Frederik Schodt’s Four Decades as a Manga Ambassador to the WorldCulture
900 Pages on the “God of Manga”
“I have to admit I’m a bit nervous speaking in front of a crowd with so many old friends in it,” said Frederik Schodt at the beginning of his February 8, 2017, lecture at the Japan Foundation’s Tokyo office. The veteran translator, writer, and introducer of Japanese manga to foreign audiences was not mistaken—his quip met with warm laughter from acquaintances including fellow translators, artists, and representatives of Tezuka Productions, the animation studio founded by legendary manga artist Tezuka Osamu (1928–89) in 1968.
Schodt’s latest work, and the reason he was in Tokyo, is The Osamu Tezuka Story (2016). Achieved with financial assistance from a Japan Foundation program supporting the publication of Japanese literary works in foreign languages, this 900-plus-page tome is the complete translation of Tezuka Osamu monogatari, a manga by Ban Toshio covering the entire life and career of the “god of manga,” who created Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and many other beloved works. Originally serialized in Asahi Graph from 1989, soon after Tezuka’s death, to 1992, this manga presents not just the development of Tezuka as an artist over the years but also the development of Japan itself, from the tumult of World War II through the postwar reconstruction right up through the country’s modern prosperity.
“Manga and anime are now a field for academic work, and there are even master’s and PhD programs in manga studies at universities around the world,” noted Schodt. “I chose to translate this book in part because it was something that scholars were already referencing in their papers, and I thought it deserved to be read in English too.” Tezuka Osamu monogatari has already been translated into French, its first foreign appearance, along with Italian, Portuguese, and Korean.
One of his most pleasant discoveries while translating the work, said Schodt, was spotting a familiar face in it—his own. In December 1978 Tezuka made a trip to Los Angeles, where he visited the Disney Productions animator Ward Kimball at his home. In a frame based on a photo from the Tezuka Productions files, Kimball, an avid model train collector, shows one of his tracks to Tezuka while a vest-wearing Schodt stands by, ready to interpret.
An Early Introduction to Manga
Schodt first came to Japan in 1965. As a teenager attending an international school in Tokyo, his first years in the country were not marked by a love of manga. “I don’t really remember there being much of a manga scene at the time,” he spoke at the lecture. “Certainly not like today, when you see shelves of them even in ramen shops and cafés.” His own lifelong infatuation with Japan’s comics would not begin until his college days, when he returned once more to Japan in 1970 as an exchange student at International Christian University in west Tokyo.
The intensive Japanese language program at ICU involved eight hours a day of classwork, but the young Schodt made manga a part of his learning outside the classroom. “There was something of a manga boom underway among the university set at the time, and I got into it too.” He recalls becoming a fan of Akatsuka Fujio, whose gag-laden works like Osomatsu-kun and Tensai Bakabon (The Genius Bakabon) were easy for a language learner to approach. “But then a friend of mine told me, ‘You’ve got to read Hi no tori.’ When I got my hands on a copy, it was revelatory. It really matched the philosophical musings I was going through at the time.”
Hi no tori, published in English as Phoenix, is a sprawling, unfinished series by Tezuka set in eras from the mythical past to the sci-fi future and exploring everything from immortality and death to religion and human nature. It would be the first Tezuka work for Schodt to tackle as a translator.
After graduation, he returned to the United States and worked in various jobs, including as a tour guide for visiting Japanese groups. A desire to hone his interpreting skills took him back to Tokyo in 1975 on a Ministry of Education grant. He fell in with ICU friends Sakamoto Shinji, Ueda Midori, and Jared Cook, forming a group named Dadakai that marked the beginning of his career as a manga translator.
Dadakai would not last for long, but while it was active its members visited some of the titans of the manga scene to obtain permission to translate their works. To laughter from the audience, Schodt recalled the cold call he and Cook made to Matsumoto Leiji, author of Uchū senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato) and Ginga tetsudō 999 (Galaxy Express 999). “We heard Matsumoto-sensei was into motorcycles, so we decided to make a good impression by riding our bikes over to see him—of course, in our full riding leathers!” While it never saw publication, they were able to translate some of his work as a result of that day’s ride.
Meeting the “God of Manga”
The successful pitch was that made to Tezuka Osamu. In 1977 Schodt visited Tezuka Productions to ask for permission to translate Hi no tori into English. “We got an appointment to meet with Matsutani [Takayuki, today president of the company] and went on over. He looked very sleepy that day; I remember he was wearing slippers.” (A grinning Matsutani, in the audience for Schodt’s lecture, agreed that this was probably true—Tezuka was known for working a grueling schedule, and his company’s staff were hard-pressed to keep up.) “Imagine our surprise when Tezuka-sensei himself came out! I heard later that he thought I was quite an imposing figure, due to my height, and looked a bit scary, with my shaggy 1970s hairstyle . . .”
The great artist was not scared of the idea of working with Schodt, however. The American would go on to accompany Tezuka on several of his trips abroad, interpreting for him. More importantly, he would translate many of his works into English, sharing them with a growing global population of manga fans.
