Interview: Keiko Takemiya

Creator of To Terra and Andromeda Stories

Manga artist Keiko Takemiya, creator of To Terra, Andromeda Stories and Song of the Wind and Trees
Keiko Takemiya. © Keiko Takemiya / Courtesy Vertical Inc.

Shojo manga is more than just "comics for girls" – and no one knows that better than manga creator Keiko Takemiya. As one of the legendary Year 24 Group (a.k.a. "The Fabulous Forty-Niners," so named because these artists were born around Showa Year 24 or 1949), a trailblazing group of female artists who rose to prominence in the 1970's, Takemiya-sensei has explored a variety of stories and themes, ranging from high school romances to boys love, historical dramas and hard sci-fi.

Besides winning numerous awards for To Terra (Terra e, a.k.a. Toward the Terra), Takemiya is also credited as one of the creators of the now hugely popular boys love / yaoi manga genre with her 1976 story, Song of the Wind and Trees (Kaze to Ki no Uta) and as a founding force behind June, a Japanese boys love anthology magazine.

Since 2000, Takemiya-sensei has been a professor at Kyoto Seika University, teaching classes and presenting papers about manga. Now, with Vertical's recent publication of her sci-fi epics To Terra and Andromeda Stories in English, more readers than ever are being introduced to the work of this manga pioneer and innovator.

The nice folks at Vertical kindly translated and sent my questions to Takemiya-sensei over the holiday season. She replied with thoughtful responses to my questions about To Terra, Andromeda Stories and what it was like to be a female manga artist in the Seventies.

She also shared her thoughts about the beginnings and the evolution of boys love (shonen-ai) manga.

Q: First off, what inspired you to become a manga artist? Were there any particular artists or stories, or incidents that made you think, "Yes, this is what I want to do?"

Keiko Takemiya: When I was a middle-school student I already drew manga—without telling my parents.

A Primer For Manga Artists by the great pioneer Shotaro Ishinomori convinced me that the medium’s potential was as great as I already suspected it was.

Q: What was it like to be a female manga artist when you first started drawing professionally? Were there any major challenges that you had to overcome?

KT: Both the industry and young female manga readers were more conservative than I’d expected. In the competition for popularity, mere “newness” put you at a disadvantage.

In order to pitch my work right into the audience’s “strike zone,” I had no choice but to study the styles of popular artists. I think the resulting method, in terms of being able to capture a reader's feelings and imagination, has served me well to this day.

Q: You were part of a group of female artists who dramatically changed the storytelling style of shojo manga in the 1970's. From your point of view, what was the biggest change in the Japanese comics industry that happened as a result of your collective efforts?

KT: My goal was to be unguardedly human first, and a woman second, and to proceed as though sexual discrimination didn’t exist even amidst that. At times male society considered this stance impudent. The whole issue couldn’t find a place in my heart.

I believe it was by expressing myself in manga without getting into a fight that I sent a message of change to a generation of girls who are now grown women.

Q: Let's talk a bit about To Terra.... What inspired you to create this story? What was the reaction to this manga when it first came out in Japan? Was it controversial?

KT: With the coming of the space age, many films and novels depicting life in outer space appeared, but there still hadn’t been one that focused on Earth. One night I had a dream about a “Maturity Check,” and the entire story began to flow from that. I wanted to depict the terrors of society’s covert attempts at “education.” I identified with the boy, carrying on his revolution alone.

The response was tremendous, and the tide of fan enthusiasm turned what I’d intended to proceed with slowly into a raging stream.

I don’t believe there were any adversarial reactions.

Q: To Terra... was been recently adapted into an anime series. Did the animation studio change the story, or does this version faithfully follow the manga version? Did you have a lot of say in how it was adapted? How did you feel when you saw the finished product?

KT: Since the original manga was thirty years old, when the producers approached me I told them, as long as there was love for the original, any changes were fine by me. Not knowing the in's and out's of the anime industry, I felt it best to leave it all up to them.

They intended at first to follow the original quite closely, but fan feelings once again led to changes, subtle ones meant to be “true to the spirit but gentler in the expression.” These made the older fans (and me) anxious throughout but helped to create a new generation of young fans. A thirty-year-old story has been picked up for reappraisal—for its creator, this is a cause for great joy.

