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Graduate Interview

Qrais (Yusuke Sakamoto)

The First Graduates


The manga artist known as Qrais, whose real name is Yusuke Sakamoto, became a subject of conversation in Japan when his latest work, Higuma, was dramatized for TV by NHK at the end of 2019. Born in 1985 in Tochigi Prefecture, Sakamoto is one of the first Animation majors to graduate from Tokyo Zokei University’s Department of Design. He is also known for designing "Animajin", the character that appears on the Zokei Animation Archives (ZAA) website. I spoke with Sakamoto about his background, and how he came to achieve his current popularity. (Interviewer: Takanaka Shimotsuki, December 8, 2020)

── While you’re active as a manga artist and illustrator, you’ve also released a large number of animated shorts on YouTube and elsewhere. I heard you were an animator before you became a manga artist.

​I think a lot of people don’t know that about me. I held a traveling exhibition, Qrais Feme Sinoski Land, that ran throughout January 2021 at PARCO department stores across Japan. A few of my short animation films were screening at the exhibition. Some of my fans saw them for the first time and seemed surprised, while others found them revolting. [laughs]

── Your 2014 short animation, The Night of the Napolitan, won the Special Prize at the 16th International Animation Festival Hiroshima in 2016, and your other animated works have garnered high praise. Despite this, you became a manga artist?



The Night of the Napolitan (2014)

I never once thought about becoming a manga artist when I was young, and I only started drawing manga after I graduated from college. I liked drawing as a child, but I also liked using cardboard and other materials to make things like model towns. 

When I was in junior high school, our art room had a kiln. The art teacher said it was okay if I used it, so I would stay after school and make things like cloisonné. [laughs] The senior high school in my hometown of Utsunomiya was extraordinarily large and had an Art Design Department, so I chose to go there after junior high. I think it was a good choice because I was able to study a variety of things like drafting and drawing, but I focused on oil painting. 

Around that time, a DVD of Jan Švankmajer’s*1 works went on sale in Japan. I saw Alice or one of his other films, and it was like I had been struck by lightning. It impressed me so much that I started doing my own stop-motion animation. I took over an unused classroom at the high school, hung up a blackout curtain, borrowed one of their video cameras and stayed after school to make clay puppets, and then animate and shoot them frame by frame. That was the first time I produced animation. 

The clay I used was the kind that got hard as it dried, and I had no idea how to make puppets with joints. I struggled a lot, trying out different materials and ball joints like the ones you find in Gunpla (plastic Gundam model). Even so, it was fun. As far as animation goes, it’s something I’ve been doing by myself from the start.

*1 Jan Švankmajer (1934–): Czech filmmaker, animator and artist. Being a self-described surrealist, he has created many animated works of a characteristically grotesque nature. His major works include the feature film, Alice (1988).

── So, you decided to continue on to art school after senior high school?



It was when I realized my passion for animation that I learned that Tokyo Zokei University offered a major in Animation. I knew then that was what I wanted to do. When I found out they accepted self-recommendations, I put a half-finished puppet animation film on a DV tape and went to the admissions interview. The interviewer was Professor Tokumitsu Kifune. [laughs] Fortunately, I was admitted. My parents weren’t the kind to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do, so they quietly accepted I was going to art school.

I rented a run-down, wooden apartment near Aihara Station and started living on my own. I tried to set up a working environment in the room by making things by hand as much as possible, like an animation desk. I bought a camera and computer, though, because I didn’t want to work with borrowed equipment. Well, my parents bought them. [laughs] Other than that, I had no desire for new clothes or an excessive lifestyle, so there was no need for me to take a part-time job in college. My life consisted of going to classes, then spending the rest of my time making all kinds of things in my room. I never once went to a party while I was in college.

── Then, what was good about being in college?



The Toothman (2003)

​It was the teachers. I recall showing Professor Masaaki Mori my puppet animation, The Toothman (2003). He told me, “Make something more beautiful.” [laughs] Part of me was like, “Oh, okay.” Another part wondered what ‘beautiful’ was. [laughs] My professors rarely took me by the hand and showed me how to do things. Instead, I kind of made what I wanted and showed them the final product.

Besides that, I had also shown my works at critique sessions held on campus. Those sessions were of great value because I got to see what other students were making. However, they could also be emotionally devastating because some people who were screening their work were really good. Experiencing frustration like that is a good part of attending college. I was surprised to find there were not too many students around me who took the initiative to pump out as much work as they could while they were in college. I often wondered why they even bothered coming in the first place. [laughs] 

── I sense that college wasn’t just a place for you to make animation, but also to encounter animation unknown to you.


