How did a coming-of-age story about a teenage shogi genius like March Comes in Like a Lion become one of the most award-winning manga works in history? In this special interview with UMINO Chica, we learn what her influences are and how she makes manga, as well as her thoughts on character psychology and how to express emotions and bonds between very different people.
* Interview conducted for the 24th Japan Media Arts Festival special site and edited for this site. The article will be available online until the end of March, 2022.
– In this interview, I want to ask you about the charm of the world of March Comes in Like a Lion and the secrets of its creation. But first, let's start with the basics. What kind of tools do you use when drawing manga?
UMINO Chica : I use a G-pen and Pilot security ink. I started using that because I saw another cartoonist on Twitter posting about how great it is. I tried it and it soon became my favorite. It's out of production now though, which is sad. I’m looking forward to whatever new wonderful ink they dream up!
– Do you work in traditional methods?
UMINO Chica : Yes, I do. Although with Covid all of my assistants have moved to digital. I’m the only one still working with pen-and-paper. However, since everything is done remotely nowadays, my chief assistant scans my drawings, which are sent to assistants working at home. They do the lettering and filling in blacks then email it back to me, where I print it out. That’s why from volume 16 on the lines are a little thicker. But I think the end result looks nice.
– How do you color it?
UMINO Chica : Up to volume 15 I painted it by hand using watercolors. But in volume 16 I painted it digitally for the first time. I think my readers are used to watercolors so I’m not sure how they will take it. I had a hard time finishing it and it ended up thicker, like an oil painting. But I think it looks alright.
– In spite of the long serialization, I know you are constantly trying new things. But I admit I am surprised to hear this includes digital creation.
UMINO Chica : Sometimes I go to my parent’s house to help out my mother. I thought it would be nice to have a portable tool, so that I could work there as well. I thought this would be a good opportunity to teach myself some new techniques.
– I think one of your strengths is the ability to draw people of various body shapes and ages. They are all appealing, not just the ones who are young and slender, but also elderly characters with good physiques. You draw characters of all sorts of ages and dispositions.
UMINO Chica : I had a lot of fun drawing YANAGIHARA Sakutaro. When I went to watch shogi, I met a person named KIRIYAMA Kiyozumi. He’s ranked 9-dan and was there as an observer. I’d say he was in his late 60s at the time. He always wore a kimono. You could tell how comfortable he was wearing it, and it made me feel traditional Japanese clothes were appropriate for shogi players. I knew I wanted to draw someone like him in manga someday. I was tracing his figure with my eyes the entire time. He became the inspiration for YANAGIHARA. I would say YANAGIHARA is also a little like my father. When he woke up in the morning, he’d put in eyedrops and apply compresses on his body… that was my dad.
– It sounds like your manga is based on your own experiences. It adds depth to have characters of varying ages. I love the regulars at Bar Misaki.
UMINO Chica : I love all those charming people so much. For those two (volume 11, p. 30, 2nd frame), I was conscious of SHIMA Kosaku [*1]. I want to draw people of all ages, such as 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. There’s really not much difference between the 30s and 40s, more of a subtlety of gestures. Between the 40s and 50s there will be slight differences in body shape. If you are thin, your bones become more pronounced. It's only SOYA Toji whose age is ambiguous. I wanted him to look a little ghostly, so I drew him without adding much texture.
*1 The SHIMA Kosaku series by HIROKANE Kenshi is one of the longest-running manga. It started in 1983 and depicts the life of SHIMA Kosaku, a successful Japanese businessman.
– One stage of the manga process is thumbnails (name or neemu). It’s basically a rough draft that serves as the blueprint for the comic. I’ve seen your thumbnails before, and I was surprised at how precise they are.
UMINO Chica : A bunch of professional manga artists got together to share notes on that, to see if we were all doing thumbnails the same way. We found out that everyone devised their own method, one that worked for their personalities and skills. Once they found what worked they stuck with it. Sadly, I am the type of artist who can’t work from a template. Its hard for me to sort the frames and lines in my head, so I have to work out ideas on a piece of paper. I need to see it visually.
– I wouldn’t know this from looking at them, as your compositions seem well thought-out. I wouldn’t think there was that much cutting and pasting involved from the sample thumbnails I have seen.
UMINO Chica : When I was asked questions as a kid, I never knew how to reply. I couldn’t get the words out. But if I could write something on paper, I could communicate my thoughts. However, it doesn’t all come out at once. Working on paper is like exploring, letting you ask yourself “What exactly do I want to say?” Which means I draw as many thumbnails as I can think of. Then I lay them side-by-side. I cut pieces out and paste them with other pieces to find the best arrangement. After that it goes back to the paper again.
– Are you still doing that?
