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INTERVIEW: Akane Torikai - part 2
In the second half of our interview with Akane Torikai, we explore how she faces controversial topics like sexual assault and suicide in her manga series Sensei's Pious Lie and Saturn Return
NOTE: The next chapter of Okinawa will be in your in-boxes on Monday, since we wanted to get this to you first. Catch up with the chapters posted so far, and hey, maybe consider subscribing? We’ll be announcing some VERY cool new manga series soon, so subscribe now so you can read this and much more manga, original articles and interviews.
A CONVERSATION WITH AKANE TORIKAI: HER MANGA
by Deb Aoki
In part 1 of my chat with manga creator Akane Torikai, we talked about realism and feminism in comics, telling stories about controversial topics, and her early manga influences, including Kyoko Okazaki (Helter Skelter) and Minoru Furuya (Ciguatera).
In part 2, we’ll be doing a deeper dive into her English language debut work, Sensei’s Pious Lie (available now from Kodansha), get a taste of two other recent manga series by Torikai that aren’t yet published in English (but are available in French, via Akata Editions), and touch upon her personal life a bit too.
Akane Torikai is a featured guest of Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2022, and will be making several appearances at the show. Visit Kodansha Comics’ Akane Torikai at TCAF article with all of the days/times/locations of her signings and panels. Even if you’re not at TCAF, you can read a free preview of Sensei’s Pious Lie and download a free digital wallpaper for computers and mobile devices featuring a full-color illustration from Sensei’s Pious Lie too.
Since I didn’t get too deep into the plot of the story while we were talking about Sensei’s Pious Lie in my conversation with Torikai-sensei, here’s Kodansha’s description of this series to help get you up to speed:
Misuzu Hara is a quiet, reserved 24-year-old high school teacher whose world is turned upside down after her friend’s fiancé rapes her. Her attempt to connect with one of her students, himself a victim of sexual trauma, results in an unlikely romance, and the repercussions of these events affect everyone around them in often unpredictable ways.
18+. Warning: Includes graphic depictions of sexual violence.
SEX, SECRETS AND TRAUMA IN SENSEI’S PIOUS LIE
So speaking of feminism in comics, maybe this is a good time to talk about Sensei’s Pious Lie. This series was featured in a seinen manga magazine (Morning Two, a monthly magazine published by Kodansha that also features another Mangasplaining pick, Saint Young Men). Unlike say, josei manga, which tends to be aimed at a primarily female readership, seinen manga magazines are geared toward both adult men and women.
In Sensei’s Pious Lie, women's roles and society’s expectations of them compared to what men are expected to be seems to be the front and center theme. How did you pitch this story to your editors at Kodansha?
With Kodansha, and well, with seinen manga magazines in general, they have always been a place where portrayals of sex are much more tolerated and welcomed, so it wasn't really a risk or concern to me that my idea would be rejected outright. The problem is that what I was reading in most seinen manga is kind of a fantasized version of sex, right?
I proposed a story that would present challenging ideas about sex and how men use power in these situations, while also exploring how these kinds of difficult situations could be overcome.
When I pitched this story to my editor, I was really straightforward about my intentions about the story that I wanted to write and draw. I should also mention that my editor at the time was a middle-aged man. He said that it sounded pretty interesting, so we worked together to create this story.
Jocelyne (Allen, translator for our conversation) and I were talking earlier about how the characters in Sensei’s Pious Lie reflect the spectrum of male and female experiences, specifically regarding their attitudes about sex and about toxic masculinity.
For example, Hayafuji is basically a rapist. Wadajima, the other high school boy, he's just starting to be a player, someone who has a lot of casual sexual relationships with girls. Then there’s Niizuma, who is very shy and he’s a victim of sexual assault himself. So there's a spectrum of experiences and attitudes toward sex in just those three male characters, and the same thing happens with the female characters too. How did you come up with these characters?
I guess it's kind of hard to say how exactly I created them, but to put it kind of simply, in my life, all around me are all kinds of people, who act, think and feel in different ways across a spectrum. Even as an individual, you don't have a fixed set of values, you don't have this fixed personality, right? For me, I can have the victim inside of me and I also have like a total bitch inside of me, and I think everyone has those opposites inside them.
This spectrum of your personality can change the way you react in different situations, and when you’re in different places or with different people. I think it's quite natural. So when you see Wadajima, Hayafuji and Niizuma in this manga, they’re separated out as three different characters. I think there are people who are really like that, but also that we all have some parts of these characters inside of us.
