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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bio-"Graphic" Novels of Real-Life Superheroes

A couple of years ago, Eiji Han Shimizu gave up his job at one of Japan's largest magazine publishers to work on a documentary about happiness. For the new project, he traveled from country to country (trying to find the secret of true happiness), and along the way, he began to organize groups of Japanese illustrators; together, he thought, they could create books that would promote positive messages by telling the histories of some of the greatest spiritual leaders. Today, Shimizu is the executive producer of Emotional Content, a network of manga artists and anime creators in Japan that publishes graphic novels about inspiring people—"true-life superheroes" who use their courage, compassion, and determination to fight on behalf of others and change the world for the better. Science & Religion Today spoke with Shimizu about the power of manga, the mission of his press, and the first book in its "superhero" series—a graphic adaptation of the "true story" of the 14th Dalai Lama.

Science & Religion Today: Why did you decide to use manga to tell these stories? Why do you think it's such a powerful storytelling vehicle?
Eiji Han Shimizu: Even to many avid biography readers, thousands of pages in a bulky book format sometimes could be intimidating and may hinder their intellectual pursuits. I was hoping to reinvent biographies into something more accessible for a wider audience worldwide by employing an unconventional yet easy-to-read medium, such as manga.
In Japan, we grow up reading lots of mangas and learn rather serious subjects from them, such as history and philosophy.

SRT: What makes someone a good "superhero" for one of your manga?
Shimizu: In my definition, superheroes do not have to be able to fly in the sky, cast laser beams from their eyes, or have six-pack abs. In fact, we have had many "superheroes" in our history who did not possess these special features or appearances, but surely have fought for others in suffering with their courage, self-sacrifice, compassion, and determination. I believe that these are true qualities of superheroes.

: The first book tells the story of the Dalai Lama—what other biographic novels do you have planned?
Shimizu: Novels about Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Che Guevara, and Anne Frank are in production. Also planned are novels about Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Abraham Lincoln, John Lennon, and Dan Eldon.

SRT: How did the illustrator capture the country and its people—as well as the Dalai Lama's nonviolent struggle—and how important is it to match the right artist with the right project?
Shimizu: In the case of the Dalai Lama book, Tetsu Saiwai, the graphic artist of the title, went to Lhasa and did extensive research about the lives of Tibetan people. Also, as the producer of the title, I worked with the liaison office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, interviewed some of the key researchers of Tibet (including Pico Iyer) about the historical facts, and got the rough drafts reviewed by the liaison office several times during the production.
For similar reasons, I went to Cuba to meet the son of Che Guevara for his father's biography. I visited the Home for the Dying Destitute in Calcutta for the Mother Teresa biography and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I also have meetings with the Burmese refugee families in Tokyo for the Aung San Suu Kyi story.
It is very important to select right artists for right manga themes because each one has a different tone and aesthetic. In the selection process, I review the past works of artists, find their pros and cons, and match them with biographic stories.

SRT: How much creative freedom does each artist have?
Shimizu: Since all the stories are based on true stories, we ask artists to collect as much information as possible about their subjects and adapt them graphically as accurately as possible. However, just like in movie editing, in order to create "dramas" in stories, we allow them to create imaginary dialogues or change the orders of true events in the timeline.

SRT: Your stories are designed to be informational, but also inspirational. What message do you hope will reach readers?
Shimizu: Not too long ago, or even today, these great figures did exist on earth. We believe that by delivering the lives of these heroes in a very animated way using these mediums, we can effectively protest against human rights violations, atrocities, and exploitation—rampant throughout the world—as well as spread and advocate the fundamental, precious values of altruism, compassion, and philanthropy to people of all ages and walks of life.
Our mission is to create and distribute media content that will inform, inspire, and empower others to generate positive actions in the world.

SRT: How have the books been received so far?
Shimizu: We are receiving inquires for foreign language rights around the world. Also, I was asked if we can translate the Dalai Lama book into Tibetan and use it as a textbook for the exiled Tibetan children in Northern India. I am looking forward to the development of this project.


Nick Mur said...

I perfectly agree with Mr Shimizu about the incredible power of manga literature in the present divulgation of philosophy. Japaneses have invented an effective and emotional way to communicate feelings and thoughts which according to me is nowadays the best in the world.
So I think I'll bye Mr Shimizu's book.


Anonymous said...

Here is a video detailing more about this graphic novel: