An Exclusive Interview With Tonoharu Creator, Lars Martinson

If you are considering teaching English in Japan, my best advice as a former ALT is to buy a copy of Tonoharu Part One and read the introduction. In the first sixteen pages of this graphic novel, cartoonist Lars Martinson lays bare the assistant language teaching experience, making way for a story seldom told about the life of a foreigner in Japan.

A former English teacher himself, Martinson draws from his own experience to create a fictional account of a young man named Dan Wells. The story is often ambient and introspective, emphasizing the day to day events of life abroad. Our hero, Dan, is a passive character rarely found in American storytelling. Martinson expertly guides Dan through the story and keeps him balanced, so we can easily look down on his passiveness in one scene and sympathize with it in the next. This expertise makes Tonoharu more than a mere parody of teaching English in Japan. It is a purposeful tale of a fully realized character teaching English in Japan, which in itself is rare.

The art, of course, is what draws most people to check out the series in the first place (myself included). Martinson’s style is reminiscent of the Belgian artist, Herge. The intricate backgrounds contrast with the simpler designs of the characters, allowing the reader to inhabit the story’s environments. Of course, there is little I can say that the art itself can’t say better.

lars-martinson2-700pxImage from Lars Martinson / Media

Lars Martinson studied East Asian Calligraphy for two years in Fukuoka after his initial experience of English teaching. His own personal style, compounded with his knowledge of ancient inking technique, really shows and the art alone is worth a purchase of both volumes.

A paperback edition of Tonoharu Part One is due out this summer. Until then, hardcover editions of both parts are available through most book retailers and Martinson’s own website: http://larsmartinson.com/buy/

For the tech-savvy, Martinson’s more light-hearted e-comics are available digitally: http://larsmartinson.com/e-comics/

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to correspond with Lars for an EXCLUSIVE Tofugu interview! Below are insights into his stories, his art, his process and, most excitingly, the future volumes of Tonoharu!

For those who may not know, who is Lars Martinson?

lars-martinson-700pxImage from Lars Martinson / Media

I’m an American cartoonist that has spent half of my adult life in Japan. For the past decade I’ve been working on a graphic novel series entitled Tonoharu.

What is Tonoharu about?

Tonoharu tells the story of a young American who moves to rural Japan to work as an assistant English teacher. It is based (in part) on my own experience doing the same from 2003 to 2006.

Because Tonoharu is fictionalized and not a direct telling of your Japan experience, what inspired you to tell this story? Did you have an “aha” moment?

I’ve always been frustrated by how hard is it to relate my experiences in Japan to friends and family back home. It’s sort of like when you try to describe a dream to someone. It’s fascinating to you because you experienced it firsthand, but it’s almost always tedious for the listener because they don’t have the same frame of reference. My inspiration to create Tonoharu came from a desire to bridge this gap; to describe the experience of living abroad in a visceral way.

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that your main character, Dan Wells, is not you but merely a fictionalized character. That being said, how do you as his creator feel about him and his decisions? Was he difficult to write?

I’m certainly more driven than Dan. I made much more of an effort to improve my Japanese abilities when I first arrived in Japan, and have a clearer sense of what I want to do with my life. That said, I share a number of qualities with him, so he wasn’t hard to write. Like Dan I’m introverted, and often struggle to form meaningful connections with people around me.

How much Japanese did you know when you went on JET? How did the language barrier affect your experience?

I knew very little Japanese when I first arrived. Just a little bit of hiragana and katakana, and basic grammar. It improved quickly, but even now I feel like I have a long way to go. I heard somewhere that you can become fluent in three European languages in the same amount of time it takes to learn Japanese, and I believe it. It’s a huge undertaking.

One interesting consequence of my mediocre Japanese abilities is I tend to be more forthright when I speak it. It’s easy to be evasive in English since its my native tongue, but in Japanese I don’t have the language skills to dance around the subject. So I’m forced to distill what I want to say down to its naked essence. There’s a Dostoyevsky quote that goes “Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence squirms and hides itself. Intelligence is unprincipled, but stupidity is honest and straightforward.” I feel like this applies to how I use English compared to how I use Japanese.

Your main character, Dan, goes through a difficult bout of negative culture shock in the first volume. Did you have a similar experience?

lars-martinson3-700pxImage from Lars Martinson / Media

Most people who live abroad experience culture shock to some degree, and I’m certainly no exception. I sometimes worry that I favored those negative moments a little too much in the first volume of Tonoharu, because many people who read it seem to assume I had an unequivocally horrible time in Japan, which certainly wasn’t the case at all.

