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Interview with Kengan Ashura editor Sho Kobayashi

The Men Behind “Kengan Ashura” – Interview with Martial Artist & Manga Editor Sho Kobayashi

The fighting anime “Kengan Ashura” began distribution in July 2019 over Netflix, and its second part just started airing on October 31st. With this creator interview, we hope to find its appeal and give you a glimpse at things behind the scenes. Joining us for the interview is Sho Kobayashi, editor for the manga. He’s an experienced martial artist himself, but having experienced both editing for a women’s fashion magazine and the production of manga, his career is a curious one. For manga in particular, he’s raised new talent, fostered transmedia expansion, and even sparred with a manga creator. We’ll ask him about his passion for manga and creative pursuits.

OTAQUEST: Generally speaking, manga editors in Japan are thought of as office workers with a wide range of responsibilities, like helping manga artists come up with ideas and serving as their producers. Would you mind explaining the job of a manga editor in your own words?

Sho Kobayashi: At publishing companies in America like Marvel Entertainment, you’ll find experts in specific fields like story writers, inkers, and colorists, but all of the basic work for a manga is done by its singular manga artist (*note that manga artists often have hired assistants). Editors assist manga artists so that they can guarantee an entertaining product reaches readers, especially for weekly publications. Kengan Ashura has a two-artist team, with Mr. Yabako Sandrovich writing, and Mr. Daromeon handling the art. As editor, I direct them from a position between their writing and drawing sides, not unlike an anime director. I also have responsibilities back at the publication company, like manga publication and advertising, or transmedia supervision and production. In most cases, each manga series will have one editor assigned to it. In addition to this series, I oversee eight other series simultaneously.

OTAQUEST: Despite “Kengan Ashura” being the debut work of the Yabako-Daromeon team, it took off in a huge way. How did you discover their talent?

Sho Kobayashi: I first reached out to them in summer 2011. During that time, I had spent 3 years editing for a women’s fashion magazine, and despite finally getting my transfer to the manga editing department, I wasn’t able to get involved in manga production right away. Editors younger than me were given preference for handling amateur artists who bring in manuscripts, so I had to search for manga artists. My method was to reach out to people online posting manga and illustrations who I felt had potential. Mr. Yabako was one such person, and he was publishing his manga “Gudo no Kobushi” <gudounokobushi.web.fc2.com> to a personal site at that time. Apparently, back then he worked at an office, he drew manga as a hobby when he came from work. His original intention was to write a novel, but he figured that he could get more people to read his work if it was in the form of rough-draft manga panels. He came to understand how to draw manga in the process of updating that series daily.

OTAQUEST: So Mr. Yabako’s approach to drawing rough drafts is also homebrew, then? What part of the series struck you as appealing?

Sho Kobayashi: His brilliant character builds and writing. His previous work (Gokudo no Kobushi) featured a martial arts tournament, so a great number of characters made appearances, but each one was fascinating and remained in my mind after reading. That’s proof that the characters he draws are unique. And ever since becoming a shonen manga editor, I had always wanted to make a fighting manga with someone who can draw great battles and characters. So I got in contact with Mr. Yabako, and learned that he too had martial arts experience, so together we had a lot of ideas for martial art techniques. Working together, what really convinced me he had chops for manga was his writing for characters. He’s particularly talented at expressing the feelings of characters who have lost a match. Nobody out there ever studies martial arts and wins every match. I should know, I walked that path. So I can assure you Mr. Yabako is talented at expressing the feelings and bitterness felt by the losers, and convince you that if they return to the ring, they might just win. That’s a very important thing for fighting manga. If there’s only ever one winner, everyone else are losers. So in fighting manga, the losers tend to fade away. But in his manga, all fighters retain their element of coolness, even if they lose. That’s vital for making good manga characters. And in Mr. Daromeon’s drawings, you’ll see people who look satisfied even having lost, you know, good sports about it. His art style is cool to begin with, but it also brings out the attractiveness of each character. For “Kengan Ashura”, I feel that the two of them are putting their greatest talents together.

