Editor’s Note: The following conversation (in two parts) was featured in the fourth and fifth volumes of Ferment Media Research—a series of investigations by Dominique Chen published by Wired Japan. Chen explores the contemporary habit of rapidly consuming and discarding information, arguing that the study of the practice of fermentation could help the media industry realign information with humans’ original natural rhythms. It could for example help boost quality of life and reacquire a more human sense of time. Here, Chen discusses the making of the manga series Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture, which revolves around a college student that has a unique ability to see and communicate with microorganisms, with its author, artist Masayuki Ishikawa. Moyasimon is believed to have played an instrumental role in the social recognition of fermentation in Japanese culture. Translated from Japanese by Angela Qian.
What did Moyasimon Visualize?
Originally published in Wired Japan on July 12, 2017
At first, wanting to create something about the war
Dominique Chen: It’s very nice to meet you. Thank you very much for letting us put the bacteria characters from Moyasimon in these pages.
Masayuki Ishikawa: It was my pleasure.
DC: I read Moyasimon when it first came out, chapter by chapter, but for our talk I reread the entire series at once. I realized the manga actually includes topics that have been publicly relevant recently. It’s a work with a lot of prescience. This might just be my reading into it, but I’ve noticed this not just in Moyasimon. With Maria the Virgin Witch and Madowanai Hoshi (The Fearless Star), too, I feel that your works have connected underlying themes. So for Moyasimon, first of all, why did you make a manga around themes of bacteria and fermentation?
MI: At first I wanted to make something with a big group of characters. For example, I thought of having a mob scene viewed from a bird’s-eye perspective; you’d see a lot of people there, then this huge foot comes down, and when it’s raised up, a bunch of people are squashed flat. There are people who just barely survive, and those who just barely didn’t make it. Then I wanted to draw a frame where there’s a person standing on the sidelines who sees this and cries: “What happened?”
Originally, I thought it’d be good to draw something about the war. But I wanted to do something that was closer to me personally, so I arrived at the idea of setting a story on a college campus. There wouldn’t be a huge foot coming down, but I thought of having a lot of different people doing different things in one frame. But even in such a setting, on most college campuses all people do there is study, right? When you’re thirty years old and you think, “Let’s drink with the guys from my college days again,” then having conversations with each other like “Studying was so hard” isn’t very interesting. It’s the stuff aside from studying, like someone falling from the second floor when they were drunk—that’s more exciting. But if I only retold incidents of this type, then I wouldn’t necessarily need a college campus setting. So I was thinking about colleges where outsiders might think, “What in the world is that school?” and “What the heck are they doing over there?” And that’s how I came upon the idea of an agricultural school. There are people wandering around in lab coats, but there are also pigs and horses and creatures like that. So I started the story by looking into what the characters could be doing every day.
DC: So that’s how it was! But still, how did you strike upon using an agricultural university?
MI: That idea was actually suggested to me by an entry-level editor who lived near the Tokyo University of Agriculture. Also, I lived in Sakai in Osaka, where there’s the Osaka Prefecture University Agricultural Department (now called the Osaka Prefecture University College of Life, Environment, and Advanced Sciences), and non-affiliated people were also allowed in. Therefore, since I was young I’ve often gone crayfish fishing and the like, and since then I’d wondered, “This school is so big, but what happens here?” I always thought there was potential in that.
DC: So you were curious about agricultural universities since you were young.
MI: Yes. So then I went to look at the Tokyo University of Agriculture, and I discovered that even for a subject with an intimidating name like “microbiology,” the researchers are studying things we use every day, like alcohol or miso. So from there, I started thinking, “I’ll use bacteria” in my story. The story didn’t start out with bacteria.
DC: The process through which you began wanting to draw some group story with a large cast and then moved into the world of bacteria is fascinating. I thought this before, too. When I read the first volume of Maria the Virgin Witch, with the scene when a dragon attacks the castle, that mob scene was very vivid and left a deep impression on me. People run around in a panic and the situation becomes a big, confused mess. And you see that from a side perspective and from an overhead view. In that scene, as well as in the one when the Moyasimon bacteria arrive in [agricultural university graduate student] Haruka’s bedroom, or when you were drawing the people at the school festival [also in Moyasimon], I thought that you seemed to have a lot of fun drawing pictures with a lot of agents moving around in the frame.
