In his first ever interview, manga creator Ryōtaro Ueda discusses his premiere manga Hana-chan and the Shape of the World. The unique volume follows the imaginative Hana-chan, a young girl living in rural Japan and her simple adventures that belie grander, existential topics. Ueda goes into detail about the thin veil between the living and the dead, and the in-between world as Hana-chan experiences it.
If you would, could you please introduce yourself? When did you first begin working on the
story in Hana-chan and did you have any earlier artistic work before it appeared in Comic Beam?
Ueda: My name is Ryōtaro Ueda. After graduating college, I got a job drawing backgrounds in animation. I got to work on many properties, and it was a very fulfilling job, but it was fundamentally in support of someone else’s work. As the years went on, I wanted to draw my own stories and my own art more and more, so I began uploading pieces to the internet starting in 2015. I’d been helping with other people’s works for so long that I didn’t really know what my “own art” should be, so initially I was just uploading fan art of one of my favorite manga, Yokohama
Kaidashi Kikô (Yokohama Shopping Trip) by Hitoshi Ashinano. Around 2017, I started doing more original stuff, and that was when I developed the character of Hana-chan.
My first drawing of Hana-chan is in the table of contents of the book, where she’s wearing a headlamp and trying to catch a cat. After I finished it, my first thought was, “I could draw more of her.” It felt like a sudden, unexpected windfall.
As I drew Hana-chan in various scenarios, I stumbled into other characters like her friend Uta-chan and her cat. Eventually, in the April 2018 issue of Comic Beam, I had a one-shot called “The Shape of the Storm.” Comic Beam let me draw a few more short stories on an irregular basis, and then put out the book Hana-chan and the Shape of the World in 2019.
Before “The Shape of the Storm,” I’d never drawn a full manga before. Everything was a new experiment for me. I got lots of advice from everyone at Comic Beam, and I’m very grateful for that.
Hana-chan’s world seems to fluidly blend reality with the imagination of a child. Can you talk a bit about what inspired Hana-chan’s outlook?
Ueda: A major foundation of this manga is disparate tactile sensations I remember from my childhood: the restless feeling and the vastness of the atmosphere on a stormy night, the chill seeping between the boards on a snowy day, the softness of a pet’s belly, and so on.
When I was a child, I picked up on things that were a bit askew from what we consider ordinary reality. I was afraid of wood knots; I heard the books on the shelf begin to whisper at night; I felt like the flicker of old fluorescent lights were messages of some kind. Maybe lots of children experience these things. What if those odd sensations aren’t just illusions, but a different and equally valid way of observing the world? I think the supposedly firm outlines of the world we know are actually much vaguer and more indistinct than we like to think—that things we believe are divided and distinct
actually blend together, and things we think are seamless are actually separate in nature. I’ve seen games on Japanese TV where a person reaches into a blind box and tries to guess what’s inside. When you can only use your sense of touch, a simple cucumber could become an enormous snake.
So I think a fundamental aspect of my manga is exploring what it might look like to rearrange the world based on these disparate tactile sensations alone. (Perhaps the light coming through the eye of a storm takes the form of a human being.)
Unlike a lot of manga brought to the west, Hana-chan and the Shape of the World takes place in rural Japan. What do you think it is about this setting that makes the story unique? Do you have any personal experience living in or visiting the Japanese countryside?
Ueda: The setting of this manga is a small village at the foot of a mountain in rural Japan. It’s based on the town where I was born and raised, and still live today. But I envision the setting as taking place a bit earlier, in the ’80s.
When I was a kid, this town had rice paddies with irregular, free-flowing shapes. But they performed some major cultivation on the land in the 1980s and turned them all into well-regulated square paddies. The school got rebuilt from wood into reinforced concrete, and the roads all got paved. They also built some industrial plots and built up residential areas here and there. The whole town changed.
I drew Hana-chan’s world in the era just before these changes took over. Although I wasn’t able to draw it into existence, I had ideas for another story in which the girls grew up alongside those changes, and the empty fields from “Disaster in the Weeds” turned into a residential zone. I’m sure that changes in rural areas are one of those topics I’ll always be thinking about as a story theme.
Hana-chan’s world is full of unique characters, but I’m especially interested in the chapter, “Hana-chan’s Disaster in the Weeds” which includes all sorts of sci-fi elements. How much of this chapter was “real” and how much of it was the children’s imaginations? When it comes to the adults organizing the “controlled burn,” is that also something that happens regularly?
