Rui Tenreiro (b. 1979) is a Mozambican author and illustrator based in Stockholm. I met him recently in a cafe close to his studio in Liljeholmen. We talked about the creation of his newest book “Lanterns of Nedzu,” a remake of the tragic love story between a fighting crab trainer and his fighting crab.
"Returning home one evening after winning a crab fight, Okoye becomes fascinated by a riddle he reads on a paper lantern floating down a small stream near Nedzu village. Decoding the riddle takes Okoye to meet a young woman named Efe but angers his fighting crab who abandons them, jealous of the attention she will never earn from Okoye. The crab thus decides to take Efe’s life and impersonate her for Okoye, who believes the returning crab is Efe. Okoye and his crab Asagwara begin a romantic relationship that will bring tragedy to Nedzu village."
I wanted to know what ideas and impressions had fermented into the strange and vivid imagery of this book – a project that has been on its way for almost a decade. This is a transcript of our conversation.
Bjarke Stenbæk (B): So, tell me about “Lanterns of Nedzu”.
Rui Tenreiro (R): This was actually supposed to be an adaptation for a Japanese story called Botan Doro, but it started to change, and I just let it. In the end, what I kept was some of the structural elements, but the story itself isn't recognizable. There have actually been several movie adaptations‚ and they’re all really tacky B-movie horror stories.
B: How much is left of the original story?
R: Not so much. The original story happens between a man and woman. In the end the servant looks through a gap in the wall and discovers that his master is making love to a corpse. These elements are the same – but with a crab instead of a girl.
B: Where did the fighting crab idea come from?
R: During the research for another book, I discovered a spider fighting competition in Japan. Later I discovered a myth about 'spider people' – a spider person is a pejorative term for hairy people – which I think is the Ainu people. Then I discovered that there are these crabs called Heikegani which have faces on their back, and there is a myth that they contain the souls of samurais who have died in battle. I then came across the giant spider crab – have you seen what they look like? They are huge! I think even bigger than the ones in my book.
B: They live quite deep in the ocean?
R: Yeah, and so I just brought them up.
B: So hopefully it’s moist enough for them to breathe?
R: Haha, yes, but no one has questioned that. There was an evolution, and at one point spiders turned into crabs. The thing is that these creatures really exists, but the way they are put together makes them seem very surreal.
B: How intellectual is this process, and what emerged as you were drawing?
R: Well, I did a lot of thinking. I mean, I only started drawing it two years ago, but the first time I thought about adapting the story was in 2007. I think that when you are making a story, your mind shows you the right way. It feels like there are two schools: the school of drifting and dreaming and the school of logic, and for me they are in constant negotiation with one another. Every educational institution that I've been to only values logic.
B: And it’s very hard to fight logic. Because logic makes sense.
R: Yes it does. But... I think it’s David Lynch who talks about catching ideas like you catch fish. His ideas happen on such a deep level, that they're not logic anymore – and still they make sense in his world. In Twin Peaks some of the scenes doesn’t make sense at all logically, but they make sense in the logic of that world.
B: But it’s such a difficult way of working.
R: It’s difficult to justify it. Bresson once said in an interview: "I'd rather people feel a film before understanding it.” For me this is so important. It doesn’t matter if you can explain it, but when you are making the story, and your decisions are hard to explain – maybe it’s because the story can only be explained in images. Otherwise you might as well write it, you know?
B: I thought a bit about Miyazaki when I read “Lanterns of Nedzu”. In his work there’s always some kind of story, but what you take away from the experience are all the surrounding images. It could be the rain or a look from a character that you’ll never see again.
R: I love Miyazaki, but I also think that Isao Takahata who made the film “Grave of the fireflies” is great. If you look at his film “Princess Kaguya”, there are moments that are just devoted to a summer shower, or cicadas. It’s not always just about hammering a message in.
B: How do you work with structure?
R: I plan the structure. And then I let the images decide the pace.
B: How big is the difference between your first sketch and the final image?
R: I draw quite close to the first sketch. The real book happens on sketch level. It’s all there, I just have to draw it better afterwards. But because the feeling of the moment is so important, it’s important to be quite fast.
B: Do your style suit that speed?
R: No. I’m very slow.
B: Is there a risk that you loose the original feel in the process?