DC: You draw everything without any assistants. Are there any other types of material you’re as obsessed with as you are with mob scenes?
MI: Let’s see. I think backgrounds are very important. I love Akira Kurosawa’s movies, and I was really struck the first time I watched Rashomon. In the scene when Toshiro Mifune (playing the bandit Tajomaru) testifies, he recalls lying in a patch of sun under tree leaves and says: “I was lying down and the wind blew.” How they expressed the wind when he was “just lying in the sunlight under the trees” was through the waving of the shadows. At that time I thought, “Oh, this is an elegant device to show something.” Afterward, I heard that Kurosawa was angry that the two protagonists in the foreground are arguing with each other while the people behind them were just standing there and not really acting. Hearing of this episode I thought, “Indeed, those people in the background are not just background props, they’re real people.” This really stuck with me. If even those in the background are persuasively rendered, then no matter how difficult the primary characters have it, the scene is accepted as a whole. This is what I learned from Kurosawa’s films.
DC: I can see what you’re saying. They are like NPCs [non-player characters] in video games, right? I remember in RPGs [role-playing games], there might be Villager A and Villager B–type characters in the background, but if their existences are not persuasive or well realized then the entire feeling or atmosphere of the game will wither away. In your manga, Ishikawa-san, even in scenes like the university agricultural festival, you’ll take great care in drawing the faces of characters that only appear once. With mangaka who use assistants, I feel really uncomfortable when I can see drawings of minor characters that are totally different in style from the main mangaka [laughter]. But Ishikawa-san, you put all your energy into each stroke of your pen, and the sense of reality that oozes out from your world is just incredible. Even though the bacteria in Moyasimon are super deformed, I am really pulled in when I see how carefully they are each drawn.
Drawing manga from unlikeable themes
DC: When you were drawing the crowd of bacteria, how did you design them? Did you look at pictures of actual bacteria in a reference book and follow the concepts from there?
MI: Actually, it took forever to get the OK for the first chapter. The senior editor said it was OK, but the editor-in-chief didn’t. For bacteria, even when you look at them through a microscope, they’re just circles or long, thin things. The senior editor said, “You should just draw eyes and mouths on those circles.” I was irritated and just faxed over some circles with a couple of marks on them, and then the editor-in-chief OK’d it [laughter]. I only looked at microbiology books after that. Then I thought, “I’ve gotten involved in an amazing world.”
DC: The protagonist can see these super-deformed microorganisms and also talk to them, which is a really unexpected premise. For your manga, you really seriously researched agriculture and fermentation. In one of the earlier volumes you made a mistake on the three-stage preparation for sake, then at the beginning of a following volume, you drew a comic strip noting the error. When I saw this I thought you were probably really earnest. You don’t do your research by halves.
MI: After all, I didn’t really know anything about the topic. If I just drew things that I liked in manga, that probably wouldn’t have been very interesting, because I’d only be drawing about things I knew. Instead, I thought if I researched stuff I didn’t know, I’d be able to find interesting details to show everyone, and be able to have fun myself. That’s why as a mangaka, I always want to draw about things I initially dislike. So I’ve done bacteria, religion, and right now my subject is something I’m really bad with—I didn’t want to touch the topic of space at all. When I think of space, I just become intimidated. It’s so big I can’t even imagine it, I can’t understand it. And I thought that if it were made into a manga, it’d just be a pure black space with a couple of circles or dots. It feels kind of like I’m cutting corners, but when I think of something interesting I think, “Well, let’s try it and see.”
DC: So every time, you pick a theme you dislike? That’s amazing [laughter]. When you say “dislike,” you mean that it’s topic you feel weak in or don’t have a strong grasp of, I suppose? So for Moyasimon, you originally picked a theme you liked, because you wanted to draw a wide cast of lively characters, but you also disliked bacteria and microbiology.
MI: I didn’t really like Japanese sake, either.
DC: Really! Then what about fermented foods?
MI: They weren’t something I paid a lot of attention to.
DC: Shocking [laughter]. Throughout the process of drawing Moyasimon, did that change?
MI: I started to drink more alcohol. And I started to be pickier about miso and soy sauce. Before that, I was fine with using anything.
DC: While you drew, did you feel like you could understand or see your targets more clearly?
