Eighty-hour work weeks. Lunch dates with anxious editors. A not-so-good-night’s rest on the floor of the boss’s cramped apartment. Interviewer Luke Jordan meets a Japanese manga artist who reveals what the job is really like — and why she wouldn’t trade it for anything.

RYO KATAGIRI IS A JAPANESE MANGA ARTIST WHOSE WORK has been serialized in both Weekly Shonen Sunday and Monthly Shonen Sunday, two of Japan’s leading manga anthologies, and has reached a global audience through Manga University’s flagship How to Draw Manga series. Over the past decade she has witnessed firsthand the changes that improvements in technology and a growing international audience have brought to the industry and art form alike. In recent years, Katagiri has worked with international clients and publishers, placing her at the forefront of anime and manga’s global expansion. In this interview she talks about her career and offers insights into the industry.

How did you start drawing?

I began drawing when I was around 5 years old. I have two older brothers, and they were always buying manga, so we had a lot at home. I couldn’t read Japanese yet, but I looked at the pictures, and sometimes I doodled on the pages, which really annoyed my brothers! Also, my father worked at a paper company, so we had a lot of paper samples at home. I would go to town and draw original manga characters every day. About then I started telling my friends that I wanted to be a manga artist when I grew up.

When did you begin creating your own manga?

When I was around 10 years old I had a friend who taught me how to use professional tools like inking pens and high-quality paper, and we drew manga together. We would trade pages and continue each other’s stories.

I kept drawing throughout middle school and high school.

How did you get your start as a professional?

When I was 21 years old I graduated from Shukutoku University with a bachelor’s degree in international communications. I still wanted to be a manga artist, but my mother told me I had to get an office job, so I started working at a company in IT.

I began learning about computers, but I felt depressed. So I told my father that I wanted to quit and become a manga artist. My mother still didn’t like the idea, but said she would let me spend the next three years trying. If I didn’t have any success by the end of the three years, I would have to stop. So I quit my corporate job and started to enter my original manga in competitions held by publishers.

My first manga was rejected, but my second won a contest sponsored by Kodansha [one of Japan’s top publishers]. That led to a business meeting with their editors. I submitted my storyboards to them, but they wanted me to make many changes. I really liked my story as it was, so I submitted it to another publisher, Shogakukan, and it actually got the top award in their contest. That manga was printed in one of their magazines, and that was my debut.

Is winning contests how most manga artists become professionals?

There are two main ways of becoming a professional now. Submitting your work to contests and winning an award is the most basic way. But recently, publishers have started contacting amateur artists who share their manga on social media.

After your debut, what was next for your career?

I worked as an assistant for about five years. Each week I would spend three or four days at the author’s home-based studio, where I would draw backgrounds from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., but some nights we hardly slept at all to meet deadlines.

When I would come back home, I was so exhausted and had no more power to draw. But my own editors would be sending me storyboards for the one-shots they had assigned me. Occasionally I had to beg them to change the deadlines! Other assistants I worked with were in the same situation; we were all beginners just trying our best to succeed. If you read Bakuman [a manga about becoming a professional manga artist], it really is a lot like that.

Work 12 hours a day, five or six days a week. That was my routine for five years!

After working as an assistant you got your own series. What was your life like during that time?

Like many manga artists, I worked from home. Most days, I would wake up around 9 a.m., and my assistants and I would start drawing at 10. Around lunch I’d give them money to buy food from the supermarket, and we’d eat together. Then it was back to work, and I’d guide my assistants on what to do. Dinner was around 6. Sometimes my mother would cook for us, and while eating we would watch a little TV, then work some more.

We drew late into the night, but we also talked a lot. When you’re drawing for so long it gets pretty boring, so talking was nice. The assistants would finish at 11 or 12 and then go to bed, but I would keep working until 1 or 2 a.m.

Did you have any life outside of your work?

After submitting a chapter I would go to a restaurant with the editor, and we would talk about the next chapter over lunch. Otherwise, I never got to go anywhere. There was no time!

How does having your own series compare to being an assistant?

Drawing my original series was harder, because I was responsible for everything. Being an assistant is just drawing, it’s just work. When an assistant finishes a project, they can go home. But the author always has to focus on creating manga — it never ends.

What are the top challenges that manga artists face?

Not just right now, but it’s always been very hard to be one of the top manga artists. To have a big and successful series is very difficult because there are so many manga artists in Japan. Everyone wants to reach the top, but very few ever will. Some artists have long-running series but still aren’t popular, and that makes them lose motivation. Staying motivated is a big challenge.