R: If I have a feeling, I just keep going until it stops. I once worked all night to make a story, because I thought: “This is more important than anything!” But that phase of strong inspiration doesn’t come often.
B: What is the level of working through something where you feel that you have captured the feeling? Is it in a thumbnail or is it in a larger sketch?
R: I don’t know. When I have a moment of inspiration, I write and draw what I’m feeling and thinking in that moment. Usually it’s one or two A4 sheets. I draw bits and sketches of the story, and when I’m feeling uncertain of where a story is going, I look back at those pages and it then reminds me of the original feeling. I have landed in a specific way of working, it’s not something I have chosen consciously.
I would like to be more in control of the story. I like stories, but I don’t want it to dominate me so much, I want to be able to manipulate it more skillfully. How do you give characters character? How do you make situations that give insight to the characters? In the stories I have made so far, you don’t get to know the characters very well. In “Lanterns of Nedzu” I made a choice to make the lead character superficial.
B: It’s interesting that after reading the book, I don’t remember the lead character as much as I remember his actions. But there are other characters in it that you only meet briefly, that I remember very vividly because they are portrayed in a way that speaks to the senses. It’s a bit like how Miyazaki sometimes works; with an almost neutral lead character, and with side characters that are very strong. How do you decide on the aesthetics of the imagery? How everything look? The houses, the forests, the people?
R: I’m not really in control of that. The Nedzu neighborhood really exists in Tokyo, and I’ve been there for a few months. When I first arrived in Tokyo it had been sunny all day, but when I arrived at Nedzu station it started raining. It’s a very old neighborhood that has escaped modernisation, so you have the small businesses and temples just next door to houses. Everything is cramped together. But I didn’t manage to draw it in that way (in the way that I wanted). In the story the area is a relatively poor neighborhood. Everyone is living quite cramped, and there isn’t much privacy. That’s why the servant can peek through the gap in the wall.
B: I was wondering how much you came up with yourself. And how much was decided by the time period and such. How much do you rely on references?
R: I’m not so consistent. I actually try to avoid being consistent. Even though I like a certain time period like the Meiji period, which is like the Japanese victiorian age, I try to avoid it. For instance I’ve put a modern train in an image, so it’s actually a bit confusing in time and space.
B: Do you avoid it actively, or does it come naturally?
R: I try to do it consciously. Like implementing mechanical things even though the story takes place in the medieval countryside. But I like to mix it up, so I don’t have to force it. It needs to make sense in the story. I’ll give you an example: Now messages are sent between characters with flying lanterns, but when I first wrote the story they were carried by owls. But then I thought – I’ve seen this somewhere... Harry Potter, of course! And so I had to change it. With using a mechanical lantern I hoped to escape the medieval connotations of the owl, but the idea of the message system is not based on anything, it’s invented for the purpose of the book.
B: And what about the characters? The lead character and his servant look quite Japanese, but the girl looks more Middle Eastern?
R: That’s news to me. I didn’t intend for them to look Japanese.
B: Maybe it’s because all the names sounds Japanese?
R: They are Nigerian names! Except Nedzu – that’s the only one I kept. I came across some Nigerian names, and they sounded very Japanese to me, and I thought: “This will be a nice confusion." I like it when something you think is something, is something it's not. There are other examples; for instance ‘the day of the dead’ in the story, is named after the Finnish tradition ‘Kekri’. It’s similar to halloween, with a pagan origin. The cloaks in the story are inspired by a tradition from the Azores, and one character with bells on his back is inspired by a Mamuthone from Sardinia. All these pagan traditions are beautiful, and very diverse. They make the world complex.
B: I remember that you told me, when you were almost done with the book, that you were dissatisfied with the first images, because your work had developed so much?
R: I did redraw a few images, but I couldn’t redraw all the ones that I didn’t like. I could see how my style was changing and evolving. The characters became more realistic. I guess it was a natural response to the story – that they needed to become that. I also just became a better drawer. In the beginning I didn’t even use perspective – that came later. It is not necessarily a more realistic perspective, but I had more control of it. Some people acquire full control in their early 20’s, and they keep their style, but that’s not my case.
Bjarke Stenbæk Kristensen (f. 1985) er illustrator og animator og har studeret ved hhv. Designskolen Kolding og Konstfack. Bjarke bor i Stockholm og har bidraget til idoart.dk siden 2016.