Staring at your Back - An interview with gay manga artist Kuro Nohara
Kuro Nohara may not be a familiar name, up until recently his work has not been translated very much outside of Japan. However, if you are familiar with gay manga such as My Brother's Husband by Gengoroh Tagame, you'll want to take a look at Nohara's new serialised manga published by Akata. Read the full interview with Nohara below...
Akata Publishing have just published a new serialised manga by Kuro Nohara and its set to be released in eight chapters, with the first appearing on the 16th January 2020. It’s available as an e-book, in both French and English, and it will be the first time that Nohara's works will have been officially translated into these languages. Akata publishing have described him as ‘one of the pillars of gay comics next to Gengoroh Tagame’
The new work Mes Yeux Rive Sur Toi or Staring at your back was originally created for a Korean publishing house called 6699 Press, and this initial wandering outside of Japan has been the reason we are now seeing the work being translated and published in new languages, such as Mandarin with Comma Press in Taiwan.
Nohara is was born in Hokkaido, Otaru in 1971 and went on to study the arts in NYC. He started publishing serialised manga in Japanese gay magazines such as Barazouko from 1996, the most notable being in Badi magazine (which has now been stopped printing). The longest running manga was Geshuku no onīsan (Big Brother's Boarding House), which ran for many years and can still be purchased as anthology’s and e-books in Japan. Unfortunately for worldwide audiences, it’s only available in the Japanese language.
Other popular works include a trilogy of books called Milk and a large back catalogue of doujinsi (or short self published manga), some of which have since been collected together in an anthology called Time Capsule. Along with an arts and illustration book called Boy Friends 2003 - 2019 (Video Above)
In the latest publication we follow the love story between Takeru and Kôtarô, two Japanese high school students.
Takeru Inomata is a high school student who lives in a small provincial town. The unspoken, the rumors, the marriage, the children ... It's overwhelming for him. He lives his daily life as it comes, one day at a time, without making waves and without passion. Until the day when a new student arrives at his High School... He is completely surprised on discovering that this boy is none other than Kôtarô, one of his comrades in primary school. Very quickly, the two boys get closer ... Could a new love be growing?
Akata Publishing write: ‘With simplicity, Nohara describes an emerging love between two boys. Their sometimes simple, sometimes complicated relationship is shown with evidence and benevolence. Even if...it often takes place far from the eyes of others.’
That’s not to say his work in general never deals with or displays sex, some of his other works does include nudity and graphic intercourse but even so, it never feel gratuitous or purely pornographic, there’s always something quite tender driving it.
And this tenderness and honesty underpin the themes within Nohara’s stories, and give his works their style, their charm and their beauty. They have been described as ‘nichijō seikatsu’ which in Japanese means the 'everyday’. They seem to meander around themes we may see in the genre of 'Boys Love' stories, where typically young men are discovering their attraction towards one another. However Nohara's characters embody more of the masculine qualities we see in the older archetypes from other manga, such as Jiraiya or Tagame.
Above all, much like Tagame’s recent 'all ages' manga such as My Brothers Husband and Our Colours, these are similar stories also for a wide audience and are concerned with character development, identity, sociological and family issues. His unmistakable style highlights the sweet, tender moments of adolescent romance. In this way, they seem to serve as an important ‘coming of age’ tale or a 'rites of passage', one that is positive and supportive, celebrating love and belonging and not just sex.
We spoke with Kuro Nohara on the release day of this new series from Akata, to find out a little more about his inspiration and feelings behind creating this story:
bunk: Your manga Kimi no Senaka was originally published in Korea with 6699 Press.
It has gone on to be published in Mandarin with Comma Press, and now in French and English with Akata Press.
Is this the first time your work has been translated into so many languages? How does that make you feel?
Kuro: My manga works were first published in a gay magazine called Barazoku in 1996, and I have been drawing and writing comics ever since. However this is the first time they have been translated.
This was largely down to the fact that Korean publisher 6699press had translated and published one of my Japanese manga and as a result other opportunities happened. French publisher Akata was interested in my manga. And also thanks to 6699press and their efforts, Comma Press are now publishing it in Taiwan.
