A Special Interview with Takeshi Obata, One of Japan’s Foremost Manga Artists

My Manga, the City of
and the Culture
of Japan

Takeshi Obata is a manga artist with numerous hit series under his belt, including “Hikaru no Go” and “Death Note.” He deploys his overwhelming talent in the creation of intensely detailed works, which have found many fans both in Japan and overseas and appeal to readers all around the world. Furthermore, in summer 2019, an exhibition was held in Tokyo to celebrate his 30th anniversary in the industry, attracting large numbers of attendees. As one of the foremost manga artists in Japan, he is also the subject of this interview. We discussed a wide range of topics, including his impressions of the exhibition, his feelings about the manga he has created, the city of Tokyo, and the culture of Japan.



『ヒカルの碁』『DEATH NOTE』などのヒット作を世に送り出してきた漫画家の小畑健さん。その圧倒的な画力で、精密に描かれた作品は、海外にもファンが多く、世界中の読者を魅了しています。また、2019年夏には、画業30周年を記念した展覧会が東京で行われ、多くの人が足を運びました。そんな日本を代表する漫画家に、インタビューを実施。展覧会の感想をはじめ、自身が手掛けてきた漫画についての思い、東京の街や日本の文化について幅広く話を伺いました。

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*This article is reprinted as an interview from Asahi Shimbun
New York special edition. Interviewed September 2019.


Takeshi Obata
小畑 健
Born in Niigata City, Niigata. Made his serialized content debut in 1989 with “Cyborg Jii-chan G” in Weekly Shonen Jump. Since then he has worked with numerous authors to create a selection of manga series, including “Hikaru no Go” and “Death Note.” His activities are not restricted just to manga, and he has been involved in many collaborations as an illustrator. His latest series “Platinum End” is currently running in Jump Square.
新潟県新潟市出身。1989年に『CYBORGじいちゃんG』で「週刊少年ジャンプ」に連載デビュー。以来、様々な原作者とのタッグで『ヒカルの碁』『DEATH NOTE』など多数のマンガ作品を手掛ける。その活躍は漫画の世界にとどまらず、イラストワークとして数々のコラボレーションも発表している。現在は「ジャンプスクエア」にて『プラチナエンド』を連載中。
Takeshi Obata
小畑 健
Born in Niigata City, Niigata. Made his serialized content debut in 1989 with “Cyborg Jii-chan G” in Weekly Shonen Jump. Since then he has worked with numerous authors to create a selection of manga series, including “Hikaru no Go” and “Death Note.” His activities are not restricted just to manga, and he has been involved in many collaborations as an illustrator. His latest series “Platinum End” is currently running in Jump Square.
新潟県新潟市出身。1989年に『CYBORGじいちゃんG』で「週刊少年ジャンプ」に連載デビュー。以来、様々な原作者とのタッグで『ヒカルの碁』『DEATH NOTE』など多数のマンガ作品を手掛ける。その活躍は漫画の世界にとどまらず、イラストワークとして数々のコラボレーションも発表している。現在は「ジャンプスクエア」にて『プラチナエンド』を連載中。

I want to draw realistic depictions
of things I have seen


In summer of this year (2019), an exhibition was held in Tokyo to celebrate your 30th anniversary in the industry. How was that for you?


Obata: The thing that made me the happiest was how many people came to see it. It allowed me to actually chat with my fans, people I rarely have the chance to actually meet, and it proved to be very special for me. I also performed some “live drawing” at the venue, letting people see how I actually work, and I think visitors to the exhibition really enjoyed that.



The exhibition name “Never Complete” was apparently taken from your feelings that none of your pieces ever feel as though you have achieved completion; that the form of expression you seek lies still further ahead. Tell us a little more about those feelings.

展覧会名の「NEVER COMPLETE」という言葉には、「全ての絵は決して自身にとっての“完成形”ではない。

Obata: Over the past 30 years, I’ve drawn the images that were required in each instance to match the scripts. This exhibition allowed me to look back over my past works, and that made it clear that my drawings have gradually undergone change. I’ve had this feeling of the strengths of the scripts bringing the images out from me, and so going forward I think collaborating with other writers is going to produce more changes, and I look forward to seeing what kind of new images I will produce. The exhibition was a good chance to reaffirm those feelings.



