Rieko Saibara: Manga artist's true-life tale of drugs, booze and cartoons
If we are to believe her Manga-ized autobiographical series, Manga artist Rieko Saibara can put away two liters of sake every night.
That may be pushing the limits of literary hyperbole, but there's no doubt that Saibara, one of Japan's most charismatic manga specialists, likes to take things to the edge.
Each new autobiographical work shows Saibara in a new, darker light, whether it be battling poverty, loneliness, a confirmed gambling streak or the ghosts from a troubled childhood. And she does it all with the help of the bottle.
Now in her mid 40s, Rieko Saibara is one of the country's most sought-after manga artists, with TV mini series and movie adaptations coming out every six months.
The latest is the movie "Mainichi Kaasan" (Everyday Mom), based on Saibara's manga series that graces a corner of a national paper Mainichi Shimbun.
Starring idol icon Kyoko Koizumi -- and in a casting sensation, her ex-husband Masatoshi Nagase -- Koizumi says of the challenge of playing an alcoholic mum, "I want to get to that place ... but it's not easy!"
Town of boozers
Saibara grew up in Kochi prefecture, a coastal land famous for its legions of fearless fishermen and fearsome yakuza.
Kochi men have always been able to "drink like whales" as the local saying goes. But what's less talked about is how the women can drink the whales under the table.
Many of Saibara's manga stories are set in Kochi, and her gentle, childlike drawings belie the violence and abuse in the narratives.
In her stories, young women are abandoned by their families, used as sex slaves by men and drink themselves silly.
Somehow though, her work is poignant, beautiful and full of quiet hope. In Rieko Saibara's scheme of things, life is neither good or bad -- it's just there to be lived.
She launched her career drawing and writing about sex, booze and living on ¥3,000 a month.
Being a mom, being a wife and still keeping sane
The original "Mainichi Kaasan" is not exactly "Peanuts" territory but it is a tale of love.
Heavily autobiographical, it depicts the daily down-in-the-dumps traumas and occasional soaring joys of raising two small kids, while generating page after page of manga for various publications all over the archipelago.
Saibara was married to Yutaka Kamoshida, a Bangkok-based war zone photographer who, when she first met him in the mid 1990s, was already addicted to cheap drugs and Thai whisky.
She literally plucked him out of the dirt, took him back to Japan and gave him a home.
Initially, the couple worked on book projects together and formed their own company -- until Kamoshida was diagnosed with alcoholism and then cancer.
Don't whine, just laugh it off
"Mainichi Kaasan" combined Saibara's own pain and despair of coping with his illness while having to maintain a household.
The pair divorced in 2003, but when Kamoshida checked into rehab they got back together (though not on paper) in 2006.
He died a year later.
The movie "Mainichi Kaasan" glosses over much of the muck, blood and tears depicted in the original series but it succeeds in capturing the tone and spirit of Saibara's manga personality.
She had always held that, "If you have time to whine, it's much better to just laugh it off."
This eventually became the movie's slogan.
Kyon Kyon and her ex-husband team up
Right from the start of the project, Kyoko Koizumi had been slated to play the role of Saibara. But the move to bring in her real-life ex-husband Masatoshi Nagase to play Kamoshida, rocked the Japanese cinema world.
Koizumi -- also known as "Kyon Kyon" -- had been a signature idol of the 1980s, but had also carved out a rebellious, punk-star image that placed her a cut above the typical demure "idoru."
Masatoshi Nagase's big break came with a starring role in Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train" (1989) and since then he has worked with a diverse range of Japanese and foreign indie auteurs.
The marriage and subsequent break-up didn't raise a whole lot of eyebrows -- Kyon Kyon and Nagase were just too cool to measure by conventional standards.
Since the divorce in 2004 they've both been seeing other people.
Koizumi's apparently torrential love affair with a young musician (the vocalist from boyband "Kat-tun"), 20 years her junior, sparked a lot of controversy but ultimately ended up adding cache to an already legendary reputation.
A cycle of forgiveness
At the media event launched to celebrate the opening of "Mainichi Kaasan" in mid January, Koizumi said that she had always been "completely enamored" of Saibara's works.
"Through her manga, she taught me the ropes to becoming a formidable adult woman," she said.
Koizumi also added that though she had no children of her own, she got a taste of what it was like to work all day, do the housework and tend to the needs of two demanding little kids.
One of the defining scenes in the movie is that of Koizumi as Rieko Saibara, reading to her children in bed with a glass of shochu grasped in one hand.
Saibara made no secret of the fact that booze was what kept her going, and Koizumi plays the scene with natural charm and penetrating insight.
As the kids clamor for more stories, you just know by watching her how much she needs that drink.
"I love it that Saibara-san is so forgiving and expansive. She never, ever stints on love. Deep down, I think she thinks men are adorable, no matter how many mistakes they make,” says Koizumi.
“I think that this society as a whole needs to get to a place where we forgive and love. Then everyone can have a better time,” she adds.
"Mainichi Kaasan" opens February 4: www.kaasan-movie.jp