In Yumi Sakugawa’s breakout comic, I Think I Am in Friend-Love with You, a one-eyed monster pines for a faceless creature. The pair look something like Cousin It and a soft-bodied Stormtrooper—ageless, genderless, of unrecognizable species—but their story resonated with readers around the world, so much so that the free webcomic was republished in hardcover form.
Since that first book came out in 2013, Sakugawa has contributed comics to sites, including The Rumpus, and self-published several zines, two of which were compiled into a second book, called Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe, in 2014. A sequel, There is No Right Way to Meditate: And Other Lessons (Adams Media), will be available on November 1st and, if you live near Los Angeles, you can catch Sakugawa reading from it the following day at Skylight Books.
In the meantime, though, the cartoonist has yet another book, just released on September 19th. Named for the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement, Ikebana (Retrofit Comics) follows art student Cassie Hamasaki as she presents her thesis: a performance piece in which she turns herself into a human embodiment of ikebana, dressed in nothing but her underwear and a handful of foliage.
I met up with Sakugawa at Chimney Coffee House in LA’s Chinatown to chat with her about her work, Spam musubi-eating monsters, and the power of silence.
The Rumpus: What inspired Ikebana?
Yumi Sakugawa: I was an art student at UCLA and, to be honest, I wasn’t a very good art student, especially toward the end. I had such a hard time imagining myself pursuing the fine-art path that was expected of us, where we would go to graduate school and then show our artwork in very respected institutions like MOCA or The Whitney and teach art in university settings. I just didn’t really see myself doing that, but I wasn’t sure what to do. So it is sort of loosely based on my art school experiences, and where I was in my early twenties. I struggled a lot with defining for myself what art is, what is meaningful art practice for me. Making the comic was my own way of trying to answer that question for myself.
The interesting thing is that actually when I first came up with the story, I didn’t even have ikebana in mind. It was just that this girl was a sort of moving performance piece that went from the classroom to the city, and you could actually hear her internal dialogue as she went about this performance. It wasn’t until the third or fourth or fifth draft when it finally sort of dawned on me, oh, she embodies an ikebana piece. Once I figured that out, that was when the story really started falling into place.
Rumpus: Why ikebana?
Sakugawa: I just originally had her wearing organic items on herself, so from there—I don’t even know how ikebana came about but—once I made the connection that maybe she could be a physical embodiment of ikebana, then I drew back on my own memories of seeing ikebana arrangements at the Japanese American Cultural Center. And also, when I was teaching English in Japan, I had some adult students who would do ikebana as a fun pastime, so I think it was already in my subconscious, and when I started looking into the history of ikebana, it became more intriguing for me as a backdrop for the story.
Rumpus: It took me a long time to notice that the professor was an orange. I didn’t notice that until the second time I read it. And then one of the students is a cat. How did you settle on those classroom demographics, of having some humans and some creatures?
Sakugawa: Well, it’s funny, even when I was doing initial drawings for Ikebana, the professor character was always this weird, amorphous, sort-of-male character that wasn’t completely human. And I think sometimes I like to randomly turn people into non-human characters because I feel like if I were to draw them as humans, it would just read as a very well-tread trope of, say, “oh, a pretentious art professor.” I feel like I see that character so much, so turning him into an orange is sort of my way of making it more interesting for me. Also, I think to show that he’s a doofus but without relying on visual cues that would show him as this overly liberal, white professor who is really into himself.
Rumpus: When did you start making comics?
Sakugawa: I’ve always made up stories and drawn them since I was a kid. I remember making comics about classmates or about friends or just making really snarky, sarcastic comics in high school, but it was always just something I did on the side, something I never thought about too seriously. I think it was in college when I was introduced to indie comics and the wide scope of that realm and saw that I didn’t have to box myself into this DC-Marvel or manga style binary.
Rumpus: So was your style more like that before? Like traditional comics?
Sakugawa: Yes and no. I definitely did a lot of imitation art, of Sailor Moon especially. I didn’t really read DC-Marvel comics. I guess I always had the idea to do comics more in the indie comic realm, but I just didn’t have the vocabulary or the knowledge that that audience or that scene even existed, so I felt like it was a matter of just getting exposure to it that really led me want to pursue it more.
