An Illustrator Between Author and Reader, Akihiro Yamada Draws Out Vivid Characters for Fantasy Novels

©Akihiro Yamada
Akihiro Yamada drew this illustration in time for publication of the collection of his art. He says the patterns of the clothes were inspired by stained glass.

Manga artist and illustrator Akihiro Yamada has adorned the popular fantasy novel series “Junikokuki” (“The Twelve Kingdoms”) by Fuyumi Ono with his beautiful cover art and illustrations for more than 30 years.

In March, an art book containing Yamada’s character designs for the series’ animated versions was published by Shinchosha Publishing Co., and a touring exhibition of his original illustrations for the novel series started last month.

The art book not only features designs of characters, from leads to side roles, but also comes with detailed handwritten notes by the 67-year-old artist about each character beside the drawings.

The elaborate illustrations are breathtakingly beautiful — lively characters full of action as well as costumes and weapons delicately drawn with intricate patterns — with fine details down to a strand of hair and a flower petal.

Each illustration is like a work of fine art.

“Illustrations [for novels] are like background music, so if they’re in the back of your minds when you read, then I’m fine with that,” Yamada said gently. “I never draw climax scenes, because the best images for important scenes should be pictured in the readers’ minds.”

The cover of the first volume of “Tsuki no Kage, Kage no Umi” (“Sea of Shadow”), Episode 1 of the novel “Junikokuki” (“The Twelve Kingdoms”) series, published under the Shincho Bunko label of Shinchosha

“The Twelve Kingdoms” started in 1991 and has 10 titles published to date. The series tells the chronicles of Yoko, a high schooler in contemporary Japan who is transported to an ancient-China-like fantasy world, where 12 nations neighbor each other like petals on a lotus flower. It narrates people affected by political turmoil, wars and natural disasters, and how they confront adversities. Thirteen million copies have been published so far. The TV anime adaptation of the novel was broadcast on NHK-G from 2002 to 2003.

The first book — “Masho no Ko” (“The Demonic Child”), regarded as “episode zero” of the series — is a horror story set in modern-day Japan.

When Yamada received the request to illustrate the book, he heard it was a one-off horror novel.

“But I thought it was strange,” Yamada recalled. “I wondered whether [the story] would remain in this world. I thought something was at work somewhere I didn’t know, but then I had no idea that it would lead to such a world.”

At first, the series was published under a young adult label of Kodansha Ltd., so Yamada says he made sure the illustrations were “easy for readers to follow and imagine characters’ moves, like panels of manga.”

The epic story has a worldview that is sometimes hard to comprehend, but his illustrations might have helped young readers by offering them compelling imagery with which they could almost hear the characters breathing.

Currently, all the volumes are published under the Shincho Bunko label from Shinchosha. It may be fun to compare his illustrations in the current collection and from the earlier Kodansha version.

Photo by Naohiro Tsutsuguchi (Shinchosha)
Akihiro Yamada drew this illustration in time for publication of the collection of his art. He says the patterns of the clothes were inspired by stained glass.

Yamada calls himself an “analog person” and creates all his works by hand to this day.

He uses a pencil to make rough sketches, a brown water-based pen to draw outlines and alcohol-based markers or paint for coloring. Once penned, it becomes impossible to make corrections — he says he redraws the same illustration from scratch often.

He carefully reads the novels for which he draws illustrations, but never asks the author for details: “I try not to prejudge things. If I hear [something from the author], it shows in my illustrations, which means that the author and the illustrator are on one side, and the readers are on the other side. But the illustrator must be in the middle.”

Readers may be curious which character is his favorite.

“Illustrators don’t have them [favorite characters],” he states. “Be they a character whose name appears only a few times, or the protagonist, they have the same specific gravity.”

Designing anime characters

Yamada was born in 1957 in Kochi Prefecture. His parents were wholesalers of fabrics for Western clothes. Even though he liked drawing manga as a child, he intended to succeed his parents in running the family business and studied management at university. A fanzine he published at the time caught the notice of an editor, which led to his debut as a mangaka in 1981.

He subsequently published a wide range of noteworthy manga one after another, such as “Beast of East: Toho Genunroku” and “Lodoss-to Senki Pharis no Seijo” (“Record of Lodoss War: The Lady of Pharis”), written by Ryo Mizuno. Yamada also started working as an illustrator, providing various novels with cover art and illustrations. In 1996, Yamada won in the art division of Seiun-sho, awards for accomplished sci-fi works and related activities.

©Akihiro Yamada
Anime character designs come with Yamada’s notes about changes in their facial features, such as, “Her cheek lines are becoming just a little solid because of life in exile.”

When Yamada created the original character designs for the animated version of “The Twelve Kingdoms,” he worked in great details such as highlighting the contrast between the characters’ features when they are in Japan and when they are in the fantasy world, and how they wield swords.

He received orders endlessly; apparently, there were times when he had 26 different deadlines in one month, and times he continued drawing without sleep for four or five days straight.

After he turned 60, he thought of taking it easier, but there is no rest for an artist in ultra-high demand.

“After all, he’s doing this job because he loves drawing,” said his wife, Yoshie. “That’s why he can’t stop. He’s always been like this; he was cut out for becoming a creator.”

Coming from someone who has watched over Yamada for many years, her words were very convincing.