Going forward, the exhibition is also going to be held in Niigata and Osaka. What do you consider the highlights? (Both sessions have ended)


Obata: I want people to look in particular at the original first chapters of “Death Note” and “Hikaru no Go” that are part of the exhibition. I always put a lot of energy into the first chapter, and looking at them even now I can see how beautiful they are. It’s also great being able to read the entire first chapter right there in the venue. If you are going to be in Japan during the period of the exhibition, please come and see for yourself.

小畑:特に見てもらいたいのは、会場に展示された『DEATH NOTE』『ヒカルの碁』の第1話の原画です。第1話は毎回、すごく気合いを入れて描くので、今見ても原稿がきれいだなと思います。会場でまるまる1話分を原画で読めるのがとてもいいですね。期間中に日本に来る機会があったら、ぜひ足を運んでみてください。

Would you like to hold a similar exhibition overseas?


Obata: I receive fan letters from people from overseas, and I’ve held signings overseas where I’ve received an incredibly warm welcome. I also want to make those fans happy, so if I had the chance I’d very much like to hold such an event.


I like spots with texture,
like back



Your drawings are characterized by rich detail. Do you pay particular attention to creating realistic images?


Obata:  I want to draw realistic depictions of things I have seen. It started when I was a child. There was a toy I wanted, but my parents wouldn’t buy it for me, so I decided to create an accurate drawing of it for myself. Ever since then, I’ve remained focused on realistic drawings. For example, in “Death Note” there’s one scene where a small LCD TV screen is seen hidden in a bag of potato chips. In order to capture it accurately, I actually created that situation, took photos, and then made the drawings as realistic as possible while checking that reference. I really like drawing images like that.

小畑:自分は見たそのままを描きたいという思いがあります。子どもの頃に欲しいおもちゃがあって、それを買ってもらえないから、じゃあ代わりに自分でおもちゃの絵を正確に描いてみようというのがきっかけですね。そこから、ずっと、リアルに描くことに執着しています。例えば『DEATH NOTE』で、ポテトチップスの袋の中に隠した液晶テレビの小さい画面を見るというシーンがありますが、実際に同じようなシチュエーションを再現して写真を撮り、できるだけリアルに見えるように絵を描いて仕立てています。そのような絵を描くのがとても好きですね。

Have you ever been influenced by overseas culture?


Obata: Before “Death Note” started serialization, I took a trip to Italy, and the Vatican and museums that I saw while I was there definitely had an influence on my work. As you might expect, I really felt that going myself and seeing everything with my own eyes was totally different from looking at phots and materials. One piece that made a particular impression on me was Bernini’s “The Rape of Proserpina,” depicting Pluto attempting to abduct the daughter of a goddess. The reality, and musculature of the craving is really quite incredible, and it made a deep impression on me. It’s no exaggeration to say that the worldview of “Death Note” was a product of this visit to Italy.

小畑:『DEATH NOTE』の連載が始まる前に、イタリアに旅行に行ったことがあるのですが、その時に見たバチカンや美術館の作品には影響を受けました。やはり実際に行って自分の目で見るのと、写真や資料では全然違うと感じました。特に印象に残っているのがベルニーニの作品で、プルートが女神の娘を連れ去ろうとする「プロセルピナの略奪逃げ」。彫刻像の質感、肉感がすごい!と感銘を受けました。このイタリア旅行から『DEATH NOTE』の世界観が生まれたといっても過言ではありませんね。

When drawing things like backgrounds for your manga,
do you often actually go out and find places to draw?


Obata: If I had to pick one, I’d say I draw referring to photos often than not. But I still like to walk through cities. When I visited New York I just took to the streets and walked around alone. In particular I like to look at back alley buildings, places that really feel lived in, and I’ll walk up and down them multiple times, really breathing it in. I’m sure to an outsider I just look like someone who doesn’t know where he’s going (laugh). But when I find something I like, ultimately it always remains somewhere in my head, and then when I’m drawing manga it just naturally comes out again. It may not feel like I am observing, but I definitely am, on some level.



