Shintaro Kago Turns Shit Into Gold
The Vice Interview
Millions of tons of manga, in all shapes, forms, and colors, have been flying out of Japan every day forever. Are we getting really tired of it all even though we were once excited by it? Yep. And are we now even bored with hentai, the porno-snuff-scat-death-puke subgenre of manga? Pretty much, believe it or not. The whole damn art form has been in need of a rejuvenating force for a few years now, and we think we’ve just found it in artist Shintaro Kago.
Kago is taking the manga comic form and breaking it open into little chunks of weirdness, self-reflexivity, and super-trippy formal experiments. He calls himself a kisou mangaka (“bizarre manga artist”—can’t get much more literal than that) and his wide-ranging activities include independent filmmaking and toy production as well as drawing. He manufactures, paints, and sells toy figures of turds, mutilated corpses, armless and legless people, and deformed babies, and you know what? They are actually kind of cute!
But Kago’s manga work is far more warped than anything else he does, and that’s mainly what we wanted to talk to him about. Here’s our recent chat with him at his Tokyo studio, followed by a new, exclusive comic that he did just for Vice.
Vice: You use so much shit, as in poo, in your work. It’s everywhere in your comics and your toys.
Shintaro Kago: Scat is just something that I use as a riff for my stories. I chose the theme because at the time that I started doing it, nobody else was famous for it in the manga world. Also, I usually try to adhere to the format of the magazine I’m drawing for and back then most of the magazines that featured my work were quite peculiar. The shit-themed stuff came about when I started drawing a serial for this manga magazine that specializes in scat.
I heard you’ve started drawing for one of those magazines again recently.
It’s pretty tough, to be honest, coming up with stories about shit all the time, you know? I mean, especially making it erotic at the same time.
Are there any minimal requirements that you have to include? Like, is there a quota of shit-per-comic that you have to meet?
No, it’s just… shit. Basically, it’s a question of how many variations of stories I can come up with that revolve around shit and sex. It’s so fucking difficult. I actually wanted to quit after the first two or three of them that I drew. Shit and sex are merely the starting points, and unless you can tick those off you can’t even begin thinking about a narrative. And I do try to feature sweet young girls as the main characters. That’s about it. I don’t think my manga is all that popular with the readers, though. I mean, the types of people who buy the sort of magazines we’re talking about aren’t really into the kind of stuff I draw.
And you aren’t into this sort of thing sexually at all?
No, I don’t engage in those sorts of activities. It’s not even a fantasy of mine. It just happens to be one of the themes that I use. But I really dig splatter humor.
Do you get off on drawing sex scenes? Robert Crumb famously said that he jerks off to his own drawings.
To tell you the truth, I’m not really into drawing sex scenes, and if I had a choice I’d prefer not to. But when you’re drawing for an erotic magazine, you sort of can’t avoid it. Anyway, the themes that I use are quite extreme and people tend to think that I do that stuff in my private life, but I’m really just trying to establish a voice within the confines of the rules and principles that I’ve been handed.
When did you start calling yourself the kisou mangaka? How did it come about?
I just started using it one day, maybe because nobody else was using it! Lately I’m beginning to wonder whether I should change my title from merely “cartoonist” to “cartoonist-plus-something-else.” People only see you within the confines of what it means to be a cartoonist when you call yourself that, so if you start doing something else they’re like, “But you’re a cartoonist, why are you doing that?” So I might need to modify my title a bit.
But you don’t want to be a self-proclaimed “artist” either, right?
Right. I believe that it’s the viewer who decides whether your work is art or if you’re an artist, not the creator. That said, I’m always thinking about how to go beyond the conventions of manga and make it evolve, like, for example, collaging real photographs in with the drawings.
When did you start drawing the type of manga that you do now?
Probably around high school. I was a member of the manga club. Most of the stuff I drew back then featured pretty black humor. I mean, it sure wasn’t wholesome. Looking back, there was this kid in the same grade that drew really vanilla gag comics, so maybe I went the opposite direction to rebel against that.
You use uniformly sized frames in the manga that you drew for us, and this is the case in many of your other works too. Why is that? A lot of manga now uses all sorts of sizes and shapes of frame.
It’s so that every scene is treated equally, and there’s no unintentional weight placed on a particular frame. Sometimes gags work best when there’s a limit to the number of frames you can use, like the single frames or those conventional four-frame comic strips. I guess I don’t like being really obvious either, and I find those blown-up frames kind of gimmicky. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.
Do you find it difficult to come up with new material?
Yeah. If it’s a serial then you have momentum and can just go with the flow, but I tend to draw conclusive short stories each time. It’s tough. It was easier before, but these days I can hardly think of anything. I’ve even reused old ideas that I rejected in the past. But it’s also true that there are fewer magazines that allow me to draw whatever I want. It’s even harder to come up with material when I’m drawing for one of the major magazines with all their restrictions. I’m really bummed that this erotic manga magazine called Cotton Comic was scrapped because they let me run wild with my ideas. But I guess this type of magazine is probably nearing extinction. Like that quirky erotic magazine Flamingo—that kind of soft-porn manga magazine probably won’t come out much anymore. It’s going to get even tougher for manga artists like me.
So what would you do if someone asked you to draw “whatever you want”?
Actually that might be even harder. You definitely have a sense of where your work is going if you have to abide by the rules and themes set by a magazine. If you’re 100 percent free then I feel that it hinders creative expression in a weird way. Your expressive range becomes richer when you have certain boundaries and restrictions. The sex scenes take up a lot of space too, so they’re handy when you’re running low on ideas. I often insert meaningless sex scenes in the middle of a story when I have to fill up a few pages and can’t think of anything else.
What were you like as an elementary school kid?
That’s the next question? Wow, I didn’t see that coming [laughs]. Well, my parents died when I was one, and the first time I stole I was five years old. I lost my virginity at six and was briefly into bestiality but got over it when I was around seven. Horses were the toughest, man. They’re so damn big.
Right. And your favorite playtime activities?
Messing with a butterfly knife. I smashed windows, stole radishes… I did it all, yeah. Not many people know about my dark past, though.