A Manga of "Jazz & Youthfulness" With Music Flowing From Each Page
-- BLUE GIANT Shinichi Ishizuka Interview
The serialization of Blue Giant began in 2013, and over 1.7 million copies have been sold since then. The story revolves around Dai, a high school student in Sendai who was deeply inspired by jazz music after being introduced to the genre. Blue Giant is a manga about music and youthfulness that follows Dai in his jour ney of becoming the greatest tenor saxophone player in the world. The author of the title is Shinichi Ishizuka, who is well known for his manga Gaku: Minna no Yama that sold over 4.8 million copies. It also featured Shun Oguri in its live action film. In this interview, we asked Mr. Ishizuka about his encounter with climbing and jazz while he was studying abroad in the United States, and also about what encouraged him to turn his experiences into a manga.
A coming-of-age manga about a regular teenage boy who pushes himself to the limit to become the best in the world of jazz music
As long as they keep trying, anyone can become someone significant
-- Blue Giant is a manga about Dai, a high school student in Sendai who was taken to a jazz concert by one of his friends. It is a coming-of-age manga that follows Dai as he aims to become the best tenor saxophone player in the world. Despite the fact that he only has basketball experience and cannot even read a music score, you chose him as the main character. Could you please tell us why you did so?
Dai experienced a range of powerful emotions when he encountered jazz for the first time.
As he pursues those emotions, he continues to produce his very own sound. (Volume 1)
Ishizuka Dai is a rather typical teenager. There are many main characters in mangas who aren’t popular with the opposite sex or aren’t very capable in their studies. Those characters usually have a form of strength that makes up for their weaknesses and also allows them to grow. Dai isn’t one of those characters, though. As I said, he’s your typical teenager. He grows through his dedicated and steady effort. I think most people - including myself - are like this. When I was thinking about creating a manga describing an average person who challenges themselves because they truly want to become someone, or because they really want to do something in life, Dai was the character that came to my mind.
I’ve always thought that everything is possible if you just keep trying. Take baseball as an example. In the end, the player who practices their swings more than anyone else is the one who becomes good at the game. We all quit at some point, though. In my experience, although the Bataashi Kingyo series inspired me to start swimming, I gave up right away [laughs]. Sure, I might not have become an Olympic athlete, but if I stayed in the pool and kept trying, my experience would have led me to something significant. I believe that as long as we dedicate our time to something, our lives will become richer, even if that something does not relate to our professions.
-- Even on days of rain or snow, Dai would continue to play his saxophone by himself near the river or in the tunnel. His dedication towards practicing and developing his own sound inspired those around him, which also raised the interest of others towards jazz music. The influence of Dai helped other characters decide on their own paths in life, and also pushed the progression of the plot.
Ishizuka A theme I intended on using since the beginning of the title’s serialization was the acceptance of any opportunity or challenge. Whenever there is a fifty-fifty decision of whether to take it or leave it, take is always the answer. Through my manga, I wanted to show what happens when one never turns down an opportunity, and always chooses to try when they are faced with a decision. I’m not as stoic as Dai is in life, but I do wish that I had been. Dai is a devoted individual who thinks deeply and thoroughly about jazz, which makes it possible for him to continue practicing each and every day. As I worked on him in the manga, there were times when I felt like I was being encouraged to do my job even better.
To be honest, I used to dislike the word “youth”. When I heard the song “Seishun Jidai” (Youthful Times) as a child, I thought it was quite lame. But when I listened to it again as an adult, I became truly impressed by the lyrics. So impressed and affected that I could have shouted out praises about the lyricist Yu Aku [laughs]. It could simply be something we experience as we age, but now I firmly believe that there is indeed a time in life that can only be described as our youth. The fact that things we consider to be trivial are so significant to Dai could mean that he is in the days of his youth.
