Unico may not be a manga character many will have heard about outside of Japan, but you may just be sold on this cute character on his seemingly never-ending quest after reading my interview with Unico: Awakening writer, Samual Sattin. Currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter (here) this 172 page all-new, graphic novel re-imagining the story of Unico, created by Astro Boy creator, Osamu Tezuka, a unicorn who has enraged the Greek gods and now finds himself lost in time and space, with his memory erased, time and time again. Pretty dark for such a cute looking critter, right?
Olly MacNamee: Unico is a character that dates back to the ‘70s. Although only translated in English in that past decade. What was it about this particular manga character that you took to heart?
Samuel Sattin: I truly love Osamu Tezuka’s work, and have spent recent years trying to track down as much of it as I can. I’d heard of Unico before, mostly due to the animated films that came to the US in the ’80s. But it wasn’t until I visited the Osamu Tezuka Museum in Takarazuka that I learned more about who Unico was with a little more added context: an iconic cult character with a strange, complex, and tragic story. A story that was never truly finished, and which was created at the same time as Tezuka was making one of my favorite books of his, MW, which to me makes a kind of sense. In Japan, you see Unico everywhere, mostly appearing in illustrations that contain the most recognizable members of the Tezuka Star System, and he still gets merchandised quite a bit. But what I really love about the character is that, despite him being a cute little unicorn, “too cute,” as Tezuka described him, his story is powerful, complex, and quite dark. I personally think Tezuka was working through some profoundly difficult ideas at the time, mostly relating to the nature of beauty and kindness, and how they can be misused. That really speaks to me.
OM: With this all-new adventure you are working very closely with Tezuka Productions. How did you initially get their blessing for this new graphic novel?
SS: It all ties back to writer and Mangasplaining co-host Deb Aoki. She introduced me to Vince Shortino, who founded Crunchyroll Japan. He had a long relationship with Tezuka Production, and I discovered that they were open to pitches concerning their characters. I wrote up a pitch and sent it Tezuka Production’s with a hope and a prayer, and to what is still my immense surprise, they liked and accepted it. From there, I set out to understand what kind of project this would be. I know some of the people I work with thought it would work well as an original anime, but I was more interested in making comics. If we were really going to reinvent a Tezuka character, I thought it would be to invest in that character’s story, and grow out the mythology. That’s done best with books, in my opinion, and that’s one of the many reasons why I love making them.
OM: And what is your own experience with Unico? Where and when did you first come upon this cute character?
SS: I first came across Unico in animated form in the ’80s, which provided a familiarity with the character. But it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood and reading all the Tezuka I could that I became truly familiar with his story. I read the English translation when it was released and thought it was fascinating for reasons having to do with how it intertwined beauty and tragedy. I also was interested in its history–the fact that it was created in coordination with Sanrio, and that the manga itself was printed in a larger format, in full color (which for those who may not be aware, is uncommon in Japanese comics). The fact that Tezuka had created a character that was meant to be an icon of cuteness appealed to me, since he couldn’t help but make it artful, and profoundly human.
OM: You have a great partner in Gurihuru. An ideal fit, art wise, for this book. How did that come about and what’s the creative process like between you?
SS: Gurihiru is amazing, and I completely agree that they are a great partner and ideal fit for this project. It all came about when Deb Aoki introduced me to Aki Yanagi–this amazing guy who works in comics internationally, and represents cartoonists in Japan. He and I both thought that Gurihiru would be perfect for this project, so we went about asking them if they’d be interested. At first, as they indicated in a recent interview, they turned it down, having reservations about working on a Tezuka property, which is a big responsibility for many reasons. But we continued to talk, and upon reconsideration, and learning they’d be able to create the Unico they wanted to make, they said yes. I’m so happy they did so.
As far as the creative process, to be honest, it’s been great. Aki helps bridge any inconsistencies and handles a lot of translation, and we make sure to communicate ideas effectively so that no one feels like they’re not being heard. And Tezuka Productions allows us to explore our creative vision in full, so we end up being able to create something special.
OM: What the story about and will we be seeing any new characters become part of Tezuka’s larger Star System?
SS: This story is based on a chapter from the original Unico manga called “The Cat and the Broomstick.” I won’t describe it bit by bit since quite a lot happens, but essentially, Unico meets a cat that gets abandoned, and wants to leave her feline-ness behind to become human instead. Unico is able to grant her wish temporarily, but it ends up leading to an encounter with a dangerous hunter who is killing off all the animals in a nearby forest. Stakes rise to the point where the cat’s life is threatened, and Unico has to decide what to do to help her. For UNICO: AWAKENING, we take that framework from the original story and reimagine it for modern readers, giving some characters larger roles than they had in the original, and expanding Unico’s universe to new horizons. We’re really excited to show you what’s in store.
OM: As with any Kickstarter, there’s an array of rewards. How do you decide what to offer and which other creators to engage with? For instance, I see you have Peach Momoko onboard producing a beautiful set of art prints.
SS: One of the reasons we decided to go in the crowdfunding direction for UNICO: AWAKENING, is because of the idea of making it a celebration; one that brought in contributions from artists who have a connection to the character. Though perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, I was amazed by the enthusiasm we were met with when we started asking artists about contributing their work. We offer an incredible array of rewards for our campaign, including 3 prints from Peach Momoko, like you mentioned, and prints from other amazing artists like Kamome Shirahama (WITCH HAT ATELIER), Akira Himekawa (LEGEND OF ZELDA), and Junko Mizuno (REVINA THE WITCH). We also have an array of beautiful print items called Artifacts from American artists like Julia Reck, Rye Hickman, Steenz, Madeline Copp, and Amber Padilla. This project truly does have so much to offer, and it’s great to see all the support.
OM: Finally then, Sam, while the characters were originally created for kids, this whole campaign seems to suggest a graphic novel for all ages. What would an older reader, like myself, get from picking up Unico: The Awakening?
SS: It’s such an interesting question, and one I’ve had the fortune of discussing a lot since this project hit Kickstarter. The original Unico was put out in the early-mid seventies, and the film adaptations were released in the early eighties. I’m sure you can relate to the following, but a lot of people I know (myself included) that grew up during that era often describe these books and films as “traumatising,” often in a good natured way. This is because stories from that era could be said to be a little more complex, and a little darker, than some of what we’d consider passable for children today, particularly in the US. All of this is to say that I wonder if the original Unico was released now, if readers would consider it a book for children at all. This is why I think UNICO: AWAKENING will be a book that crosses age categories. It’s a complex story that has darker moments, and we’re looking to bring that same sentiment into our reimagining.
OM: Thanks for your time, and all the best with the campaign. It’s going exceptionally well at the moment I see.
SS: Thank you so much for your time! These questions are great. And yes! It’s so exciting and humbling. Nearly every additional dollar we raise ends up going to pay the artists, translators, letterers, and more that make this project possible. Again, we can’t express how much we appreciate the continued support and hope to continue to grow.
The Unico: Awakening Kickstarter is currently running for the next two weeks. And you can check it out here.