Hello everyone, welcome to spring! (at least in this part of the world) Today’s piece is a Doctor Who fanfic, but at least the first part can be read as a standalone.
A few words on the piece’s genesis: I guess everything started with this blog post by manga scholar/expert Matt Thorn in which he explains why he thinks comic creators who don’t work in Japan can’t call themselves mangaka or manga artist, or even their product manga. I see his point and would tend to agree, although at the end of the day, I don’t care much about labels on a book – if the story and the drawings are good you can call it poop and I’ll still buy it (not that you should call it poop).
Well, it seems like the post (and the ensuing Twitter conversation) left an impression on me, and coupled with the preparations for my visit to Leipzig Book Fair this weekend, it produced a dream last night. Yes, this story is based on a dream: a girls’ manga superstar is at the fair, giving a Q&A and signing books. I ask her whether she isn’t proud of all the things she has achieved and she’s like “Nah, I hate it.” Later the day, she refuses to have her latest artbook translated because she wants to be free. Curiously, she still gets a ton of money (dream logic…)
The moment I woke up, I realized: that woman needs help. She needs a doctor–the Doctor!
(And by the way, what I write in this piece about manga production is what’s actually happening in Japan, I’m not making this up.)
The Doctor and the Saucer Eyes
When I go to the bookstore and see my name proudly displayed on the backs of hundreds of books, I feel—nothing. I know, it’s odd. My fans think that I should at least be happy, maybe even proud of what I have achieved in the last few years. But to be honest, to me all those books are just a reminder of my desk, my room, my eternal prison.
Hell, when have I even been to a bookstore in the past few months? When have I left the house for more than a couple of hours? When have I last had time to myself?
When I was 14, becoming a manga artist was my dream. I had always been good at drawing, and I was fast. I loved creating characters, telling stories. I knew what I wanted in life and I was happy.
Now I’m 21, a global superstar (or so my editor tells me) and the most unhappy girl in the whole wide world. My mom says that the music idols on TV have it worse than I because they get thrown out as soon as the hint of a wrinkle shows around their eyes. But what does my mom know? She enjoys the luxurious life that my money grants her, but she never asks what the price of that life is.
If she would ask, I’d yell at her. That I get up at 6 a.m. and go to bed after midnight. That in the hours between, I churn out page after page after page, eat unhealthy amounts of bread rolls and only ever get up to go to the toilet. That my back hurts, my hands hurt, my head hurts, but if I would complain I wouldn’t be sent to the doctor. Instead they’d pump me full of pills until I finish those pages before the deadline.
Once, a few years ago—or maybe even a whole lifetime—I was invited to a convention in another country. The people were all really nice, attending to my every need, and I hated myself for being so tired that I could barely answer their questions. And they had so many. “How do you come up with those stories?” “Who is your favorite character?” “What other manga do you read?” And suddenly I realized: I couldn’t answer any of this.
When I had started drawing manga, my biggest fear had been that I wouldn’t be able to create fun stories for the rest of my life, that I would run out of ideas. But soon it turned out that ideas were the least of my problems. Because whatever I suggested to my editor, she always thought about it for a moment and then said “Well, that sounds very interesting. But how about you…” and then she would suggest something entirely different.
I wanted to be a pro. I was desperate. And so I agreed. That’s how my hit manga was born: You know… And while I was scribbling down page after page of Mayumi liking Keisuke and being secretly admired by Toshio, I thought “If I make it through this, I’ll be able to draw whatever I want!” 24 volumes later, I’ve finally realized that will never be the case.
I hate Mayumi, the cry-baby with eyes so large they should fall out of her head. I hate Keisuke, the charming boy with the vicious smile and the weird hair that I never get right, no matter how much I try. I hate Toshio, the overly shy boy with zero confidence and the ugly glasses that were probably given to him by his grandfather. “Why do people read this story?” I wonder every night. Every New Year, I go to our local shrine and pray to Hachiman, the God of war: Please, make that people stop buying my manga! Let me kill those characters! Set me free! But Hachiman seems to love my stories as well.
At least once a week, I cry myself to sleep. Cry that I want to be free from this job. That I want my life back. Want to forget about Mayumi, and Keisuke, and Toshio, and just live a normal life.
Once I even told my assistant, Kurara. “Sensei,” she said, “I don’t understand you. You tell such wonderful stories. The last chapter has moved me to tears. How can you say you don’t want to continue doing this?” She looked me in the eyes and added, “And besides, what would you do if you would actually quite? Work part time at the conbini down the street? I don’t think so.”