-- In astronomical terms, a blue giant is a massive star burning at such a high heat that its surface shines blue instead of red. In the manga, Dai’s instructor Yui refers to the brightest jazz player in the world as the Blue Giant. Yui passes on his dream to attain the title of Blue Giant to Dai, and that same title also graces the covers of the manga. Does the word “blue” hint at the idea of youthfulness as well?
(Translator’s Note: The kanji character for “blue” is the same as the first character in “youth”.)
Ishizuka Oh! Well, let’s just say it does [laughs]. Blue is an important motif for me. The word is frequently used to describe jazz music, and it’s also a color that I really like. It holds just a touch of gloom and gives off an impression of sensitivity as well.
-- The word “giant” can be associated with Dai’s name as well.
(Translator’s Note: The kanji character for “dai” carries meanings including large and significant.)
Ishizuka That also came across by chance, since Dai is a name that I had always thought about using. When he introduces himself in English, it sounds like he’s saying “I’m die”, which links to ideas of death and mortality. It isn’t exactly the most fortunate name, but I do think it’s a cool one. To die is to reach the end of life, but it could also mark off a period of time in which a person worked hard and lived their life to the fullest. In Rod Stewart’s “Sailing”, the line “I am dying” is featured in the lyrics. I don’t think it means that he’s actually dying, though. In my opinion, the song is about someone who is doing their absolute best in their life to be free (and then pass away later on). The name Dai is simple, easy to remember, and a great name in my opinion.
Smooth but Strong at the Core: Jazz That Is Free and Cool
-- After writing about climbing in Gaku: Minna no Yama, what was it that made you want to create a manga based on jazz?
Ishizuka After graduating high school and not making it to college, I struggled to find something to be interested in. So, I accepted whatever I could find, and entered a college in the United States. I came across climbing and jazz while I was studying there. I thought if I could become a manga author, those would be the two themes that I want to work with. After completing Gaku, I knew I was going to write about jazz, and I’m very happy to have written about both themes.
In the earlier days of my time in the States, I stayed in a rural area in Illinois. The place didn’t have many ties to jazz at all. One year later, I moved to a town in California where there were several jazz bars, and I would go and listen. Information about who was performing where was listed in the local newspaper every day, and the price was cheap enough even for students.
The atmosphere at the bars was very different than what I had experienced in Japan. The venues were much more lively than I could ever imagine, and the performance wasn’t the only impressive part. Even the audience would participate with their voices and reactions. I was surprised, but I also paid close attention to the exciting environment and made sure that I wouldn’t forget what I saw and heard. Instead of going with others, I would go alone to appreciate and soak up the sounds. The solos* were probably what made the difference, since every performance - regardless of the band that was playing - would never sound the same. The personalities of each performer would show, and the sound they produced would be very much their own. When the show was good, it made me feel good about the entire day. It also gave me something to think back upon, about how great a certain performer was on a certain day. To me, each show is like a diary entry, and I feel like I’m looking at treasures when I reflect upon them.
-- Just like Dai, it seems like you have also been “struck” by a performance before.
Yui, an instructor whose passion for jazz was rekindled when he met Dai.
The music of Dai rocks the hearts of those around him. (Volume 4)
Ishizuka That’s right. In fact, I’ve been struck more than once. There was this one time where an old man wobbled his way on stage at a smaller venue. At first, I didn’t think his performance would be any good, but the music he played was absolutely incredible. I didn’t expect much from the man, and the difference between his appearance and his talent made me even more impressed. Regardless of the instrument, seeing a performer play their heart out on stage truly strikes a chord in my heart. There are many moments where I was amazed by the music I heard, and I consider those moments to be products of the power of jazz. The performances I saw were just so cool. Climbing was inspirational for me as well, so I figured that I should bring those two cool themes I found in the United States back home to Japan with me as gifts. As a manga author, I feel as if I were working as an importer, providing my stock to the general public [laughs].
-- Dai also uses the word “cool” often in the manga. It seems like the idea of coolness is quite important to you.