OTAQUEST: And how did you meet Mr. Daromeon?

Sho Kobayashi: Mr. Daromeon was another uploader. His domain was Nico Nico Seiga (A site for posting illustrations and manga: seiga.nicovideo.jp), and he would live-stream himself with a web camera, talking and drawing. Some of his topics he would get from his audience. Kind of a like a Youtuber, you might say. He was already good at building his following and was a popular figure. He even spent his teenage years in America, where he picked up a knack at drawing the macho figures present in American comics. The body is a big part of fighting manga, which requires convincing physical figures. However, when you approach super-realistic depictions of muscles, things start to get gnarly. Thankfully, his art style carries the pop sensibility of American comics. And that’s why I felt that if I combined the two of them, an interesting reaction would occur.

Interview with Kengan Ashura editor Sho Kobayashi

OTAQUEST: It looks like they clicked like puzzle pieces.

Sho Kobayashi: When I got in contact with Mr. Yabako, I told him I wanted to put together a team for a new fighting manga and asked him for ideas. It wasn’t long before he gave me the manuscript for what would become the first episode of Kengan Ashura. Apparently he had been thinking about this story for a while. I then asked Mr. Daromeon if he would like to do the art for it, and that’s how things got rolling. That was back in October 2011. As talented as they were, neither had received any awards, so my superiors in the editing department struck down my proposal to put them in our manga magazine. I had to rethink our approach, which brought me to search for alternative publishing methods. Back then, online manga wasn’t as big of a market, but I knew of the web’s potential for spreading material, and I knew the web was home to some influential artists. I figured people like them would be sure to come up with a fun manga, so I worked with a senior editor in our off-hours to put together the Ura Sunday web service. Kengan Ashura was one of the five series that it hosted with its April 2012 opening. It grew in popularity and helped support the spread of our MangaONE app three years later. Today, MangaONE is one of Japan’s biggest manga apps with over 1.2 million readers across Japan checking it daily, and Kengan Ashura (now in its sequel “Kengan Omega”) is its most popular series.

OTAQUEST: I feel that creating characters for manga requires a sense of larger-than-life ideas. Do you ever feel that the martial arts experience you share with Mr. Yabako ever keeps you too grounded to reality?

Sho Kobayashi: Not at all. With experience, we know very well that there are certain moves that would never work in real life but would look awesome in manga. In Kengan Ashura, matchups between an 80 kilogram fighter and a 300 kilogram fighter aren’t out of the question, although in real life no sorts of moves can make that fight even. However, if such a fight were to occur, we can estimate their difference in height, how the smaller fighter might use speed to their advantage, and how we can express the weight of the heavier fighter’s attacks. Many of the characters in the series use movesets based on real life fighting styles, but the main character’s (Ohma Tokita)       is entirely fictional. But as people with fighting experience, we can tell how his moves should logically play out, or what makes them strong, bringing believability to fiction and feeding into their showiness. We supply Mr. Daromeon with the gist of how the fights work so that he can bring these characteristics out in his art.

OTAQUEST: I heard that in the production process, you spar with Mr. Yabako on occasion.

Sho Kobayashi: Right. From the beginning, we’ve sparred to ensure the details of each move’s execution feel right. We even met to confirm a blind mid-air backwards roundhouse kick. (laughs) That helps us get a rough draft from which Mr. Daromeon begins sketching.

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OTAQUEST: I see there are notes for camerawork.

Sho Kobayashi: We ask for certain angles, or give directions like “make it apparent the main character has hidden from the enemy’s sight.” As it turns out, my experience as a fashion magazine editor gives me ideas for camerawork and layout. I had to determine the layout for pages, and directed the angles from which photographers took pictures of models. Mr. Daromeon is great at drawing cool-looking characters, but lacking any martial arts experience, we had to point out details we felt were off in early chapter battle scenes. I posed in the exact positions we needed, showing things like how kicks with weight in them use the waist, and how a character’s heel might point at their target. We’ll frequently issue corrections until we have a manuscript everyone’s happy with.

