Jean Giraud (1938 - 2012), also known as Moebius, took the comics and science fiction medium to new heights. Arzach, The World of Edena, and The Incal reverberated beyond just the medium of comics and affected film, animation, and art. Combining simplistic characters with other worldly details, Moebius’ work traveled from France to the US thanks to the comics anthology Heavy Metal, while his work had already spread across Europe, but what about Japan? In this article we'll be looking at how Moebius' work made it's way to Japan and influenced some of the biggest names in anime and manga there.
What set off the spread of Moebius and European bande-dessinee in Japan can be traced to an American Star Trek fan culture. Starlog, one of the great classic science fiction magazines began in the US as a byproduct of Star Trek fandom, and by the late 70s versions of the magazine were popping up in other countries, including Japan. Japanese version ran from 1978 to 2006, close to the American run of the magazine from 1976 to 2009. When Starlog reached Japan in 1978, it brought news of European and American science fiction at a time when Japan was in the throes of the “SF” boom, thanks to the popularity of Space Battleship Yamato, Mobile Suit Gundam, and Star Wars.
The Japanese edition of Starlog did more than simply translate articles from the US version, it fostered its own talent, and celebrated Japanese sci-fi and fantasy arts. Columnists included director Nobuhiko Obayashi (House) and cover stories featured artist Noriyoshi Ohrai. A promising rising talent known as Katsuhiro Otomo provided illustrations to the magazine, while synth pop visionaries Yellow Magic Orchestra, and Dragon Ball artist Akira Toriyama were among the creative minds interviewed within Starlog.
Starlog was also a crash course for Japanese readers in American and European science fiction. Alongside color pictorials of films such as Alien and Star Trek the Motion Picture came reprints of art by Moebius, Philippe Druillet, and Richard Corben, basically a sampler plate of Heavy Metal luminaries. The March 1979 issue of Starlog gave Japan its first big taste of Moebius. Preceded by an introduction from Luiz Eduardo de Oliveira (aka LEO), readers were treated to a full color reprint of the short comic story, Ballade. This is believed to be one of the earliest, if not the first, printing of Moebius’ comic work in Japanese. And nothing would ever be the same again.
Flower, Katsuhiro Otomo
Manga authors and Japanese sci-fi enthusiasts took to his scratchy art style which was reminiscent of gekiga, but with a level of strange detail and colors that was previously unseen. Exposure to Moebius encouraged Japanese artists to venture into unknown territory. In 1979, Katsuhiro Otomo published the short comic Flower in SF Hoseki, a literary science fiction magazine that published Japanese and translated western works. A story of beauty and bloodshed, an astronaut discovers a lone preserved flower protected by an enormous creature. The duality of death and beauty is also similar to Ballade. Otomo’s use of colors was directly influenced by Moebius, though this being Otomo’s first color story, he later lamented the difficulty in finding the right paper for color comics. Thanks to the proliferation of Starlog, other magazines focused on manga and science fiction began covering Moebius for Japanese audiences and influencing artists such as Hiroyuki Katou and Keisuke Gotoh, whose work became infused with the art nouveau sensibilities of Moebius.
Arzach (L) & Dragon's Heaven (R)
In 1986, modeler and mech designer Makoto Kobayashi (ZZ Gundam, Star Blazers 2199) published his comic Dragon’s Heaven in the pages of the hobby magazine Model Graphix. Based on an earlier doujinshi by Kobayashi, Dragon’s Heaven was not so subtly influenced by Moebius’ with some stories copying Arzach (Moebius' wordless comic about a man flying on a fantastical dragon creature) panel-for-panel. In 1988, Dragon's Heaven was adapted into an anime set in a distant future where asymmetrical and organically shaped robots wage war with humanity. The OVA blended animation, miniatures, and puppetry to create a unique style. Kobayashi mentioned in an interview with Forbes how he and his fellow animators were looking forward to making animation styled after Moebius. Japan was clearly flirting with artistic influence from Moebius’, but in some instances Japan went straight to the man himself for art direction.
Arzach (L) & Dragon's Heaven(R)
During the 1980s, the economic bubble coupled with a rapid growth in consumer goods and electronics lead to the Japanese advertising world mingling with artists in some unusual ways. Hayao Miyazaki was providing character designs for computer ads, Katsuhiro Otomo was animating openings for talk show, and Moebius was designing dragons for supermodels to ride on. In 1986, the Japanese sports drink Pocari Sweat created the alliance of Moebius, supermodel Cindy Crawford, and modeler Kow Yokoyama (Maschinen Krieger).