Ueda: In “Disaster in the Weeds,” I really tried to blur the boundary between fantasy and reality. Where does reality end, and where does fantasy begin? Even I don’t know. (Although it would be more accurate to say I chose not to think about it. To Hana-chan and her friends, of course, it is quite real.) In this story, I wasn’t too concerned about it not making sense. The results may have been a little extreme, though.
Burning fields was often done to preserve farmland, but in the manga, they’re doing it to wipe out weeds and brush that have grown on abandoned land. I used to see this often in the area where I live, but it’s much less frequent in recent years because of environmental concerns and newer regulations.
The emotional connection between Uta-chan and Hana-chan is quite strong. How would you describe their relationship?
Ueda: When I was younger, I found socializing difficult and always kept others at a certain distance, so I didn’t really have any close friends. Hana-chan and Uta-chan are best friends, and I’m kind of jealous of their bond. Hana-chan is always moving forward, following her sense of curiosity, and sometimes leaving Uta-chan behind. Uta-chan is always chasing after Hana-chan and trying to hold her back when she’s gone too far.
Uta-chan maintains an objective viewpoint and observes the world carefully at all times. Hana-chan uses her own subjective senses and tries to reach out to the world at all times.
“Uta-chan’s Homework” starts with the girls in a sort of “secret hideout” in an abandoned car but it ends up taking them far from home. Can you talk a little about where the two girls end up (there appears to be a lot of ruins) and why Uta-chan becomes so concerned about Hana-chan in the ocean? (Also, why the water tastes like peaches?)
Ueda: In Japan, especially rural Japan, there’s a deep-rooted belief that the souls of the dead travel to the tops of mountains or across the sea. The sea is said to be the cradle of life, but I also think it smells like death. There is Japanese mythology that says beyond the sea is a rich land where life abounds but is also the place where the dead go. Many of our stories involve the Sanzu River, which the souls of the dead must cross.
The sweet seawater is an alluring thing meant to draw human beings away, in the same way that nectar lures in insects. It’s a gentle, decadent sweetness, like honey on the verge of going bad. Uta-chan is the kind of person for whom fear wins out over curiosity. She’s always thinking about the way back home, and she observes the unknown carefully, from a distance. Perhaps she sensed death when she saw the black sinking sun, and Hana-chan melting into it.
There’s always a little bit of darkness hiding behind the kids’ adventures, for instance, it appears that in “Ballad of the Sun” that the woman of the house with all the cats may very well be deceased in the next room. Could you talk a little about balancing these dark and light elements in the story?
Ueda: Even now as an adult, when I touch my cat’s belly and feel the warmth, softness, respiration, and
heartbeat, I become afraid. It makes me want to pull my hand away. Maybe it’s because I’m experiencing the presence of another whom I will never truly understand. If I were to pinch that tummy, let’s say, I can never know for certain how that feels to the cat, and what sort of emotional reaction it will cause. It’s that kind of fear. On the other hand, when rubbing my cat’s stomach, I also feel the desire to keep my hand there, to continue feeling those sensations. That’s a kind of curiosity.
Curiosity and fear are different sides of the same thing, and it’s when I’m in contact with the unknown that I feel this dichotomy the strongest. “Ballad of the Sun” was created first and foremost with this sensation of “touching the unknown” in mind.
After the widow died, the cats ate her body, which is the kind of thing that happens a lot in real life. I don’t think we can possibly know exactly why they eat us, whether out of love, or simple hunger, or something else. Meanwhile, Hana-chan feels scared of the warmth of the cat on her lap, but she’s still drawn to it and wants to keep feeling that sensation.
Living with other species of animals is a very ordinary thing to do, but it’s also very strange, if you stop and think about it. Our relationships with species that can’t understand our language are complex, and it feels like there’s a tightrope act being performed at all times, that we’re “making it work in practical terms.” Not that I think there’s a way to handle this relationship that isn’t a tightrope.
Now that Hana-chan and the Shape of the World is completed, are there other stories you are considering for your next manga? Is there an artistic venture you’d like to try next?
Ueda: I’m working on something, although it’s not really coming into form yet. I want to set it in a
place that’s different from Hana-chan, but its sensibilities and the feeling of change coming over a rural
landscape will still be front and center in my mind, I think.
Thank you very much for your questions.
Hana-chan and the Shape of the World is available to purchase from Yen Press. Anime News Network would like to thank Yen Press for helping facilitate this interview.
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