MI: I am also slightly afraid of that. Because if I don’t understand something, I do research on it, then after I gain some understanding I draw it. The more I continue to do that, the more I accumulate knowledge, right? I started to have the fear that what if this time I draw something from the perspective of understanding it? For instance, there are some people who don’t click with really expert teachers, right? Because those teachers know everything, so they might say, “You don’t even know this?” Or really intelligent people who can easily articulate themselves might cut off their friends in conversations. I’m not saying that my experience was the same as becoming one of those distinguished people, but I was afraid that the more I learned the more I might become like that. I was really afraid of it. Though I thought to myself, “You’re not making a textbook, this is a manga, so don’t make it too complicated,” I was afraid that as I continued to draw I might unconsciously make it too complicated.
DC: The amount of text and marginalia that your manga has is equal to Masumune Shirow’s. I discovered this when I reread your work, but I really like that aspect.
MI: I hope that people will put it by their toilets. You can read it just to pass the time. That’s what I hoped for from the start.
Deciding “Japanese sake will be the last”
DC: While drawing this manga about bacteria, how did you decide what aspect to depict? We were talking about the three-stage preparation for sake. Did you think, “If I draw this it will be visually interesting?”
MI: I decided on Japanese sake last. The manga would end after I’d done sake. For the first one or two volumes I frequently consulted with the senior editor about the content, but from the third volume on he wanted me to do it on my own. His job was to sell the books, mine was to draw. This might be an unusual position. It’s not that he wanted our jobs to be completely separate, but the editor didn’t really speak out. So from then on, I decided to draw and plan the seasons passing throughout one year. I thought, “Summer is next, so let’s go to Okinawa?” Or I would think, “I have to do wine.” I thought about what the main foods were. In a college student’s life, what kind of fermented foods do they like, and in what season? That’s how I came up with the themes.
DC: I see. Indeed, in the manga you do go to France and America before coming back to Japan. On the topic of going overseas, you also drew Oktoberfest. You drew hundreds of people in this huge space, and everyone is smiling. So when I hear “Oktoberfest,” I remember Moyasimon [laughter].
MI: That was a huge tent. I really worked hard over the beer volume.
DC: Throughout the entire process of drawing Moyasimon, which part was the most difficult? Was it collecting data?
MI: The data was a lot of work. I collected a lot for Moyasimon’s research. During the Oktoberfest season, I went to Germany, the Czech Republic, and finally Belgium. The whole trip was one week long. I felt like I could only be in a city for a day at a time, run around before going home, and I felt like I wasn’t getting much out of it. I thought, “What am I going to do?” Conversations continued but I felt like they were pointless. Then one day, I went to someone’s wake. There was sushi there, so after the ceremony we tried it. There was also beer. Everyone seemed to be drinking with the idea of “I’ll just have one sip, not to be rude,” and the beer didn’t go down very well. Obviously, the occasion wasn’t fun and the beer wasn’t delicious. So I thought, “Well, what kind of place does beer really suit?” And of course, beer is best suited for lively places where everyone is having fun. The wake reconfirmed this. Then I finally got it. At Oktoberfest, everyone was laughing and smiling so naturally, I thought nothing of it. But at the wake, I thought, “Ah, [Oktoberfest] was a fun atmosphere.”
DC: I see. In Japan, a different country, in a completely different situation from Oktoberfest, you felt the “gap,” which led you to understand the essence of Oktoberfest. As we’ve been talking, I thought about how your approach toward fermentation is one from the level of everyday life, whereas I approach fermentation in a very abstract way. Our directions are totally different, which is quite interesting. When I reread Moyasimon recently, I was struck by [the character] Professor Keizo Itsuki, who mentors the protagonist. Many of the characters have extreme attitudes, either positive or negative, surrounding agriculture and society, but Itsuki is broad-minded and mediates between these extreme viewpoints. He is able to provide the characters with a “cool” view of reality. On the other hand, on some occasions his perspective seems very pure. The gap there is also very interesting. I was most moved when the protagonist, Sawaki, calls all the bacteria together for Professor Itsuki, and the bacteria tell the professor, “You’ve still got a lot to learn,” and the professor is moved to tears. The scene had both human emotion and a scientific perspective.
In defense of processed food
DC: Going back to what you were saying earlier, you stated that you were interested in and researched topics you were unfamiliar with or felt an instinctive revulsion toward, but at the same time you can’t draw certain scenes without empathy or sympathy for the subject. I feel that your works have a common theme in navigating these two poles of rationality and emotion.
