This is a topic I've been asked a lot, what's it like being an assistant to a Japanese mangaka? Well, in this post I will try to answer this, both the positive and the negative points.
First of all it has to be said that when I proposed to start being a mangaka assistant it was really very easy and fast for me, even though I was a foreigner. Maybe it's because my portfolio was eye-catching or the demand for mangaka assistants is great.
For that, here in Japan there is a kind of web portal where both mangakas and assistants are advertised. The assistants promoting their work in case a mangaka is interested in them; and the mangakas promoting that they have a vacancy free to work with them according to their needs, as well as informing about schedules, prices, style and tools to use for drawing, etc. The portal in question is "Japan Assistants Club" http://www2.plala.or.jp/JAC/ and I think that it is only accessible from a japanese IP. It is possible that there are more portals of this type, even more methods to gather assistants with mangakas by contacting editors directly, but here I will only talk about what I experienced.
Obviously both the ad portal and the subsequent communication with the mangaka is in Japanese, so mastering the language is a key factor. It is necessary to have a fluid level for a work of this type, since the communication with the mangaka is not little since the beginning. The mangaka won't always write to you so you can use a translator, but it's also normal for the mangaka to make voice calls through Skype or similar to explain what he/she really wants you to draw for him/her.
About the types of assistants, I think there really are 2. The assistant who goes to the mangaka's home, either to work analog or digital; and the assistant who works from own home only in digital. From the beginning I already specified that I would work from my own home for comfort, and, although when we talk about "mangaka assistant" we get the image of the assistant at mangaka's home, it is now quite common for assistants to work from own home.
As I once heard from an editor, there is a third type of assistant who literally lives at the mangaka' home in exchange for not paying rent and food, although I have no idea if there are still such cases today, and if there are, I think they would be very punctual.
First contact with the mangaka
I had experience with 2 mangakas working from home through Skype, and both cases were very similar in the way they worked. First of all when the mangaka has decided for you and thinks that you can meet his/her needs, the mangaka will send you an email to tell you that he/she is interested in you, and once accepted, it is normal to exchange Skype IDs, as communication and file sharing will be done through there.
If the mangaka is someone already with a professional background, like one of the two I worked with (both were girls), she may send you a guide on how she want you to draw the backgrounds before the agreed day to start. I was really amazed to see that guide because it was very complete, as well as inking from a 3D render, types of lighting in the inking, and so on. Even sample files with finished pages in Clip Studio Paint format to see the measurements, stroke thickness, and minutiae that you'll then be required to play.
With the other mangaka I worked with, as it was her debut, there was obviously nothing about it and it was a bit like "do it more or less like do you think"...haha. There was really a lot of difference between the experience I received between the veteran mangaka and the one that was debuting.
If we talk about schedules and salaries, first of all we have to bear in mind that this is a very unstable job. Mainly because the mangaka only needs you a few days a month, (which are agreed on the first contact by email, and on those days you work, are literally all day. When I say all day, it means between 10 and 14 hours a day according to the needs of the mangaka. There are many hours in a row working during the same day, and it seems that the mangaka is not worth splitting those hours into several days, so all have to be on the same day yes or yes.
So, for example with the veteran mangaka, I only worked 3-4 days a month, and during those 3-4 days I had a schedule from 10am to 1am, having one hour for lunch and another for dinner as free time. The first day you have a good time, but believe me that on the 3rd day you are a little tired of doing nothing more than drawing backgrounds under someone else's orders, haha. Although the latter I suppose will depend on the personality and tolerance of each.
When we talk about prices, the norm is 1000 yen an hour, and a day of 10 hours a day which is equivalent to 10,000 yen a day. Although this increases if you do more hours like they made me do, which can reach up to 13,000 yen a day.
The bonuses in this job also exist, but only when you have become accustomed to the rhythm of the mangaka, leaving him/her satisfied both in quality and speed. And according to what both mangakas told me, it usually takes a minimum of 1 to 3 months to work with them. I didn't last so long working with them to get it, so I don't know the amount of the plus, but I don't think it's much.
