Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Enter the super hero

"My cartoons are not about violence; they call for peace," says Go Nagay, the most famous Japanese cartoonist ever. Rania Khallaf interviews the creator of the Grendizer and MazingerZ

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Clockwise from top left Nagay in his studio; Grendizer; Mazinger

For my generation, the generation of Mickey Mouse and Tin Tin, MazingerZ and the Japanese cartoon genre of manga, the printed comic cartoons, were something beyond our conception. I had neither understood the cartoons nor sympathised with the characters. For the current generation, however, their creator is a big hero.

Thirty minutes before the talk Go Nagay was to deliver at the Cairo Opera House was due to begin, dozens of young people, most of them are students at the Faculty of Fine Arts, were trying to enter the gate but were held back by security. It was amazing to see how popular this artist is in a culture so far from his own in every way. I made my way into the hall after myself getting into a short clash with the security men, who let me through when they saw my press card.

The lecture was part of the programme in a four-day visit organised by the Higher Institute for Cinema (HIC) in cooperation with the Japanese Foundation in Cairo to host the internationally renowned cartoonist in Cairo.

The visit included a lecture at the Artistic Creativity Centre at the Opera House and an interactive workshop with HIC students on how he designed and created his cartoons. Both the lecture and the workshop included the screening of one of Nagay's latest episodes of MazingerZ.

"Egypt has been one of the places that I have dreamt of visiting since I was a child. And I am happy to be here tonight, and even happier to discover that my cartoons are famous here too," Nagay says.

Born in 1945 in Tokyo, Nagay has created a wealth of characters in a world of science fiction and fantasy. He made his debut in 1968 with his short story Meakashi Porikich (Polikichi the Detective) in Bokura magazine, and soon became a top hit manga artist. In 1969 he established Dynamic Productions, a managing company also involved in planning and producing new projects for animation, live action films and other genres.

In 1972 he released the first adventure of MazingerZ in Weekly Shônen Jump. It was the first giant robot controlled by a man sitting inside its body, thus creating the prolific robot genre which today is still the trademark of Japanese animation. The robot saga continued with Great Mazinger and UFO Robot Grendizer, while successful spin-offs such as Getter Robot and Steel Armour Jeeg were created by Nagay and drawn by his colleagues at Dynamic Productions.

In 1980, he was awarded the fourth Kodansha Manga Award for the Sci-Fi manga Susano-oh. His animated works were the first Japanese TV shows to be broadcast in many foreign countries, with MazingerZ becoming a hit in Asia, Spain, South America and North Africa and Grendizer in Canada, France, Italy, Russia and the Middle East.

"It was only last year that I learnt my cartoons were being broadcast in the Arab world. And this is why I am here today; to learn your reaction to my work," he told his Opera House audience.

Nagay said the reason why he specialised in manga was that he had read a story called The Astro Boy written by leading Japanese cartoonist Osamu Tezuka. This featured a boy in the shape of a robot, and he liked the way he behaved and reacted to what life put in his way.

"Then I was thinking if I could create a robot of my own," he went on. "It would have been very successful. This was five years after I began my career as a cartoonist. I was walking in the crowded streets of Tokyo, where the traffic jams make drivers crazy. At this particular moment I had the idea to create a car from which long legs can spring, and can walk on to avoid the crammed cars in the streets. I went back to the studio and created the first sketches of a robot riding a car with automatic legs." He called it MazingerZ. And only six months later the cartoon appeared on Japanese TV.

MazingerZ is a gigantic super robot made of super alloy Z, a fictitious metal, and forged from a new element called Japanium which can only be found in the sediments in Japan. It was built by Professor Kabuto as a secret weapon against the Mechanical Beasts, the evil giant robot army of Dr Hell.

Originally, Kabuto and Dr Hell were among the members of an archaeological research team that discovered an army of 20- metre tall steel titans inside the ruins of the lost pre-Grecian Mycenaean civilisation. But when Dr Hell finds out that these giants can be remote-controlled and realises their immense power on a battlefield, he goes insane and orders titans to kill all the other scientists of the expedition team.

"When I created the character of MazingerZ I thought it was the most powerful cartoon character, but my producer asked me to create more powerful ones. Among the characters that I created later was Baron Ashura, a hermaphrodite, or half-man and half-woman character, who is one of MazingerZ's enemies."

Asked whether his cartoons and mangas encourage violence among children worldwide, Nagay said it was normal for people to face challenges in life. "I think that by creating this type of cartoon I can give children the power, courage and ability to resist these challenges."

The length of the lecture was too short to satisfy the audience. They wanted more interaction with their very own hero. At the press conference held at the Japan Foundation in Downtown Cairo, a more relaxed Nagay received questions from journalists, most of them of the younger generation who appeared to be up to date with the episodes of MazingerZ and Grendizer and were familiar with the most key characters.

Asked about the kind of influences that had shaped his imagination since his youth, Nagay said World War II was the most important and had led him to make a deliberate attempt to show children how awful and destructive wars are through his popular cartoons.

"The mangas are easier to read than long novels, at least for teenagers, and this is one reason why my mangas have become very popular in Japan since World War II."

"Unlike the relatively high violence rates among American teens, Japanese teens and children do not usually resort to violence, despite violence that is featured in my cartoons."

Asked by Al-Ahram Weekly if the American media had any impact on his work, and whether his work made use of popular Japanese legends from the past, Nagay answered that many things had influenced his early imagination, especially the stories he heard from older relatives about the atrocities of World War II. "I used to watch American movies and read short stories and comics, representing both cultures. All these influences were mixed in a way, so I can't tell which elements have affected me in creating a specific character.

He is currently working at a new chapter of his robot tale entitled Mazinsaga, and plans to produce some of his cartoons in 3-D technology in the near future, "when the costs of the new technology have become more reasonable."

Asked if famous cartoons had had a direct impact on the younger generation of Japanese cartoonists, Nagay told the Weekly that there was no clear or direct evidence of any effect. "When I meet one of the new cartoonists, he will tell me, 'here are my original cartoons', and he will not make any reference to my impact on him," he winks.

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