Making of ‘The Promised Neverland’, Editor Interview

The Promised Neverland” or 約束のネバーランド started serialization in the Weekly Shonen Jump in August 2016, and immediately caught the attention of young boys and girls with its shocking first chapter. It is a truly unique manga created by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu, depicted with brilliant illustrations that are extremely detailed, and set in a world that absolutely exceeds the scale of our imagination with intensive mind games. We interviewed Mr. Suguru Sugita, the editor of “The Promised Neverland” who has continued to support the creators, Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu since the beginning of the series.

editor

Q –  Please tell us how “Neverland” began.

Sugita: It all began around the end of 2013, when Mr. Shirai brought a draft to the editorial department and expressed his desire to become a manga story writer.

Q –  So he directly brought his work to the department.

Sugita: Yes, he brought in his work as a new artist. I should explain the process of bringing in works to the Jump Editorial Department. Artists first call the editorial department, and the editor who picks up the phone becomes in charge of that artist. It was still my second year as an editor at the time, but I just happened to pick up the call so I became in charge.

Q –  It sounds like it was fate.

Sugita: Mr. Shirai didn’t live in Tokyo, so we first arranged a date for him to visit the office. Later on, he told me that the day of meeting was his birthday. Then he showed me a draft that was over 300 pages long. Standard drafts are about 45 pages, so I was amazed to see a draft that long. And it was so good that I couldn’t stop reading. I immediately decided we should begin working on a series based on that draft.

Q –  However, it took some time before it became serialized.

Sugita: Yes, it took about 2 and a half years after he first brought the draft. First, we spent about 6 months working on a draft that covered first 3 episodes. Then we began searching for an illustrator, and met Ms. Demizu.

Q –  Did you decide to have a separate writer and illustrator from the beginning?

Sugita: Mr. Shirai and I felt the same way about this. “Neverland” is quite an ambitious manga with both bright and dark scenes. The artist needs to depict a world of fantasy and also create suspense. The story is also challenging, therefore we both thought it would be difficult for one person to handle the draft and illustration simultaneously. We were more concerned about finding the right illustrator for “Neverland”.

Q –  Please tell us how you chose Ms. Demizu.

Sugita: First I asked Mr. Shirai who he wanted to illustrate the manga. I also introduced a handful of artists ranging from famous illustrators to new and upcoming talent, but we had difficulties with scheduling and finding someone whose style matched the story. Then Ms. Demizu popped up in Mr. Shira’s list of candidates. She’s an artist that I also like very much, and since I felt her artwork was the best fit for the imagery of Mr. Shira’s story, we decided to ask her.

Q –  What was her reaction?

Sugita: She enjoyed the draft and immediately said yes. There were some people who turned down our offers with bitter comments like, “It doesn’t feel like a Jump manga” or “I can’t see it becoming a hit”, so we were really happy and excited when she agreed.

Q –  It took quite some time for you and Mr. Shirai to polish the draft and find Ms. Demizu. Yet you were both able to maintain your motivation. Was there a reason for this?

Sugita: Mr. Shirai and I were both convinced that people will enjoy the manga, and that it would become a hit. We knew we’d be able to release it, even if it took some time, and so we never once thought of giving up.

Q –  Mr. Shirai and Ms. Demizu’ s first work together was a non-serialized issue.

Sugita: That was “Poppy’s Wish”. My first impression working together with them was that Mr. Shirai and Ms. Demizu clicked really well. I think it’s the same with Tsugumi Oba and Takeshi Obata of “DEATH NOTE”, but when the writer and illustrator get along there’s a kind of synergy. The artwork gets better, which also influences the story to become more interesting. You have these unexpected effects and that was evident with the team of Mr. Shirai and Ms. Demizu. This non-serialized issue was popular among readers, so I was certain these two were the right team for “Neverland”.

[From conceptualization, to serialization, to now]

Q – What are some things you paid attention to when developing “The Promised Neverland”, up until now?

Sugita: At first glance, “Neverland” doesn’t seem like a “Jump” manga aimed for young readers. I feel it’s a straightforward kind of manga in which the main characters overcome challenges with hard work and the help of their friends, which is the type of manga that was popular in the 70s and 80s. Having that essence of a good-old, classic Jump manga is something I had always kept in mind before its serialization, especially since it’s a manga without explosive combat sequences or special moves. For the enjoyment and satisfaction of the readers, Mr. Shirai and I carefully worked on building the details of the story and characters, and focused on illustrating the mind games, fluctuation of emotions, and the relationships, feelings, and views of the characters. We also made sure to steer away from some extreme trends such as “ero-guro (erotic and grotesque)”, “violence”, or “nonsense”, which we occasionally find in Japanese online manga. That would just make it an ordinary manga, and that’s something we don’t want. So we try to include those essences as little as possible and only when they’re necessary to the story.

Q – And that hasn’t changed even after the manga became a huge hit?