Rumpus: What were some of those indie comics that really inspired you back then?
Sakugawa: Well, I think one of the first indie comic book artists that really resonated with me was actually a Japanese American indie cartoonist, Adrian Tomine. I came across his Optic Nerve comics. I feel like his storytelling style, his visual style, they were my first early influences. The one indie comic book that sort of turned a switch in my brain was probably Blankets by Craig Thompson. I also read Black Hole by Charles Burns, and then I also lived really close to the Giant Robot art store, so I would also just go there a lot and look through their mini comics and indie comic collections, which sort of was my informal comics education during college.
Rumpus: Has your style evolved a lot over time?
Sakugawa: Yeah, definitely. I think in the beginning I tried to ape the tighter linework that my early influencers had, like Adrian Tomine or Craig Thompson, but I quickly realized that that wasn’t my style, so I think especially in more recent years, my style has gotten a lot looser. I do really like not having to labor too much over my art. (Laughs) I sort of embrace the fact that I’m not a very detail-oriented person. I like to make as little linework as possible to convey as much information as possible.
Rumpus: I remember hearing about you for the first time when I Think I Am in Friend-Love with You blew up in 2013. Was that the first time you got such a big reaction?
Rumpus: How did that feel? What was it like?
Sakugawa: It came out of left field. It was really unexpected. I was just so blown away that a little six-page comic I posted online for free struck such a chord with everyone, and looking back on it now, I really owe it to that event for kickstarting my career and taking my comic book art to a whole other level of exposure.
Rumpus: I think part of what makes it so appealing is that little monster. I read that you wrote that comic out of a feeling of losing touch with college friends and trying to catch up with them again, and I can definitely relate to that, especially having gone to college far away. But what made you decide to pair that with that little monster rather than a person, and how did you settle on his design?
Sakugawa: I always feel like if I drew that character as someone that looked like me, an Asian-American college girl wearing emo clothes, platonically pursuing this other college guy or girl or what have you, that would have restrained the story to a very specific, autobiographical context, where it’s more about me and less about the feeling. I think ultimately I wanted to take those autobiographical elements away to focus on the feeling itself as a way to dive deeper into what I was feeling, and I think, generally speaking, with my stories, I like the idea of stripping away gender, age, ethnic identifiers so that readers have more blank spaces, blank, neutral spaces, they can fill themselves into. With Ikebana, it was more consciously nearing my own art school experiences, so I felt like it made more sense in the story to have mostly human characters and a main female protagonist, and not this weird one-eyed monster creature.
Rumpus: I remember seeing one of your drawings that was a message to artists: “Start with a feeling, and then put it out there and see if others feel similarly.” I might be totally butchering it, but I really liked that sentiment. Is that why you draw monsters so often, because they’re a little more abstract and easy for people to put different individual experiences into?
Sakugawa: I think so, and I feel like it just makes so much sense why so in much children’s programming—Sesame Street or The Muppets—the characters are all human-like but also very monster-like or fantastical, and I think kids need that neutral space. Adults too need that neutral space where in making characters so weird-looking, it makes them more universal, so I’m always interested in exploring that.
Rumpus: In Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe, you go back and forth between using those monsters and using people. Page to page, what made you decide which one to use and what type of features for this monster to have, and monsters versus bunnies and all of that?
Sakugawa: I feel like it’s never too deliberate or too conscious a decision what characters I decide to do. Definitely these days, I’m drawn to bunnies. It’s sort of my way of remembering how obsessed I was with bunnies as a kid and how I had a pet bunny. I’ve always been drawn to how innocent yet how strong they are, as animals and as mythical creatures. And as for the comics in Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe, a lot of the comics were actually individual blog entries posted over time that just happened to end up in a collection together. But with every individual comic, they just sort of came up depending on whatever mood I was feeling. That’s basically it.
Rumpus: A lot of your characters don’t talk in speech bubbles, and some, like Cassie in Ikebana, don’t even talk at all. What is the thought process behind that?
