By Tomoko Shiraishi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKITAKYUSHU — When she first became a manga artist, Keiko Takemiya struggled to make a splash. She finally broke through in the mid-1970s, causing an uproar when she published “Kaze to Ki no Uta” (The poem of wind and trees), a manga that openly addressed homosexuality and abuse.
Visitors to “Takemiya Keiko: Kaleidoscope,” an exhibition about the now 67-year-old artist at the Kitakyushu Manga Museum in Kitakyushu, can view sketches from her notebook for the first 50 pages of the manga. Roughly 430 objects related to Takemiya are on display to mark her 50th anniversary as a manga artist. The exhibit showcases the vast array of subjects she has tackled, ranging from history to sci-fi to classic literature.
“Headwinds always inspired me onward,” said Takemiya, who now lives in Asakura, Fukuoka Prefecture, reflecting on her career. “I think I’ve managed to swim through all the difficult phases.”
Born in Tokushima in 1950, Takemiya was still an amateur when a manga magazine carried her work for the first time in 1967. She made her professional debut the following year while still in high school, and at age 20, quit university to become a full-time artist in Tokyo.
In Tokyo, the young Takemiya lived with fellow artist Moto Hagio. Both aspired to revolutionize manga by moving beyond the cliched, sugar-coated stories typical of shojo manga, or manga for girls
Takemiya first published “Kaze to Ki no Uta” in a shojo manga magazine in 1976. Set in an all-male school in southern France in the 19th century, the work took on many themes considered taboo at the time.
Takemiya already had a plot in mind around 1970. In those days, however, there was no way she could persuade publishers to put out a work about romance between boys.
Rather than seek its immediate publication, Takemiya first sought to make a name for herself and prove her abilities. Her hit manga “Pharaoh no Haka” (The grave of Pharaoh), a story set in ancient Egypt, proved her talent and convinced her publisher to serialize “Kaze to Ki no Uta,” which caused massive shock waves. Famed playwright Shuji Terayama praised Takemiya’s nuanced treatment of the human condition. “Manga from now on will be different [from hitherto works] and probably be called ‘post-Kaze to Ki no Uta’ works,” he said.
Through her manga, Takemiya said she “wanted to change the status quo.”
“A publication belongs to the readers once it leaves my hands,” she said. “To write manga that offers readers something, I was ready to take on problems and themes likely to be ignored by others.”
Though she worked hard to help raise status of manga, she never thought the form would become an icon of Japanese culture, as it is under the “Cool Japan” initiative. “I’m glad the government considers manga to be a medium that can appeal to people overseas,” she said. “This has given me confidence, and I believe we can share common values with people across the globe through manga.”
At the same time, the veteran artist recognizes that manga is inherently rebellious and a vehicle for satire. “You can never be a manga artist without being rebellious,” she added.
Takemiya took a one-year sabbatical after quitting university because of her interest in the ongoing student movement. She was curious as to what students could do through the power of assembly.
Ultimately she concluded “that as far as I was concerned, I could do more with my pen than through speaking out, which is why I returned [to manga]. To me, manga is a medium for finding truth and has been my salvation.”
In 1980, she won the prestigious Shogakukan Mangasho award for “Kaze to Ki no Uta” and “Tera e ...” (Toward the Terra). In 2000, she became a professor of manga at Kyoto Seika University and assumed its presidency in 2014, when she also received the Medal with the Purple Ribbon.
Asked if modern manga is less assertive and lacking in message, Takemiya said she doesn’t think so.
“At first glance, major works may appear superficial and are only about love or friendship,” she said. “However, their authors subtly include their own assertions. In this sense, today’s manga has more depth, and I think readers can read into the authors’ intentions.”
Takemiya, whose tenure as university president expires in March, has plans for a new work.
“I’m thinking of a story about two middle-aged women living in rural America. I want to write a happy story about mature people,” she said. “I’m still working on how to incorporate changes to society into my works.”