Q: Andromeda Stories followed To Terra... and is a story that was written by another author (Ryu Mitsuse). What made you decide to take this on as project?

KT: Ryu Mitsuse is an immensely popular author and a leading light of the science fiction world at that time. It had been my dream to turn one of his stories into a manga.

The philosophical element, which manga lacked, was what I studied in his works and wanted my own fans to be able to share. That said, Andromeda Stories was specially commissioned for the purpose. So I wasn’t able to read ahead (while I was creating this series), and it was tough.

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Q: Your story, Song of the Wind and Trees is frequently mentioned as THE story that influenced the creation of yaoi and boys love manga, a genre that's very popular in Japan and the U.S. Since it was one of the first shonen-ai stories to appear in Japan, what inspired you to write this story? Was it surprising to you how popular it was when it came out, and how revered it continues to be today?

KT: Back when the issue of sexuality was still taboo for women, the only way to frontally engage realistic passions and bodily transformations was through “boys’ love.” Since the relationships themselves were unusual, I tried as much as possible to depict them on normal and universal terms.

I wanted girl readers to properly clear that hurdle of “sex.” I was quite nervous when it came out, but a general “Yes” assimilated the objections and criticisms.

The story grapples with the basic problem of living one’s life, so I’m glad young people who had problems turned to my work as a guide. Those young readers who started reading it for its sensational surface but who, while being shocked, arrived at understanding—they deserve some real credit.

Q: How does the boys love manga you created compare with what's out there now? How do you feel about how the genre has evolved since then?

KT: Boys’ love was never a pet theme for me, just a possible choice of storyline. My big theme instead has been “boys” (neuter, prototypal). Although that hasn’t changed, I feel that I can now also portray the same quality within girls and women.

Back then, yaoi was still minor but germinating; I’m surprised at how large it’s become.

The fact surely tells us what women “really” think. Somebody once said to me, quite memorably for me, “Yaoi’s great because you can adopt both roles.” Women’s notion of gender may already have crumbled away.

Q: Do you have a personal favorite story out of all of the ones you've created? Which story, and why is it special for you?

KT: Fly Me To The Moon! It’s a lovers’ tale set in a happy-go-lucky future. A grown astronaut and a very young girl (an ESPer and thus wise beyond her years) become intergenerational lovers. The eccentric premise and the hyper-optimism made it very easy for me to draw.

Q: Are you currently creating new stories? If so, could you tell us a little bit about your current projects?

KT: At the moment I’m constructing a new Narrative Manga discipline for Kyoto Seika University, so I’m far removed, alas, from the work of drawing. Although what I’m doing now is a lot different from drawing, they both share the difficulties inherent in “constructing” something. I feel that what I’m doing now is creative in its own right, so I’d like to keep at it for a while longer.

Q: Are there any contemporary manga artists that impress you with what they're doing now? And if so, what do you like about their work?

KT: Nobody who I can say takes my breath away. New expressive techniques, nuanced broadenings of the field, yes, but nobody has really appeared whose value system makes your eyes pop open.

Manga has become too much of a big business, which perhaps means that artists get pushed out into the public eye before they’ve achieved artistic maturity.

Q: You're now a professor at Kyoto Seika University, teaching and presenting papers about manga. How and why did you decide to make this transition from being a full-time manga artist to becoming an educator?

KT: When I first became a manga artist I thought the techniques were something that couldn’t be taught, but I’ve come to want to pass them on in some form. Through teaching I hope to construct a theory. I thought I could draw as well when I started, but that’s proved impossible—more people and more responsibility on my shoulders with the creation of a department. The truth is, though, that I want to find the time and place to draw again.

Q: You're in a position to teach and influence many aspiring manga artists. Knowing what you know now, what advice do you give to these new artists?

KT: “Drawing” means stripping yourself naked.

You have to think how your work is you. If you’re just pretending, readers will see through the act one day. What lets you draw with confidence is that Your Work = Your Self. I tell my students, If you want to be drawing manga that isn’t just business, get that going.

Q: Finally, any final comments or thoughts that you'd like to pass along to your American fans?

KT: Manga has to have something in it that touches the reader’s heart. It can’t succeed without it, and that’s precisely what goes out from artist to reader, that brings them intimately together. If American readers feel that way too, I’d be very glad. Please keep reading! More!