Sakugawa: I think that I like the idea of characters not talking, like with my Friend-Love character or with my more recent bunny characters, because I like the idea of constraining their mode of conversation, so as a viewer you have to maybe work a little harder to figure out what their inner state is. And also, for me as a creator, I don’t have this verbal crutch to tell readers what the character is going through. So in Friend-Love, it was actually really fun for me to not have a character’s mouth—and for the character to have just one eyeball—so that if the character was feeling sad, I would draw the eyeball a little sadder (laughs), sort of figuring out how to make a single eyeball look happy or sad or how the body language conveys what the character is feeling. And I think it also comes from my own personal bias of being drawn to people who don’t talk much, like there’s just more real or imagined mystery to people who say less, so I sort of take it to an extreme by imposing the limitation of them not talking at all.
Rumpus: When you’re drawing these characters and you’re trying to convey a feeling, do you do much research or draw from photographs to get their movement or posture?
Sakugawa: For human characters, yes, I would look—I would take pictures of myself or ask my boyfriend to pose for me. But for the more animal-like creatures, I just sort of make them up in my head. Again, I think there’s this sort of inherent laziness in me where I don’t want to labor too much on proper anatomy, so I sort of gravitate towards drawing more pliable, round characters that are more stuffed-animal-like than human-like. Less joints to worry about, essentially.
Rumpus: More fur to cover everything up.
Rumpus: When you were a kid, what came first for you, writing or drawing?
Rumpus: How did that start? I mean, I know most kids draw, but what kinds of things did you like to draw back then? When did it feel like it was a thing that you really had to do?
Sakugawa: I drew a lot of bunnies, with crayons. I drew monsters or people, friends. One of my childhood friends, she uncovered this drawing I did when I was nine years old. I drew all of the people in our circle of friends as cats. They’re wearing t-shirts and shorts, but they’re all in cat form. It probably wasn’t until I was maybe nine or ten years old where I felt like it was a skill that I wanted to keep doing, as opposed to just one of the many activities that all kids do.
Rumpus: Did you grow up in a very artistic family?
Sakugawa: No. I mean, my parents, they were never against me pursuing creative things, but I don’t think they necessarily were consciously fostering it. I guess the best thing they did was that they just sort of let me do whatever I wanted. But neither of my parents particularly like to do creative things as far as writing or drawing goes. I keep hearing that my grandmother was drawing when she was younger, but other than that, I feel like my desire to make art, it kind of came out of nowhere. And maybe it came out of also me being a very introverted, shy person. So I read a lot of books and maybe that fed my imagination.
Rumpus: You grew up in Orange County, but both your parents are from Japan. Did you go there a lot as a kid?
Sakugawa: I did. I probably went five or six times during my childhood, up until high school. Most of my relatives are in Japan, basically. I haven’t been back in about over seven years now, but I think every time I go to Japan, it feels like going home in some way, even though it’s not the country I was born in. Even though I’m not the most proficient at Japanese, it’ll always be a very familiar, internal language to me over English. I definitely don’t ever want to live there full-time.
Rumpus: Why not?
Sakugawa: Well, I feel like, one, I’m too Americanized in my way of thinking to feel like I would really fit into Japan. Also, I just feel like my Japanese language skills aren’t good enough to, say, work in a Japanese work environment, and I really don’t want to teach English again. (Laughs) I did that once.
Rumpus: How was it?
Sakugawa: You know, I wasn’t very good at it, so I’m okay not doing it again. I think it’s just always that struggle between the more individualistic attitude of Americans versus the more community-oriented attitude of Japan. There are definitely pluses and minuses to both worldviews, but I just feel like I see myself just struggling with fitting into Japanese society.
Rumpus: When you are there, do people usually assume that you are from Japan, or can they tell that you are American and treat you like you’re American?
Sakugawa: When I was in Japan for a year, the last time I was there and I was teaching English, towards the end, my Japanese actually improved a lot, so I was able to pass as a Japanese person. But I feel like if I were to go there right this moment, I think people could tell by the clothes I wear, even the way I carry myself, I think. It’s like how when we see European tourists, you know—
Rumpus: You can tell from their shoes—
Sakugawa: Exactly! You can just instantly tell.
