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Interview: Takehiko Inoue

Manga Artist and Creator of Slam Dunk, Vagabond and Real

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Takehiko Inoue completes his mural at Books Kinokuniya New York City.

Takehiko Inoue at Books Kinokuniya NYC

© Deb Aoki

Takehiko Inoue, manga artist and the creator of Slam Dunk, arrived in New York City to paint a mural featuring characters from his other award-winning manga series, Vagabond. (See a photo gallery of Inoue-sensei painting and his completed mural at Kinokuniya) At just 40 years old, Inoue-sensei is a manga creator whose artistry and masterful storytelling has won him countless awards and fans around the world.

Inoue's mural painting event commemorated several events: the opening of the Books Kinokuniya Bryant Park store, and the late-summer release of his two basketball manga series, Slam Dunk and Real. VIZ Media will also release Inoue's two art books, Sumi and Water, plus a new omnibus edition of Vagabond in September 2008.

Dressed in low-key style in a soft black sweater and sneakers, Inoue-sensei was casual and friendly as he met and talked with several reporters. It's hard to explain, but as I watched him paint the finishing touches on his mural and mingle with well-wishers, he really did remind me of his manga characters: the street-smart athlete, the confident warrior, and the wise, easy-going monk.

I got a chance to chat with Inoue-sensei before he added the finishing touches on his mural, and we talked about his manga, his love for sports and his relationship with his readers.

Q: So when did you start working on this mural?

Takehiko Inoue: I started on Saturday.

Q: What made you decide to do this mural? It's a very unique project.

Takehiko Inoue: Just because it seemed kind of interesting and fun to do. (Note: Inoue-sensei completed most of the mural in a few hours over the weekend and added only a few finishing touches on Monday at the VIP and press reception.)

Q: We'll talk about the Vagabond, the characters that were painted for this mural in a bit, but I wanted to begin by talking about the series that was your first major success, Slam Dunk. Slam Dunk was first published in America in 2002 by Raijin Comics. When they went out of business, Slam Dunk was in limbo for some time. What made you decide that to try again with VIZ?

Takehiko Inoue: I thought it was a good idea to put it out again. Since Raijin had only put out five volumes, I thought it would make sense to put some space between that set of books before coming out with new editions.

Q: Slam Dunk is a manga about basketball, and I noticed in your bio that you played basketball in high school. What attracted you to the sport, and why draw a manga about basketball in particular?

Takehiko Inoue: I joined the basketball club in high school. The situation for basketball in Japan is very different than it is in the United States, as far as popularity. But I started playing because I wanted to be popular with the girls (laughs).

As far as the manga, in Slam Dunk, I wanted to convey the feelings of winning and losing, how an athlete feels when they improve, get better at their sport.

Q: Your sports manga has a lot of fast-paced, high adrenaline action. You really feel like you're there on the court with the athletes, and you can't help but get swept up in their emotions as they play. How do you capture the spirit of the game so well?

Takehiko Inoue: Basketball is one of my hobbies, so I'm always watching videos, reading magazines, looking at photos. But also, when I draw the manga, I'm drawing from my memories of playing, kind of like muscle memory. So I try to emphasize the little things that only a person who's played the game would know, like how it feels to hold the ball, how to shoot and how to handle the ball.

Q: One thing that people often mention about your storytelling is that you always include such great cliffhangers, that you pace your stories with a lot of compelling drama. Did that style of storytelling come naturally to you, or did you develop it over time?

Takehiko Inoue: I've never studied it, but when you draw a weekly serial, a story that you draw week after week, at some point, you develop the ability to do this.

Q: Another thing people love about your stories is that your characters are so complex, so with three-dimensional personalities. Are they based on people you know? Do you have a particular favorite character that's close to your heart?

Takehiko Inoue: A part of me is in each of my characters, so it's difficult to say that I have a particular favorite.

Q: My friend mentioned that she thought you looked like Takuan. (The monk from Vagabond)! (laughs)

Takehiko Inoue: (laughs) A lot of people tell me that!

Q: You went from Slam Dunk, and then went on to draw Vagabond and Real. While Vagabond still has a lot of action, there's also a theme about Musashi's spiritual evolution as a person, not just his sword-fighting skills. Is this change of emphasis a reflection on your personal evolution as well?

Takehiko Inoue: Yes, right. I wrote Slam Dunk when I was in my twenties. I had a simpler perspective on life when I was younger. At that time, my goals were more about winning and success. Now that I'm older, I know there's more to life than that.

Q: All of your male characters, from Slam Dunk, Real and Vagabond are very masculine, and your stories are very much from a guy's perspective for guys, primarily. Did it surprise you that your stories attract so many female fans as well?

Takehiko Inoue: I've always had a lot of female fans for my work, so it wasn't too much of a surprise.

Q: Your manga did a lot to make basketball more popular in Japan. What is basketball like now in Japan, compared to America?

Takehiko Inoue: Right after the manga came out, middle school and high school basketball clubs in Japan saw an increase in membership. But there's not much change at the top levels of the game, no significant pro leagues like there are in America, no stand-out superstar.

I think that the basketball association in Japan is perhaps not putting enough effort into promoting the sport in Japan. But that's just my personal opinion as a fan. (laughs)

(More on Page 2)
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