An interview with Shinigami Sensei author Hisham Najem
Japanese manga and anime have a wide following in Kuwait and the region. One young Kuwaiti writer however has taken his interest in the popular graphic storytelling to a personal level by writing his own manga series, Shinigami Sensei. Published in a series format twice weekly online, Shinigami Sensei combines 27 year old Kuwaiti writer Hisham Najem’s storyline with Indonesian-based artist Hanna Philip’s drawings for a unique and distinctly ‘Japanese’ manga narrative.
The narrative unfolds around a ‘good’ killer. (Shinigami is Japanese for ‘grim reaper’ and Sensei means ‘teacher’.) No one knows why he is acting like an animal. Is he possessed by demons? Is he on the brink of a human instinct? The manga gives the reader something to think about.
“It was hard to envision how the characters look or sound like. My main character is so good in killing that he killed me! Until today, I don’t know what his name is. Throughout the manga comic, you’ll discover his name changes. You’ll watch him from birth until the present, when he turns 26,” Najem told Kuwait Times.
Najem is no manga fanatic and doesn’t speak a word of Japanese. “The only reason why I read a manga comic was that I wanted to know the end of an anime show I was watching and couldn’t finish it. It’s called Bleach. I was 17, and that was the one and only manga comic book I have ever read,” he said.
“At that time, the idea of Shinigami Sensei was forming in my head, and had nothing to do with Japan. I didn’t have in mind to do a manga comic. It was a completely different type of story. At first, I wanted to prepare it as a movie script because I used to write theatre and advertisement scripts. Later, I realized that I needed to find a different area where I can be original, so I said, ‘I’ll create a novel’. Then, I remembered that nobody reads novels anymore. So I said – a comic book; then I said why not manga, and what if my character ends up in Japan? Everything started brewing for Shinigami Sensei afterwards.”
Nowadays, Najem is working on three manga series – Shinigami Sensei, available online, a comic book called Daizaburo, which will be published soon and Piece by Piece.
“The latest comic that I’m working on is probably the most challenging, because it’s more family-friendly. It’s called Piece by Piece. It’s a slice of life. In this comic, I don’t want to feature any cursing or violence at all. The main character is a refugee who washes up onto a Japanese beach. He doesn’t believe in violence, and tries to get on with his life peacefully,” Najem told Kuwait Times.
Najem defines his knowledge of Japanese culture as above average but far from expert. “I only know what I learn from my friends, movies or anime. But anime is a horrible way to learn about Japanese culture, because it is fantasy. A lot of people think that if you watch anime, you know Japan – you don’t. It’s a completely different story. You have to understand that they beautify everything. So what happens in anime wouldn’t happen in real life,” he said.
“Firstly, the Japanese are very conservative, and they don’t usually speak about their feelings. Secondly, they are very polite and apologetic, but you don’t see this in anime. You see characters that are loud and dynamic. You can see their traditions in anime, but anime is not a judge of their culture, and I’m still learning,” Najem added.
Violence, sex and cursing are critical in manga literature, and the Japanese are very strict when it comes to age ratings. “There are strictly adult themes, with a lot of violence and gore. You can’t find these anime or manga in Kuwait. Mine is 17+ because of the language. I would never show a sexual scene, but I would imply it. I stay away from nudity because I would like to bring out something that my mother would be proud of. Nothing is published without my mom’s OK!” he asserted.
Shinigami Sensei sold out at the 2017 Dubai Comic Con festival. Najem connects with his fans through his site, www.shinigami-sensei.com, where he publishes a few pages of his manga at regular intervals. “I do not communicate much in real life with fans, nor expose my mind to a lot of manga series, so that I do not end up involuntarily influenced and be imitative,” he reasoned.