Rumpus: Besides the monsters, it seems like a lot of people in your comics are Asian American or Japanese American based on how they look or what they’re eating, or in Cassie’s case, her last name, but it’s usually something that’s in the background, not being explicitly discussed. Is that anything that you ever did explicitly explore in your art, or is identity something that you like to leave in the background and not necessarily spend a whole comic discussing?
Sakugawa: I guess one Asian American comic I did was about this Japanese American character in the The Baby-Sitters Club, Claudia Kishi, so I wrote this whole web comic about it, and just how I connected with her so much because she was like the only Japanese American female character in young-adult literature or pop culture in general when I was growing up, and again, it was just another webcomic I just did for fun on my own, and years later (I probably made it in 2012 or 2013), people still just randomly find it and reach out to me about it. Diversity is really important to me. Even if I don’t explicitly write about Asian American or Japanese American issues or identity, just having that Asian face has always been important to me. And even if they are monsters, they’re eating spam musubi or using chopsticks.
Rumpus: And monsters are really important to Japanese pop culture too.
Rumpus: I think it’s important to have both kinds of art in the world, the kind that’s discussing identity overtly and the kind where you don’t really have to, you can kind of move onto other things but it’s still there.
Sakugawa: Right, absolutely. Definitely.
Rumpus: When you taught English, was that right after college?
Rumpus: So did you have day jobs for a while until—are you a full-time artist now?
Sakugawa: I do have a day job where I do illustrated how-to guides for this website called Wonder How To, so it’s not something I do in my spare time, but it is still drawing, essentially, and the rest of my time is freelance illustration work, or doing comics.
Rumpus: Were you doing illustration work straight out of college as well? Or was there a struggle between doing something more traditional and maybe stable versus something creative, and how did you make the space to do that creative work that you wanted to do?
Sakugawa: I was really lucky in that when I got out of college, my first day job was working at an Internet startup, and probably within a few months of me being hired as a full-time person, the company decided to become a virtual office, so everybody was telecommuting and just meeting once or twice per week. So that was my full-time day job for a few years, but it was very different from what I saw my friends experiencing—corporate, nine-to-five, traditional office jobs—and I think just having that as my first day job sort of spoiled me, so from then on I always wanted to work from home and not go into an office. So with my current day job, where I do illustrated how-to guides, I get to work from home, so I’m essentially at my apartment all the time.
Rumpus: What kinds of how-to guides are you illustrating?
Sakugawa: It’s a lot of practical, life-hacky stuff, like “uses for white vinegar” or “how to hack your small kitchen to make it more space-efficient.”
Rumpus: And then there’s Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe. I heard that it came out of your experiences with meditating. What drew you to meditation in the first place?
Sakugawa: Well, I was teaching English in Japan and doing really terribly at it, and I was fresh out of college, and I was just really depressed and really just not in a good headspace. And I think it was one of those serendipitous things where a friend lent me a copy of the book, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, this new-age spiritual author, and my boyfriend gave me an audiobook of the film director David Lynch talking about transcendental meditation and how that helped him as an artist and a film director. Somehow having those two things come into my life almost simultaneously just really made me decide that I wanted to meditate on a regular basis, just to see for myself if it would help me, since it seemed like it was helping a lot of other people. I’ve been doing it on and off for the last seven years now, but these days I do make a commitment to meditate for twenty minutes every morning. I can’t imagine life without it now. It’s something I have to do.
Rumpus: Do you sit in seiza when you meditate?
Sakugawa: No. (Laughs) I just sit on the couch.
Rumpus: In terms of the words of that comic—were any of them mantras that you repeated to yourself, or did they come while you were meditating?
Sakugawa: When I meditate, I usually just listen to my inner silence as much as possible. I don’t really repeat words. So for the words in my comics, whether they’re about meditation or they’re for my fictional comics, I always want whatever I’m conveying to be as honest as possible. So especially with my mindfulness comics, I don’t overthink too much what I’m saying. As long as it’s the most honest way to say whatever I’m feeling, then that’s what they end up being.
Rumpus: One of my favorite comics of yours is “Moon Between the Mountains.” That comic has a really striking ending that, like Ikebana, is all visual with no words at all. And it made me wonder, do the ideas for your stories come to you first as words or as images?
