The Adorable, Tragic Tale Of Osamu Tezuka’s Unico Lives Again

The Adorable, Tragic Tale Of Osamu Tezuka’s Unico Lives Again
Image: Tezuka Productions/Art by Gurihiru

This unicorn may look cute — and he certainly is — but don’t let his whimsy fool you. Unico was created by Osamu Tezuka, the legendary “god of manga” and creator of Astro Boy, who gave this adorable unicorn an edge that captivated Japanese readers of the ‘70s — as well as author Samuel Sattin. Now Sattin, working with the artist team Gurihiru and with the blessing of Tezuka Productions, has launched a Kickstarter to bring Unico to a new generation. It’s very rare that Japanese companies allow Western creators access to their work like this, so we had to talk to Sattin to find out exactly how Unico: Awakening came about — and why this obscure little unicorn is coming back to the spotlight.

Rob Bricken, io9: He’s one of Tezuka’s more obscure characters, so right off the bat: Why Unico?

Samuel Sattin: It all comes back to my genuine love of Osamu Tezuka and his work. Over the last decade, I’ve gone out of my way to read whatever I can buy of [Tezuka’s works] and I just ended up falling in love with the tone of Unico, in that it’s this incredibly super-hyper-cute character that’s also blended with the story of utter tragedy and hopelessness. And it goes into the nature of beauty and love as being kind of a double-edged sword.

And what I really love about it is that even when trying to create something incredibly adorable in collaboration with [Hello Kitty makers] Sanrio, Tezuka’s moodiness and desire to be complex and meaningful, and his ability to create incredible art came through. I think he’s just an important character that modern readers can benefit from reading.

io9: At first glance, you’d probably assume Unico is basically a My Little Pony. But I had no idea his back story was so melancholy until I saw your Kickstarter page.

Sattin: Yeah, this character that has the unique ability to spread love and kindness throughout the world draws the wrath of the goddess of love and beauty, who has Unico’s mind wiped and banishes him through time and space! It’s a very tragic story, right?

Image: Tezuka Productions/Art by Gurihiru

io9: Well, what’s the story of Unico: Awakening? Is it a new adventure?

Sattin: Basically, Unico: Awakening is a reimagining. The original manga was serialized in the mid-‘70s and it was broken up into chapters where Unico would go through a different time period before he had to get picked up by the West Wind and taken through time and space and have his memory erased.

We’re basing Awakening on a chapter that a couple of the Unico films also drew on, “The Cat on the Broomstick.” It’s a story essentially [of] Unico meeting this abandoned cat who doesn’t want to be a cat anymore. She wants to be human, so Unico starts to grant her the ability to do so for small amounts of time every single day, though he’s worried that being a human is kind of more of a burden than it’s worth. Eventually, she ends up attracting the eye of a sadistic hunter who’s killing off the animals of the forest and that’s the base of the story.

What we’re doing with Unico: Awakening is we’re opening up things a little bit more, by giving some of the characters larger roles. The West Wind, for example, has a much larger role as she tries to journey through the universe to find a cure for Unico’s curse.

io9: How did this project come about? It’s rare that Japanese production companies allow Western adaptations of their material.

Sattin: My pal Deb Aoki, who runs the podcast Mangaspaining and is all over the manga scene, introduced me to a former president of Crunchyroll Japan. He used to work at Tezuka Productions and told me that they’re always looking for new ideas, and they were looking to do something with Unico. I was like, wow, I would love to try to pitch them an idea for that, to do a reimagining. He said go ahead and do it and so I did. To my immense surprise, they accepted it.

Image: Tezuka Productions/Art by Gurihiru

io9: Was the collaboration a difficult process?

Sattin: It’s almost unbelievable when I say this to myself [but] it’s been wonderful, and I think it draws back to a few things. First of all, I was not interested in trying to force a fully Westernized vision on one of Tezuka’s characters. One of the things that I love about Tezuka is that he was so supportive of collaboration, and he looked at comics as a form of international language. And I wanted to take one of Tezuka’s incredible works and try to homage it and try to work with Japan and with the team on it to make sure that we create something that’s genuinely collaborative.

So they’ve been really supportive. In fact, when we ended up bringing [the art team] Gurihiru, Tezuka Productions told them to do the same thing from an art perspective — that the main thing to keep in mind is that we want to make sure we’re homaging Tezuka, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have your own outlook and own design and make your own Unico. That’s actually why they agreed to do the project, because at first, they weren’t going to do it.

io9: Is the book going to be published in Japan?

Sattin: Yeah. We’re doing both English and Japanese Kickstarters. This is something that we want to appeal to both Japanese and Western audiences and that’s one of the reasons why we’re publishing both translated versions and also why our Kickstarter efforts have been so active in Japan as well.

io9: Well, that’s very cool. How fast did you reach your Kickstarter goal? I know you’ve more than doubled it at this point.

Sattin: I think it was reached within the first 24 hours. While I was — well, I was hiding in a hole. Being vomitous. This is my first Kickstarter and I was incredibly, personally, just terrified of the whole thing because I didn’t know how it was going to end up, so I didn’t even look at it the first day. I think it got funded at like at 3:30 in the morning or something.

I would like to say every single bit of support that we get for the Kickstarter, nearly every dollar goes towards paying the people that worked on the project, including all of the artists and all the translators and all of the people who were involved to try to make this come together. So that’s for the people who are like, “Well, like they reached their goal.” I totally understand that, but still, every bit helps everybody who worked on this.

You can learn more about Unico: Awakening here, and its Kickstarter will be accepting pledges until June 2. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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