce. That said, some criticisms were still quite constructive. They allowed me to take a step back and change my angle of attack. The Inhabitant of the Infinite followed a middle line between my punk desire to mess up everything and the hard line of conservatives who love historical stories.

What did you think of the retrospective exhibition dedicated to L’Inhabitant de l’infini in Angoulême?

I am filled with a mixture of emotions. The one that dominates is embarrassment: it is a very beautiful exhibition and I have the impression that my work is almost exaggeratedly highlighted.

Regarding the spin-off Bakumatsu, which you are overseeing, isn't it frustrating to let other artists appropriate your most famous work?

At the very beginning, I happened to look at what the authors Renji Takigawa and Ryu Suenobu wanted to do, but I gave almost no feedback, I let them do their work in their corner. If this work finds its audience, it will be entirely thanks to their efforts. I'm not at all frustrated by the fact that they are appropriating my work. It’s a very common way of doing things in Japan, for a series to have a spin-off signed by other authors, which allows them to make a name for themselves in the industry. The only thing I could wish for is that this series doesn't drag on too long, that it concludes rather quickly because I think the authors are talented and would benefit from working on their own projects. I feel a little sorry for them that they are confined to working in my shadow, so to speak.

You said in an interview that you struggled to maintain your drawing pace over the years. What solutions do you envisage for the future?

At the time of The Inhabitant of the Infinite, there was a moment when I was running out of energy, flushed. My editor hired an assistant and ordered him to come to my house every day, whether there was work or not. Finally, the fact of finding myself with someone who was observing whether I was working or not put pressure on me and was enough for me not to lose the rhythm. We can no longer resort to this solution too much but today I try to compensate thanks to my will, my determination.

Currently, what project are you working on?

There is someone, from a certain publishing house, who has been pestering me for fifteen years to write a fantasy series... I have no particular attachment to this genre but, in general , when someone offers me something, I start to research it and that's enough to arouse my interest. Commissioned work can thus cause real excitement. If I accept this project, it could well turn out this way...

A big thank you to Aurélien Estager for the French-Japanese interpreting.

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