Sugita: After the jailbreak arc, the world of the story suddenly expands and becomes filled with fantasy. It’s now possible to depict various action scenes so the presentation towards the readers is beginning to change, but without changing the core. I believe the characteristics of “Neverland” that readers have always enjoyed, such as the mind games, are still there.

Q – Did you always plan on making Emma, Norman, and Ray the three main characters?

Sugita: These three characters, Mama, and the Demons were there from the beginning. The character settings of these three were well balanced. However, there was one thing I was concerned about. Traditionally, “Jump” has always been a manga publication for young boys, so I was worried that it may be difficult for a manga with a female main character to win over enough popularity to be serialized. I told Mr. Shirai that we may have to change the character setting, so we tried making a version where Emma was a boy and so on, but it didn’t work out. Ultimately, we decided to go with what we felt was right. When we were having these discussions, we often talked about Ghibli films. Most Ghibli films have similar character settings, or combinations, where the main character is female and an active male character supports her. Since Ghibli films are now widely popular, not only in Japan but also around the world, we thought having a female main character wouldn’t be a problem.

Q –  Were there any changes you made to the details of the story?

Sugita: Were there any changes you made to the details of the story? Sugita: Of course, there were several changes such as in the story progression and adjustments to make it more suitable for young readers. I think this is something people will be able to understand one day once they have a chance to read original prototype drafted by Mr. Shirai. That is if Mr. Shirai agrees to release it though. Some examples of the changes we made are making Emma a more decisive and active character. Norman had a somewhat “lighter” mood as a character, but we decided to change that, and Ray was also more extreme. Basically we tweaked the characters’ traits and personalities. And this is something that is ongoing as the series progresses. In one of my favorite scenes at the end of episode 9, Norman shows a “creepy” smile. That was actually an improvisation by Ms. Demizu, and Mr. Shirai was also surprised. There’s also a similar scene at the end of episode 31 when Emma smiles. Ms. Demizu sometimes draws these smiling expressions that give you the chills, and it stays in our minds. It also greatly affects how the personalities of the characters change as the story progresses. We start imagining how characters may possess qualities we’d never thought about, or have a different side to them. I especially feel that scene I just mentioned is when Norman started becoming cooler and his personality began to change.

Q – That may be one of the advantages of having a separate story writer and illustrator. Are there any other similar examples?

Sugita: The quality of the manga becomes stable since the work is divided and so each person has double the time to work on their tasks. Another major advantage is this synergetic effect that emerges as a result of the writer and illustrator both stimulating each other. That personality change we observed with Norman is a perfect example of the benefit of dividing the work. On the other hand, there can be some downsides as well. The most prominent case is when artists have disagreements. It becomes a serious problem when artists’ visions of the manga clash. For example, there can be arguments about the expressions of characters or how certain scenes are depicted. While each of one these disagreements may be small, it may lead to serious problems that can significantly affect the manga later on. Therefore, I feel it’s quite tough when you have to work to adjust these differences. I also think it’s important for both the writer and illustrator to respect each other as people and for their skills. In that sense, I think Mr. Shirai and Ms. Demizu are the perfect match. They respect each other and share similar tastes, which allows them to accept their differences in a positive way. I believe this will have a positive effect on “Neverland” as the manga continues.

Q – We sometimes see a bit of “playfulness” or some “hints” that suggest what may eventually happen in Ms. Demizu’ s color illustrations for the cover and mid-title pages.

Sugita: There are also some hints we asked Ms. Demizu to include in the actual manga apart from the color illustrations for cover artworks etc. But most of them are her “improvisations”. Some these include illustrations of herself or dolls of characters that she used to draw in the past. Some of these “improvisations” served as inspirations for Mr. Shirai, and an example is the string telephone that appears when Norman is shipped out. Mr. Shirai wrote in the draft that Norman doesn’t need anything when he is getting shipped out, so the suitcase would be empty. But then Ms. Demizu drew a draft including the cup that was used in the string telephone. When we saw the draft, thought it was good, and ended up using that idea for the animation and manga.

Q – Are there any “improvisations” from Mr. Shirai that you remember?

Sugita: Sometimes Mr. Shirai also suddenly throws in fun improvisations that didn’t come up in meetings. For example, in there dialogue there was a line saying “How cruel… and yet how marvelous it is to live like this”. This never came up in our meeting, but it was there in the draft. I thought it was a really cool line. Another example is in episode 109 when we see the end of Yugo. We usually have detailed meetings before writing the draft, but for that week Mr. Shirai said he wanted to try drawing it on his own, so I left it mostly up to him and it turned out to be a great episode with a nice flow. The dialogue was also excellent and it was very moving.

Q – Readers frequently discuss their ideas about the story on SNS.

