Original text archived here.

This time “NO COMIC, NO LIFE”  interviews the author of “Hidamari Sketch”, Ume Aoki-sensei. The smash hit comic with a currently-airing anime, an anthology released last month, and then a visual fanbook and light novel coming in March. Also in the same month is the long-awaited DVD release and even an autograph session. The very busy Ume Aoki-sensei will tell us the hidden story behind Hidamari Sketch’s creation, her feelings about the anime, and the secret origin of her pen name. Read on!

First off, tell us how you started drawing Hidamari Sketch (“Hidamari” for short).

My editor saw my homepage and gave me a shout. They said, “You fit in well with the philosophy of Kirara, so please.” However, I thought they only knew about a 4koma I had drawn previously for a game developer. But then it seemed like they didn’t even see it, because at the first meeting, they didn’t mention that comic at all. That was strange. (laugh)

I thought, “They don’t know about it? Well, I wonder why they’re talking to me about 4koma?” (laugh) Both the 4koma and advertisements I drew for that game developer, for example, “Next time, a brand new production!” and so on, were some kind of parody of characters from the game. So at the time they asked, I didn’t really have anything original in mind or knew what would be good to draw. Up until then I was updating once a week, but now I had to put together and draw at least 10 strips. I was thinking about the different ways I could make a living.

How did you come up with Hidamari’s contents from there?

It was my first time serializing something original and I didn’t want to do anything beyond my ability, so I tried drawing something more reasonable. A story set in an unrealistic world would be a little too much for me, wouldn’t it? Because I felt I couldn’t draw something like that so suddenly, I wanted to try a theme more within my reach, and so it became what it is today.

If I’m not mistaken, you went to an art college. That’s how you came up with the art material, but why is the setting high school, not college?

I made it about art because it’s easy to draw stories based a little on my own experience. It’s really simple, but I think not having to do a lot of research beforehand is what makes it so. As for the high school setting, I didn’t quite want to make them adults. Rather, if I made them college students, the image I had in mind would be strange for them to be adults. And college girls aren’t really that cute. (laugh) Instead of a girl who knows too much and understands reality, I wanted to draw something a little more genuine, a girl with dreams.

Because I like uniforms, I wanted to draw them. Aren’t female high schoolers in uniforms cute? (laugh) After graduating and not having to wear them, I noticed the value uniforms have. That’s why I’m glad I get to mess around with them a bit in Hidamari. Because the uniforms needed good special characteristics, I only thought of 2 types. I love the so-called “basic uniform”, but here it wouldn’t be satisfactory. So I draw uniforms everywhere. (laugh)

I was wondering why the apartments known as “Hidamari-sou” were not dorms. They’re living alone, yet it carries the meaning of community life. Why a setting like this?

At first I thought dorms would be fine, but then I might have been influenced a bit by my college. There, to make up for not having dorms, you could get referred to several apartments. The image of Hidamari-sou is like, if student lives alone there, it would feel natural for them to move in. It’s that kind of apartment.

A place with community-like living had a great effect on my older brother. He lived in a boarding house when he went to college and I often heard his stories. They always sounded enjoyable, and while listening to him I would think, “That’s so nice, that sounds like fun.”

So about the characters, why are there four?

Why? (laugh) Having first- and second-years separated is inconsistent with what I said about high school and college earlier, but in a high school story I wanted to try producing an atmosphere that’s like adults and children. Of course, in the case of high school, second years are proper high school students who feel a bit more adult. On the other hand, since the first years were only middle school students until this time, they’re children at heart. I think because I was in club activities, the image of that sempai and kouhai relationship came forth unconsciously. However, I didn’t want only boke characters because that wouldn’t give the four girls much variety. But since long ago I haven’t had a sense for the format of boke and tsukkomi punchlines, so I didn’t make their roles distinct.

What do you have to be careful of when drawing a 4koma manga?

Other than tough spots, it’s the sense needed for the 4th panel to drop the punchline. Up until that time, I drew 4koma one strip per week for the game developer and it always had to have a punchline. I tried to master that sense and put great effort into thinking about how I wanted the punchline to drop perfectly. I wanted to draw not only a cuteness that would please Kirara’s primary readers and always be felt, but at the same time something enjoyable to the readers who’ve liked 4koma from the start. Even so, I pay attention to the dialogue so it doesn’t end up poor. Natural, realistic conversations are not just words and phrases. I try to have a strong sense for natural conversations that don’t sound stale.

What has changed since you started serializing manga?

Before I was overly serious in thinking things like “Don’t cut corners!”, they were unnecessary thoughts and I would get worried. That doesn’t mean I cut corners nowadays, but now I’ve come to the point where I’m not that rigid anymore. It might simply be “experience”, but I’ve now come to understand the way I draw, and it shows.

Regarding the characters at first, it was impossible to think of the ideal way they should be. Some things were forced in. But little by little I grasped the development and feelings of the characters, and they came to light. In contrast, I was eventually able to think to myself, “Yeah, this is good.”  With that, the work called Hidamari gradually turned into my own.

Then I wonder what to draw. At first I didn’t know how to draw in a 4koma. 4koma manga have frames of all equal size. Because of the dialogue and drawings I want to insert, I had no choice but to break things up because of the frames’ size. It was rather painful. Occasionally here are times when I want to draw too much. (laugh) But then there’s things like inserting the faces when they won’t fit. I worry around in circles over small details like that, but in that regard I gradually found the balance without thinking too hard about it.