It is very exciting for me and exciting to hear that it's being read by people from many countries.
bunk: With regards to your recent publication, there is a little dissonance in the translation of the title of the manga from language to language. So, for me, it would be good to hear you explain a little about what the title means for you? And how it expresses the story you are telling?
Japanese Title: 「キミのセナカ」Kimi no Senaka | Your Back
Korean Title: 너의 뒤에서 | Behind You
French Title: Mes yeux rivés sur toi | My eyes on you
English Title: Staring at your back
Kuro: There is an organisation in Japan called 10 Starts, that supports teenagers who like the same gender. However, Chapter 0, Kimi No Iru Tokoro (A Place where you are) was originally commissioned and drawn for that organisation in just one episode. It was a standalone and short manga. The title was accompanied with the written message, "If there is one important person, that will be your place."
After that, 6699press asked me for a manga, and it was inspired by characters from Kimi No Iru Tokoro. I planned to draw another short manga, and I wanted to include the word Kimi* (You*) when deciding on a title. And then Kimi No Senaka (Your Back) came about. Initially, these two episodes were supposed to end, but with the suggestion of 6699press, I decided to draw six more episodes and publish it in one book.
* In Japanese, the word for 'you' has many variations and complexities depending on who is saying it, who to and the context it's in. Kimi is an intimate way and also can mean to 'look down' on that person, like when speaking to a child.
In Japan, there are expressions or sayings surrounding learning and maturing in relation to the attitudes and skills of your parents and teachers. Such as `growing up looking at the back of the parent' and `learning looking at the back of the teacher’ are often used. In this case, the ‘back’ is not just a part of the body, there are many nuances such as the viewer's feelings to approach existence with a sense of longing, the viewer's side is a big existence that accepts it. This includes respect for the other person, such as learning on their own rather than at a distance. I think that the purpose of "back" is to express the sense of distance, that you are behind them, and have to catch up
The original title Kimi no Senaka is that Takeru, who feels that Kotaro is not just a friend but a special person, he secretly follows Kotaro with his eyes, and he does this secretly incase he sees, he looks at him from a little behind or a short distance away. Therefore, I wanted to express what Takeru is feeling, and at the same time, to convey this distance, using the word 'back' as in the word behind to suggest his longing for Kotaro and how he is never 'seen'.
The translated titles have different ways of expressing a similar idea but they all express Takeru's feelings and I think they are very good at doing this.
bunk: You have recently been described as the most prominent ‘gay mangakas in Japan alongside Gengoroh Tagame’. How do you feel about this?
Kuro: Gengoroh Tagame is a pioneer among Japanese gay mangakas and gay artists, always ahead of the game and paving the way for those who follow. So, I don't think it's fair enough to be said "in line with" Mr. Tagame. That's what keeps me on my heels, hoping to catch up.
However, since nearly 25 years ago, when it was said that it was not a gay manga unless you drew erotic. regardless of the erotic, I have continued to draw 'the everyday' gay life and feelings. Not without pride, that I can not say that I am one of the pioneers. Very passive, though.
I'll continue to draw manga featuring gay people, so it's good for me to be called a "gay manga artist".
bunk: Who do you hope will read your comics? Who are your fans? From reading your work I can imagine it may appeal to a lot of young men or people who are struggling with their sexuality or their identity. Have you heard any positive stories from your readers?
I've always drawn and published comics in gay magazines, so my readers are always presumed to be gay magazine buyers. And basically the comics have something that makes gay people happy.
However, there are many women who sent me their impressions of the stories once they were published as a book. I am very happy to hear that various people are reading it.
One of my most thoughts about the books is "I want straight friends to read". It may be that you want to let people know a little about the feelings and situations that are difficult to convey.
After that, I had a recollection of my memories from my youth, such as when I was a student, they were revived, and that happy impression my work had moved me and made me upset, I cried.
I don't know if my manga is useful, but the people who read it always want to see the world a little bit brighter while reading, compared to their world after reading.
bunk: Unlike the erotic and hyper-masculine men in some other gay comics (such as Jiraiya). your stories have sometimes been referred to as ‘nichijō seikatsu’ (daily life) which mean they are about day-to-day. Would you say this is fair description?
