Let me put people’s fears to rest as quickly as possible. Viz’s localization of Uzumaki: The Art of Naruto is at least as good as the Japanese edition of the same work — if not better by dint of being in English (at least for us on this side of the Pacific). It’s an example of how to do this kind of thing right across the board. Viz took the trouble to obtain the original digital prepress files, painstakingly translated the texts (leaving in the original Japanese whenever relevant), and wrapped the whole thing in a fine-looking right-to-left hardcover presentation. Come to think of it, I’m not sure they had a choice: If Viz had done anything less than that, a legion of outraged fans would probably have left a giant flaming Leaf Village insignia on the front lawn of their corporate offices.
The 145 pages of Uzumaki (not to be confused with the manga of the same name I just reviewed) are broken into roughly two segments: 110 color pages of assorted illustrations — cover art, frontispieces, individual character portraits — and another 32 or so pages of black-and-white commentary, analysis and insight on every single picture in the whole book, courtesy of Masashi Kishimoto himself. It’s the artbook equivalent of a running commentary track on a DVD, and it’s a delight — there’s something interesting to be said about almost every single picture in the whole book.
Most of Kishimoto’s comments center around the genesis for each design, and the things he cites as reasons for the design decisions break into roughly two categories: a) Kishimoto’s own ideas about what he wanted to evoke for each character in a given instance, and b) more mundane editorial decisions. Sometimes the two collide unexpectedly: page 59, for instance, features one of my personally-favorite images of Naruto — him with a shinai cocked over part of his face, the corner of a smile peeping up around the edge of his collar and his eyes burning away in the shadow formed by his forearms. To my astonishment, Kishimoto declared it “a total failure…His hands are too small and his head’s way too big!” I remembered back from my college art classes how Ingres’s Le grand odalisque had been roundly criticized has having “three vertebrae too many”; the point being the most anatomically-exact drawing is not always the most interesting one. Likewise, there are probably many manga artists who have more polished or accomplished visual styles than Kishimoto, but as rough and wild as his work is at times, it’s that much more distinct and interesting for exactly that reason.
Time and again Kishimoto uses filmmaking and cinematography as reference points for his work. In the interstitial comments published in the more recent Naruto paperback editions, he talks on and off about how storyboarding for animated and live-action movies was a huge influence on his blocking and layouts (and also his freeze-frame posing, and his terrific sense of drama within a panel). Here, it’s even more explicitly spelled out. For the panels excerpted on page 61, his comment speaks for itself: “This series of pictures is supposed to be from the point of view of a camera on a shuriken.” Pages 40-41, ditto: “The composition is like something viewed through a fisheye lens.” The single funniest illustration: Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura, and Kakashi as a four-man rock band, with a pierced and tattooed Naruto bellowing into the mike in extreme close-up. (It was commissioned as a magazine cover, and unfortunately the text ended up blocking most of the best parts.)
The “how and why I do it” flavor of the whole book is underscored by a detailed three-page step-by-step mini-lesson that shows Kishimoto drafting, drawing, inking and coloring the illustration used on the book’s front cover. All the key details are there: which paper, pens and pencils are used, how certain effects are achieved, what mistakes not to make (don’t sit too close to the drawing or you won’t see how the whole thing hangs together), and so on. It’s a nice mini-primer on the whole process, and it underscores something that took me a long time to get into my own head: this kind of art is not something that is simply slapped together in minutes, however spontaneous it may look on the page. As a frustrated art student myself, it’s a lesson I needed to learn a lot earlier on.
The last section, an interview with Kishimoto, features him going into detail about the characters and the world he’s created — the inspirations for each personality, why they were designed as they were, and smaller details like how a character’s costume design is a reflection on them. (Sakura, for instance, was designed to be as simple as possible and not heavily accessorized, so she can move with complete freedom as needed.) “Each member [of the teams] should be extreme … outstandingly skilled at one thing but absolutely no aptitude at other things,” he says at one point — the better to make them all stand out that much more pungently in the reader’s (and creator’s) mind. Kishimoto also talks briefly about the future (finishing Naruto is a must, but he has other manga in mind after that), and how his world was not intended to evoke any specific time or place but simply be an entity unto itself. There are, by design, no guns or heavy artillery in the Naruto universe: “If missiles could be used, the story would be over,” Kishimoto laughs, something I’ve ruminated about myself.
The most touching thing of all about this book is on the very last page, where Kishimoto speaks directly to the reader and admits he still feels like he has a long way to go as an artist. I’m guessing there’s at least some typically Japanese understatement at work there, but after reading and seeing all that came before in the book, it’s a little easier to understand where it comes from. Maybe he does have a ways to go — but hey, look how far he’s come already. Naurto itself is achievement enough for any one man’s lifetime, and this book supports that notion all the more.
Artists are by nature self-denigrating: they look back at their own work and see only flaws, where the rest of us stand around in awe and see something we could never even begin to do. This book does a great job of not only putting the art in our hands but the process and the perspective behind it.
Uzumaki is not just a great Naruto artbook but a great artbook, period — an example that I hope others will follow and, if possible, expand on all the more. For a little more than the cost of two of the compilations from the manga series itself ($20 list), it's about as essential an addition to any Naruto fan library as you're going to get.