Ishizuka The act of finding cool things is the most important aspect of youth in my opinion. Finding cool things during the earlier years of life could open up possibilities and also serve as powerful sources of motivation. If you can’t find anything that’s cool and worth looking up to, then there’s nothing for you to pursue, is there? Even if something just looks cool, that’s enough to get someone started. The other staff members have been telling me that young people don’t use the word “cool” anymore [laughs].
I feel that there used to be more jazz players who focused on their appearance. Sonny Rollins’ mohawk and suit combination for his saxophone performances is one example, and it’s a style that Dai also imitated in the series. Another example would be the bamboo frame glasses and the Chinese hat that pianist Thelonious Monk would wear as he played. Their appearances may startle some people at first, but their choices in fashion become spices that add to their performance. The difference between how they look and how they sound could also strengthen the impact they have, which makes them even more fascinating. My decision to have Dai play the tenor saxophone was based on appearance, since it can be easily associated with jazz and is also the perfect size. There are stylish and popular performers like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane who play the tenor sax, and they’re all very cool.
-- Dai often uses the term “jazzy” in the manga. Could you tell us more about what it means for something or someone to be jazzy?
Ishizuka I think the presence and behavior of Tamori** can be described as jazzy. He’s smooth, strong, and very quick in responding to whatever comes his way.
To me, having spontaneous ideas - that can produce the most entertainment - and also being free to improvise is what jazz is about. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to speak with jazz legends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter (featured in Volume 7). When I asked what kind of advice they would give Dai, Herbie responded with “stay open”. Freedom and openness are at the very root of jazz music, and I knew that I would also need to “stay open” as well.
There are times when readers ask me if the song the characters were playing in a particular scene is this song they’re thinking about. Most of the time, they’re wrong [laughs]. However, I always tell them they’re correct, and I ask them how they knew. I mean, the audience has the freedom to decide, right? Nothing makes me happier than knowing that the jazz I write about is leaving my hands and resonating in the heads of the readers - knowing that each reader is producing their own sounds.
-- The postscript manga in Volume 1 shows your interactions with your editor. The two of you discuss whether or not it’s possible to create a jazz manga, as paper does not produce sound and there is no victory to be attained in jazz. Despite the fact that there are no notes or lyrics in the manga, I do feel as if there is music coming from the pages as I read through each volume.
Ishizuka I’m very glad to say that people often tell me that. It really is the result of the reader's’ imagination, though. There’s always a sense of nervousness that I feel as I write. I wonder if I’m accurately describing the music of the performers and also of Dai as he continues to grow. I also think about whether or not the content is reaching the readers properly. Having said that, I do believe that it’s better for me always to feel a sense of uncertainty or be worried, as it allows me to understand why I need to challenge myself. When I first started with BLUE GIANT, I felt like I was standing in front of an enormous wall. If the wall hadn’t been there, the manga wouldn’t be very interesting at all.
Of course, manga doesn’t provide us with any sound. However, it is capable of depicting the drama of life. I figured that as long as I could show how Dai - and those around him - felt as they held their instruments, and also how they embraced their music, I could reach the minds of the readers. There were times when I worried about whether jazz fans would be upset at my content. One time at a jazz cafe, someone told me that my manga made them feel like becoming a jazz musician for the first time ever. That was a very pleasant experience. Now, I hope that even seasoned jazz fans can consider my manga to be one that’s upbeat and positive.
A Setback Is Not a Loss. The Act of Being Passionate Is a Treasure in Itself
-- Dai’s powerful and mesmerizing music has the strength to bring people together. This is especially the case when he moved to Tokyo, where he met the talented jazz pianist Yukinori and started a band with him. That is where the drama really began to unfold.
Ishizuka Yukinori started playing the piano since the age of four, and he’s been working with music with great sincerity for a much longer time than Dai. Because he’s talented and smart, he does come across as arrogant or even obnoxious in earlier stages. I knew from the start that I would need to keep him as an attractive character, though. I think Yukinori and Dai have to serve as each other’s mirror, to reflect upon and affect each other. After they had formed their band, Dai’s performance certainly changed, and Yukinori went through significant changes as well.
