Japanese comic artist Fumio Obata on searching for Kafka in Prague

‘Looking for Franz’

Fumio Obata is a British-based Japanese comic artist who specializes in ‘comic reportage’. This summer, he spent a three-week residency programme in Prague, organised by the Czech Literary Centre in cooperation with the international Lakes Comic Art Festival, during which he worked on his new book about Franz Kafka. What sparked his interest in the writer? And how does Franz Kafka go together with comics? These are just some of the questions I asked him during his recent visit to Prague:

“I wanted to do something about Franz Kafka, because I have been a fan of his works for a long time. But I wasn’t quite sure about it, because he is an icon, a very influential writer and such a big figure to deal with.

“But after arriving here, I became sure about it and during my stay here I tried to sort out my direction for it. For me, it is like trying to make a personal investigation. That’s why I named it ‘Looking for Franz’.”

Fumio Obata | Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

What exactly do you like about his books?

“It is full of riddles and a lot of his works have an open ending and that is really interesting to begin with. But also the stories’ concept is very strange and absurd and things happen for almost no reason.

“The thing is, I grew up in Japan, so I read a lot of comic books and I was very fond of stories with strange things happening and I always wondered where they all came from.

“And it seems like their influences all came from Kafka! So, naturally, I became interested in his work and I started reading it when I became a bit older.”

How does Franz Kafka go together with comics?

“Before coming here, I knew very little about the place, mostly through Kafka’s writings. It was silly, of course, to think it would be the same place as that in which Kafka lived!”

“There have been attempts to turn Kafka’s stories into comic books but I wouldn’t say they have been successful. It is very difficult to visualize his work.

“However, the concepts of the stories, all the absurdity and strangeness, when people write about these things, you can tell there are traces of Kafka’s influences.

“But I would say that no direct adaptation of his works has been successful so far. I think it’s probably because his work is full of riddles and if you visualize it, it loses its spirit. I think it should be left to the readers to imagine visually what is going on.”

What have you discovered about Kafka during your stay in Prague?

“I brought with me a book by a Kafka scholar as a sort of guidebook. It explains what sort of books he was working on in certain periods.

“What is interesting is that Kafka liked to walk. Of course he wrote a lot of stories at home while he was living with his parents, but his workplace was often away from the centre, where his parents lived and where he grew up.

Andy Warhol: Franz Kafka | Photo: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / ARS New York / DACS,  London

“The most notable one is the Golden Lane near the castle. It is quite a walk from where he lived at the time. So I basically traced that route from where he worked up to the Castle, to the Golden Lane. He did that almost every night after work. He arrived there in the evening and worked through the night.

“I did that walk a few times just to get the feel of the distance and of where he was working. He was surely thinking about the stories he was writing at the time, because I do think about my stories while I walk. So this is my way to find Kafka – physically doing things and walking about.”

You spoke about Kafka’s work but what is it that fascinates you about him as a person?

“I have read other people’s accounts, among his friends and family, of Kafka, which always depict him as such a humble, modest person, never judging anybody but himself. I think I have a similar personality – I am not really a confident person.

“Kafka was maybe secretly confident, but in his writings you cannot really see traces of that. It is somebody who has always been struggling for lots of different reasons and I can sympathize with that. Most notably, he belonged to a minority and he spoke and wrote in a different language – in German, not in Czech.

“I have lived in Britain for thirty years but I am also a minority, so I always have this feeling of being different. So in this aspect I feel I can understand what Kafka was feeling. But of course it might be just me thinking that way!”

You confess in your comics that you had a stereotype image of Prague that didn’t quite correspond with the reality. What did you expect to see and how has it changed now?

“There have been attempts to turn Kafka’s stories into comic books but I wouldn’t say they have been successful. It is very difficult to visualize his work.”

“Before coming here, I knew very little about the place, mostly through Kafka’s writings. It was silly, of course, to think it would be the same place as that in which Kafka lived.

“The thing is, as I described in my comics, the people who are interested in Japan have their own versions of Japan that was built by all these dramas and films and animations.

“So they have built their own idea of the place and when I speak to them I always feel like I have to correct them. So I know the feeling of somebody who is not from my own culture having this fantasized vision of a place. I also had that feeling when I arrived here.

“So of course, I had to correct some of my ideas. But by the time I was leaving this place, I realised that it was actually OK to have my own fantasy of Prague because that’s the reason why I like the place.”

When will your comics about Franz Kafka be out? Or is it too early to ask?

“I am afraid it is a little bit early to tell you. I am meeting with the people from the Society of Franz Kafka and I would like to ask them if they have any idea of how to output this to the public.

“But at the moment it is pretty much in my personal domain. I do post some comic strips and illustration on my Instagram account but I haven’t really put out all the materials simply because there could be a collaboration between me and other people. So I still want to keep this opportunity open.”

‘Looking for Franz’ | Photo: Czech Literary Centre

You specialize in creating reportage comics. How exactly would you describe the genre?

“It is a big topic I am tackling right now. I think reportage is different from journalism. I think that within a reportage, the reporter is allowed to have her or his own subjective view on things and through such reports the readers can feel close to the reporter. It’s just a personal observation on things.

“In journalism, there is a lot more duty bound obligation or responsibility to come up with certain results. In reportage you don’t have that responsibility or obligation. That’s how I see it at the moment, but it can change, of course.”

You spent your childhood in Japan and as you said, you grew up being surrounded by manga. To what extent has your work been influenced by manga and anime culture?

Fumio Obata | Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

“It is my mother tongue. I left Japan when I was 16, so I was already reaching adulthood. I simply grew up reading it and watching it all the time on the telly. It is my natural way to draw things. But I also suffered from it, because it is very generic. The form and technique are very much like collective designs, collective way of doing things in which there isn’t much individualism.

“After arriving in the UK and after studying at art schools, I really struggled to come up with my original style. But it also does create interesting sparks in my work. I don’t reject manga and anime influences in me, because, like I said, it is my mother tongue. So I have to create something new based upon these. I am basically in the process of it and I suppose it is going to be like this all through my career.”

You came to Prague to talk about your ongoing work about Franz Kafka but you also presented your recent book about Japan and natural disasters. Can you tell us more about it?

“In 2011 Japan suffered a triple disaster, including a nuclear accident. I wasn’t in Japan at the time but I felt obliged to do something. So picked up some information from Japanese news media and started turning them into comic strips to let my friends know what was going on in Japan.

“Based on these, I was given an opportunity to do a proper story in a news magazine. And without any training as a journalist, I just went along and whenever I had time I travelled back there and worked as a volunteer in places struck by natural disasters and subsequently made comic strips about it.

“But the thing was, that reporting about natural disasters was such a serious job I quickly realized it was beyond me. So I decided to turn my interest to something a bit more personal. My reportage on Franz Kafa is the first step to bring in my own personal perspectives and interests into the story telling.”

What else are you working on at the moment?

“I am doing a graphic novel for teenagers for Harper Collins in the US. This is not a reportage – I am writing my own materials. I am doing this about karate for the American audience and I am also working on a project with French publisher Gallimard Jeunesse in Paris. So I have two graphic novel projects going on.

“I also teach illustration at a university in England. So I have these things going on at the same time. However, I haven’t given up doing reportage because I think it is something a comic artist should do now and then just to keep their feet on the ground and stay in tune in the real world.