Sugita: I’m aware of that. I don’t check them thoroughly, but I take a look to see how readers’ respond. It helps me to understand what they’re looking forward to or how they interpret some of the expressions in the story. Sometimes readers interpret things in ways we didn’t intend. Sometimes their predictions are right, and sometimes they’re totally off. (grinning)

Q – I heard that the manga is also popular abroad, especially in France.

Sugita: We’ve noticed there’s a lot of response from French fans through SNS and fan letters. We were also covered by a French media, probably because of the popularity among the fans there. “Tokyo Ghoul” is also a popular manga in France. This is my personal impression, but I feel that slightly dark-fantasy type manga are popular in France. And this is due to Ms. Demizu’ s talent, but her illustrations are somewhat similar to the style of bande dessinée, so maybe French readers feel a sense of affinity. Apart from France, Mr. Shirai found YouTube videos made by overseas fans that highly praised “Neverland”. He was really excited to learn that there are so many people outside of Japan who enjoy the manga.

[Extra side story]

Sugita: Originally Mr. Shirai had wanted to become a manga artist and do both the story-writing and illustration. This happened a few years ago, but a different editor who was in charge at the time bluntly told him that he didn’t have enough talent. He was shocked by the experience, and started looking for a normal job at that time. But he couldn’t give up on that dream, so a few years later he tried once again. Mr. Shirai and I share a lot in common, and we think the same way. When I read the story for “Neverland” I was convinced he could make a manga that would become a hit, and that’s how it started for us.

Q – I heard the title was originally just “Neverland”. Why was it changed to “The Promised Neverland”?

Sugita: It was simply because of copyright issues. Many works in Japan as well as around the world use the word “Neverland”, so it was not favorable for commercial purposes. Considering the story and how it would unfold, Mr. Shirai and I wanted to keep “Neverland” in the title, and then came up with “Promised”, which was most fitting. Actually we already had an idea of the story up to when the characters escape in the early draft. As for the details of the story after they escape, we worked on that as we got closer to serialization. We were thinking about the title around the same time as we were working on the post-escape story. That’s why “Promised” become an important word in the story, and we agreed to mention that in the manga also. That’s how the title became “The Promised Neverland”.

[The role of the editor]

Q – What is the editor’s role for a manga artist?

Sugita: There are all kinds of artists, so I don’t think there’s one definitive role, but editor’s want to challenge artists in order to ultimately help to overcome themselves. Once you’re able to do that, you discover things about yourself that you never imagined, or discover confidence that you otherwise might not have gained. It’s the same with Emma and the other characters. The tougher the adversity, the stronger they grow. I feel that people evolve and develop when we face challenges. I also try to always be honest towards a work of manga. The best way to serve as a challenge for an artist is to be an honest reader. Also, there’s no need to overthink your role as an “editor”. It’s important to work from the standpoint of a reader of their work. That’s why when an artist brings their manga to the office, I make sure not to read it from an editor’s point of view. I want to read it the same way I did as a child, when the highlight of my week was reading the latest “Jump”. That way I can honestly tell the artist what bothered me, what concerns me, and what I enjoyed. That’s what’s most important. On top of that, we must use logic, experience, and data that that can be used to support our opinions. Based on that, we work together with the artist to find the best way to communicate what they want to express.

Q – What is “The Promised Neverland” for you?

Sugita: It’s like a hobby in a way. I don’t feel like I’m working on it because it’s my job or because I’m a Shonen Jump editor. It’s like an extension of a personal divertissement, in a good way. I work every week with an artist I get along with, and I enjoy it. I create something that I genuinely like, and I’m always smiling. Of course, working on a serialized manga is a lot of work and it’s not all fun. For example, Yugo is based on character in a baseball game I was hooked on, and I brought it up when having an unrelated conversation with Mr. Shirai. This character is a really tough coach who refuses to acknowledge the main character and won’t even remember or call his name. But as the main character perseveres, he finally gets his name called. I told Mr. Shirai how that buildup in the story made me so happy. Eventually, Yugo became a character who wouldn’t say other children’s names unless he opened up to them, and so when he calls Emma’s name for the first time is one of my favorite scenes. For Mr. Shirai though, he ended up being a difficult character to write because he had such a complicated personality.

[Personal questions]

Q – What are you into recently?

Sugita: I like overseas TV shows so I’m into Game of Thrones and also Pokemon GO. I enjoy being with Mr. Eiichiro Oda, and I used to play it with him whenever we were going somewhere together which is how I got hooked. I was also into shogi at one point because there was a new manga artist who wanted to write a manga about shogi. But I’ve passed that phase.

Meetings with Mr. Shirai are often done over the phone in a conference room on the editorial department floor. They use the marker board to write down their ideas. Then they sort them out to build the story. Meetings don’t usually take very long.
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This is what Mr. Sugita’s desk is like. The Eiffel Tower on top of the monitor was a gift from the French media that covered “The Promised Neverland”. It looks quite chaotic, but it’s actually relatively organized compared to the desks of other editors.

Isshin 一心

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