An interview with Ichikawa Haruko released in 2016 by エンタメ Week. Ichikawa Haruko discusses what inspired Houseki no Kuni and her feelings towards the work. There’s also some insight into Ichikawa Haruko as a person, so should be an interesting read!
If any areas are unclear or don’t make sense, please let me know. As a translator you can get your head a bit stuck in the Japanese causing the English to not quite make sense. Please also be aware of any possible inaccuracies in the translation. Whilst I do my best to provide a fully accurate translation, I am still prone to errors. Any errors will be corrected and a note of this will be made below.
※I’m sure this goes without saying but please be aware there will be spoilers for Houseki no Kuni. Should be fine if you’ve watched the TV series.
– The drama that comes between ‘humans’ and ‘living things that are not human’ is something you have been expressing in your works, so I was surprised to find out that you chose ‘gems’ as the subject for your new serialisation. Have you always had an interest in gems?
I wasn’t originally very familiar with gems, so it wasn’t that. If I were to talk about where it all started, my high school was a Buddhist school. Though I didn’t know this until I had enrolled.
– How did it feel entering without knowing?
On the day of the entrance ceremony, going to the classroom I found a small box, about the size of a small book. It had written ‘Gift for Admission’ on the front, so wondering what it was, I opened it up to find some Buddhist prayer beads. For the morning assembly we would read the sutra, you know.
– Well that must have been quite surprising.
Even in regard to lessons, in a normal high school I’d imagine you’d study ‘ethics’ but here we studied about Shinran as a part of Buddhism for three years. During these lessons, through Buddhist scripture I learned of the ‘Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra (Muryo Jukyo)’. One line states ‘the Western Paradise is made up of gems’. The Western Paradise is apparently comprised of gems, you see.
– Could you talk about this in more detail?
‘Muryoju’ means an immeasurable amount of light. Whilst it teaches the basic principles of Buddhism, it also talks about just how magnificent and sublime the Western Paradise is.
Having been made to read these sutras throughout high school, I eventually began to think that even in a place like ‘Paradise’ where each and every thing experiences salvation, the gems can only ever be decoration.
– That is a very Ichikawa Haruko-like idea. You empathised with the gems rather than the people, and felt sorry for them, did you?
I didn’t go as far as to feel ‘sorry for them’, but I thought that even with the power of Buddha, saving everything can still be difficult. Of course, I do think the gems that come up in the scripture are a metaphor. At the time gems had the most value within India, so that equals the virtue of a monk; that sort of an image. It was probably used to widely signify to the populace that ‘the Great Western Paradise is made up of gems and as such is a wonderful place’.
– But by taking that teaching word for word, by taking it literally, the idea for ‘Houseki no Kuni’ was born.
I wondered whether there was a place you could acquire these gems from Paradise. According to the sutra they seem to naturally form, but I thought a story where lunarians came to hunt these gems would make for an interesting story.
– This idea from high school, why did you decide to use it for your first, longer serialisation?
Before my debut I had actually been writing a manga with this idea. 1 chapter was around 5 to 6 pages long, and with a few chapters it came to a total of around 20 pages. After that I ended up debuting with ‘Mushi to Uta’ so I became more distant from this world for some time. I thought if I were to do a longer serialisation, I’d like to continue this story.
– After writing 20 pages, did you feel the story was filled with interesting ideas?
When writing these 20 pages, and even now, I didn’t know what would happen next in the story. It was like, I was attracted to this idea of not knowing.
– In ‘Houseki no Kuni’ the gems are made into characters and defeat the ‘lunarians’ using a fighting style in accordance to their personality and traits. But other than that, the characters take part in a sort of girl’s dormitory-like, light girl’s-talk manzai. It’s great seeing this gap between the intense fighting and their lighter everyday life.
Firstly I knew that not all my readers were going to be interested in minerals (laughs). I also thought that to express the more serious parts of the story, I needed to add some comedic bits, otherwise it would be difficult to read as a whole.
Light-talk comes up a lot, and it gets more and more fun the more I write. At the moment I’m even feeling that one bit of serious dialogue should perhaps be enough for each chapter.
– By looking at the characteristics of the gems as minerals, did they naturally become realised as characters?