Pocari produced a series of ads featuring Cindy Crawford decked out in fantasy armor and astride a winged creature very similar to the one in Arzach. Information on the production of this ad is limited, but it’s believed that Moebius’ designed the dragon creature while Yokoyama built the prop itself. And while this ad does a surprisingly good job of capturing Moebius' style in live action, some people in Japan had more ambitious plans for him than simply selling canned drinks.
Little Nemo concept art.
The 1989 film Little Nemo in Slumberland exhibits a sort of what could have been in terms of bringing the art of Moebius to life with the help of Japanese animators. Based on the seminal comic strip by Winsor McCay, The project began in the early 1980s as the brainchild of producer Yutaka Fujioka (1927 - 1996), whose credits include Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro and Space Adventure Cobra. Several pilot films were made before production began on the final film, with animators including Osamu Dezaki (Rose of Versailles) and pre-production work from Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (who both left the project very quickly). Moebius was brought on as concept artist and some design cues can be seen of his style in the Dezaki directed pilot film. Things got off to a rocky start though, and when Moebius arrived in Japan in 1985 at the behest of TMS, he found that the script was unfinished. Moebius provided several pieces of art and a few ideas for the script, but was sent on his way as the production dragged on four more years and went through a revolving door of animators, writers, and concept artists to the point where Moebius' contributions are nigh unrecognizable. What could have been a dream-team collaboration of Miyazaki or Dezaki with Moebius was more like two ships passing in the night. Despite the mess that was Little Nemo, this would not be the only time Moebius and Miyazaki cross paths.
Illustration of Nausicaäby Moebius
Miyazaki’s first exposure to Moebius’ work came around 1980, and while Miyazaki was struck by the solitude and simplicity in works such as Arzach, Hayao’s art style was too established to borrow much from Moebius stylistically. However, elements of Moebius’ influence is seen in the poison forest of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Moebius’ exposure to Miyazaki wouldn’t come until about 1986 when Moebius’ son Julien brought home a pirated copy of the Nausicaä anime. Moebius was enraptured by the vibrant fantasy world that Miyazaki crafted, while noting in interviews how elements of European culture and landscapes could be seen in films such as Porco Rosso, Nausicaä, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. While Miyazaki admires the fantastical atmosphere that surrounds from Moebius’ simplistically elegant characters. Moebius interviewed Miyazaki for the 1988 US edition of Nausicaä (roughly around the same time Moebius was drawing illustrations for the Epic Comics release of Otomo’s Akira). Moebius was so enraptured with the works of Miyazaki, that he named his daughter Nausicaa after the Miyazaki heroine. The two creators’ mutual admiration culminated in the 2004 - 2005 exhibition Miyazaki - Moebius at the Monnaie de Paris, displaying over 300 original works from both artists.
Comics have always been a never ending frontier for the exploration of imaginations, but during the 1990s the rise in digital technology and disc based media made rendering the fantastical in digital worlds more attainable. In 1995, Sega released the video game Panzer Dragoon for the Saturn. The Arzach influence is very evident in Panzer Dragoon, as the game involves riding on a dragon through a fantastical world. While the US release of the game featured a decent enough looking CG render of the titular dragon, the Japanese version featured gorgeously lush illustrations from Moebius himself.
1997 would see Moebius entering the world of manga with an unlikely artist. Jiro Taniguchi (1947 - 2017) is an artist not often associated with science fiction or the fantastical. Taniguchi’s titles, such as The Walking Man and A Distant Neighborhood, deal more with idyllic Japanese seaside towns, the quiet beauty of nature, careful renderings of European cities, and characters dealing with inner turmoil rather than external action. Yet in 1997 Taniguchi and Moebius would collaborate on the comic Icaroabout a boy born with the power of flight that's closely monitored by a government organization. The scenario was written by Moebius with Taniguchi doing the art. Much like Moebius, Taniguchi has a keen eye for detail, but Taniguchi's humans feel more grounded than Moebius', creating a style for this comic that is fantastical like The Airtight Garage, but with a sense of everyday veracity to it.
In 2012 Jean Henri Gaston Giraud passed away at the age of 73, leaving a legacy that is felt in comics and science fiction to this day. Katsuhiro Otomo, whose style flourished thanks to witnessing the work of Moebius, tweeted about how Moebius would always draw far off into the horizon, and wondered if they could be reunited beyond that horizon some day.