Yes, indeed. I watched a lot of animation and movies in college, which became a good foundation for me and is probably the reason I can draw manga today. I learned there were many other Czech creators besides Jiří Trnka*2 and Jan Švankmajer. I also found some works of artists from Estonia and Canada, and Japan’s Tadanari Okamoto*3. Discovering artists like them, and their works, was a very important part of going to art school. 

I don’t make puppet animation for the sake of making puppet animation. First, I come up with a story, and let it take shape. For example, I came up with the idea for A Song of Horse Mackerel (2004) while waiting at the reception desk at my driving school, and then started thinking how I could realize it with animation in the most efficient way. Since I wanted to make the fish move realistically, such as having its mouth open and close like a live one, I came up with cutout animation as the best way to do that.

I also spent most of my time making my own shorts, like The Man Who Lives in the Train (2004), just for fun while just knocking together school assignments. [laughs]

*2 Jiří Trnka (1912–1969): a Czech puppet animator and picture book author. A maestro who played a part in the development of postwar Czech animation. He became known worldwide for the many masterpieces he left behind, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1959).

*3 Tadanari Okamoto (1932–1990): a Japanese animator who produced short and medium-length educational films using a variety of media. Together with Kihachiro Kawamoto, he pioneered the unique world of Japanese puppet animation. Key works include Okon Joruri (1982).



The Man Who Lives in the Train (2004)


── After finishing your undergraduate studies, you went on to Zokei’s graduate school. Why? 

Well, it was like I had no choice. I was making a 20-minute puppet animation called The Dandelion Sister (2007) for my graduation project. It took me an entire year to make, film and edit the puppets without taking a single day off. Suddenly, I realized I was graduating soon. [laughs] I came to a realization that I had to get a job once I left school, and thought, “What am I going to do?” Then I thought, “The graduate school would give me two more years to work on my art.” [laughs] Having made my mind up, I finished up The Dandelion Sister and turned it in at the last minute. 

Although I could have used the computer later to erase the pins and strings that were holding the puppets in place, I was obsessed with the idea that “Jiří Trnka wouldn’t do it”. So, I spent a lot of time intently sticking my puppets with pins, painting the pins black to hide them, then moving the puppets – over and over again. It almost feels like I made a lifetime’s worth of puppet animation with The Dandelion Sister. [laughs]


── So, you continued with graduate school, and soon you had to start looking for a job.

Because I went there to buy time, right from my first year as a student majoring in the graduate Design program, I was thinking about getting a job. I had taken a job from NHK to shoot some puppet animation, so I was already making things and delivering them while I was in graduate school. But since I’m a worrier at heart, I was concerned that kind of work wouldn’t be consistent. And, because this would be my last chance to take advantage of my new graduate status, I decided to start applying for jobs.


Initially, I was hired by Tohokushinsha Film Corporation*4, which does a lot of advertising work, and was assigned to the Planning and Direction Department in its Commercial Production Division. My job was like that of a production assistant, and I had a training period where I was basically just helping out at commercial production sites. At the time, it was common to spend nights at the company, which was hard for me. After my training period ended, I was assigned to the Planning and Direction Department, and apprenticed to the famous commercial director, Shinya Nakajima*5. For the next year, my life consisted of just observing his meetings. After that, I went on site to film and edit, including at my boss’ filming locations. I was thinking, “So, this is commercial making?” Although the work was hard, becoming the apprentice of a professional director like Nakajima was very competitive, so I knew I was very fortunate. At that time, I had another mentor director who was a rakugo (traditional Japanese storytelling) fan. He introduced me to it by saying, “Rakugo is great.” That is how I became a rakugo fan myself, and started going to a lot of performances. That’s the reason for my pen name, “Qrais”. It comes from a magic spell that appears in a rakugo story called “Shinigami”. I get the feeling that the essence of the humor in my manga comes largely from rakugo.

*4 Tohokushinsha Film Corporation: a company located in Akasaka, Tokyo and founded in 1961. It is involved in film, TV and commercial production, distribution and translation. It has worked on numerous animated films in addition to live action features, and is well-known in Japan as a comprehensive motion picture company with a long history.

*5 Shinya Nakajima (1959–): a commercial and film director and musician working at Tohokushinsha. Being the creator of many hit TV commercials, such as Nissin Foods’ “Hungry?” series, he also displays various talents as a film director, among other things.


── Was that around the time you started drawing manga?

