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Lessons from a wise manga

Life lessons can come from unexpected sources. Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and manga expert Helen McCarthy found Japanese anime and comic books were transformative in their understanding of the world and their place in it.

Ahead of the UK premiere of Cherkaoui’s second work based on manga characters, he and McCarthy discuss the impact of godfather of the genre, Osamu Tezuka.

Helen McCarthy: Hi Larbi – it’s lovely to talk to you again.

Sidi Larbi Cherakoui: Lovely to speak to you too – I have fond memories of our time working together when I was creating TeZukA [2011].

Helen, what do you think of the manga Pluto, on which Cherkaoui’s new work is based?

HMcC: I love Pluto, it’s an astonishing work that’s full of love and respect for what Tezuka was trying to do. With Atom what he was trying to say was “it’s not important whether your intelligence is artificial or human, where you’re born or how much money you have, the most important thing is how much you love, how much you love life”, and that’s very much the message of Pluto: that life is there to be respected, even when you don’t understand it.

SLC: When I read it, I was blown away by the way [Pluto authors] Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki found a way to keep true to the heart and soul of what Tezuka was advocating. He was someone extremely involved in the complexity of society and what he addressed were very complex themes – asking questions people have no answers for in terms of ethics. Pluto showed us that past, present and future, the same issues will come back and have to be dealt with again and again: issues of acceptance, of love, and of how to understand people who are different from us. That feels particularly relevant right now.

For a kid like me when I grew up, it really helped me understand that there was much more in the world than whatever the ‘norm’ was

What impact did he have on your own life?
SLC: As a child growing up in Belgium I watched cartoons in French which were imported from Japan, so as a result of watching all those cartoons, I was extremely influenced by Japanese culture. Any Japanese person I know has the ability to regenerate – to lose things and start all over. It’s something in mainland Europe we almost don’t know. But Japanese culture is very different, it’s one of resilience and working together, and understanding you’re part of a bigger story; that you’re not the main theme. Look at Astro Boy: he’s a boy robot, he’s not a superhero. He’s trying to reconcile people, he’s not trying to save the day as a hero, he’s trying to make people understand each other, so it’s a very different type of image of the hero that we have in the West. It’s a more powerful one in that sense – it’s inclusive. For a kid like me when I grew up, it really helped me understand that there was much more in the world than whatever the ‘norm’ was that I was being brought up in Belgium with. I think it helped me to become a better person.

HMcC: I think part of that is because while Britain had its empire and went out and invaded other cultures – bringing home the best of them – Japan was turned in on itself for about 350 years; so the Japanese had to develop that empathy to get along with each other. We, France, Belgium and Spain could send our ‘inconvenient’ aggressive people off to conquer other places. Japan had to assimilate them somehow and learn to live with them. Learning how they did that was very interesting for me. Tezuka and anime unlocked Japan for me in a way many of my generation never experienced it. My generation are the children of the men and women who fought in the Second World War. Many of my father’s friends died on the Burma Railroad, so in our house Japan was not discussed, let alone approached as something we could learn from. Manga taught me there was a whole culture here that’s more than the image that was fed to me of Japan as we saw it in wartime and how it behaved in wartime. I learned that if they had the resilience to get over not only their defeat in the war, but also the modern world that was pressing in on them from all sides, then I could learn to deal with the changes going on in my own life.

The other lovely thing about Atom, Larbi, which you touched on, is that he is a robot. His body has been designed for him by somebody else, it’s been imposed on him. So the most fundamental thing we think of – our right to the integrity of our own body – has never been given to these robots and yet they are fascinating, kind, supportive people.

The whole idea that the integrity of your body does not define who you are as a person is for me, an enormous step forward from all those largely American superheroes whose physical form seems to be the most important thing about them. The fact that Astro Boy and his robot friends say ‘you don’t have to be any particular shape, you can still be a remarkable human being regardless of where your body came from or who chose it for you’ – that to me was enormously supportive and comforting.

SLC: We’re both massive Tezuka fans so we’ve been talking about him a lot, but it’s really important to talk about [Pluto authors] Urasawa and Nagasaki…These two artists collaborated and only made work they both agreed on. Their approach has helped me to make my own work. Pluto was created in honour of Tezuka, but by two other artists. Their approach was like reading a script or storyboard of a movie. It helped me to make the theatre piece because I felt like whenever an actor had a question, I could go to the comic book and say, ‘the answer is here – look at how she’s reacting’.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon: Pluto is performed 8–11 February in the Theatre.

This is an edited transcript of a conversation between Helen McCarthy and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, as told to James Drury.
Originally published in the February Guide.