Sakugawa: It really depends, comic by comic. With I Think I Am in Friend-Love with You, it really did start out as a literal letter I was writing to someone, so it was all text before it became a comic. I think with “Moon Between the Mountains,” it came out from a little doodle I did of a cat baby, and then the cat baby growing up into this cat woman, not knowing where she came from. So in that case, it was the visual that started the rest of the story, and I think that’s why I love comics so much, because I always loved writing and I always loved drawing, and I never wanted to do just one or the other. With comics, it’s always this interesting tug of war between what you can convey with words that can’t be conveyed with just image, and what you can convey with image that words can’t do justice to. So it’s always a combination of both when I come up with the stories because the two things are inseparable to me.
Rumpus: There’s a lot of blank space in your work. Even the comics that don’t have non-verbal endings, like I Think I Am in Friend-Love with You, usually share that same feeling of something slowly unwrapping. I was wondering if that was something you were drawn to early on, or if it came with more age and experience to be able to have that kind of quiet in your stories.
Sakugawa: That’s a good question. Yeah, I think especially with movies, the moments that always resonate with me are the nonverbal moments, and I think with the comics that I like to read, there’s a lot of space and emptiness for the readers to put themselves in. I like the idea of giving readers these sort of empty, silent spaces where they have time to really comprehend or decide for themselves what is happening, what the meaning of everything is. I definitely think that meditation also really helped me with my art, where I liked the idea of silent moments and silent spaces within stories as well.
Rumpus: Speaking as an introverted person myself, do you think it has something to do with being introverted and feeling like maybe there’s not necessarily something to say about every moment out loud?
Sakugawa: Oh yeah, totally. Absolutely.
Rumpus: There have been at least a couple of your illustrations where you’re imagining something like that anxious ball in your chest turning into a dandelion, or turning into some jellyfish… Is it easy for you to come up with a concrete image for some abstract feeling like that?
Sakugawa: Yeah. Absolutely, yes. That way of visualizing emotions, I feel like that came from that book I read that helped me meditate, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, who is more famous for his first book, The Power of Now. And one thing he emphasizes over and over, which is also something that’s explored a lot in Buddhist philosophy, is that your true essence is completely separate from your thought process. So whatever verbal chatter is in your mind, you can be immersed in it, or you can actually see it as a third-person observer and sort of step back from the chaos of your thoughts and just think to yourself, “Oh, that’s an interesting response I’m having,” or “Oh, how interesting that I’m going through that mental battle again. I’m triggered to think these thoughts again.” And it’s, of course, easier said than done, but I feel like making these comics is a way of reminding myself that if I’m feeling sad or if I’m feeling anxious, I’m not the sadness, I’m not the anxiousness. I can step back from this bad energy or see it as a rainstorm or a bad streak of weather that will eventually go away.
Rumpus: Do you feel nervous putting your work out there now that you know you have a bigger audience?
Sakugawa: No. I’m definitely thankful that I have a bigger audience, but I think also with age, you just care less what other people think. And also, I feel like at the end of the day, I know for myself if I made a comic I’m really proud of, or if I’m just coasting on ideas I’ve used before. I feel like whether it’s ten people or a million people, ultimately it’ll always be a competition with myself as an artist. Or I’ll always be my own personal barometer of whether or not I’m proud of the work I did.
Rumpus: It’s great that you can feel that way. Do you ever experience writer’s block or feel like you’ve run out of ideas?
Sakugawa: Um, yes, all the time. (Laughs)
Rumpus: How do you deal with that?
Sakugawa: It’s funny you ask that because I think I’ve been struggling with that lately, so as a way to get through it, I’ve been making a series of comics about overcoming creative blocks, in kind of more of a fantastical way. One thing that helped me was to just see the creative process as a series of valleys and peaks, so if you are feeling stuck, it’s not because you’re failing as an artist or as a creative person, but because that creative block is there for a reason, to challenge you to come up with an idea that would inspire you enough to overcome it. I think it was Elizabeth Gilbert who said that even if it’s ninety-nine percent just the grunt work of feeling stuck and it’s just one percent inspiration, no matter how many hours you feel terrible and uninspired, that one percent where you do feel inspired is just always so worth it. I always live for that one percent where I feel like I think I have a good idea, and I want to share it with people, and it ends up resonating with a lot of people.