You went back to Japan to study calligraphy for two years after finishing JET. How did that trip affect your art and your relationship with Japan?

Before I really got into it, I had no idea how deep East Asian calligraphy is, both in terms of history and technique. I’m now convinced that it’s the most sophisticated line art tradition in the world, hands down.

When a cartoonist wants to improve their penciling, they usually study Western art fundamentals such as perspective, anatomy and composition. I would argue that Eastern art fundamentals are just as useful to learn comic inking. Practicing East Asian calligraphy has improved my inking more than anything else I can point to.

Regarding your calligraphy learning experience, was it more of a disciplined practice that enhanced the skill you already had or was there something inherent in East Asian calligraphy that got added to you? Do you have any stories about the learning experience?

The discipline was certainly a huge part of it. Art classes in the US tend to emphasize personal expression over technique, so student critiques can be vague and coddling. The calligraphy classes I took in Japan were the exact opposite. We would be tasked with replicating a piece of classic calligraphy as accurately as possible. We’d show our attempt to the professor, who would point out where we went wrong, and we’d try again. They were technical exercises rather than creative ones, but they helped me learn how to control the brush in a way I never would have if left to my own devices. These skills, in turn, benefited my creative work.

Beyond technique, East Asian calligraphy has a number of qualities that informed my development as a cartoonist. It’d be too lengthy to get into them here, but if anyone’s interested I wrote a few entries about it on my blog:

http://larsmartinson.com/thoughts-about-lines/

What inspires you as an artist in the realms outside of comics? Music, film, visual art, etc.

I’ve always been fond of stories told through pictures, so most of what inspires me has visual and/or narrative elements. Wong Kar-wai movies, Knut Hamsun novels, and Hokusai’s sketchbook collections spring to mind as sources of inspiration. For music I really like Scandinavian folk; Hedningarna and Triakel are particularly good.

Recently I’ve become intrigued by the narrative potential of video games. I played Persona 4 Golden on the Vita last year, and it’s taken a place among my favorite narrative experiences in any medium. It paints a surprisingly subtle and nuanced portrait of a Japanese school life for a game that features demon-summoning and serial murder.

What is your favorite manga or manga artist? What draws you to that manga/artist?

I read tons of translated manga when I was in high school. Favorites at the time included Masamune Shirow, Johji Manabe, and Rumiko Takahashi. Eventually my interests drifted elsewhere, so I have to admit I’m not too familiar with the current manga scene. My favorite manga these days is hardly cutting edge: “Sazae-san” by Machiko Hasegawa. I explain why I admire it in this comic:

http://media.boingboing.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/sazae_930px_1.jpg

http://media.boingboing.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/sazae_930px_2.jpg

http://media.boingboing.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/sazae_930px_3.jpg

What has been the reaction of Japanese people who have read your graphic novel?

tonoharucover-700pxImage from Lars Martinson / Media

More than anything Japanese people tend to be surprised by the format. The Tonoharu books are hardcovers with two-color interior pages, which is all but unheard of in the manga world. Manga is usually first serialized in weekly or monthly b&w anthologies, so creative choices such as page sizes and printing methods are out of artists’ hands. Conversely, anything goes for American indie comics, so there’s a lot more diversity in terms of presentation, use of color, and binding.

Many of our readers have expressed interest in moving to Japan to become mangaka. What advice would you have for them?

I’ve never actually worked in the Japanese comics industry, so I’ll refrain from speculating on that in particular. But in broader terms, I wouldn’t advise pursuing a “career” as an artist unless you can’t imagine being happy doing anything else.

By some measures, Tonoharu has been a massive success; it’s been covered in the Wall Street Journal and Entertainment Weekly, translated into French and Spanish, and has sold out two hardcover printings with a paperback edition coming down the pipeline. But for all that, I’ve never made anything even approaching a living wage off of my work. Granted, I don’t have many books to sell, since I work at a glacial pace (spending more than ten years on three books is pretty ridiculous). But either way, trying to make a living as an artist rarely makes financial sense no matter how productive you are.

That said, I’m certainly not trying to dissuade people from pursuing something they’re passionate about. Obviously I wish I made more money from my comics, but I don’t for a second regret creating them. I guess my advice to someone looking to work in the Japanese comics industry would be the painfully obvious; strive to improve your craft as much as possible, and become proficient in Japanese. And make sure you’re having fun doing it, because there’s a good chance it may not provide as much monetary compensation as you’d like.

Tonoharu Part Two ends with a cliffhanger. What is in store for Dan in the third volume?