MI: I said “dislike,” but I didn’t mean I chose topics I just continued to feel lukewarm about, but rather, I tried to figure out why I disliked it. If there were someone who really loved my subject, I would have to know it really well. Actually, when I was young there was a door-to-door preacher who came by and told me, “If you don’t join us, you’ll be punished.” Then I asked, “The Buddha will punish me? Is he a demon?” He said, “If you think like that, then you’re a devotee of heresy.” And I wanted to see if what he said was true. I wondered if the Buddha would really inflict divine punishment on someone. So I looked it up and found that this was not the case, but on the other hand, Yahweh [Jehovah] was surprisingly harsh. I didn’t do this because I wanted to prove those people were wrong; but in order to be in the middle, I had to know.
DC: “To be in the middle”?
MI: I felt like I could be convinced either way. I felt like those people were taken in, but on the other hand, they’d thrown the other side completely away. Beat Takeshi once said to a politician, “If you’re at an ohagi shop, with two pieces in front of you, if you say you’re going to eat them, afterward, you can’t say you liked one more than the other.” He said, “You have to say both were delicious.” When I heard this, I agreed. Both idols and politicians are like this, they have to speak diplomatically. For instance, if you say, “I like the Liberal Democratic Party,” you’ll alienate your fans who don’t like the LDP. Even if, for an idol, this has nothing to do with idol activities. I think in general it’s best to pass yourself off as someone who is in the middle.
DC: I see, so you’re speaking of fairness.
MI: This way, you’ll also hear from people who dislike [whatever it is]. Which is why I think this is a good approach.
DC: Selfishly, I find myself driven by wanting myself to have a neutral stance to understand the world’s reality better.
MI: Hmm, I also just feel like I’m afraid that people are going to get mad at me.
DC: But if you really felt that way, I don’t think you could have drawn a manga as surprising as Moyasimon [laughter].
MI: I do want to avoid criticism. Like Yuzan Kaibara [from the manga Oishinbo, by Tetsu Kariya], who authoritatively says: “This is disgusting,” I thought readers might be taken aback and feel, “Oh, so he thinks it’s disgusting.” Characters like that don’t appear in Moyasimon.
DC: Indeed, Professor Itsuki is pretty neutral. When he advocates for processed foods by saying, “It’s important to have a lot of options”—it was really eye opening.
How to build relationships with unseen things?
Originally published in Wired Japan on August 3, 2017.
Why a world without [computer] bugs?
DC: By the way, when I read Madowanai Hoshi (The Fearless Star), I immediately thought of the scene in volume one of Moyasimon when Professor Itsuki talks about terraforming. There isn’t anything explicitly about terraforming in Madowanai Hoshi, but the name Oikawa comes up again, and there’s a firefly-like girl, and I thought there was some slight similarity or overlap with Keizo Itzuki’s view.
MI: While I was doing Moyasimon, I did have the passing thought that I should create something about space.
DC: Is that so? Why was that?
MI: Among physicists, there is a popular theory that perhaps the world is only a simulation. I thought that it was incredible that this world we live in is one without [computer] bugs. Moreover, atoms are worlds even smaller than a microbe. Electrons revolve around the center, keeping a fixed distance. In the same way, planets revolve but keep a fixed distance from the sun. Well, electrons occasionally fly off even while preserving that distance, so I thought it might go both ways: “In all the space from this one tiny thing to this one very large thing, both are inside the same world. Amazing!” It was like becoming self-aware for the first time. Even though Bohr and Einstein spoke of completely different rules, they were both in the same world. I thought, “The maker of this world must be amazing!” [laughter]
DC: Ah, the simulation theory. Indeed, if it was a video game designer who created this world, he or she must be incomparably skilled.
MI: On that note, suppose I am playing Mario and had my heart set on defeating Bowser without dying even once. Even if I did, and had a run with nothing happening, I would recognize that it had all happened in one fell swoop—for instance, thinking that one “infinitely proliferates” from this one point. But the player doesn’t understand. In the same way, we don’t realize it when there are bugs. I thought the theory was interesting if I thought about it like a game.
DC: It’s interesting to think of the real world as not having any bugs. Although there aren’t naturally occurring bugs in Madowanai Hoshi, the setting is one in which human-caused bugs ruin the world. In this science-fiction version of Japan, you drew a dystopia where they no longer produce anything but anime, and the “insiders” watch anime while eating artificially produced food every day. I myself quite like satirical TV shows from America or Europe and often watch them online. I had the same sense here, that in this story set in the future you could read a satire of current society.
