Interview: Frederik L. Schodt on Osamu Tezuka and Helping to Bring Manga to America

Astro Boy Background Nozomi
Astro Boy Background Nozomi

By Tom Speelman

Behind every manga you read or anime you watch is a whole slew of people bringing it to you. From translators to adapters to letterers to subtitlers to ADR engineers and beyond, there are entire production ecosystems for you to get the Japanese entertainment you crave!

But it wasn’t always this way. No, once upon a time, if you wanted to bring manga or anime to English-speaking countries, you had to do it yourself at great personal expense. Not to mention making your case to rights-holders and getting the proper materials…if that was even possible.

Meet Frederik L. Schodt

From Schodt’s author page. (Courtesy of Stone Bridge Press)

One of the pioneers of English manga translation is Frederik L. Schodt, who lived a nomadic life as a kid, due to his father being in the foreign service.

Growing up in Norway and Australia, he settled in Japan at 15 years old, right in the middle of the modern manga boom. In the ’70s, he began translating manga with others, a path that eventually led him to writing 1983’s Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics, the first book in English dedicated to exploring and explaining manga’s history and making the case for it as art. Praised by both Stan Lee and The New Yorker, it was awarded the Japan Cartoonists Association’s Manga Oscar prize (you can learn more about its impact in this recent Cartoonist Kayfabe video).

This led Schodt to a career of translating both manga and novels—including all of Astro Boy for Dark Horse Comics, Pluto by Naoki Urasawa and both of Hayao Miyazaki’s books for VIZ and The Osamu Tezuka Story by Toshio Ban and Tezuka Productions for Stone Bridge Press.

With Funimation recently teaming up with Nozomi Entertainment to offer classic titles like Astro Boy and Kimba, the White Lion for streaming, we figured it was a good time to talk to Schodt about his own history with manga and anime, his personal encounters with Tezuka-sensei, and his thoughts on the modern Japanese pop culture industry.

Schodt and Dr. Manga
Source: Cartoonist Kayfabe on Twitter

A chat with Schodt

How did you first discover anime and manga? Were you aware it was from Japan right away?

Schodt: I was living in Japan, so the whereabouts of their origin was never an issue for me. I first went to Japan in 1965, when I was a freshman in high school, but I obviously could not speak Japanese then. I was also in an international school in Tokyo.

On television, I occasionally watched the early Tetsuwan Atomu [Astro Boy] shows, even though I couldn’t understand them. I also watched Q-Taro, a then super-popular show about funny ghosts [based on the iconic Shigeru Mizuki manga GeGeGe no Kitaro—ed.]. Interestingly, I have very little memory of people—at least in high school or college—reading manga at that time. It was later, when I was in university in Tokyo, that I really became aware of manga and became a fan of them. I have always been more of a manga person than an anime person, mainly because of the time required to watch anime. I have always felt that I didn’t have that much free time. With manga, stories are easier to pick up at different stages and just enjoy when you feel so inclined. Of course, with [the] streaming of anime now, the shows can be enjoyed almost like the printed stories, whenever you want to watch them. But that wasn’t so true in the past.

In the outro of Manga! Manga!, you mention that you dove into manga as a respite from learning Japanese at a Tokyo university. How’d you get to the point of studying overseas in the first place?

Schodt: I had lived in Japan during high school, and when I was a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, it was a very volatile time with riots and unrest, and I needed to get out of America. I also wanted to go back to Japan to study the language. My major was Asian Studies, and I eventually graduated with a minor in Japanese. At least, that’s the way I remember it. After college and a short bohemian stint and a year or so as a tour guide/escort for groups of Japanese tourists in LA, I also went back to Japan to study to become a translator and an interpreter.

Astro boy Screenshot Interview

In Manga! Manga! you describe Osamu Tezuka as “an example of how one talented individual, born at the right time, can profoundly change the field he decides to work in.” Do you see Tezuka still being the overt influence on manga and anime, even as both mediums have evolved so aesthetically from his key influences and style?

Schodt: Both manga and anime have evolved in complex ways since Tezuka passed, but Tezuka’s influence is always there. There are very few people in the industry who have not been influenced by his work. Even Hayao Miyazaki, who usually proclaims his dislike of Tezuka, is highly influenced by his work.  

Tezuka also established with Mushi Production the standard for anime production that still exists today; that is, bottom-tier animators working 50+ hour weeks for subpar wages and with no labor protections of any kind. Do you know if Tezuka ever regretted this? Do you see this labor practice changing for the better as production moves overseas?

Schodt: This is one of Miyazaki’s criticisms of Tezuka, in his autobiographies, Starting Point and Turning Point (which I translated with Beth Cary and which were published by VIZ Media). I am sure Tezuka would have loved to pay his animators more. But it is important to remember that Mushi Production went bankrupt, and it caused Tezuka (and the people who worked for him) enormous grief.