Maybe that's why this story makes readers uncomfortable sometimes, because the characters and events depicted in this manga series kind of force you to confront those feelings.
I read a review of Sensei’s Pious Lie, where the reviewer wondered why when Niizuma tells Hara-sensei that he was sexually assaulted by an older woman, even though he’s also a victim of sexual abuse, she's not sympathetic to him at all. She tells him, you're a guy, just get over it. You're gonna do this to women too.
I of course cringed when I read that scene because she seemed to be so harsh and cold when this younger boy was being vulnerable. But I also recognize that her reaction also felt true to what we know about Hara-sensei’s thoughts and feelings up to that point in the story. She could have been kind and compassionate to him as a teacher might be expected to be to a student, but instead, her response is full of anger and bitterness, not just at him, but at men in general.
I guess I’d like to know more about how you came up with the dialogue for this scene, especially since it would have been so much easier to make her a “good teacher” in that moment. Why was it important to include this conversation in this story?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I had this idea that a person like Hara-sensei would develop a fear of men because she’s been hurt before, and this would come across as wariness and distrust to the people around her.
I haven't been raped, but I've been harassed. For example, I’ve had my underpants stolen. I’ve dealt with sexual harassment – nothing that was at the level of being a crime, but experiencing all of these small, unpleasant, kind of hateful things that can happen to you as a woman. This creates a place inside where you end up feeling like you just kind of hate men.
So to depict a scene where someone like Hara-sensei gets raped, and then she’s being put in a situation where she’s hearing about Niizuma’s trauma, then dealing with the expectation that she should treat both of their experiences as equal AND there’s an expectation that she should say, “Oh, poor you” to her student, this younger man too. He’s a victim of sexual assault, but Hara-sensei is dealing with her own victim mentality, so it’s hard to imagine that you can expect fairness from her here. This is obviously not something that actually happened, but how I imagined how this would happen and how she would react in this situation.
It's interesting because Niizuma is vulnerable and weak compared to the other more macho men in the story like Hayafuji or Wadajima. But maybe because he comes across as a softer, less threatening person, this makes Hara-sensei feel emboldened enough to attack Niizuma, or at least just say what’s on her mind, which she normally wouldn’t dare do with a man.
I also wanted to add that writing about sexual assault and rape is a very sensitive and controversial subject. Was there anything that you tried to keep in mind as you were writing this story? Like, “I must do this” or “I must not do this,” as you were writing this story?
One thing that I thought about a lot while I was working on this story was how Hayafuji is basically the enemy of all women, and how I would bring him down, how to punish him in the end. I got opinions on this from readers and from Furuya-sensei too. Male readers, maybe more than female readers, would write comments like “You have to hurry up and deal with Hayafuji!”
Some people would offer opinions like have some big, burly foreign guy rape Hayafuji, so he has to experience what it’s like to be sexually assaulted in a way that would really crush him. There were those kind of voices out there, those kind of reactions from readers out there to do this, but if I chose to handle that character that way, would that really resolve things about how women face these types of situations with men?
I did think about having Hara-sensei confront Hayafuji, or have Niizuma face Hayafuji to protect Hara-sensei like he wants to throughout the series, but that would make the men the focus of the action, and men stepping in to save the day, so to speak. I really wanted this to be about women stepping forward. I wanted to finish the series with women solving this issue themselves without having a man stand up for them that way.
So with Niizuma and Hara-sensei, just having each other in their lives, just being around each other gives each other the will or that feeling like, “I can fight, I can keep going.” They’re not taking on each other’s battles. Instead, they are giving each other the strength to fight their own battles and that no one can fight their battles for them.
Oh, that's interesting. I look forward to reading that because I've only read volume one. (NOTE: Kodansha manga’s release is a 2-in-1 omnibus edition, so I’ve actually read volumes 1 and 2)
You can't really imagine how Hayafuji will end up from volume one or two. You won't see it coming. I promise.
Okay, that sounds intriguing. I’ll look forward to that.
So to bring things back to what we talked about in the beginning, about how some people who read Sensei’s Pious Lie in English may have misunderstood your intentions with that first volume. What would you like to say to those readers to convince them to keep reading volume 2 and beyond?
