Understanding Hiroyuki Oohashi: Manga’s Self-Made Star

Ongaku

In the highly corporatized world of manga, artists like Hiroyuki Oohashi and works like Ongaku are a breath of fresh air. Walk into any bookstore or manga café and pick up a volume of manga and you’ll no doubt find that it comes from one of three major publishers: Shueisha, Kodansha, or Shogakukan. While there are smaller publishers out there – Takeshobo and Akita Shoten are the first two that come to mind – they can hardly keep up with the big boys in terms of sheer output and market dominance.

It’s partly as a result of this dominance of a handful of companies over the manga industry that it can be seen as so slow to change and detrimentally reliant on old tropes and tried-and-tested formulas. If we take Weekly Shonen Jump as an example, for every Dr. STONE that tries to do something new there’s a Samurai 8, which tries to reclaim the glories of the past. Furthermore, the traditional wisdom that, in order to ‘make it’ as a mangaka, you need to get published by one of the big publishers – just ask Hajime Isayama – often pushes the new generation into complacency and compliance, as per their editors’ wishes.

Hiroyuki Oohashi
Oohashi, 39, speaking at a press event for Ongaku

Hiroyuki Oohashi, however, acts as an antithesis to all of that. Starting life as a self-published, self-made mangaka, he has become a symbol of artistic integrity and unwavering creativity in the modern manga landscape. His unique stories, which may appear unusual and uninviting at the outset, hide a deeper meaning and a deeper beauty that words can’t quite describe. And with the anime film adaptation of Ongaku, arguably Oohashi’s most famous work, finally out in Japanese cinemas after seven years stuck in production hell, there’s no better time to uncover the story and unique appeal of Hiroyuki Oohashi.

The Story of Hiroyuki Oohashi

The story of Hiroyuki Oohashi is a humble one. He was born in 1980 in Aichi Prefecture and, as he states in the afterword to Ongaku: Complete Edition (Ongaku Kanzenban), left high school with his sights already set on becoming a mangaka. While working odd jobs on the side to make ends meet, he began to submit stories to various competitions in various magazines, eventually winning honorable mention in one such competition ran by Kodansha’s Weekly Young Magazine.

It was at this point that he began to submit manuscripts (nēmu) to publishers and look over them with editors in search of a proper serialization. But, unfortunately, he kept getting rejected. Although he never says so, one can’t help but assume that this was because of his highly unusual art style, which we will cover later on. Nevertheless, Oohashi was undeterred and decided, after much thought, to simply go his own way and publish his own manga. A legend was born.

Hiroyuki Oohashi
Oohashi in 2019

One of the first manga that Oohashi first self-published was a collection of mystery stories, three of which – Ramen, Yama (Mountain) and Manga – are included in Ongaku: Complete Edition. These stories are strange, telling a bittersweet tale of a missed romantic connection between two coworkers and a nostalgic tale of a high school boy who is dead set on living in the mountains, before switching gears entirely to recount the surreal tale of a mangaka who happens upon a strange, UFO-worshipping rural community.

When Oohashi first published these stories as part of his initial mystery collection and gave copies to his friends to check out, they were nonplussed. While they were happy enough to praise him for his hard work as a friend, they weren’t quite convinced as a reader: “I didn’t quite get it,” they said. “It’s quite hard to understand,” Oohashi relates.

Such was the starting point for Ongaku, which would become Oohashi’s breakthrough work. Abandoning his more esoteric sensibilities that very much mirrored modern Japanese literature’s rich heritage of short stories, Oohashi set about making something that was, in his own words, “a little easier to understand.” He drew from his own experiences playing in a band and participating in a music festival to create a story about three delinquents who, one day, decide to form a band and end up participating in a local rock festival.

Ongaku

Incidentally, much of the manga was written while Oohashi was at work, with the kind permission of a sympathetic superior on the condition that he did his best to hide what he was doing from his co-workers.

Wherever Oohashi’s boss is now, I’m sure he’d satisfied with his choice to let his employee draw on company time. So popular was Ongaku when Oohashi first self-published it in 2005 that it was publicly endorsed by the lead singer of punk rock band Gin Nang BOYZ, featured in the magazine ‘indies issue’ and eventually even picked up by Ohda Books in 2009 for a proper collected volume release. While the author had had his work sold in bookstores before, this was different; this was nationwide, and Hiroyuki Oohashi’s days as a self-published mangaka were over. But his days as a mangaka proper were only just beginning.

Simple But Complex: Hiroyuki Oohashi’s Visual Style

Having recounted the story of Hiroyuki Oohashi – at the end of which he only achieved success as a result of years of back-breaking work and perseverance – it is now perhaps necessary to put a few words to the task of explaining what the appeal of Oohashi’s manga even is.

As you have no doubt already noticed, the visual presentation of Oohashi’s manga isn’t exactly normal. On the surface, it appears simplistic and even childish, but go a little deeper and you’ll find beauty and craftsmanship that, once seen, can never be unseen. I’m asking you to take the red pill and come down the rabbit hole with me – whether you make that choice is up to you.

Let’s take the above example of Ongaku’s protagonist, the mustachioed delinquent Kenji. While the nuts and bolts of his character design are simple – an oval making up his head and a squiggly line making up his mustache – these are not the scribbles of a child. Rather, they are the master strokes of an artist who is in complete control of his medium. In this example, the composition of Kenji’s eye – composed of two lines that intersect to form a slim oval – gives the impression of the sunken, bored face of a high school delinquent and achieves, in this sense, a level of realism that rivals even the great masters.

Read the manga for yourself and you will find countless examples of this purposeful artistry. As I said, once you see it you can never unsee it. But listing all the examples here would be tiresome, so let’s move on to the backgrounds.

