International Manga Award-winning and Eisner Award-nominated Ken Niimura is so far best known in the United States for illustrating the comic book series, I Kill Giants with writer Joe Kelley.
His latest project, Umami, a webcomic which he’s both writing and illustrating focuses on two friends, Uma and Ami, who manage to save an entire kingdom in a world of warriors, dragons, and beasts as they cook their way through adventures, using food to feed people, sure, but also to repair a building, replace a wheel, and even as a bridge!
Last week saw both the release of Umami #5 and the film adaptation of I Kill Giants and Ken was generous enough to take some time to chat with Forces of Geek!
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FOG!: What was the genesis of Umami?
Ken Niimura: I’m really into all things fantasy-related, from table-top role playing games (RPGs) to video games — the whole pack!
I’ve been wanting to make a high-fantasy comic forever, but couldn’t find the right angle – there’s something in the usual party members (the warrior, elf…) that I’m not too much into. I just can’t identify with that “main-character” type of character. I’m so much more into all of the others, those that aren’t usually under the spotlight: underdogs. And to me, cooks are the long-forgotten characters in RPGs and others, where they’re usually just there to feed the main characters while they’re traveling to attain their objective.
What if we could take the cooks on a journey for once? What if they could be the ones to save the world? What if they did it using only cooking as their weapon?
This is your first long form story that you’ve both written and illustrated. Has that been challenging? Is Umami an ongoing or limited series?
It’s been quite a challenge, but if it’s not, where’s the fun? After having worked on short format stories, I felt it was time to make the leap!
I Kill Giants was actually the first time I ever worked on a long comic, and I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull it off. I was lucky enough to have Joe Kelly’s guidance and help, not to mention his amazing script.
This time though, I’m in charge of both, and there are so many other things to take care of. I’ve done three different versions over three years to find the right form to tell this story.
However, in order to make sure we’re on the right track, I work along with producer Yun M. Watanabe, who’s in charge of general coordination, but also plotting and research, and editor Yumetaro Toyoda, who helps editing the story.
It’s a small team, but we’re committed to offering the best Umami we can.
Why a cooking comic? What would be your perfect meal?
Because food is something everyone gets. And because cooking comics are becoming more and more popular, I wanted to rethink some of these ideas we take for granted in them.
Umami is about cooking and food, but we’re trying to think outside the box and go beyond a cooking manual, or a story about the memories associated with food, while using it to tell the simple story of two girls finding their place in the world.
My perfect meal?
One thing I’ve started doing lately is whenever I’m on a trip visiting a new city, instead of buying souvenirs, I just buy food and products from the region. If I’m staying where there’s a kitchen, we then do a huge meal with all of the treasures we’ve found. I like not only getting to know a city through its monuments, but also through its flavor.
Who or what have been the been the biggest influences on your work?
Certainly Hayao Miyazaki, whose movies I’ve been watching since I was a kid. Also, European artists like Quentin Blake or Sempé, as well as any kind of anime you could think of.
Arriving this week is the film adaptation of your series, I Kill Giants, that you collaborated on with writer Joe Kelly. Why do you think Barbara’s story resonates so deeply with readers, and hopefully, audiences?
Because she’s an outcast, who’s deeply flawed, and in that sense she’s very similar to so many of us – she’s very human! Also, she has a huge hammer. And she kills giants, so she’s cool.
In addition to Umami, do you have any other projects in the works?
Joe and I have recently worked on a short story based on Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack, that will be coming out in a Japanese magazine in April! We’re also working on what will be our next long project together. More on that soon!
What are you currently geeking out over?
I know I’m too late to the game, but I just can’t stop playing Fire Emblem on my Nintendo 3DS, it’s such a great game!
And Asghar Farhadi movies, I can’t get enough of them.
And Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.
And Raina Telgemeier’s comics!
Umami #5 is now available digitally via Panel Syndicate
I Kill Giants is now playing and is available on Digital HD and On Demand