Yes. As for something easier to understand, the higher their hardness, the higher their fighting ability. So as diamonds are the king of all gems, it would simply be that they would be the strongest.
– What sort of a gem is our protagonist ‘Phosphophyllite’?
Phos is the king of rare minerals.
– Like a rare metal?
Rare metals are metallic minerals so they do help economically, but other than that there are minerals of which very little is produced, so their rarity is high; they’re pretty so they’re very valuable. Benitoite and red beryl are also examples of this. And within these rare minerals, phosphophyllite has a beautiful colour.
However, due to its low hardness phosphophyllite is not suited as a gem. It breaks very easily. ‘It’s pretty but isn’t suitable to be a gem’. I found this contradiction to be very attractive.
– Rare but useless. Is this where Phosphophyllite’s clumsiness and stupidity originates?
At first Phos wasn’t that stupid. That decision was mostly made as being stupid would make it easier for the story to progress. And as it’s a harsh world, it would be difficult if the protagonist wasn’t tough.
– Cinnabar is a character that releases a lethal liquid whilst fighting. Cinnabar only works whilst everyone sleeps at night, thinking that when they act they’re a nuisance to those around them. Cinnabar holds a soul of solitude, how did this character come to be?
Cinnabar is based on the unique property of the mineral where it’s able to release mercury. ‘Pretty but dangerous’ was my image. I thought this gap would look better when expressed graphically as well*.
– These gems were once a part of humans. This, revealed in the second volume was very shocking. The story then starts to pick up from there, doesn’t it?
The world of ‘Houseki no Kuni’ is an extension of this planet, set in the future. I was hiding this, but after talking to the editor we decided to reveal this information bit by bit.
– By making gems into characters and giving them life, are there any themes you were able to write about?
Rocks work on a different level of time to us. You could say they were immortal; diamonds take as long as a hundred million years to form. With the gems living a long time, “Just what sort of a life would they live?”, is something I have always thought about whilst writing.
– From there it naturally leads to ‘Then what about humans?’. Do you write manga in the hope of gaining a greater understanding of this world and humans?
That is mostly why I write manga. What is it that makes us human? Even if not completely, I want to get a hold on this secret.
– I would now like to ask a bit about you, yourself. You’re currently living in Hokkaido, but you’re from Chiba, right?
Yes. When I was a child, I lived next to an empty plot of land, so I would play there for many hours looking for treasures, wondering whether I might find some rare flowers or bugs.
I went to Hokkaido for university as I wanted to visit somewhere other than the Kanto region. I didn’t particularly have a great yearning for Hokkaido, but the natural scenery is incredibly beautiful so I do think it has influenced my drawings.
– After graduating from university you started working at a design company. You then won the Afternoon Shikisho, Taisho award with ‘Mushi to Uta’. What lead you to enter?
Design work is limited to what your client wants. Whilst this in itself was quite interesting, I wanted to try making something on my own: the planning, editing, layout; I wanted to do everything. I wanted to work as hard as I could, whilst incorporating all my ideas into the piece. Vaguely thinking, I thought if there was anywhere I could do this, it would be with manga. My first proper manga was ‘Mushi to Uta’. If it didn’t work out I was planning on giving up there, so it was very much make-or-break.
– After your debut you announced you would be writing one story a year for the anthology. Now you’re going at a high pace with one story a month for this longer serialisation.
When I have time, I like to travel around Hokkaido. I have this hobby of picking up stones from the coast or rivers. Like “Ah, this must be a hamburger stone”.
– Yes, I can imagine finding a stone in a hamburger shape (laughs).
Oh no, there are stones more hamburger-like than you could ever imagine. I take these home, sort them, put them away, then occasionally take them out to observe. With minerals, how rare it is, the shape and beauty in colour is important, but with stones it’s all about likening it to something else. I’ve recently started…..do you know ‘suiseki’?
– Suiseki? What characters do you use?
Water (sui) then stone (seki), so suiseki. You often see stones placed in the alcove (tokonoma) or the garden. They’re meant to resemble things like a mountain or waterfall.
I’ve been looking for stones with beautiful curves. I would expose the stones to water; the surface of the stone would then change and mature. I would then observe the stone whilst fantasizing about it. Suiseki is a terrifying world. But stones said to be masterpieces are truly amazing. The stone emperor Godaigo saved due to its importance during a fire really does have a unique feeling to it.