Rumpus: A lot of your comics end on a note of loneliness, but never just bleak, pure loneliness. There’s always something warm there as well. Is that something that you feel like you are mediating?
Sakugawa: Yeah, I never want my stories to be just sad or just happy. I always feel like the stories that I love, they’re never completely resolved. All the loose ends aren’t tied, but it’s that tension that makes me keep thinking about it. One ending that keeps coming to mind is the ending for Spirited Away, the Ghibli movie, where it’s a happy ending but also a sad ending, but there’s also this possibility of more things to come. I just feel like that’s the most accurate representation of life. Even if it’s an ending, new things are on the way. Or even if it is a happy ending, it might pass one day. I feel like ultimately, with characters, I want them to go through a journey or go through some sort of transformation of epiphany. So it’s more a matter of that than whether it’s happy or sad.
Rumpus: Do you ever have any idea of what happens to them after the last frame? Or do you leave them where they are?
Sakugawa: That’s a good question. Yeah, I guess I don’t really think about my characters after the story ends. That’s interesting.
Rumpus: Well, maybe that’s good—it means you ended at the natural end.
Sakugawa: Like, people always want to know what happens with the Friend-Love characters, like, “Oh, do they meet for coffee?” and my editor and my agent, they really wanted an ending where it showed them meeting up afterwards. They thought that maybe the original webcomic ending, where it was just a letter at the door, that was a little too sad for the book version. And so the compromise was that I extended the ending where you really saw that the Friend-Love crush received the letter and read it, but that was it. That was always really important to me because I felt like the point of the story was not that they become best friends but for me it was more that the main character really went through with showing his or her friend-love crush their true feelings. That was the most important thing, rather than whether or not something came of it.
Rumpus: Was there a negotiation like that with Ikebana too?
Sakugawa: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I struggled a lot with the ending of Ikebana, so I probably had three or four endings that I considered before the final ending. It was a fine balance of wanting to show autonomy for Cassie in her performance. I really didn’t want to portray her as a victim that needed to be saved. I also really wanted to convey in some way the idea that when making art, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum—you need at least one audience member, and that’s sort of an extension of life itself too. You need at least two people. The quote I always go back to—I think Tony Kushner said this in the introduction to Angels in America—is “The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one.” That’s a quote that has always reverberated with me.
Rumpus: What were some other final contenders for the ending?
Sakugawa: The idea that stuck with me the longest was that Cassie and this nameless classmate, they would just look at each other in the ocean, and in the last panel, you see Cassie open her mouth, but you don’t hear what she says. So it ends with her breaking her silence and thus ending her performance. And then there were all these bad ideas, like maybe she just drowns. (Laughs) It wasn’t until towards the end of my process when I decided, oh, I want them to go underwater, I guess just sort of more symbolic of what you have to go through to rebirth yourself essentially, sort of what you have to go through over and over as an artist.
Rumpus: When you are creating your art, who do you feel like you’re doing it for?
Sakugawa: I feel like I’m almost making comics for younger versions of me. And I guess subconsciously maybe that’s because a lot of my fans are young Asian American college girls or high school girls, which is really awesome to me. I feel like they’re all younger versions of me, whether it’s college me figuring out what she wants to do after college, or high-school me feeling like she doesn’t fit in anywhere, or, I don’t know, nine-year-old me who feels like she has no friends. Yeah, I always feel like I want younger Asian American women to read my works. Maybe I’m not always consciously thinking that, but looking back on the works I do, they’re all aiming towards things that I would like. I’ve never liked the idea of trying to make a story that an audience would like, because then I’m just not going to make anything good, or I’m just going to overthink the whole process. I feel like my best stories that resonate with people the most are always stories that were interesting to me. I obviously want people to read them, but I think it just goes back to my own personal barometer. If I’m really proud of it, it almost doesn’t matter what other people think. And vice versa—if a lot of people like something but I feel like I could have done better, then I won’t be satisfied with it.