Please keep reading. For me, it’s more than just “please keep reading” for my sake, but I would like readers to take a look at different kinds of people, and all these different kinds of private moments, these episodes that are playing out in private. I’d like people to look at these scenes, and know that things like this are happening out there. You should see them with your own eyes. I’d like readers to just look at these different scenarios and think for themselves about these situations. I’d like people to consider all of these characters and their lives, and what's going on with them.
So maybe one reason why the graphic, definitely un-romanticized depictions of sex and assault in this story hits harder is because it’s told in pictures, not just words. Visual storytelling can be very powerful – it can often provoke more immediate and visceral reactions than just prose alone. Given that manga is a visual storytelling medium with a broad audience, could or should manga play a role in changing how people think or act?
Yes, I do think that manga can change how people think and act. It’s more like this shows readers that there are people out there who think like this. You’re showing ideas that maybe you don’t have yourself. What I’m doing is showing what people are already thinking and doing and I’m putting it out there in pictures and stories. People can read these stories and think, “Oh, I’ve thought things like that,” or “That way of thinking is totally wrong!” It’s not offering up anything new – the things I’m depicting in my manga are nothing new, at least not in my manga – it’s more like I’m just putting a name to it and giving it some concrete form.
Maybe by doing this, (my stories) are going to help people who may be struggling with these same ideas or feelings, or maybe they’ll end up having opposite opinions. I don’t know. I don’t know people like that.
I think that’s one of the jobs of a manga artist, to put a flag on a feeling or a thought, giving it a name, so readers can look at it. They can take it away from me, and then it has nothing to do with me after that. They’re taking that thinking that I’m presenting to them and expanding on those ideas, and pushing outwards with it in their own way. Making that point and putting it out there for others to see and react to it — I think that’s part of a manga artist’s job.
Very nice, very well said. I mean, if manga like Slam Dunk can inspire more people to play basketball in Japan, why not use that power for other things?
EXPLORING DYSTOPIA IN MANDARIN GYPSY CAT NO ROJO
So speaking of other manga, the two other works of yours that I’m familiar with are Mandarin Gypsy Cat no Rojo and Saturn Return, which are both available in French from Akata Editions, but not yet available in English.
Unlike Sensei’s Pious Lie, which is set in a modern day, contemporary Japan, Mandarin Gypsy Cat no Rojo (or as it was released in France, Le Siege des Exilées) is a speculative fiction or sci-fi story. I've been describing it to people that it's like an Asian twist on A Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.
But when I tell people, it's not about Christian morality regarding sex and reproduction, and it's not about men oppressing women, but women oppressing women, their reaction is usually, “Woow…” So can you tell me a little bit more about this manga and what inspired you to take on this type of story?
I wrote that book five years ago. Up until then, all the manga had been doing had been based in reality, because I felt, I believed that I just can't do fantasy.
But then there was this new magazine (Da Vinci, a literary magazine), a new series to work on. I wanted to do something new, take on a new challenge and show a new part of myself and my work. So I decided that I’d try something new - I’d try drawing a story that had elements of science fiction and fantasy, two genres that had been totally off-limits for me in the past.
Interesting. So I made that connection between A Handmaid's Tale and this story, but was that only me or did you think about this book while you were creating Mandarin Gypsy Cat no Rojo?
Wow, really? That’s fascinating. I’d love to talk about this more, but maybe sometime later, since I want to also talk about some of your other works too.
NOTE: For more on Mandarin Gypsy Cat no Rojo, visit Jocelyne Allen’s blog, Brain vs Book for a summary.
MYSTERIES AND ENTERTAINMENT IN SATURN RETURN
Meanwhile, your current series is Saturn Return is once again set in contemporary Japan. As I understand it, it's about depression and suicide, two more heavy topics. Can you tell me a little bit more about this story?
It's a really difficult story to explain in a simple way. In Saturn Return, the main character’s good friend from her university days commits suicide. She tries to figure out why her friend committed suicide, while also reflecting on the hopes and dreams she had in the past that she has since given up on. So while we’re trying to understand why her friend committed suicide, we’re also finding out what happened to the main character, and how she went from a place where she had so many hopes for the future, and what happened to her to make her give up on those dreams. It’s a mystery story that reveals the answers to these two questions.
Why did you decide to take on these heavy topics for this new series? What inspired you to explore these themes?
