Q: So I read that you started a Slam Dunk Scholarship for Japanese students, to send an aspiring athlete to a U.S. prep school to study and play basketball in America. Is that your effort to promote the sport?
Takehiko Inoue: I'm a fan of basketball, and Japanese basketball. I want basketball in Japan to be something that kids can really be into, and have a goal to play at the top levels of the game. That's one reason. The other reason is that my success as a manga artist is largely due to basketball, and so I want to give back to the sport.
So having the player ultimately play in the NBA would be great – there would be nothing better than that. But that's not the goal of scholarship. I'd like the scholarship recipient to gain experience, and then whatever happens to them, wherever they go, I'd like for them to bring that experience back with them to Japan.
Q: Slam Dunk is a manga about Japanese high school athletes. Did it surprise you that Slam Dunk became so popular with readers in Europe, Asia and South America as well?
Takehiko Inoue: I feel that when people from other countries read Slam Dunk, they don't think of the characters as being Japanese. They think of as being the same as the people around them.
Q: Let's talk a bit about Vagabond, your current series. As a story set in feudal versus modern Japan, it's quite a change from Slam Dunk. I know it's based on the novel Musahi by Eiji Yoshikawa; what made you decide to choose this story as your follow-up after the success of Slam Dunk?
Takehiko Inoue: A basic reason that I decided to do Vagabond is that when I read Musashi, images just kept popping up in my head of what Musashi was like, what the characters would look like. The other reason is that after drawing a sports manga, I wanted to make a shift to a more serious story with more basic concepts, like life and death, the human condition, etc.
Q: Your artwork for Vagabond is just amazing, so detailed and dynamic. How long does it take for you to draw a chapter?
Takehiko Inoue: It takes me a week.
Q: Seriously? That's very fast for the amount of detail you put into it!
Takehiko Inoue: It's in a weekly magazine, so if I don't draw it in a week, it won't make it into the magazine! (laughs) But I don't draw it all myself. I draw all the people, and my assistants draw all the backgrounds.
Q: Still, that's amazing. How many assistants do you have?
Takehiko Inoue: Five.
Q: Phew. Wow. (everyone laughs) In Vagabond, the Miyamoto Musashi you draw is very different than the legendary swordsman we know from samurai movies and from his book of strategy, The Book of Five Rings. He's young, fierce and untamed. How did people react when you came out with your version?
Takehiko Inoue: Early on, I was told that my version is very different than any other version of the story of Miyamoto Musashi that has been told before. The Book of Five Rings, that was written by Musashi right before he died. In Vagabond, I'm portraying Musashi as he was as a young man, and nobody really knows how he was at that age. I also feel like there was no reason to portray Musashi in his enlightened state. I think it's important to convey the process of a young man reaching that point of enlightenment when he comes from a place of being so like an animal when he was younger.
Q: This is an ongoing series, right? How many volumes do you foresee that this story will be when it's completed?
Takehiko Inoue: (laughs, then pauses for a bit) I think maybe 29 volumes... less than 30, probably, but I'm not sure. (Note: Vagabond is up to 27 volumes in Japan so far)
Q: I've talked with several publishers here in the U.S. and they've said that so far, sports manga has been a hard sell to American audiences. Do you think Slam Dunk will be received differently?
Takehiko Inoue: The United States is a country that loves sports. With Slam Dunk, I’m trying to convey the feelings that people have when they're playing sports, when they love sports. These feelings are universal, so I'm not too worried about people responding to my work when I think of it that way.
Q: On that note, do you have any messages that you'd like to share with your fans, with your American readers who already love your work, and those who will soon be discovering it for the first time?
Takehiko Inoue: I'm very excited about my manga being published in different countries, and I'm especially excited about having it available in the United States. I consider the act of creating manga to be a kind of solitary experience, but when the reader reads my manga, I feel like I'm having one-on-one contact with them, even when I know it's being read by many, many readers all over the world. That's very rewarding for me, and it makes it all worthwhile.