MI: I was hoping no one would figure out it was a satire.
DC: What, it’s so obvious that it is! [laughter]
MI: Well, for instance, late at night there’s often broadcasts of so-called moe anime, and I didn’t know what was good. I wondered why they were popular or trendy. But people who are running around all day outside and come home at night probably don’t want to think about anything difficult and just want to watch TV mindlessly, without any concerns. When I figured that out, I thought, “TV shows without a strong emphasis on plot or themes, but which just have cute girls singing karaoke and getting into the bath, are something you could watch mindlessly.” And it was very fitting.
DC: So there was such a direct reason! [laughter]
MI: I tend to be interested in things originally because of this feeling of dislike or discomfort or not understanding. But that’s a little contrarian.
The difficulty of putting a quantum world into manga
DC: While Moyasimon deals with the phenomena of bacteria and fungi, are there any such equivalent themes in Madowanai Hoshi?
MI: Hmm. If it’s microorganisms or fermentation, then [for Madowanai Hoshi] it’s physics and so on. Different mechanisms.
DC: So you also have a lot of interest in quantum mechanics?
MI: I might be left behind. I might not understand whatever you start saying about it.
DC: It’s difficult to express things even more complex than microbiology.
MI: Yes, you’d have to start using math. That’s fatal for manga.
DC: It’s difficult to clearly explain things like the most advanced formulas, which only scholars would understand.
MI: If there was a manga like that, I’d be out of a job.
DC: And they might be more in demand at science museums [laughter]. But even so, [in Madowanai Hoshi] the planets are anthropomorphized but the satellites are just globes, which is similar to how you drew Moyasimon. There are similar shapes and figures.
MI: Since we suddenly dove into space and physics, people who were familiar with Moyasimon probably were initially quite surprised. I wanted to have some objects that those readers could feel familiar with. That was probably my first decision.
DC: I see. So far, there haven’t been mob scenes in Madowanai Hoshi like there were in Moyasimon or Maria the Virgin Witch, but are you planning any for the future?
MI: The things I want to do now are slightly different. But while I was doing Moyasimon, small kids would ask me things like “What kind of fungus do you like? I like O-157.” Amazing, I’d think. No one has said things to me like “I like Jupiter’s forty-fifth satellite” yet, but if they do, that would be incredible.
DC: That way of thinking is close to animism or totemism. In Moyasimon the theme is microbes; in Maria the Virgin Witch it’s religion, though they use angels to describe magic and magical beings with invisible existences; and in Madowanai Hoshi, there is a star whose existence is normally not seen because it is too large. There’s a commonality across these three works—that there is something that humans in their living bodies cannot perceive, but which you know exists through science or intuition.
Japanese and US attitudes toward microbes
DC: This was covered in volumes two and three of this [“Fermented Media Research”] series, but I talked to Joichi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, [at the conference] in San Francisco about how “fermentation phenomenon is similar to the Internet.” I started by introducing the fungus monument in Kyoto I’d covered for Wired Japan. Have you been there?
MI: I haven’t.
DC: There’s a stone monument standing outside the Manshuin Temple that reads “In memorial of the spirits of the hundreds of millions of bacteria who have sacrificed themselves to contribute to the survival or humanity.” It was built in 1981 and had this inscription. The American audience [at the San Francisco conference] responded very well to it. There were various engineers there, and even after the talk was over I was besieged with questions about the monument. When I talk about the monument in Japan, I feel like people often nod along and understand [the concept], so somehow this feels different. I am interested in the difference in sensibilities between the United States and Japan. For example, I think an MIT-like approach is to make visible, through science, things that were previously invisible. This is also something I like about your work. I love the time I spend taking care of the salted rice bran I’m growing, and while I can’t see everything that is going on in it, I feel like I’m building a relationship.
I think that there’s a difference between that and what you said earlier, about anime made so that the viewer doesn’t have to think about anything. That is, you’re importing emotions and imagining things you can’t see in your head, but for both, you’re using your own brain’s resources. I can’t see microbes like Sawaki [in Moyasimon] can, but when I read your manga and come home to the salted rice bran I’m growing, there’s an image of the microorganisms projected in my brain. “There must be a lot of fungi here,” I might think. That way, physically, using my brain and body, I’m receiving the materials to form relationships between myself and these unseen things.
