Although manga and anime have become a pervasive part of pop culture in the 21st century, this was not always the case, especially outside of Japan.
Some of the first to secure a foothold in regions outside of Japan were the works of Osamu Tezuka. His Astro Boy, Princess Knight and Kimba the White Lion, and Black Jack series were instantly adored by people who became the first generation of anime/manga fans. And in addition to the previously mentioned titles, those browsing through the animated section of their local video store in the mid-1980s may have also come across a lovable unicorn named Unico.
Samuel Sattin and the art team of Gurihiru were some of those that became fans, and much to their delight, were given the go-ahead by Tezuka Productions in Japan to create a new manga inspired by Tezuka’s “The Cat on the Broomstick” storyline from the original 1974-76 manga called Unico: Awakening (now available to back on Kickstarter).
Sattin reveals how they approached adapting Unico for both long-time fans and new audiences and the legacy of the plucky unicorn in this exclusive interview.
How did the opportunity to reinvent a classic anime character like Unico come about?
Samuel Sattin: For those who may not know much about Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Unico, he’s known in Japan as the “God of Manga”, though in the US he’s known more for Astro Boy, who has become a global icon. I think Tezuka’s stories are incredibly important, unique, and artful, and I’ve been a diehard fan of his for a long time. All of that is why I felt so unbelievably lucky to pitch Tezuka Productions on a Unico reboot.
The opportunity came through Vince Shortino, founder of Crunchyroll Japan, who in turn I’d been introduced to by a manga-aficionado. Though I’m still in a mild state of disbelief concerning it, Tezuka Productions ended up accepting the pitch. We then began talks with the perfect artist team for this project, Gurihiru, and have arrived here today.
It appears that many of the characteristics of Unico are very similar to her original incarnation. How would you say that Unico and the story is different in 2022?
Samuel Sattin: We tried to stay fairly loyal to the original character, in terms of design. Though if you look at Gurihiru’s take on him closely, there are subtle differences, all of which feed into his personality. As for the story, Gurihiru and I wanted to homage Tezuka directly, and—as opposed to completely reinventing the wheel—we thought the best way to do that would be to take one of his Unico stories and expand upon it. The great thing about Tezuka Production is that, just like their namesake, they embrace reinvention, and encourage reimagining Tezuka’s stories in different ways, and for different demographics. Our version of Unico, then, while honoring Tezuka’s vision, ventures into new territory, giving some of the original story’s characters larger roles as they attempt to break Unico’s vicious cycle.
What was it like working with Gurihiru on Unico?
Samuel Sattin: Gurihiru is a truly incredible artist team with a formidable list of achievements, including their work as artist on the Eisner Award-winning Superman Smashes the Klan, and their upcoming Ultraman: Another Gene. Besides being genius level artists , they also have truly figured out how to blend Japanese and American comics styles, which is way harder than it might sound. The way they do so is so seamless, they’re in a league of their own. Also, like many Japanese cartoonists, Gurihiru grew up with Osamu Tezuka, so working with them on Unico: Awakening really does take on the gravity it deserves.
As someone well-versed in the history of anime, what type of impact did Unico have in the 1970s/80s, particularly on audiences outside of Japan?
Samuel Sattin: Most people I know associate their love of Unico with seeing the first two animated films, which were available in the US in the early/mid-eighties. I first saw it when I was closer to ten years old, in 1992, and I remember falling in love with the characters, and being profoundly frightened. In a good way, however! This is one of the things I pine for, when it comes to comics and animation in the seventies and early-mid eighties. A lot of the stories for children from that period were complex and often dark, which is why so many adults who came of age with them joke about being traumatized. But really, what they’re saying is that they were affected, that the story made them think and feel more than other things did. I believe that’s what Unico’s effect was outside of Japan. It’s an emotional, sometimes scary story with a lot to say about people and the planet. A rare find.
In Japan, from what I understand, Unico was more of a mainstay for kids growing up in the eighties. It was originally commissioned by Sanrio, but became its own thing entirely. Many Japanese mangaka I talk to have vivid memories of Unico. Some of those memories stand out above others.
You have attracted some top notch talent to produce large Unico prints for the Kickstarter. Do you feel that this will help get the word out about the project?
Samuel Sattin: We set out to make this project a celebration of sorts, where we could involve people who have genuine enthusiasm and care for Unico, and believed in what we were trying to do. Artists like Kamome Shirahama, Junko Mizuno, Akira Himekawa, and Peach Momoko all had connections to Unico as a character, and were deeply inspired. I personally think that’s why the artwork is so especially beautiful. There’s a lot of passion there.
I do feel it has helped get the word out about the project, and I hope more people will continue to support Unico: Awakening. We would love the participating artists to have their prints hanging on walls throughout the world.
If the Kickstarter campaign is successful, you plan on releasing both English language and Japanese versions of the manga. Why was this important for you?
Samuel Sattin: One of the things that’s incredibly important to all of us is that this project thrives in the true spirit of collaboration. Unico is an important part of Tezuka’s legacy, and the amazing fact that I’ve been able to participate in its reinvention is something I do not take lightly. Our goal for this project is that it has a great deal of input from the Japanese creatives involved in the project, and that it thus becomes something that can be read and enjoyed both there, in the US, and abroad.
Samuel Sattin: I have two books coming out next year (and in ’24) that I’m quite excited about, and some more adaptations in the works that I can’t talk about too much at the moment, but should be able to soon. I’m also looking forward to the release of some cultural criticism I co-wrote with a friend about anime and its impact on the modern world.
Unico: Awakening is available to back on Kickstarter until June 2. Check out the cover and some of the exclusive prints by Akira Himekawa and Peach Momoko below.