And well, as you can see, working so few days a month, no matter how much you can get 13,000 yen a day (although the normal pull more for as much as 10,000 a day), you can't live off this if you're not working with several mangakas at once. I don't know if it would seem a little or a lot to earn that amount a day, but you have to bear in mind that the standard of living in Japan is somewhat high, being 300,000 yen a month what is considered a normal salary-man wage.
At that time I worked for those two mangakas at the same time, praying that the days of work would not coincide (since if they did, I would have to cancel one of the two, and who knows how he would take it), but even so, it wasn't really enough to cover that minimum/normal wage I mentioned above. Luckily, I didn't start being an assistant for the money, but rather for discovering the mangaka-assistant relationship and learning from it for when I had to serialize, to be able to know how to treat my own assistants, and thus know how far it is right to demand of them.
Which makes me conclude that being an assistant in Japan is very fleeting and that it is difficult to make it a job that you can dedicate professionally to pay your bills over a long period of time. For that same reason, this is not a job that can give residence visa to foreigners, being considered something very freelance and there is no company behind you to pay (the one who pays you is the same mangaka from his pocket).
Methodology of work
The first 20 minutes are usually for the mangaka to send you the files of his Clip Studio Paint files, and explain to you what he wants you to draw on those pages he sends you. The normal is to start one by one, and when you finish and the mangaka accepts you as correct, he send you the next one.
When you get the pages, you can expect anything. There are cases where the page only has a very simple storyboard, and you have to draw ignoring any character that there is or may be; and there are also cases where everything is drawn except the backgrounds, and you only have to complete the page with the missing backgrounds.
But of course, every mangaka is a world and can make you do different things. For example with the veteran mangaka, I only drew and inked backgrounds, but never with tones (I think that had assistants just to put tones). Even so, not everything was backgrounds such as interiors or exteriors, there was also work to make complements to the characters, as well as plates with cakes, cars, food of all kinds, drinks, books, etc., and what was very abundant was also to redraw 3D models (hence I had an exclusive guide made for that, hehe...).
With the newest mangaka, she asked me for the whole process up to the final tones. And the demands were more or less like the veteran mangaka, making me do both interior and exterior backgrounds, as well as objects that complement characters, or even cinetic lines and effects of ink and tones, but never anything related to 3D, in any case tracing photos that she had made herself (would that be her house? haha).
In any case the experience in both cases was very different, while with the veteran mangaka I learned a lot about her working methodology, like techniques for effects or methods to draw according to what things, with the debutant mangaka unfortunately I didn't learn so much. So in this post I'll talk a lot more about the experience with the veteran than with the other one.
For example, she made me draw a fork by pricking a chocolate cake and the cake apart without the piece, and I all confident that I had done well, I gave her this.
It seems I didn't do well enough and wanted that more "crunchy" cake, with more texture of the cake itself, and same with the chocolate. Besides, the plate was too flat ^^U. Which is why I tried to correct it and this came out.
She didn't look well either. It had been left as a texture of a cookie and not a spongy cake, plus she wanted the chocolate to melt much more, wanted a more realistic cake looking delicious. I remember that she became very heavy with this and it even seemed that she had been offended by the way I had drawn it. So I had to get soaked looking at pictures of cakes, chocolate textures, and ended up doing this that was finally accepted.
Yes, it was a shojo manga, but the level of demand is high as I could see. No wonder coming from a veteran mangaka, though. At that moment I felt that I was not as good as I thought I was, that I still had a lot to learn, and above all I had to be more cautious about documenting myself on the next occasion so as not to make a fool of myself again with "half-hearted" drawings.
But well, I think I generally did a good job with the rest of the backgrounds. There were rarely uncorrected pages, but most of them were bullshit that could be fixed in 10 minutes.
And examples of what I did well the first time, was for example this 3D car that gave me to put the blacks and ink as if it was a drawing.
It's really not very complicated if you document a little how the light is reflected on the real object, in this case, a black car.
Other works that made me do was similar to the previous one, but instead of re-inking a 3D model render, I had to re-inking backgrounds from a catalog of backgrounds in which the inking was something dirty and not very usable for the style of the mangaka. And by the way I traced a photo in the last panel, without much mystery that also approved me without much correction.