MI: I see what you’re saying.
DC: In the IT world now, whether you’re using computers or smartphones, everything is about quantification and visualization. There are apps to record your heartbeats and breaths. I’ve been recording my own breathing for this last half year, and there’s a real-time record of when my breath becomes ragged, or when I’m breathing deeply. So, for example, I can learn that in the course of one day I was focused for twenty-five minutes or nervous for sixteen minutes. The meaning is constructed from the machines, which is fed back to me after the fact. Or, for another type of visualization, I started thinking about creating a method for something like “sensitization”—I’ve started doing research into a way of providing feedback in a form that is neither numerical nor graphical. One of them is in this picnic bag.
MI: That surprised me. I thought you were going to take out your salted rice bran [laughter].
DC: I should have brought some pickles. This is a machine called Heart Picnic, made in collaboration with researchers from Osaka University and NTT’s Research Center; it is a “perspective of the heart.” This stethoscope has a microphone attached that takes in sound and amplifies it, and the vibrating speaker inside the box moves. If we imagine this vibrating speaker to be the heart, then you can imagine holding it is like holding and feeling your own and others’ hearts. Try holding it with both hands. It’s moving, see? This is my heartbeat, being fed into the machine and coming out.
MI: It’s quick.
DC: It is, isn’t it [laughter]. Now, your turn.
MI: Huh? My heart isn’t moving? The sound is pretty uninspiring.
DC: Ah, it’s the quiet type.
MI: Oh, so my heartbeat feels like this. Let me try thinking of something sexy—hmm, the movement is more complicated than what I would’ve thought.
DC: When we used this in a workshop with people meeting each other for the first time, they developed a strange kind of sympathy for one another. Of course, everyone knew that the people in front of their eyes were just as alive as they were, but through this that reality really sunk in. I thought that this was a different way to use information technology to quantify information, and I’d like to try applying this to other devices. So, how is it?
MI: If I borrowed this, I wonder how I could use it. It feels like your body has artificially grown a new part. It’s a similar feeling to holding someone’s hand.
Linking Health, Intelligence, and Microbes
DC: You’re right, there is something similar to the feeling of holding someone’s hand. I recently visited an Australian research institution, and a psychiatrist wondered whether we could use this to rehabilitate children on the autism spectrum. Children on the autism spectrum sometimes don’t have a “theory of mind,” in the sense that they don’t understand that other people have their own autonomous hearts. But with this device, they would see that this theory of mind isn’t just a theory, and also come to the realization that, “Ah, the person in front of me is really alive.” Though I was also told that it might be overstimulating and they might hate it.
Gaining this “perspective” by feeling that something is living is close to how Sawaki, in Moyasimon, can see bacteria. In discussions about information technology and society, because humans are creatures who follow their instinct, there is increasingly more talk about how it would be best to provide information in a way that’s easy to grasp.
MI: Changing the subject from this “touch” for a moment, recently on television I saw something about an entertainer whose parents had divorced when he was young. His mother was a foreigner and immediately returned to her home country. The entertainer felt as though he’d been thrown away, and he held this against his mother. But when he turned twenty his father suggested that he visit his mother’s country, so he went to meet her. Although he found where she lived pretty easily, he learned that when his mother returned to her native country she’d gotten sick and passed away. When he heard that, he thought, “Looking back, I don’t know where I got the energy to be so bitter and angry all this time.” In other words, it wasn’t Schrödinger’s cat: he was explaining how once he’d tried opening the lid, he didn’t understand where his emotional tension had been coming from, which troubled him. He didn’t know what had been inside himself. I thought it was interesting. Energy born from nothing.
DC: His mother wasn’t there, so he created an imaginary, virtual mother, and it was the relationship with this imaginary mother that inspired so much passion in him. You could also call that perspective.
MI: Speaking of which, there must be people who import feelings from television or wherever and then get married. I don’t know whether that is something simple or complex.
DC: There is a reference in Moyasimon that humans still have not discovered 99 percent of the microbes out there. At the same time, there’s this sense of an exciting frontier to be explored in the relationships between human health, psychology, intelligence, and microorganisms. From the extreme ends of the universe and microorganisms, this means that humans still don’t understand 99 percent of the world. We know that we can’t control everything, much less create something perfectly according to plan, and we must continue to make new things anyway. That feeling is synchronized in me along with the balance your works have in both this bird’s-eye view and a passionate interest.