UMINO Chica : Oh yes. I think it is too late for me to change my ways. Even when deadlines are tight, I can’t understand my story until I draw it. If I want to see directions for a story to go in, I draw them and line them up. And if something doesn’t look like a natural flow, I give it up. It has to make sense as a story and be easy for readers. It's also important that characters stay true. If you draw up thumbnails and put them side-by-side, you’ll see the direction the story is supposed to go.
I continue to explore while repeating this process. A key is to not be stingy with the cello tape. I used to try and use as little tape as possible, but that ended up taking more time. Really, every artist will have their own way of doing thumbnails.
- We know you have a passion for detail in your work, and can we assume the same is true for the shogi players? We meet a lot of new challengers. For example, 7-dan TANAKA Taichiro who is highlighted in volume 15. He was raising his children and was only able to dedicate himself to shogi after they left for college. At first, he didn’t seem especially flashy, but I was surprised in volume 15 when he was given the chance to shine. What made you create someone like him?
UMINO Chica : TANAKA’s model is KIMURA Kazuki, a 9-dan professional shogi player. KIMURA had always been a strong person who won his first title when he was over forty years old. He is also very friendly. I met him when he was doing the Demonstration Board (explaining the game of shogi). He shared a lot of interesting stories and was easy to understand. He had a lot of fans. KIMURA worked hard to improve his game, and one of his fans said, “You’re amazing, Mr. KIMURA!” He said, “Once I didn’t have to take care of the children anymore, I took up running to get fit, and focused on shogi.” I thought that was cool.
– That is cool! When I read March Comes in Like a Lion, I realized how important concentration is for shogi players. In one episode that focuses on TANAKA—the 7-dan modeled on KIMURA—there are times when the struggles of childcare interfere with his concentration. Was this based on reality?
UMINO Chica : In the comic, TANAKA raises two sick children. This is based on an experience with editor TOMODA Ryo. His child suddenly felt ill and was hospitalized. Seeing him rushing to the hospital, I thought how difficult it must be to have children. TOMODA and his wife worked so hard raising their children while also maintaining careers. I have no children of my own, but when I see parents on Twitter it seems they are all having a difficult time. I appreciate Twitter because it gives you insights into lives outside of your own. You get a good idea of how other people live. I see the tweets of people I follow and people who follow me, and I see what they share. There’s a lot going on right now. And in that way the lives of my readers become intertwined with the story of March Comes in Like a Lion.
– The shogi games in March Comes in Like a Lion are all fierce battles. Did any of the games leave more of an impression on you?
UMINO Chica : I’d say YANAGIHARA’s was the most satisfying to draw. After drawing the game in volume eight between YANAGIHARA and SHIMADA Kai, I thought “this is it.” I felt I couldn’t depict anything better than that. All human beings get old. And of course, I also get older too while drawing manga. So, showing someone active on the front lines for so long, still striving to improve year after year, that seemed like the best any of us can do.
– Around YANAGIHARA, people’s hopes are expressed as ribbons. I thought this was beautiful, a true masterpiece.
UMINO Chica : The strength of manga is the combination of words and pictures. Of course, I could have written a dialog saying, “I carry all of your expectations, and I promise I will do my best.” Instead, I thought I should let the pictures speak, showing him holding all the tasuki cords in his hand. And how does he feel about this burden? You can use facial expressions to tell the story. I thought it should look something like confetti, and maybe striking a pose like in Kabuki theater. In that scene, when the wood clappers announce the end of the game, I imagined the hopes firing like a confetti cannon, so that’s how I drew it.
– Since the actual game of shogi is quiet, one player sitting in front of the other, you might think it makes for a monotonous setting for a manga. Did you have any concerns about that when starting the series?
UMINO Chica : The first time I saw a shogi match was on TV. The screen hardly moved, and I admit I wasn’t really interested in the game. I didn’t know what was going on. After that, I had a chance to watch the final match of an A-class ranking battle which was live on TV and went on until midnight. Even though their bodies are sitting on cushions, their minds are racing. I saw a shogi player whose body was shaking. His passion was moving, fighting an epic, silent battle while sitting patiently still. It was fierce. I was shocked. I thought that I wished I could capture that in manga.
How did you think you could draw it?
UMINO Chica : Although there is no movement of the body, the insides are churning like molten magma. In manga you’re not limited to the physical world, you can add mental landscapes. For someone who can’t move their body, their emotions could be leaping off a cliff or drowning in water. That’s the kind of thing I wanted to draw.
– A characteristic of your work is using both vertical and horizontal dialog for poetic effect. I’m thinking in particular of the scenes between main character Rei and KAWAMOTO Hinata. They are so masterful that they seem almost magical. Can you talk about those scenes?