She has a point. I never finished high school. I was famous, I was rich, I didn’t need to learn about biology, geography and history. Dad said I would regret it one day, and he was right.
I’m supposed to hand in 24 new pages tonight. So far, I’ve drawn—zero. It’s 2 p.m. and I know that my editor will soon call me to ask how things are going and whether I need food, her help, or God knows what.
I’m staring at my hands. They’re trembling. They’ve been trembling for two days now. The trembling has happened before, but it has never lasted that long. I can’t work like this. I smile. The trembling is a blessing.
I told Kurara that I don’t need her help today. She believed me because she wanted to. Now she’s probably at Tokyo Disney Resort, meeting all those animal characters I never liked.
Maybe I should get some fresh air. I get up, slide open the door to my veranda and step outside. It’s hot out here. I can hear the cicadas, their never ending concert that sticks in your ear and doesn’t let you sleep. I look down and see a cockroach slowly making its way into my apartment. I don’t care. I look up and see a large cicada hatching at the wall of the building. It’s ugly and scary, but I feel nothing.
I smile. I’ve finally made it: I’m free from emotions. Free from fear, free from sadness, free from worries.
The world needs to know about this.
I swing my legs over the handrail of my veranda and sit down on it. My hands feel the warm concrete, my legs enjoy the rays of the sun and the wind caressing their skin. I spread my arms.
“I really wouldn’t do that.”
I shriek as two strong arms fold themselves around me. I grab them, try to free myself, but the man is having none of it. He pulls me back and before I can say or do anything, we’re both lying on the floor and he finally lets go of me.
I jump up. “Why did you do that? Who are you? What are you doing here?”
I’m staring at a young, handsome—gaijin?! What is a Western man doing in my apartment? How did he get here? And why is he wearing a brown suit in the middle of the Japanese summer?
He gets up and grins. “To answer your questions: Because I thought you would fall from the railing and wanted to rescue you. I’m the Doctor. And I’m here because the TARDIS brought me here.”
“What?” His Japanese is excellent, but I still have no idea what he’s talking about. What is a doctor doing—oh wait. “Did Kurara send you? Or my editor? I really appreciate their concern, but I don’t need a doctor. I’m fine.” I clench my fists. My hands have stopped trembling. How curious…
“Well…” The man scratches his head, “If I may say so, you just tried to jump off your veranda. Where I come from, that doesn’t mean you’re fine.”
I storm past him. “This is Japan, not America. You don’t understand our people, we—“ I stop abruptly in my stride. My apartment has become even smaller than it used to be: there’s a—small house standing right in the middle of it. Or maybe not a house, more like a blue—“’Police Box’?! What is the American police doing in my apartment?” I turn back to the man who is now standing in the door to my veranda. “What do you want?”
He grins. “I think the question should rather be: what do you want?”
He continues. “And I think that you want an adventure. This box is the TARDIS. She can take you anywhere in time and space. The past, the future, every country, every planet, every galaxy.”
He’s clearly insane. “Why would I want to go on an adventure with someone I don’t know?”
He looks around, smiles. “Well, let’s see: there’s a calendar on your wall and today is marked in red. But on your desk, there are only empty pages. You’re phone’s been ringing for the past 10 minutes and you have blissfully ignored it. I see energy drinks, but nothing to eat. And last but not least—“ He sticks his hand into my wastepaper basket and pulls out a scorched bundle of paper, “you burned your own work.” He flips carefully through what is left of my latest paperback volume. “Oh, that’s good. That’s really good. Funny and—“
“I hate it!” The moment the words have left my mouth, I can’t quite believe I’ve said them. That I’ve finally said them. I smile. It feels so good. And so I continue. “I hate the story! I hate the characters! I hate how they look like, what they do, what they say! This isn’t my story! I wanted to draw a story about a little witch who saves the environment! I didn’t want to draw a love story! I wanted to do something that had meaning! For all of us! But everybody loves that stupid story! And now I can’t quit—“ I stop yelling. What was it the man had said? “You’re right. I need an adventure. I need to get out of here. Right now.” There’s a sound—a key is turning in the lock of my door. “Let’s go!”
The man grins and opens the door to his box. I know there won’t be much space in there, that it’s going to be hot and dark, but it’s my last chance. I have to go. And so I step through the door and—
“It’s… bigger on the inside.”
The man just laughs, jumps around, pushes and pulls triggers and levers, punches keys and buttons at the console in the middle of the room. I hear a whooshing sound. The sound of freedom.
I grin. “By the way—I’m Katō. Katō Tomoko. And I want to go to a place and time far, far away!”
(to be continued – maybe)