Finally, it is curious because when I finished a page, what I always delivered was the file ONLY with the backgrounds. Basically because she always gave me his storyboard as a base for making the backgrounds along with the references I might need to draw, and she never had the characters finished before the attendees made the backgrounds in question. This made the files quite small and didn't waste a lot of time sending files up and down through Skype. So the finished pages when they were delivered looked something like this.
I really got to make many more backgrounds for both mangakas and overall the experience was positive. Until it was time to resign and let both mangakas know that they could no longer count on me anymore.
The reasons were different for both cases. I first resigned with the debutant mangaka at 2-3 weeks. It was a very monotonous job that didn't really give me any experience, which made me sick of working with her. Communication was getting colder and colder, and when I said "this is my last week" she replied "Huh!? and now who's going to help me!??", as if to say that it was my obligation to continue working for her... I couldn't give her the real reasons why I resigned so she wouldn't get offended, so I told her that "certain things had happened and I had to quit it, and sorry very much". I don't think it gave her a lot of problems because the level of assistant that her manga required was very basic and I think almost any assistant could do it without problems.
With the veteran mangaka, quite the opposite. I learned a lot during the experience, and although she had her bipolar moments when I gave her something that she couldn't convince her of, in general I think she was very kind. She would accurately mark the points to be corrected and show me through Skype video call when something didn't work out the way she wanted. The fact is that from the beginning I already told her that this job would be temporary until I could publish in Japan on my own, so she didn't give it much importance at the time. I guess neither of us expected that 2 months later that moment would come, and therefore, I had to leave the assistant job with her because I came directly a lot of work from my editor.
That's when the bad experience with her started. Just like the other debutante mangaka, she didn't understand why I decided to finish the assistant job, and she got very angry even knowing that the reason was something very understandable and that she had been warned from the begining. Instead of receiving a reply of "Congratulations on your publication, do your best!", she went so far as to say that "she had wasted my time teaching me", and "if she had known it before, she would have made me do simpler things" or that "and why didn't you warn me before?" (when I warned her one day after the editor gave me the green light to work with my manga ^^U). She got really victimized and I didn't really know how to respond to her, but it wasn't my fault either.
In addition I had left it at a time when my part of that month's work for her had ended and did not require my service until the next month. As far as I was concerned, she had plenty of time to find another assistant to replace me. I was a little worried about whether or not she would end up paying me for that final tantrum she had, but she did pay me 2-3 weeks later. I hope she have found another assistant like me or better, and that at least it lasts longer.
To conclude the post, I want to make an assessment about the experience with the pros and cons of being an assistant in Japan.
- A lot of experience is gained if you are lucky enough to be working with a veteran mangaka. No matter how good you are, there will always be things you will learn, and that experience can then be transferred to your projects.
- It's positive to find out what the mangaka-assistant relationship really looks like. By becoming an assistant you can then empathise with your future assistants when the time is right, knowing how far it is right to demand of them and how you should treat them.
- Extra money is earned that never hurts, although that money should not be seen as the main source of income.
- It's relatively easy to find work if you have a minimum level.
- If you're unlucky enough to find yourself a debut mangaka, I may not be able to offer you new technical expertise, and you may feel like you're wasting your time drawing things below your level.
- The schedule is quite exhausting and more so when there are several consecutive days. Since it only leaves you time to eat and sleep, the rest of the time is pure hard work.
- If you compare it to another job, it's underpaid. Being an assistant is a job that requires some technical skill, so it should be valued more in terms of salary. But you are paying the same (1000 yen per hour) as you are paying someone who does a part-time job like a shop/restaurant, etc.
- It's a very unstable job with which you don't have a few days of work insured per month. The working days depend on the needs of the mangaka. So if you want to make a living from it, you're going to need to work for several mangakas at once and cross your fingers so that there are no overlapping days between them.
- If you get a crazy mangaka, you'll freak him out. There are cases I've heard from editors where assistants can't cope with the mangaka personality and end up resigning because of stress. Human relationships are also sometimes a bit of a lottery.
Add that all this entry is based on the experience that I had personally, and that it is possible that it varies according to another person and with the mangaka that can touch him to work. Still, I have tried to be quite transparent with the details in case anyone is interested and could use some help.
I've written enough for today, so I'll see you in the next post. And remember that you can leave me your comment with your opinion or suggestions for future discussion topics on the manga topic in Japan 😊