Manga for mankind
Mention manga nowadays and images of supersized-eyes, cutesy characters, maid-cafes and cosplay in Akihabara inevitably flash into mind. But Eiji Han Shimizu is determined to harness the power of manga as a medium for the forces of good, or more specifically, positive and meaningful messages.
Shimizu, executive producer of biographic novel publishing company Emotional Content, grew up as a fan of manga, particularly those by Osamu Tezuka, the creator of the manga classic, Astro Boy.
The action-packed tales of good versus evil, the fight against injustice and stand for one’s rights struck a chord with Shimizu who, as a boy, faced repeated encounters of discrimination and “uncomfortable, unpleasant remarks” for being South Korean by heritage, despite being born and bred in Yokohama, Japan.
“It is my hope that manga and anime, which are so accessible to many, will not only indulge a limited number of fanatics as a subculture, but also serve a bigger cause and create a better world,” says Shimizu, an MBA-holder who quit his business development job in Tokyo four-and-a-half years ago at the age of 35 to start up Emotional Content in California.
The company’s operations are based in Japan, comprising a network of independent manga and anime artists in Japan with a common goal of creating biographic novels about true-life superheroes.
“The passion for doing something good for humanity was always in me, but I had been too busy doing moneymaking stuff,” says Shimizu, who decided to answer his mid-life crisis question of “What’s the way I want to live my own life” with the motto he now lives by: "Just do what I love."
That, in Shimizu’s case, is “making the world better by manga media.”
Influence of Mother Teresa
His idea for inspirational manga was crystallized during a pilgrimage to Mother Teresa’s home for the dying and destitute in Kolkata.
“I wasn’t sure what series of manga to create; whether I should interpret classics such as books by Shakespeare, Dickens or Dostoyevsky in the form of manga, or focus on great athletes.
"Then (in Kolkata) I vividly felt (Mother Teresa’s) presence where hundreds of volunteers around the world serve with the poorest of the poor. It became clearer that, first and foremost, I wanted to make manga about the spiritual and political leaders who changed the world for the better,” says Shimizu.
In September, Penguin Books launched the manga biography of the 14th Dalai Lama by Emotional Content. The manga biography of Che Guevara is slated to be launched in late October.
“Superheroes don’t have to be able to fly in the sky, cast lasers from their eyes, or have six-pack abs. Without the help of these powers or appearances, there have been great role models in our history, who have fought for others with their courage, self-sacrifice, compassion and determination," says Shimizu.
"I believe that these are the true qualities of superheroes,” he adds.
Shimizu chooses the subjects of these biographic novels, commissions a manga artist he deems suitable to portray the subject and gets endorsements from related organizations or individuals to the subject.
For his first subject, the 14th Dalai Lama, Shimizu roped in illustrator Tetsu Saiwai, a 20-year veteran who had drawn educational manga on human rights issue, and had spent time in Lhasa.
The Department of Education in Dharamsala has since asked for permission to translate the Dalai Lama manga so it can be used to teach young refugees in the Tibetan Children’s Village and at all 62 Tibetan schools throughout India and Nepal.
Meeting Che Guevara's son
With the manga published in languages such as Chinese, Spanish, Tibetan, Russian, Japanese and Hindi, and to be distributed in over 20 countries, Shimizu wonders whether he is allowed to travel and meet friends in China again where his website is blocked.
However, with regards to the biographic manga series and possible controversies, he stresses, “It’s not about politics, it’s about humanity.”
For the biographic novel on Che Guevara, Shimizu, who picked up Spanish from spending a year in Latin America as a university exchange student, traveled to Cuba to meet Che Guevara’s son to obtain anecdotes for the manga.
Aung San Suu Kyi in the work
Following these two titles, biographic novels on Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi are soon to be launched in the United States, with biographic novels on Aung San Suu Kyi, Abraham Lincoln and Anne Frank in the works.
Shimizu has also been traveling the world during the past four-and-a-half years making a documentary film entitled “Happy” about what makes people really happy.
The film is to be launched first in the United States next year.
Incidentally, Shimizu describes his life now as being twice as happy than when he earned twice as much before.
Human rights anime
Not forgetting the anime genre, Shimizu has been working on a feature-length animated film on human rights in North Korea since this April.
The movie is based on testimonials from survivors of North Korea’s prisoner camps, and is targeted for release in 2012.
Shimizu says he’s doing this film not because of his South Korean heritage, but because the reality of the atrocities taking place just 1,300 kilometers from Tokyo is something that has to be conveyed, through the soft power and potential of manga and anime as a medium to move and inspire the human soul.