Without this cut-rate production style, however, Japanese animation would probably never have assumed the stature that it does today. I think that working conditions for animators in Japan are still awful, and I don’t see them improving because productions are moving overseas. It’s not just an issue of long hours and low pay. Even the ergonomics and spatial constraints are appalling. I don’t know how young people can physically stand it.

We know a lot about how difficult it was to watch anime in the pre-streaming era (fansub trading, etc.) but how hard was it to consume manga before the ’80s in America?

Schodt: I did not know people who read manga in America before 1982 or 1983. If they did, they had to read Japanese, and buy the works in bookstores in Japantowns scattered around the country, or have friends in Japan send them copies.

You were involved with Project Gen, the pacifist antinuclear group responsible for translating Kenji Nakawawa’s Barefoot Gen [a highly acclaimed hyperrealistic manga about life in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb—ed] into English and publishing it. Do you think a movement like that could succeed today and would the internet make it a bit easier?

Schodt: I was really only involved in a relatively small way in the early days. The internet would certainly have made distribution far easier. But the rights issue might have been even more difficult. Nakazawa was very supportive of Project Gen and wanted the world to read his work. Today, it’s hard to imagine an issue like that, which would have a similar appeal (or shock value) to American readers.

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Global warming is a great issue, but the appeal of [Barefoot] Gen to Americans was twofold, I think. First, it was a subject that most people had never really thought about (and which was horrific), and also it was in a format (long-arc story manga) that most comic fans had no idea even existed. 

You also formed the translation group Dadakai and describe in the intro to The Osamu Tezuka Story a visit to Tezuka Productions to see about translating Phoenix and got a reception from the man himself. How do you feel about that encounter now?

Schodt: Dadakai was a group of two Americans and two Japanese (in the beginning), and I was not the original founder I think, but someone invited to join. Our visit to Tezuka Productions was more momentous than I could have realized at the time. At that point [1977], I never dreamed that I would spend so much of my life writing about manga or translating them, or even that manga would become as popular as they have around the world.

In your own translation work-on Astro Boy, Pluto, etc.what school of thought do you ascribe to? That of being as accurate to the source language as possible or to being as comprehensible and entertaining to the intended audience as much as possible?

Schodt: My philosophy is always to strive for as accurate a translation as possible, but to also make it so readable in English that the reader is not aware that he/she is reading a “translation.” It’s a high bar, but that’s what I always aim for.

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For several decades, manga and anime were translated very broadly to appeal to an American audience, with manga flipped to read left to right and, for example, Go Mifune becoming Speed Racer. Nowadays, industry practice is much different with greater fidelity to the original Japanese expected and original character names kept. Do you think we’ve lost something with that fidelity being more expected?

Schodt: In terms of “more fidelity being expected” today, this is a subject that I could talk about for hours. The flipping of manga was required in the beginning. No one would have read them right to left in 1980. No publisher would have touched them. There are very good reasons not to flip or flop pages, especially from the standpoint of the artists. There are very good reasons to flip pages from the standpoint of readers who are not comic book aficionados or fans. What most American fans do not realize is that the impetus for not flipping pages came not from fans but from U.S. publishers who wanted to save money, and from Japanese artists who were so powerful and wealthy that they could insist on their work not being flipped. It was a complete surprise to most in the U.S. localization/publishing business to find that non-flipped manga could sell well in the U.S.

Today, if you look at the original translation and English publication of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, for example, you can see how much work went into producing a high-quality flopped book, and making it as easy to read for Americans as possible. No one could afford to do that anymore.

But the irony of all this is that fans are not reading what they “think” they are reading. The general belief among American otaku fans is that reading non-flopped manga is a more “authentic experience,” and that they are reading them just the way Japanese readers are. But this is not true. Unflopped translated manga pages today are opened and read from right to left, but the words in the word/speech balloons are in English, so they are not read in Japanese style. They are read from left to right, and horizontally.

In Japan, the text in the word/speech balloons is read vertically, from top right to bottom left. So unflopped manga in English are essentially a hybrid. They are something completely new. And that is okay, as long as readers are not fooling themselves that they are reading just the way Japanese readers are.

What is your personal favorite Tezuka work?

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Schodt: Even after all these years, I am a huge fan of Phoenix. After that, I love the Atom/Astro Boy stories (in the manga version).

Do you see a future where all of Tezuka’s manga is widely available in English?

Schodt: A huge amount is already available in English, and in the future, nearly all of it probably will be. More works of Tezuka have been translated and published in English than any other Japanese artist, hands down.

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