With each book, I’ve tried to capture different aspects of the experience of teaching in Japan. Notably absent in the first two books is any sort of meaningful interaction between Dan and his students, so I devote a significant chunk of the third book to that. This makes for some of my favorite scenes in the whole series, so I hope readers enjoy it as well.

What is your opinion of Japanese cake?

Almost always disappointing.

  • https://twitter.com/Qndrez Qndrez

    Very interesting read :)

    One of my favorite webcomic authors (Mary Cagle, of comic ‘Kiwi Blitz’) recently moved to Japan to teach English, and has been tweeting and making comics a lot about life over there. I really like reading that kind of thing, and will be checking out Lars’ comics as well.

    Oh, and if anyone’s interested:
    Mary Cagle’s Journal comics: http://cubewatermelon.tumblr.com/tagged/journal-comic

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I’m a big fan of the art style!

  • Michael Richey

    Yes! Me too. It’s a “come for the art, stay for the story” kind of deal.

  • Brad Garrett

    What is your opinion of Japanese cake?
    Almost always disappointing.
    ——————————————————————–
    Yes.

  • Lesa Kenner

    I lived in Japan for three years and I totally agree with the disappointing cake.

  • https://twitter.com/RochelleBreen Rochelle

    Same, and what a great way of putting it, Michael. This is an excellent article!

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    There are a lot of people teaching English in Japan and sharing their experience with other in blogs, books, comic books or videos. That’s not rare anymore nowadays.
    I haven’t heard of this artist yet, so I’m really thankful for the introduction and the interview.
    I’ll certainly check it out.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I’ve been in Japan for 6 years now and I never really thought that the cake sucks, but then again I’m not really a cake person. ;)

  • http://shanghaironin.wordpress.com/ Shanghai Ronin

    Wow, what a crazy coincidence. A post about the monbukagakusho scholarship and then one about Lars Martinsen…. Coincidence? I think not! When I was applying for the MEXT scholarship for a masters and was desperately scouring the net for information, one of the only resources I found was Lars Martinsen’s website. I was amazed at his field of study (calligraphy, which I also studied in Japan for 2 years) and EXTREMELY grateful for his extremely helpful tips. I don’t know why a link isn’t posted? But anyone that is doing MEXT should definitely look at his advice: http://larsmartinson.com/how-i-got-the-monbusho-research-scholarship-part-1-of-4/ I never got to thank him for all of the help he gave me so… now I want to say.. thank you! Your artwork is amazing, I love how you mix the lines of calligraphy and manga and weave it into a story about us lost foreigners in the land of the rising sun. I’m glad Tonoharu was a success and good luck with your future works!

  • Mami

    It’s funny! lol I feel the same way to Canadian cake…:P

  • Mami

    Me too:D You know what? His manga even beat Game of Thrones in 2012!!! ゚+.(◕ฺ ω◕ฺ )゚+.

  • Kavita Singh

    YES this is at my library :D

  • Guest

    Agreed. I can’t stand Western cake (USA/UK/Canada). They’re almost ALWAYS too sweet, the icing is slathered on and the flavors are too intense. Give me a Japanese Castella or Baumkuchen ANY day. Yes, I know they’re not traditional Japanese cakes, but then you could argue that neither is tempura. The asian stores here with some of the Chinese cakes are always the best. Of course, if you’re stuck on a western diet, the chances are you’ll find most Japanese foods tasteless.

    The reality is that your tastebuds are too desensitized from eating things like ketchup-flavored potato chips and cakes served with icing.

  • chikaraginger

    Anyone who doesn’t like Japanese cake probably judges cake on the thickness of its icing. Japan has perfected the art of Baumkuchen and Castella and make some AMAZING cakes. OF course, they’re not sickly sweet and you can taste the actual cake instead of the icing sugar, so I can see why people not used to subtler tastes are disappointed.

  • Yu

    nice

  • snorenose

    I’m also a fan of Sazae-san. Although my Japanese isn’t good enough to really understand it.
    I hadn’t heard of Lars Martinson’s books before. This article inspired me to order them. Agree with everyone saying the art is very appealing. Can’t wait to get into this.

  • Gaijin

    Actually Japanese pastries, the European kind, are fantastic! And the traditional kind are fantastic as well. Just the right amount of sweet. You can actually taste the subtle combinations that the bakers put in. American sweets are way too sweet and over processed, like disgusting grocery store cakes. Take Japanese and European sweets any day. And, Meiji chocolate is the best as well. Wished you could go back to America and I could take your place in Japan. Never wanted to leave.