Archive for March, 2009

アキラ, a Successful Long Project

March 29, 2009

I recently finished Akira Club, the companion to Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s long Akira series (アキラ in Japanese). It collects all the original title pages from the serialized version that appeared in Young Magazine, as well as sketches, recollections, and other Akira memorabilia.

Cover of Akira Club

I enjoyed the peek at the creative process. Sketches are paired with the final drawings as they appear in the magazine. Katsuhiro would often redraw pages for the collected works. The conversion from the Japanese right-to-left originals to the Western left-to-right presentation was rarely as easy as flipping the image. A complete redraw was required to get the text bubbles right, and for details like keeping the colonel’s suit buttoned on the right side.

With each episode, he would include a short report on his life, such as the June 20th, 1983 entry:

I went to Kanazawa and saw the elephant that opened its toes. Tatsuhiko Yamigami’s manga was true!

Here’s the September 3rd, 1984 entry:

I’ve done nothing but work this summer. I hate tanned people!

Amazingly, Katsuhiro was using Twitter-style updates 25 years ago.

The Akira project took thirteen years, from 1982 to 1995. This included 120 episodes of 16 to 20 pages, six Japanese collections, six international collections, an animated motion picture, and finally Akira Club. Katsuhiro’s final words are:

With this book, at long last, I can finally put the final period on the final sentence of Akira. Looking back on it now, it seemed very long and very short… And for every time I felt “Oh, I drew that well,” there was a time I felt I hadn’t drawn enough. Well, that’s how these things are, I guess… Several years ago — I forget how to describe my feelings exactly — I found this expression scrawled in a corner of my drawing board:

“If you eat, whether it makes you laugh or cry, it all comes out shit.” I apologize to those who were eating.

I am fascinated with long projects like Akira. At the start, did Katsuhiro know it would take 200 pages to finish? If he knew, would he have started? How much of his life did he have to put on hold? There are 19 months between episode 87 and 88 – how hard was it to take up the project again after that long of a pause? Was his ill health caused in part by the project? How much of the work was driven by the artist’s impulse, and how much was the necessity of paying the bills?

I’ve seldom heard or read of an artist in the middle of a long project express contentment about the work. They just aren’t pleased with what they produce – it must be improved. This must be combined with real pressures to release, often before the artist is ready. Successful projects require a useful vision and deadlines. Take away the vision, and you get an unfocused mess (see Dreaming in Code). Take away the deadlines, and you get endless polishing and starting over for little gain (see Chinese Democracy).

So, what keeps your long projects going?  What are they lacking?