UMINO Chica : Why do I arrange scenes like that? I’ve been asking myself that same question for a long time. I think it’s a reflection of my own unorganized head. I draw what I see inside. When I’m crafting a scene, I can’t decide between vertical and horizontal composition [*2], so I use both.
*2 Japanese language can be written vertically or horizontally depending on the circumstances. Manga are usually written vertically. It is unusual to have both on the same page in the same work. When adapting to Western languages, this horizontal-vertical feature disappears. To achieve a similar effect, adaptors must use solutions such as different fonts.
– If I’m not mistaken, mixing vertical and horizontal dialog first appeared in page eighty-four of volume two of Honey and Clover. It seems like sentences expressed vertically are different from those expressed horizontally. Is that so?
UMINO Chica : I’d say yes. I think the dialog should fit the story. I think of it like music, like a theme song playing, flowing with the images. The characters' thoughts are the lyrics. That’s the image I want to project.
– In volume three, during the game between SHIMADA and GOTO Masamune, Rei’s inner monologue is vertical, expressing his personal feelings. The horizontal text gives a bird’s eye view of the game, describing situations.
UMINO Chica : It was impossible to project both Rei’s personal feelings and the game explanation using a single solution, and I couldn’t cut up the scene. I needed both. It represents the complexity of audio, with a different voice for narration and inner monologue. I wondered if the reading order would confuse readers. I thought it over many times, to see if it worked. First I would only read the horizontal text. Then I tried to read only the vertical. It takes some time to get the entire scene.
– Although there are complicated scenes with a mix of characters emotions on display, I find your work easy to read! In fact, readers may not consciously be aware of the depth of expressions and techniques on display.
UMINO Chica : Before I became a cartoonist, I was a character designer, so I am always careful about where to put logos. After, when I went freelance, I worked on book design for English reference books. I studied existing books to see how they arranged content in an easy-to-understand manner. I noticed how they used larger headings and subheadings, and increased readability by changing color and font. When conveying the same content, shifting just the composition of the letters makes things completely different.
– It sounds like you made good use of your past work experience in your manga! In volume fifteen, you showed Rei searching for game records in his head. Are you always looking for new ways to convey information in your stories?
UMINO Chica : In a comic where the hero devotes himself to one goal, and fights to achieve it, I think you get a gradual escalation of scenes. But shogi doesn’t have that dynamism. It’s not like there are bombs exploding. Shogi is about strong individuals who have been pushing themselves forward for a long time. The battle is in their hearts. The struggle is how to convey that inner struggle with an image you can see with your eyes. That way, even readers unfamiliar with shogi can say “I’m sure Rei is thinking a lot right now” or “This is a fierce battle in this kind of world.”
– What motivates you to innovating new creations?
UMINO Chica : In terms of character design, when the motivation of the artist declines that is instantly transmitted to the person who buys the work. And if sales are poor, those characters will be cancelled and discarded. It’s a tough world. It’s the same with manga, which makes it so scary. Readers get bored if you aren’t constantly refreshing a series. You can never escape that fear, not for the rest of your life.
– I feel you have to face that fear head on.
UMINO Chica : Exactly. Just like Rei is able to do new things, one-by-one, since the first volume. First he learns how to laugh with people. Next, he laughs alone, involuntarily. Then he can be with people without laughing. It's all very subdued. But I like thinking over such trivial matters carefully when drawing them.
– In your comics I feel you’ve captured both the exuberance of shonen (boys) comics and the delicate feelings of shojo (girls) comics, while doing justice to both of them.
UMINO Chica : That makes me happy to hear! I love shonen manga, seinen (young men) manga, shojo manga, and josei (women) manga. I love gag strips and serious comics, cute things and cool things. I want my manga to be full of all of these aspects. Hopefully, fans of any genre will find something to enjoy in my work!
– What manga artists have influenced you?
UMINO Chica : Fundamentally, HAGIO Moto, TEZUKA Osamu, YAMAMOTO Sumika, and YAMAGISHI Ryoko. Specifically, HAGIO, YAMAMOTO, and YAMAGISHI are all good at drawing the human body. Fashions and styles change over time, but the human body is essentially the same shape. I learned that if you draw people well, and don’t chase fads, your work can be read for a long time.
I adore shonen manga too. I was crazy about SLAM DUNK by INOUE Takehiko. There are a lot of young male characters and whoever is in the leading or supporting roles doesn’t really matter. A story of people striving to achieve something is wonderful. I also fell in love with MATSUMOTO Taiyo’s work. His backgrounds are phenomenal. The towns he draws are beautiful. And TAKANO Fumiko! Whether doing some dusting or cooking rice, TAKANO’s gestures are all wonderful and expressive. I try to inhale all the good points of all these masters. I find myself staring at their work, wishing I could draw like that.