So when we were talking about Sensei’s Pious Lie earlier, I mentioned that it partly came from my fear of being raped. It’s meaningful for me to write stories that are centered on my own fears and anxieties. Death is another thing that I’m really anxious about – not just my own death, but losing a loved one. And it’s not just death, but just loss in general – when you lose a lover, or when you find out that you only have a limited amount of time left, or lose a lot of money – all those things. It’s really frightening that things can happen that you can’t fight, that they can be unstoppable forces.
I thought that it could be interesting if I could write a story that dealt with these fears. I also had a friend who committed suicide, so there were a lot of elements that came together so I could write this series.
I see! The title is also striking to me, in that it seems to refer to astrology. A Saturn return happens every 28-29 years in a person’s life when Saturn returns to the same place in the sky as it was when you were born. So in astrological terms, it signifies a big turning point where you have to confront your fears to get to the next part of your adult life. Am I making the right connection?
Yes, you’re making the right connection.
Okay, that’s good to know!
Saturn Return is your latest manga creation. How does this story reflect your evolution, or how does it show where you are now as an artist and as a writer compared to your earlier work?
It's actually really simple. In my work up to this point, I've been wanting to show people what people are thinking, really focusing on dialogue and how people are talking.
I was trying to show readers different values and different ideas and ways of seeing the world. As you said before, one of my goals was to make people feel uncomfortable, to make you think about these things. I’ve written most of my work in this pretty straightforward kind of way, where I’m focused on showing these internal processes inside my characters.
But with this book, it’s entertainment. It’s a mystery, so I have to pay attention to things like setting up things to be revealed later, incorporating foreshadowing – I’m being really, really careful about that with this story. I’m also really focused on the art as a whole, to make sure that readers don't get sick of looking at it.
I'm also shifting away from trying to make readers feel uncomfortable. I’m trying to reach out to a broader audience by thinking more about the entertainment aspect of my storytelling. In other words, creating stories where people don’t get so stressed out when they’re reading it.
I’ve been thinking about what are the elements necessary to make an entertaining manga. I’ve been processing this idea in my own way, and I’m taking on this challenge now.
PERSONAL LIFE / PRIVATE LIFE IN MANGA MITAINA KOI KUDASAI
When I look at your work over time, it seems like you're taking on a new and different challenge with each new series, challenging yourself to stretch creatively in a different way.
Another book of yours that’s quite different than the ones we’ve discussed so far is another one that’s not yet available in English. Manga Mitaina Koi Kudasai (Give me love like in a manga) is a 2018 essay work where you shared journal entries about your daily life, including your relationships with your boyfriend/husband and now ex-husband manga creator Asano Inio.
At the time, his name was not mentioned directly in the essay, but shortly after it came out, you two announced your marriage. If you’re okay with sharing, could you tell me more about this book and what inspired you to share this part of your life this way?
It definitely wasn't to brag or to show off or anything like that.
Basically, I had been approached by a lot of literary magazines, asking me if I would like to create something more prose-oriented. I really do like to write prose, so I was interested. I got this one offer to do an web series with the thought that it would be turned into a book as the end result.
Since I'm not a novelist, my editors and I thought maybe we should try something a little bit easier to write, like essays or like a diary. I just wrote about my life as I was living it at the time on a blog/website. I just shared my thoughts about different things, and I thought there was a good balance of subjects. But when it came out as a book, I could see that I felt anxious and uncertain about my feelings for Asano. I was feeling kind of adrift.
Some of that is really embarrassing now, but as I heard it from my editor, revealing that anxiety and ambiguity was surprising for a lot of readers, because they had an impression of me based on my manga that I’m a strong woman, that I’m willing to get out there and say my opinions really loudly. But this essay showed that I’m actually a weak, kind of small person sometimes, who wrestles with her own anxieties. I thought that putting that kind of message out there would make it easier for other people to acknowledge that part of themselves too.
So as I understand it, you and Inio-sensei are now divorced. I was a little reluctant to ask you about this since since it's very not feminist to start a conversation with “How’s life with your famous husband,” you know what I mean?
Yeah, it’s strange. When I was married, I felt like I had to push that feminist part of me down, and squelch it. Now that we’ve broken up, I’m curious about why I felt that way at the time and how that happened. I wonder, what was that time that we spent together? It’s a very curious feeling.