I want to believe that good performers are also good people. Performers need to encourage each other, but conflict is also necessary at times. There might even be a need for one to despise another. All of those elements might be what is required for people to mature. I feel that encountering many different people and gaining a wide variety of experiences helps each character develop their own sound. To produce a good sound, one must construct good relationships with other people. Yukinori is one of those individuals who needed to go through the process.
-- There is also another member in their band named Tamada, who was in the same grade as Dai when they were high school students in Sendai. In volume two, he asks Dai how he can prove that he can be successful in a world filled with talented performers. Even Tamada is affected by Dai’s energy and suddenly decides to join the band as a drummer.
Tamada follows desperately in the footsteps left by Dai and Yukinori.
There is someone in the audience who is only there for him, though. (Volume 7)
Ishizuka I made Tamada as a representative of all beginners. When someone wonders whether or not they can start playing music even though they’ve never even touched an instrument before, he’s the one who can give them a push and encourage them to do so. As I worked on him, I was always thinking about how there’s no shame at all in being a beginner. He’s the character that many readers end up relating to the most. Everyone is the same when they start playing music for the first time. Everyone was once a beginner who couldn’t play very well. That’s just the way it is, so I believe that people should be confident and just try.
-- Throughout the series, Dai also questions the negativity expressed towards beginners, and states that the field of jazz is shrinking because beginners are being left out. In one scene, he heard a man he met on a train play the trumpet. Although it was the worst performance he had ever heard, Dai was still impressed because that is the way it should be.
Ishizuka If we can’t learn to accept imperfections, everything would end in an imperfect state.
In the world of manga, I am someone who needs to be more like Dai. Someone who needs to be stoic and put in a continuous effort to find their personal method of expression. Although I became a manga author, I was unable to become a jazz musician. I wanted to, but I was struck by setbacks, and now I enjoy the music only as a listener. I do play the sax from time to time. After finally picking up the instrument again recently, the note I tried to play sounded more like a whoosh of air [laughs]. The same goes for things other than music as well. I’m not very good at the things I’m interested in. I just like them, and I think most people are like this. There are staff members who gave up on their dreams of becoming a manga author and pursued other fields instead. However, that doesn’t mean they lost. A setback may look like a loss, but it isn’t the same at all. Simply being passionate about something is a treasure in itself. I’ve tried my best to illustrate that point as I worked, and I also want Dai to express that idea, too.
-- That idea is shown in the “Bonus Track” manga section at the end of each volume, isn’t it? The bonus manga takes place in the future where those who have been associated with Dai reflect upon their experiences with him, and speak about how Dai is in present time. The manga also offers us a glance into the lives of those characters themselves. In this series, it seems like stories develop even in the blank spaces where detailed explanations cannot be placed.
Ishizuka In my opinion, life is full of blank spaces. There are mountains of unresolved issues, and the pressure crushes us as we try to work them out one by one. I think it’s fine the way it is. What’s important is that we continue doing what we can.
The “Bonus Track” is what I consider to be my personal form of jazz, since I create it in a spontaneous fashion. In the very first volume, it’s already implied that Dai becomes a famous jazz performer. There are certain parts that some may consider to be spoilers. However, the inclusion of that extra component is what gives this series a unique aura, and I’m glad it worked out that way. In addition, I was also able to realize that people are surprisingly interested in the process that comes before the result. It isn’t simply about where Dai ends up. His journey towards where he currently stands is even more important. This does come back at me as a form of pressure, though, since I need to find a way to deliver Dai to where he needs to be. I don’t want readers to think the bonus manga is where the story ends, so I intend on continuing to follow closely behind Dai as he grows.