– Your work has a soft cuteness to it, but your works are about essential human conflict, asking what people need to live, what to prioritize in life. By the way, I heard that, since the magazine where you published your previous work Honey and Clover was discontinued, it was yourself who decided where March Comes in Like a Lion would be published?
UMINO Chica : At the time, I was actually unhappy with myself. I figured, “If you are failing anyways, why not fail big? Why not get shot down by your favorite comic company? I’m crying every day anyways. What is another hit going to do to me?” So, I went to the publisher and knocked on the door. I’m so glad I did that. And I’m still surprised because they opened that door.
– What did you think about when you started drawing March Comes in Like a Lion?
UMINO Chica : All the other publishers were saying “Give us something like Honey and Clover!” I got a lot of invitations. But I knew if I drew another love story, it would be compared to Honey and Clover. And by that comparison it would probably fail. I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I thought I would make something complicated and dense, that would require me to do a lot of research. I wanted to earn the trust of readers as a serious manga artist.
Meanwhile, TOMODA of Hakusensha suggested I make my next work about boxing or shogi. I agreed, and suggested we aim for a three-volume series to begin. When I started drawing, I realized that shogi is a deeper and more interesting world than I imagined. I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish Rei and Hina’s story... so that work that was originally supposed to be only three volumes is about to publish its sixteenth volume. I made my debut as a manga artist at age thirty-four. How much energy do I have to continue serialization? It’s a fight against age. Now, I’m feeling the need to reach the final round while I still have the energy for that.
TOMODA Ryo (Editor) : At the start of the serialization, UMINO told me something I will never forget. She said, “There’s no such thing as a two-hit wonder. Certainly, there are many one-hit wonders. But if you get that second hit, you gain the trust of readers.” I thought UMINO was a very logical person. She says a lot of things that make sense.
UMINO Chica : The editors I worked with before had all been somewhat hands off. But for the next series I wanted something that could only be made working closely with an editor. I wanted to be in step, to run a three-legged race. At first, I couldn’t play shogi at all. But I heard TOMODA played shogi when he was a college student, so I thought he would be ideal to partner with. I wanted my editor to feel like this was their work too. I thought that would open up something new.
– In Japan, March Comes in Like a Lion will reach its climax soon, when the sixteenth volume is published. Do you have any ideas about what the future holds? [*3]
UMINO Chica : The ending was decided before the series even began. And that’s something that has worried me day in and out for a long time. I call it the ending, and in fact it has been thumbnailed. But I won’t know what really happens until I draw it out in the manga. The work gets naturally deeper. I’m trying to be considerate and not reveal the ending, but I will say even if it was decided, will Rei be happy with how things worked out? That depends on the patterns of my heart. When I started drawing March Comes in Like a Lion, I thought like this: I’m going to live each day and do my best from now on. Whatever you see on Rei’s face will be the same look on my face as I finish the final page.
*3 In Japan, volume sixteen of March Comes in Like a Lion was published on September 29th, 2021. This interview was recorded on August 20, 2021.
Born August 30th. UMINO worked as an illustrator and goods designer until making her debut in 2000 with Honey and Clover. The series was popular with readers across all ages and genders and was adapted into various media such as an animated series, a live-action television series, and live-action films. Since 2007, UMINO has been serializing the shogi-themed manga March Comes in Like a Lion at Young Animal (Hakusensha), with consultation by professional shogi player SENZAKI Manabu. In 2011, UMINO won the 35th Kodansha Manga Award in the General category. In 2014, she won the 18th TEZUKA Osamu Cultural Prize. In 2021, she won the 24th Japan Media Arts Festival Manga Division Grand Prize. The animated series for March Comes in Like a Lion began broadcast on NHK in the Fall of 2016. In 2017, a live-action film version played across Japan. In October of 2017, the second season of the animated series was broadcast.
Born in Hiroshima in 1968 and raised in Fukuoka, KAWAHARA Kazuko worked as a preschool teacher and in the PR department of animation studio GAINAX before turning freelance. Now, she is an interviewer and essayist on manga. She is the author of Jinsei no taisetsu-na koto wa oomune, manga ga oshiete kureta [Almost Everything that Matters, I Learned it from Manga] (NTT Publishing, 2009). Past major columns include Kore yomazu ni nani o yomu? [Well, What Should I Read Then?] (2007-2014) and Manga koso dokusho da!! [Manga is Reading!!] (2015-2019), both for WEBnttpub MAGAZINE (NTT Publishing). KAWAHARA contributed essays to works such as So-tokushu MIHARA Jun [Full Review of MIHARA Jun] (Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2015) and is a contributing editor and writer to The IKEDA Riyoko no sekai [The World of IKEDA Riyoko] (Asahi Shimbun Publishing, 2012). She is also a guest lecturer at Tokyo University of the Arts, graduate program.