The first Tezuka work that Schodt and Cook translated was Hi no tori. They completed the English manuscripts for the first five volumes, but due to a lack of a market for translated manga at the time, they remained unpublished for nearly a quarter of a century. In 2002 they began being published by the US firm Viz Media, and the translator duo completed the 12-volume set, which was published in full at last in 2007.
Also from Tezuka’s catalog, Schodt produced translations for all 23 volumes of Tetsuwan Atomu—in Japan, the most popular work by the “god of manga”—and Tsumi to batsu, his manga reimagining of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He also translated the eight-volume Pluto, a vastly expanded reimagining of a single Astro Boy episode by Urasawa Naoki.
Man of Many Niches
Outside of Tezuka’s oeuvre, Schodt has tackled Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen), working with Jared Cook in 1978 to produce an English version of the second volume in Nakazawa Keiji’s semiautobiographical take on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In the 1990s, he translated Shirow Masamune’s Kōkaku kidōtai (Ghost in the Shell), working with the celebrated editor Toren Smith of Studio Proteus, one of the first companies to focus on localizing Japan’s manga for English readers.
“Another manga was one that I actually translated twice,” he told the crowd at his lecture. “This was Berusaiyu no bara [The Rose of Versailles], by Ikeda Riyoko. The first time I did it was in 1978 or so, when I was translating for the language-services company Simul International. We got the job to do a quick-and-dirty translation of it—nothing for publication, but just to get the material to some Hollywood screenwriters, who would put together a script for the French director Jacques Demy. He turned it into a live-action version of the story, the 1979 Lady Oscar. My second translation, done around 1980, was only of the first two volumes. It went to San’yūsha, a publisher that wanted to turn it into a textbook of sorts for Japanese learners of English.”
Schodt is also an accomplished translator of nonmanga material, as well as an author in his own right of texts on popular culture, history, and much more. As he notes on his website: “As popular as manga and anime are today, I know very few people who actually make a living translating manga and anime exclusively; most are forced to work in other areas as well.” At his lecture, however, he laughed: “I only write extremely niche material that doesn’t sell. I’m proud of that.”
Among his publications are The Four Immigrants Manga (1998), a translation of a 1931 comic volume by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama depicting the lives of four young Japanese men living in the United States from 1904 to 1924. Schodt fleshed out the stories on these pages with copious historical notes and a foreword contextualizing the experiences of these young men a century ago. He is also the author of Dreamland Japan (1996), a guide to developments in the Japanese manga world following the end of the bubble economy that remains his only book to be translated into Japanese (as Nippon manga ron); and The Astro Boy Essays (2007), a collection of writing on Tezuka Osamu, his work, and his impact on Japanese culture.
A Pioneer Sharer of Japan’s Pop Culture
Before any of these, though, in 1983 he wrote Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. As noted by the moderator at his lecture, the comic translator and manga researcher Shiina Yukari, this was a publication that arrived well before its time: an overview of the vibrant world of manga that appeared decades before anything like a “manga boom” appeared in Western markets around the turn of the millennium. In Japan, though, the book made a splash, winning him a Manga Oscar Award from the Japan Cartoonists Association. The book’s visibility was helped greatly by Tezuka Osamu, who appeared alongside Schodt at a book-signing event at a Tokyo department store.
“Whenever Tezuka-sensei signed a book,” recalled Schodt, “he wouldn’t be content just writing his name. He would always add a quick sketch of one of his characters, which greatly pleased the fans. I’m sure there was someone from his company there—probably Matsutani-san—telling him ‘Hurry up, sensei, we can’t stay here all day long.’ But he was insistent on adding this personal touch in all his interactions with those who came to meet him.
“And they sure weren’t there to meet me!” laughed Schodt, who said that this was almost certainly the best day ever in terms of sales of his book.
One hopes that his latest book will also see healthy sales. The Osamu Tezuka Story is a lively read, despite its daunting length, presenting a detailed look at the life of the artist from childhood through the end of an illustrious career. It also sheds light on the development of Japan through much of the modern era, from the prewar years of Tezuka’s childhood through the darkness and deprivation of the wartime and early postwar era, right up through the country’s return to modern prosperity.
The hardest part of the translation, noted Schodt, was not part of Ban’s pictorial presentation of the life of Tezuka, but the comprehensive lists of all of the works produced by the master during his amazingly productive career. Spanning some 40 pages of the book, these lists present all of Tezuka’s known manga, anime, essays, and other works, in chronological order. “It’s a real challenge to do this sort of translation. You list the original titles, but some of them have already been translated into English, so you have to use those translated titles. Or do you? Sometimes the titles were created by translators who, frankly, weren’t up to the task. And sometimes you have English titles added to the Japanese editions by the original editors, which might not be usable. It’s a real balancing act to decide when to take what’s there and when not to.
“My publisher was kind enough to suggest that maybe we didn’t need this material,” Schodt said, “but I did it anyway. I felt a sort of sense of duty to do so.”
English-speaking manga fans can all be grateful that Frederik Schodt’s sense of duty has driven him in this way to faithfully share the delights discovered in the world of Japan’s manga.(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Frederik Schodt addresses an audience full of familiar faces in Tokyo on February 8, 2017.)