When I started writing comics around 1996, gay comics were generally read by gay men reading gay magazines, and almost all comics were mainly sexual. Most of the manga genres described as 'Boys Love' (or BL) and 'Yaoi' are usually for women, few of them describe real gay daily life, and at that time they were usually drawn with only sexual expression.
I also love comics with erotic drawings, but then I came across Erika Sakurazawa's comic, Salon, I always wanted to read something that concerned more everyday things. The main character is a woman, but it is also a manga about many gay people living in Tokyo. I was inspired to draw something similar, and posted this manga depicting the daily life of gays to Barazoku magazine, and they published it. The publication of the manga was a start, and since then I have been drawing manga forever.
I feel that fantasy elements are needed in order to give readers a chance to dream, but one of the most important elements in order to make my “daily life” feel real within the story, is to draw people who are around me. The fact that there are many students, such as high school students, may be the reason why there are few sensual men/erotica.
If my story is described as 'daily life', 'slice of life' or 'gay comic', it's natural because it's a genre I've chosen and drawn, and I think it's an accurate explanation.
I've always loved Jiraiya's drawings and manga, and I've always wanted to be able to draw like that, so I'd like to draw some sensual/erotic adult men's stories like his.
bunk: A lot of your work seems to involve young men as main characters, often in school, dealing with adolescence and ‘coming of age’. Why does this time of life interest you so much?
Kuro: When I was a student, if I liked someone, I gave up on the feeling from the very beginning, because of course, I couldn’t act on it; I was then only left with unrequited love.
This was a time when there were no smartphones or social media - no instant communication as we know it today. So in the past, young gays may have felt that they might not ever be able to fall in love. But when I was in my third year of high school, I had a partner I could call my lover for the first time. The person was a straight classmate who became my best friend while we were in the same class in the third grade. After all, I am a gay and I can't maintain a romantic relationship with a straight guy. So, I graduated from high school and broke up in my second year, and haven't seen him for more than 25 years. I lost my best friend with no fuss and could not return to him, the experience at that time remains in my heart still and very much on my mind.
Perhaps that's what makes me spend a lot of that time in my life in comics. I may be replaying my life in the manga.
bunk: Your characters aren’t the usual male characters we see in ‘Boys Love’ or ‘Yaoi’ comics. They seem young but still very masculine, sometimes stocky, muscular with stubby noses, round faces and short military style haircuts.
I’ve read of the characters in your work being described as ‘gachimuchi’ type (Muscular Chubby) Would you agree with this? Or how would you describe the male characters you draw?
Kuro: The so-called 'Gachimuchi' is said to be the most popular among Japanese gays. Next is the type called 'Gachipo' Not only is it macho, but the type with a little fat is popular, and myself is ideally a body like a professional wrestler or judo player, rather than a body like a bodybuilder. However, there are many people around me who like fat men called "chubby sensibles", and conversely, people who like narrow body shapes, so gay tastes may vary.
When it comes to faces, I rarely find sexual attraction in a popular or conventional beauty type, such as a movie actor and I am attracted to athletic types. Readers also get the impression that such characters are 'cute'. So, there are many characters of that type inevitably, but in manga such as Geshuku no onīsan (Big Brother's Boarding House) where many characters appear, I try to make various types of men.
bunk: What ’s next for you? Do you have any new works in development?
Kuro: The next project is a short story that I am currently working on, but it is also a story of a high school student. We will announce this summer at 'Comic Market'
Other than that, it's not decided yet, but I'm also writing a series of short comics about four pages each time in a Japanese magazine. This will feature adults in their late 30s to mid-40s as the main characters.
There are not many opportunities for English people to find these, so if you get the chance, please do read it!
bunk: Thanks for your time Kuro, this interview has been a beautiful experience talking with you.
To purchase your copy of Staring at your back Chapter 0 - head over to Amazon, Google Play or Apple iBook Store
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More on Kuro Nohara:
@nohara96 (Twitter & Instagram)