Prior to that, I had come into my own as a commercial director. Once that happened, I was able to secure a fair amount of time to do the things I wanted. So, I started doing animation again. From that point on, I started releasing one short film annually under my real name. For some reason, around 2014, I got tired of releasing my works under my own name. From then on, I decided to use my pen name “Qrais”. It was around that time I started doing manga, too. I drew a lot of storyboards for my job at Tohokushinsha, so I felt that if I could draw those, then I could draw manga. I enjoyed reading Sensha Yoshida’s Utsurun Desu*6 in elementary school, so that had a big influence on me.

*6 Utsurun Desu: a hit four-panel manga series drawn by Sensha Yoshida that ran weekly from 1984 to 1994. It had such a significant impact on Japanese manga that an entire genre sprung up around absurd gags that lacked punchlines, as featured in the series. Its main characters included an anthropomorphized otter and kappa (mythical imp).



Nekonohi (published by KADOKAWA)

​In any case, I drew manga with the goal of uploading it daily to my blog. However, no one seemed to be reading it. Once, when I went out to dinner with the editorial staff from a certain website, they suggested I start posting my manga on Twitter. I didn’t really like Twitter, but I went ahead and started reposting the manga from my blog there. From that point on, Nekonohi got more and more followers, and for the first time, I was approached by a publishing company to publish my manga. 

Tohokushinsha prohibited its employees from working side jobs, so I told my boss of my intention to resign and was able to leave there on good terms. From then on, I’ve been busy drawing manga to survive, so haven’t had time to make animation. Once my manga became a topic of conversation on Twitter, I received comments and opinions about my work from many people, and discovered my own happiness lay in making them happy. That’s been the driving force that has brought me to today. 

── Following Nekonohi, which led you to leave your job, you were asked to write new comics for serialization in magazines, including Nezumida-kun and Higuma. And these were later published in book form.



Higuma (published by LINE Digital Frontier) 

​​Thankfully, I’m making a living with this, which is kind of surprising. [laughs] But even if you know what makes your readers happy, it is not much fun if you are only aiming for that. I like surreal, absurd manga that leave a strange aftertaste, but when you look at what’s popular on social media, it’s the manga and other things that embody one-word emotions, like “soothing”, “cute”, and “sweet”. While I’m happy people are saying that about my work, part of me wonders whether my manga is truly interesting.

── In closing, please tell me which of your animations is your favorite.



I Like Ducks (2017)

​My favorite would have to be I Like Ducks (2017). While I’m not making any animation right now, I think if I stopped drawing manga completely, I could get back into animation. What I mean is, I have this hunch I’ll keep drawing manga and then, one day, suddenly quit. Then, I would start uploading about one short film a year. I have images of things I think would make for interesting animation gradually building up in my mind. That’s why I have this feeling I may abruptly stop making manga someday. Of course, no one knows what the future holds. [laughs]

── That has to be difficult for you, as you have fans who like your manga and those who like your animation. Thank you for speaking with me today. ​


Qrais (Yusuke Sakamoto)

Born in 1985 in Tochigi Prefecture.

Pisces. AB blood type.

After studying animation on his own, in high school, Sakamoto began creating his own short animation films. Majoring in Animation, he is a first year alumnus of Tokyo Zokei University, where he also obtained his Master’s degree in Design. In 2009, he joined Tohokushinsha Film Corporation’s Planning and Direction Department with a desire to work with live action film. While there, he was involved in the planning and direction of commercials and video for the web.

From 2015, Sakamoto began releasing four-panel manga, illustrations and short animation films on the internet, using the pen name “Qrais” to hide his identity. 

In 2017, his character Nekonohi, the unfortunate cat, became popular on Twitter. This resulted in a collection of the character’s manga being published in the same year.

Having left Tohokushinsha, Sakamoto now works as a freelance manga artist, animator and picture book author. 

He enjoys going for walks and cooking. 

Other manga he has released include Suki Usagi, Higuma, and Hitorigoto: Qrais no Sakusesu Gohan. His picture book titles include Don Ussa: Sora wo Tobu, Don Ussa: Diet Daisakusen! and Abare Neko. 


Works released as Yusuke Sakamoto

    2002  The Room of the Son 

    2003  The Toothman

    2004  The Man Who Lives in the Train, A Song of Horse Mackerel

    2005  Marching March, A Portrait of My Father, The Telegraph Pole Mother

    2007  The Dandelion Sister

    2008  Mr. Tonkatsu

    2009  Orusubanthe river, Fancy Fudosan

    2010  Confeito

    2013  Wee Willie Winkie, Hunter and the Priest

    2014  The Night of the Napolitan 

Works released as Qrais (YouTube channel)

    2015  The Lost Breakfast, Fast Week, Decent Work

    2017  I Like Ducks

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