– So you’re doing that yourself?
For now I have started to collect rocks from the river and nurture them. What I have at the moment is something about this big (gestures approximately 10 cm with her hands).
There’s a rule, you see. The stone mustn’t be reshaped. You must look at the stone and just single-mindedly fantasize about it. If this stone were a planet; if perhaps I were living just around there….
– I think I’ve now got a very good understanding on how you use nature to make full use of your imagination on a daily basis (laughs). Even once, I’d like to look at this world through your eyes. In reality, how do you see this world, and how are you enjoying it?
I really like the phrase ‘not known’. Sometimes in a reference book it states ‘details are yet to be known’. My imagination works best when reading these sorts of phrases. People work so hard researching and thinking, but there’s still so much we don’t know. I think there’s value in this act of thinking, so I also want to take part in it.
– Do you not feel anxious when something is ‘not known’?
That’s why it’s fun. Sometimes my heart would race, I might shudder; I have a habit of focusing on things that might make you feel anxious. I like to trace my feelings to their roots with questions like “Why does this make me feel uneasy?” or “Why do I find this scary?”. I try to write stuff that feels uneasy in my manga as well.
– What do you use in depicting this anxiety?
I’d say even having the horizon slightly tilted makes me anxious. When depicting this anxiety, it’s not something specific with the picture but rather, I guess, just a feeling. I’d be happy if my pictures would not just relay information but also exude a certain feeling. In this sense, there must be meaning to the fact that manga as a medium uses both story and picture for the purpose of expression.
– In ‘Houseki no Kuni’ the attacking enemy is defeated then and there; they don’t fight for their own gain or to make the world a better place. There are therefore characters that arrive at the question “Why are we fighting?”.
– And so within this cast, there’s Phos, a character with a clear sense of purpose. “I want to be of help to everyone”. Believing even they must have some sort of role, Phos, using trial and error, continues to search. I felt there was something in common between Phos and the human soul. How are your and Phos’ souls connected?
I had always thought that what made someone rightfully human was nothing but their ability to ‘work’. Without working, without feeling you’re being of some use to society, it’s hard to find meaning in life. Unless you’re really strong (laughs).
– People live whilst having to constantly prove they are of use to society by working.
Yes. Most people I know are always complaining about their job, but they still do it properly anyway. Not just for the sake of money, but I think there’s also a feeling of wanting to be recognised, a desire to be approved. I’m writing this manga as I have a strong feeling to find whether this is true or not.
– So you think this might not be the case?
Yes. I also feel that maybe it’s all right just to live. The gaining of prestige and fortune through work is not necessary if you just want to live, but it is if you want to live well. What makes someone rightfully human, I want to write about this through the theme of ‘work’; I just want to know.
– The protagonist Phos also has another motivation. The wish to save Cinnabar, who lives isolated and away from everyone else. This wish was something I felt connected thematically well with your previous works.
The act of saving someone is incredibly difficult. Expressing support; providing them something to help may only cheer them up temporarily, but saving someone by completely turning their life around is probably something no one can do.
Then just what is salvation? Can someone in the truest sense save another? But people, for some reason, can’t let go of this mysterious feeling of wanting to be of help to others. I have always found this to be very mysterious. It’s mysterious, and it’s for this reason that I want to know.
– So you’ll only be able to find this by continuing to write ‘Houseki no Kuni’?
– Repeating from earlier, so it’s this ‘not known’ that makes it so fun?
The fact that there’s much we still don’t know is, I think, something to be happy about. I feel like I want to continue living when I think of just how much there is I don’t know.
My feelings at the time probably aren’t that it’s interesting or fun. Rather I feel a sense of unease, a bit frightened; a shuddering feeling perhaps. But being able to experience these feelings is, I think, one part of why entertainment is so fun.
*そのギャップが、絵的にも映えるんじゃないかと思って出しました。I am still unsure how to translate this phrase. May be changed.
Note: One word has been changed to hide a pretty overt spoiler to be revealed in volume 8. Ichikawa Haruko probably just let it slip… Please let me know if you’d like to know where this change was made.
Image: Illustration by Ichikawa Haruko