Lately, I’ll also go and watch martial arts matches to get data. I watch how the fighters move, of course, but also how the audience experiences the match and what gets them pumped up. As a visual medium, it’s important to know how to express everything from sound to smell to weight in manga. You can use the direction of fluids like sweat to show angular velocity, the flowing of hair to indicate a drop, the scattering of sweat to show a heavy blow connecting, and spurts of blood or clouds of dust to show just how powerful or painful something is. All those details will be glossed over by readers, but we know that it all sinks in subconsciously.

OTAQUEST: Your name comes up in the credits for the Kengan Ashura anime as the “Battle Supervisor.” What does your work entail for the anime?

Sho Kobayashi: Director Seiji Kishi sought to have realistic motions in this series, so in a production meeting they talked about having a martial arts expert come in. That way, they’d have someone that could demonstrate the distance and timing with which punches are executed and such. So when they were making the storyboards, they asked me if I could find a martial artist for them. Both Mr. Yabako and I have martial artist acquaintances, but they wanted me to come in for everything anyway, so before I knew it, I was even motion acting for the main character Ohma. (laughs) I recall in one scenario meeting, I acted out a part described as “Ohma performs a high-left roundhouse kick, and Rihito fights back jumping in front.” I never thought I’d end up being the motion actor. (laughs)

OTAQUEST: Well, if you took part as a motion capture actor, that’s one less person they have to explain the characters to at recording sessions.

Sho Kobayashi: Yes, as I said before, Ohma’s fighting style is entirely fictional, something made up between Mr. Daromeon’s art and my directions for movement. So it’s natural that having me playing Ohma’s part would make the anime truer to the manga, but… (laughs) In addition to Ohma, there are upwards of ten other characters who have fictional fighting styles that I acted for. The motion recording always took place in the meeting room at Larx Entertainment, the production studio for the anime. Each scene could require up to 20 takes. The recorded motion became reference material for CG animators to animate with. I went to those recording sessions every week for a year. For one particular character with a “NO-GI” fighting style, which is to say he forgoes wearing a “gi” uniform, I had to get punched while holding a hand to my collarbone, so I left that recording session with bruises. (laughs)

Interview with Kengan Ashura editor Sho Kobayashi

OTAQUEST: As editor of the manga, did you have any other production responsibilities?

Sho Kobayashi: The manga is still being serialized, so I still put together campaigns and events and such to bring readers and watchers to the manga and anime. There will be an event at Ariake on December 7th, 2019, where people will get to meet the cast of the anime. One strength of the manga site Ura Sunday and the MangaONE app is that they can respond in lockstep with anime. I also have responsibilities concerning tie-in products for manga, like supervising the creation of game apps, and I’m always on the lookout for new tie-in business opportunities.

OTAQUEST: Kengan Ashura was made possible by the new medium of Ura Sunday and MangaONE, which in turn was supported by your outside-the-box approach to manga editing. The work of manga editors is expected to evolve further in the coming years. But for now, what is it that you feel is important to your work?

Sho Kobayashi: At the core, my focus is on finding “how to make entertaining manga.” Online manga publication makes it all the easier for readers to read new modern manga and classic famous manga at the same time. We’ll need unique manga artists who can stand up to the challenge the classics present. And it’s up to the editors to bring out the best in them. We have to work hard to ensure readers now and ten or thirty years into the future will find Kengan Ashura entertaining. Without a true sense of uniqueness, manga will blur into each other and be forgotten as temporary fads of decades past.  Thankfully, I feel that the combined talents of Mr. Yabako and Mr. Daromeon have made Kengan Ashura a truly unique manga that could only have been made by their combination. Editors can’t create things on their own, so the crux of their work is to pump up the entertainment value of artists’ creations and foster talent. That should be the creed of all editors, forever. Well-made creations, things that are fresh and entertaining for people now and in the future, will remain classics for all time. I hope to continue working with manga artists to create manga that lives up to that ideal.

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