What are you most careful about now?

Unlike what I said before, I’m still not entirely used to it. As characters develop, their peculiarities are steadily revealed, and this lets me think of easy ways to incorporate them. For example, it’s possible to use “If it’s Hiro-san, there should be a diet joke” as a way out in a tough spot. That makes it easier for me as I go along, but by constantly making jokes like that, the character may become unusually stale. That’s why I’m careful of doing that. It would definitely be scary to reach a point where I keep drawing the same thing over and over. That’s the most important lesson: “Not to lose sight of the original intention.”

In terms of the characters, how about Yoshinoya-sensei? Personally, she’s my favorite character. Was she planned from the beginning to have a big role?

At first I didn’t draw her at all, and then she suddenly appeared in the manga. Because it’s in a school I was wondering what to do for a teacher, and she naturally popped into my head. Then I noticed I had made more than 4 boke characters. (laugh) With the main 4 girls under the same roof all part of the same kind of atmosphere, then Yoshinoya-sensei might be a slight deviation. To me she’s like a playful character, for instance take her hairstyle, her somewhat unrealistic flowing long hair. I wouldn’t let the 4 girls make any perverted jokes, but I couldn’t draw another character, so all of that was put into the teacher. Later on, I think there will be times she’ll appear more often and times she won’t. But in a sense she’s the most tasty character, a character I draw that’s like an exquisite spice.

Can you tell us your thoughts since it became an anime?

Shocked. (laugh) When I began I didn’t even think my manga would make it to one volume, so I was really surprised. Since the start of serialization I wondered 2 or 3 times if it would get cancelled when its popularity from surveys was poor. So the news that it was getting an anime made me very happy.

What effect has drawing a manga and getting an anime made had on you?

I’d be questioned many things by everyone in the anime staff, like “What’s happening here in this scene?” And “What kinds of songs are they singing at karaoke?”, “When was Sae’s debut as a writer?” But even I still hadn’t considered such things. (laugh) Since they asked, it was the first time I had to think of so many details. The original work has much fewer details compared to it. (laugh)

I always get an aerial feeling whenever I watch the anime. A feeling of being so happy to see my dream realized. In the manga, what’s it like when the characters talk and move? The anime pulls together what I draw. The biggest thing is that now when I draw storyboards, I hear the lines being read by the voice actresses in my head. (laugh) My editor says Yoshinoya-sensei’s face resembles Miyu Matsuki’s, I think it’s close. This sensation makes the characters feel very real, which is a plus. On the contrary, one of the main causes of unintentionally putting them together is that when I actually work on the storyboards, I make sure to read and express the lines I wrote down.

That’s interesting. I’ve often heard comments about characters coming together like that, but that’s the first time I’ve heard it being accidental. That happens when the characters are static?

You mean like Uchiyama-kun, the gluttonous character from TV variety shows? He’s really cliche, but I don’t really think I have such cliched characters.  Like “She’ll say this if she’s with that person.” That’s one caricature in particular, but with too many of those the dialogue will feel very unnatural. I don’t think it would be realistic anymore.

That internal caricature is the reverse of their outward appearance. About the visuals, they have many special characteristics. How did you make that image?

I gradually squashed them. (laugh) From long ago I wasn’t picky about the body proportions. They’d never be the same, and depending on if they fit in the scene, I drew whatever proportions would work. While drawing a 4koma, there are cases when I don’t make a drawing in the middle of a panel and I only insert the dialogue. In order to understand the lines, I put the talking character’s face in their speech balloons. When doing that, I thought it was easy to draw faces distorted in landscape orientation.

Now when I think of it, I’ve come to deliberately use that distortion since Hidamari’s serialization. Even if I didn’t use it in Hidamari, it happened to some extent at times when I drew for the game developer. I crushed the drawings. (laugh) I thought, “Squish her!” when I was drawing a girl character from that game developer’s game. But it became extremely popular, and somehow even had a plush doll made of it. Speaking of which, I think that was the start of it, but I ended up drawing like that in Hidamari after all.

Please tell us the origin of your pen name.

Back then, there was an apricot [ume] tree facing my house and apricots would fall into the street. One day I picked one up and put it in my dresser. It had a good fragrance and my room smelled nice every time I entered. However, it gradually rotted after being there for a while. By the time I thought, “It stinks, it stinks!” its smell had already become one with the dresser. (laugh) While I was thinking, “What should I do? What should I do?” it felt like “ume” was a part of me.

“Aoki” doesn’t really have any significance, it just seemed good. (laugh) MATSUDA98 (the author of “Honoka Lv. Up!” referred to as a “comrade” in the afterward of Hidamari’s first volume) and I went to school together. One day during class she passed me a paper saying, “What will you do for your pen name?” At that time I had a lot of different ideas for a pen name, one of which was “Aoki”. Somehow I was attracted to the word’s impression. It had the best, nicest sound to it, so I decided on that. “Ume” written in hiragana had a simple feel to it, and “Aoki” was a little showy, but I thought having characters with high stroke counts would be nice.

Finally, what message do you have for the readers?

There won’t be any dramatic new developments, so don’t expect too much. (laugh) Things will change as the publication goes on, perhaps something fundamental, but I want the enjoyable atmosphere of Yuno and the 3 others to not change. Thank you very much!

[※ Interview held on February 27th, 2007. (Cooperation: “Manga Time Kirara Carat” Editorial Department)]

FYI, the gender of Ume’s editor is never specified no matter which interview you read.