Yama

This is an example from Yama, one of Oohashi’s early works that made its way into the Ongaku: Complete Edition. Here, the trees that litter the mountainside are composed of a single line that arcs to form a cone, perfectly representing the way that details fade into the distance and also opening up just enough white space within to give the impression that the protagonist, located in the bottom left and fleeing into the mountains away from society, is somehow becoming lost in the vast, mountainous landscape.

Such attention to detail is crucial, in turn, to get across the core idea of the short: that you can never fully extract yourself from society, as we are both social animals and modern animals that are no longer suited to the cruel world of nature.

The protagonist’s encounter with a bear is the last straw in convincing him that living in the mountains is folly

In fact, underneath the surface of a Hiroyuki Oohashi manga is always a strong emotional message that gives the otherwise simple – but expertly crafted – presentation real bite. These are stories that stay with you forever, not least because of how unique they look.

Questions Left Unanswered

Oohashi’s stories could, in general, be classified as part of the coming-of-age genre. They often deal with younger characters who are going through some sort of transition in their lives, which fits in quite well with the genre as well as the sensibilities of a Japanese audience.

The aforementioned short story Yama (Mountain) is a great example of this, as the young adult protagonist finds himself at a crossroads in life and eventually in the mountains after being fired from his part-time job for sniffing his co-worker’s laundry (don’t ask). Another one of Oohashi’s self-published manga, Natsu no Te (The Hands of Summer), is even better as it follows a trio of elementary schoolers who deal with their growing affection for their female friend by going on a grand adventure. Classic stuff.

Natsu no Te

As to why Oohashi leans so heavily on the coming-of-age genre, I’d wager that it has something to do with his own journey as a young adult and a mangaka, trying to make his dreams come true while dealing with the realities of everyday life. There’s a crossover there that I can’t help but think is significant, however much it may be speculation on my part.

Nevertheless, what sets Oohashi’s coming-of-age stories apart from all of the others out there is an empty feeling; like there’s something missing that we can’t quite grasp. In the first place, we often come in on the stories of our main characters partway through, such as the mangaka who is already on his way to the countryside for unspecified reasons when Manga, another early manga included in Ongaku: Complete Edition, opens.

To return to Ongaku, it too is marked by a sense of emptiness pervading from our main characters: Kenji, Asakura, Ota, and Aya. We don’t know much about the delinquent trio of Kenji, Asakura, and Ota other than the fact that they are, in fact, delinquents when the story starts, and before we know, the band is formed and the story is on the move.

Kenji, very nonchalantly, asks his posse in the first chapter of Ongaku if they’d be interested in forming a band – thus setting the events of the story in motion

There’s also some history between Kenji and Aya that isn’t ever fully explained, nor is their apparent affection for each other. While this does all mean that Ongaku does feel incomplete in a certain sense – we are left in the cold, for example when Kenji’s past starts to catch up to him towards the climax, as we know next to nothing about his past – but this also gives Oohashi’s stories a real texture, a feeling that these characters have lived for much longer than we’ve been around. Compare this to the way that mainstream manga always feels the need to employ flashbacks and explain to us every aspect of our characters’ lives – some things are better left unsaid.

In a way, isn’t that a lot like life? The lives we lead are chaotic, full of unexplained phenomena and answers to questions that just never make themselves clear. Most of the time, we end up like the main character of Ramen, who enjoys a brief romance with his coworker before she suddenly ups and moves back to her hometown in the countryside. Why did she move back? Why was she so interested in him, despite being married? Why was she interested in him in the first place?

Sometimes, all we can do is accept that things are just sometimes the way they are, often for no reason in particular. But that doesn’t stop us, in our hubris, from trying to find out why. That, I feel, is the true beauty of Hiroyuki Oohashi.

From Self-Publication to Anime Adaptation

Of course, one thing I forgot to mention is the fact there is a novelty in reading the many works of Hiroyuki Oohashi in the fact that this was all written, drawn and published by one man.

Nevertheless, not all of Oohashi’s works are self-published: ever since garnering significant mainstream attention with Ongaku, he has worked with publishers to bring his manga to store shelves fairly consistently and even had his City Lights serialized in Kodansha’s Morning Two.

Saying that Oohashi is still self-published at this point would be a stretch, but that doesn’t take away from all the years of hard work when he was self-published, nor the unique appeal of his manga – all of which I hope I’ve managed to relay here. Seeing Oohashi finally get the worldwide attention he so deserves as a result of the Ongaku anime film adaptation is, in turn, a joy to behold.

For me, it was upon discovering the trailer for the film, reading about its origins and its production process that first turned me on to the works of Hiroyuki Oohashi. Before releasing last week, the film garnered first  prize for best feature-length work at the Ottawa Animation Festival and boasts over 70 minutes of 40,000 analog, hand-drawn cuts of animation. No doubt this second point was why the film took a whopping seven years to complete – a task which director Kenji Iwaisawa has been dedicating himself since 2012.

“I hate it when people say ‘but it’s never been done before.’

You often hear it when working in movies, but I think it’s probably said in any industry.

The reason I decided to start work on Ongaku and create my own feature-length animated movie was because of the fact that ‘it’s never been done before.’ That’s why I wanted to give it a go.

Trying to make Ongaku independently was hard enough, so much so that people sometimes told me that it would be impossible, but I’m channeling those struggles into the film.

I believe that those struggles have, in turn, become the best thing about it.” – Kenji Iwaisawa

With the release of the Ongaku anime film, there’s never been a better time to get into the works of Hiroyuki Oohashi. None of his manga have been translated into English just yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the new film gets the ball rolling on such a project. In the meantime, you can follow his Instagram to see the short comics and doodles that he posts there, as well as his official blog, which contains a list of all of his work.

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