How have you seen the manga industry change over time?

Newcomers no longer have to win drawing contests to be discovered. Publishers are finding them on social media, especially Twitter and Instagram, where unsigned artists post simple, short manga. When a publisher finds a manga that is getting a lot of attention, it’s easy for them to contact the artist. I think that’s great. Some of my favorite new manga are made by artists who were discovered online.

Have you seen manga itself change recently?

Most shonen manga [comics drawn to appeal to boys] today is pretty much the same as it was when I was starting out. But nonfiction comedy manga where someone draws their daily life, is really getting popular. It’s easy to read, and lots of people want more of it.

Print magazine sales are really decreasing, but manga published online is still growing. People want to see these comics that are simple to understand.

Also, romance stories, where a cute girl and cute boy meet each other and fall in love; everybody likes that. Comedy and slice of life are really popular now.

Anime and manga has been growing increasingly popular overseas; has that had any effect on the domestic industry?

Recently, the number of non-Japanese manga artists has increased. They come to Japan, study Japanese, and want to be a manga artist here.

Anime companies are thinking more internationally, and search for manga with traditional Japanese elements like samurai or ninja, because those look cool to foreigners. So now, some artists are smart and make manga with Japanese samurai or ninja to try getting an anime adaptation. But if the artist isn’t passionate about what they’re drawing, they probably won’t be successful.

There’s a public image that most manga artists, especially in shonen manga, are men. As a female artist, would you say that is true?

Shojo manga [comics drawn to appeal to girls] is almost all women, but I think shonen manga is around 40% women. It’s increased since when I started.

Many female artists, such as yourself, use pen names. What goes into that decision?

For shonen manga, the target audience is teen or young boys. So if the artist has a female name, some boys don’t want to read their manga, even if it’s really good. So the editors suggest that we use a male pen name. It’s an interesting culture, and definitely a bit weird.

How did you get your pen name?

I had no ideas for my pen name, so I asked my mother what my grandmother’s maiden name was. She said “Katagiri,” so I used that. For “Ryo,” I asked my friends what they thought, and they said it sounded like the name of a cool, good-looking guy. I wanted a simple name, and Ryo is only one character when written in kanji. I combined the two — Ryo and Katagiri — and the editors agreed.

When you have a new idea for a manga, how do you begin working on it?

Before, when I came up with an idea, I would start by drawing a storyboard. Now, I write a script first where I set up the plot and organize the character’s personalities, then I start drawing the storyboard.

I’m not sure which way is best. It depends on the artist.

I know that it’s very common to experience creative blocks when working. How do you get over it?

I want to know the answer, too! Artistic blocks always happen, but we have to draw because there’s always a deadline, so we need to find a solution as soon as possible. If I have an idea I have to try to draw it immediately, write out a script, or call an editor and ask for help.

Sometimes artists watch anime, movies, or read other manga to get inspiration. Some artists will take a nap. But the most important thing is to keep drawing or writing. For me it’s easiest to come up with new ideas when you’re actually working. But it’s still very hard work.

Now lots of your work is internationally focused. How did you begin working internationally?

In 2018 I was working as an assistant, but I was really interested in collaborating with foreigners. As I mentioned before, I studied international communications in college, and I wanted to keep learning this skill. So I began searching the internet for opportunities to draw manga for foreign audiences. That’s when I learned about Japanime [Manga University’s parent company] — and the office was very close to my place. I was so interested, and thought maybe I could help, so I sent an email, and one of their editors replied. We had a couple of meetings, and have been working together ever since.

What are some of your current projects?

Now I’m working more internationally. Clients in the U.S., France, and other places have messaged me through social media with requests to collaborate. This year I drew illustrations for an overseas writer, and next year I will again. Some clients ask me to turn their character concepts into illustrations, and other times I come up with character designs for them on my own. Also, although it isn’t a manga job in the traditional sense, I’m kind of a teacher now. I help coordinate a program in the Netherlands that encourages high school students to communicate in English through art.

I continue to work with Japanese publishers too, and I have drawn illustrations for several different books. I am also working on another original manga. It’s only a storyboard now, but I’ve submitted it to a publisher.

It’s never been an easy job. But I love it. Seeing my work in magazines and books that can be enjoyed by people throughout the world makes me so happy. I hope to keep drawing manga even when I’m in my 80s!