Many of your works, including your most recent series “Platinum End,” feature a lot of Tokyo.
Is there anywhere in the city that you particularly like?


Obata: That would be the back alleys, too. Those places that look more like just a gap between two buildings, and dark places cluttered with pipes. When I first came to Tokyo, I would take a lot of photos of places like that. I also love the crazy, cluttered atmosphere of places like Golden Gai in Shinjuku. I really want to draw a manga in which these textured city spots appear.


Are there any other spots in the city that you like?


Obata: Recently I’ve been travelling back to my family home in Niigata on a weekly basis, taking the Shinkansen. After departing Tokyo and passing through Ueno, before reaching Omiya there’s an area, probably Asukayama Park (Kita-ku, Tokyo), that you see out the window on the left side. I really like that area, with lots of greenery, trees, and houses clustered on what looks like clifftops, and I stare entranced out of the window each time go past. I always sit on the left side in order to see that scenery (laugh).



I feel sympathy
with the facial expressions
of Bunraku dolls


What do you think it is that makes Japanese manga culture so popular even overseas?


Obata: I think the detailed depictions of feelings, and the details brought to the images have allowed the unique sensibilities of the Japanese to be highly evaluated. Also the turnaround within Japanese manga is incredible! Battle manga were popular for a while, but when that calmed down, something else was quickly created to replace it. Some topics appear that make you question if a manga could even be created from such material, being arranged into something new so quickly, and evolving along with the times. I think those are some of the reasons why Japanese manga culture has achieved such popularity around the world.


Are you interested in any aspects of Japanese culture other than manga?


Obata: I’m really interested in traditional crafts, the kind of items delicately created by skilled craftspeople. I particularly like things with a human shape, like Kokeshi or Bunraku dolls, and I’d even like to make them myself. If I was a Kokeshi maker I’m sure I’d be saying things like “I made this nice curve here today,” (laugh). I also really love the construction of the “kashira” head part of Bunraku dolls, and I feel a real sympathy with that indescribable expression on their faces. When “Karakurizoshi Ayatsuri Sakon” was in serialization, I often went to see Bunraku performances, and every time I was so impressed with how the three puppeteers come together to perfectly control a single puppet. There has been an increase in visitors from overseas coming to see the work of Japanese craftspeople, and I think the delicate, sincere stance taken toward creation is really being imparted out into the world. That careful, detailed creation of images and story is a point that Japanese manga shares with traditional crafts.

小畑:職人さんが緻密に作り上げた伝統的工芸品にとても興味があります。特に、こけしとか、文楽人形といった人の形をしたものが大好きで、自分でも作ってみたいと思っています。自分がこけし職人だったら「今日はこの曲線がうまくできた」とか言いそうですね(笑)。文楽人形の「首(かしら)」と呼ばれる顔の造形もとても気に入っていて、あの何ともいえない表情にシンパシーを感じています。『人形草紙あやつり左近』の連載をやっている頃は、文楽の公演をよく見に行っていましたが、1 つの人形を3人の人形遣いが一体となって操る芸に、いつも感服していました。最近は日本の職人さんの技を見に来る海外の方も増えていますが、繊細に、誠実にものを作る姿勢が、世界に伝わっているのではないかと思っています。そして絵やストーリーを細かく作り上げていく点は、日本の漫画も伝統工芸と共通する部分があると感じますね。

So you see and listen to a lot of things,
and then reflect them in your work.


Obata: I’m not particularly aware of it, but I think the things I see and hear in my everyday life are all connected together in my head. Tokyo is a city of diverse atmospheres and culture, and it feels like the things I absorb in each specific situation are then reflected in a variety of ways once I start drawing.



Finally, please share a message with anyone from overseas who would like to visit Tokyo.


Obata: There’s no way to know the atmosphere of the place until you actually come here. I’d like them to visit Tokyo, and first just feel the city for themselves. To experience the atmosphere, tastes, aspects, smells, and the pure “unexpected” that can’t be understood from a sightseeing map, and to actually feel the appeal of Tokyo and Japan.






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