-- BLUE GIANT has already come to an end, and BLUE GIANT SUPREME is now being serialized. The next stage for Dai is overseas as he travels alone to Germany, right?
Dai, Yukinori, and Tamada.
Excitement builds among the audience as the trio plays. (Volume 9)
Ishizuka A normal jazz performer would go to the United States first. It’s common for aspiring performers to aim for the Berklee College of Music, which is a renowned institution for jazz. It’s also where Dai’s instructor Yui graduated from. There’s a possibility that Dai will go to Berklee eventually, but I wanted to make him go somewhere else first. I figured that it’s better to include different paths of life. This is because I think the best performer will become the best performer in the world, regardless of where they go. I would have been satisfied with anywhere other than the United States, and my editor told me that Germany is a terrific place with plenty of possibilities. That’s exactly what we thought when we visited the country ourselves. We were there during the winter and it was very chilly, but I loved the image of Dai in Berlin, wearing a black coat and playing the saxophone by himself against the cold.
For his hometown, I chose Sendai because I wanted to fuse nature and music together in a suburban setting. Another reason is because it’s also the editor’s hometown, and I’ve visited the place on several occasions. Every year, there is a large-scale jazz festival held in Sendai. Just like Sendai, I believe that Germany will also serve as an excellent stage for Dai.
-- With jazz as its main theme, the manga should be easy for readers overseas to pick up on. Has your work been localized and published in other languages?
Ishizuka Only in Korea and other Asian regions at the moment. I do receive letters from fans in other countries occasionally. If possible, I would like Europeans and North Americans to read my manga, too. I can feel a strong Japanese aura from my work even as I write, and I would like to see how the readers in other countries interpret the idea of Japanese jazz.
Even though the United States is the home of jazz music, there isn’t much jazz-related fiction published there. It’s said that after mountain climber Naomi Uemura climbed Mount McKinley by himself in the winter, the Americans felt frustrated because he had beat them to it. A Japanese man climbed the highest mountain in their country before they could. For me, I want to do the same with jazz [laughs]. In the beginning, I was hoping that my manga would be the most popular jazz-related publication in the United States… It’s still a stretch, and there’s still plenty of distance that I need to have Dai cover. I’m uncertain about this, but as I said before, I’m the type that performs better with uncertainty [laughs].
When I was studying abroad in the States, I met someone who read Master Keaton and decided to travel to the US to study archeology. Meeting that person is what motivated me to become a manga author. I still remember how deeply moved I was when I thought about affecting another person’s life through my own work. I want my work to do more than encourage readers to listen to jazz performances. If possible, I intend on making the BLUE GIANT series something that can motivate someone to become involved in jazz.
Interview conducted at the Yomiuri Shimbun Tokyo Main Office on October 17, 2016
Text by Tachibana Momo
Photography by Fujii Toru
Translated by Tokyo Otaku Mode Inc.
*Editor’s Note: Solo parts for each instrument are featured in jazz performances.
**Translator’s Note: Tamori is a Japanese television celebrity known for his trademark sunglasses, his strong sense of humor, as well as his ability to host successful television programs that last up to 30 years.
Born in 1971 in Ibaraki Prefecture. Between the ages of 22 and 27, he studied abroad in the United States, specializing in rock climbing and weather. After returning to Japan, he worked as a businessman for a year before changing paths and become a manga author. In 2001, his manga This First Step was selected as a regular entry of the Shogakukan Newcomer Manga Award. In 2003, he made his debut with Gaku: Minna no Yama, which was published in “Big Comic Original”. The title won in the 1st Manga Award, in the regular category of the 54th Shogakukan Manga Award, and also claimed the merit award in the 16th Agency for Cultural Affairs Media Arts Manga Category. The same title was made into a live-action film in 2011. Serialization of BLUE GIANT began in 2013. It has sold over 1.7 million copies, and also won a special award in the Jazz Japan Award of 2015. Its sequel titled BLUE GIANT SUPREME is currently in serialization.