I started working on Saturn Return right at the beginning of my marriage. Then as I was working on it, there’s this pressure and these kinds of feelings building up inside me, and they’re not good feelings. All of these feelings are being written into Saturn Return. And so it went, all the way through our divorce, and I’m still working on this series. There’s a lot of really big ups and downs in this story, but I want readers to keep reading to see how it ends.
When I got married, I was writing my manga and putting feminist ideas into my stories and in my social media, but then I stopped saying anything that was even remotely feminist. Now that I’m divorced, I’m back – I feel like I’ve regained my feminist self and I’m living that life again.
That’s very relatable, especially for anyone in a creative field who’s dated or married someone who has a similar career.
So Inio-sensei has drawn works like Downfall, which seems to have been drawn from his personal experiences. You also mentioned earlier that your manga is also inspired by some of your personal experiences. When you create works like this that people can read, it can create a tension between your public and private lives, in that people you don’t even know can see and maybe judge or misinterpret how much of your private life and thoughts is in your very public-facing creations.
For other creative people who may be dealing with similar situations, do you have any advice for them, or anything that you've learned along the way about how to deal with this?
So we're divorced now, so I’m not really sure how much I can speak to this subject. But I think Asano cares about his public image and the way he’s perceived. He really doesn’t want to lose the public image and the artist’s life that he has created.
Even though we were married, we lived separately. We wouldn’t see each other more than maybe once a week for maybe three years or so, and I think that was partly to protect his public image to some degree. Maybe that’s a good way of handing it, but for me, I want to be with the person I love. So it was a difficult way of doing things, especially if you’re two manga artists or have any kind of creative career, since you may have separate worlds, and in those worlds, you’re like a god. That can lead to a kind of arrogance. I guess you could say that we really didn’t try to step into each other’s worlds.
If you wanted to make this kind of thing work, then you might want to gradually create one world together, where you’re both stepping into a new world that you make together. I think that approach could help create a more solid relationship. I don’t know, obviously, because we broke up in the end. But I feel like it’s easy to fall into the habit of prioritizing your husband and prioritizing what he wants over what you want. There’s also the social pressure, pressure from outside of your relationship to prioritize his public image and reputation as an artist over your own. I used to think that when you’re in a relationship, the two of you could talk about these kinds of things. But yeah.
Yeah, relationships are hard, that’s for sure. Thanks for being willing to talk about it with me.
Anyway, I wanted to say that a lot of your work makes me think about things that I normally don’t think about or maybe don’t want to think about often, but after reading your manga, it always gives me a lot to consider. That’s rare and special, so thank you.
We talked about a lot of things today, so thank you for sharing so much time with me. But before we tie things up, is there anything that you think I might have missed or anything that you would like to convey to your new or prospective English readers out there? What would you like them to know about you?
It’s always, always, always been a dream of mine to have my work read outside of Japan. I felt like this even before I got married. I wasn’t able to get outside, I wasn’t able to have this bigger picture. It felt like there was this limit on me, and now that my work has been published in France, and this N. American edition coming out now, I feel like those limits have been taken off, and I now have this environment that I’m able to push out into. I’m incredibly happy about this.
Being read by more people, not just in Japan, but having more readers outside of Japan. Even if they read my work in different ways than I might have expected, I’m still really excited to have these readers and see what they think of my work and how they approach my work.
I feel like my world up until now has really changed, it’s in the process of changing, and that’s really exciting. I’m just so looking forward to seeing what happens next. I would definitely love to see more of my books come out in English, so please, and thank you.
Yes, definitely looking forward to reading more of your work in English soon! Thanks again, and I hope you’ll be back in N. America for more events in the near future.
Big thanks to Jocelyne Allen, both for her translation during our interview, and for writing many illuminating articles about Akane Torikai’s manga on her blog, Brain vs Book, which helped me prepare for this interview. You can follow Jocelyne on Twitter at @brainvsbook.
Thanks also to Kodansha for providing me with a copy of Sensei’s Pious Lie and for assisting with arranging this interview. You can read a preview chapter from Sensei’s Pious Lie at kodansha.us/series/senseis-pious-lie/
Sensei’s Pious Lie volume 1 and 2 are available now at better comics and bookshops, and as a digital edition from BookWalker, Apple Books, Google Play, IZNEO, Kobo and Nook. It is rated 18+ for its frank depictions of graphic sexuality and violence, so it’s not for every reader, but do check it out — it’ll give you lots to think about.