MI: Somewhere there’s the saying “I give up, only to stand back up again, only to be beaten down again” repeating itself over and over. For instance, let’s say there’s someone who is participating in a huge company-wide project, working at his or her utmost, attending meetings and creating a special site. This person might then invite everyone to check It out, but practically everyone is lying down, playing with their phones, lounging in their kotatsu eating, the television on. The type of tension in that situation is not uncommon. The person who sent the message might be worn out by the difference in energy levels between himself and those other people, but I feel like I’m similar to that, so I always feel self-conscious about it. Even if I said, “I started using Twitter” for promotional purposes, if I’m told “Recently, retweets just look like I’m promoting somebody, so the trend now is to just like the post,” then I would just feel as though I should stop.
DC: I enjoy hearing you talk about your range and fluctuations in your likes and dislikes. As for myself, in the university lecture hall, I am working with students on the idea of a new technique, “pain,” which is close to “dislike” in meaning. I told them to try to think about capital-letter Social Problems from the top down, but it’s difficult for anyone to have a sense of ownership. If you’re only looking at data about other people, no matter how much you move your brown, the ideas you have will ultimately be fairly banal. But on the other hand, if you start from something very personal and repeat over and over the training for “pain,” you’ll have more of a sense of everyone’s originality and responsibility. So, you’ll think Mr. Ishikawa says his dislikes equal bacteria, religion, space, then you start to think there might be some pattern. In your manga, I feel that there are characters with very clear likes and dislikes.
MI: I wonder. Though there are those people who make up their characters’ birthdays and likes and dislikes, and deliver chocolates to their editors, I’m not really one of them. Even if I had decided what they were, I probably wouldn’t tell.
DC: Indeed, on the surface you don’t really talk about their likes and dislikes.
MI: I don’t like to create stories where the reader occupies the seat of God and can see everything about the story. I don’t like it when, as they read, they already know exactly what this character or that character likes and dislikes. I don’t want to grab hold of everything. I like to think, “The protagonists have the same line of vision.” If I don’t allude to something in a work, then the reader doesn’t know either, right? They’ll think, “I wonder what he’s thinking” or “What’s going on in this period?” So they will occupy a stance where they have to imagine. In that case, everything the reader thinks up must be true. Because I haven’t said anything.
When I was young, I once went to a cafe near Osaka Prefecture University, where there were college students with guitars debating with one another. They were saying things like “Your interpretation is wrong.” They also expressed impressions like “I felt like I’d seen this sentence somewhere else” or how they felt like the work had left a signature. When people stop saying “this is what I think,” I think it becomes very lonely. When there’s something people don’t know, they can say things like, “What does this part mean?” and “What do you think?,” and “That’s a good opinion.”
DC: So you don’t want to give people the whole picture. Indeed, I feel that people who read your manga walk through the story along with the characters, and there are many times when you’re actively forced to think about the characters’ psychologies. On the other hand, if too many people in the world thought that the answers would always be provided, it would be quite boring. I agree with that sentiment. For instance, if you bought something, saying that I am 90 percent certain you must like it because you bought it, is somehow lacking. It’s a totally different world from the one where people are holding guitars and debating anime. This is a way in which you can independently create values within yourself.
We started our conversation today talking about bacteria and fermentation, and discussed your works in some depth. This was very satisfying for me as a fan of your works—and as a researcher, I also was able to get a lot of new ideas. Thank you for spending such a long time with me today. I’ll look forward to reading the future installments of Madowanai Hoshi.
Masayuki Ishikawa, born in Osaka, launched his career in 1997 with his serialization Nihon Seifu Chokkatsu Kidou Sentai Koumuin V (Japanese Government Direct Mobilization Squad Civil Servant V). In 1999, he was a semifinalist for the Tetsuya Chiba Prize with Kami No Sumu Yama (The Mountain Where Gods Live), included in Hitokiri Ryouma (Manslayer Ryouma). He began serializing Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture in 2004 (completed in 2014). With this series, he won the Grand Prize for the 12th Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize and the 32nd Kodansha Manga Award. As of 2009, he started working on Maria the Virgin Witch (completed in 2015), and in May 2015 he launched himself into Madowanai Hoshi (The Fearless Star)