Astro Boy animator talks anime with Arab artists at Sharjah Children's Reading Festival

'Manga and anime are as much a pop culture phenomenon as Disney comics are,' says Emirati artist and educator Asmaa Al Remeithi

From left to right: Celebrated Japanese animator Yoshiko Watanabe, pioneering Iraqi illustrator Ali Almandalawi and Emirati artist and educator Asmaa Al Remeithi. Photo: Sharjah Book Authority
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Japanese manga artist and animator Yoshiko Watanabe joined Emirati comic book artist and educator Asmaa Al Remeithi and Iraqi illustrator Ali Almandalawi at Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival on Sunday, to discuss the global popularity of Japanese comics and cartoons.

In a session moderated by Palestinian photographer and videographer Faisal Alqedra, the group discussed their own personal creative journeys.

Watanabe, known for her work on the acclaimed Astro Boy series, shared the story of meeting the “father of manga” Osamu Tezuka in the 1960s. “He was the one who created the famous Astro Boy series, which set the standard for manga comics,” Watanabe said.

“In 1971, I moved to Europe, first to Paris and settled down in Italy in 1973, where I met my husband. The Japanese cartoon boom was more or less taking off then.

“And in the ‘70s, there weren’t many people who could do animation art. So I was creating about 200 drawings per month, then I started a graphic novel and my work just underwent a huge progression from there,” she added.

Another pioneer, when Almandalawi first became active in Iraq in the 1960s and '70s, there were very few comic books and illustrated works.

Almandalawi said: “I read Arab comics from Lebanon and other countries at newspaper kiosks. But I had this incredible passion for them. After seeing Superman, I was inspired to draw my own adventurous characters.

“At 12, I thought of creating a magazine of my own, and so I did, writing stories, creating scenarios and drawing the illustrations. Soon I was featured on television as this creative child prodigy and it all began from there.”

Meanwhile, Al Remeithi said: “I learnt entirely through observation and practice, and did not go to art school or take courses.”

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She added: “I wanted to create an original character that people would remember, so I did and called her Asami — which is also my nickname — the purple-haired girl from the UAE. I devised storylines that people here would identify with and relate to. I even made the character quite different from the usual: she has sharp teeth and displays a lot of extreme emotions.”

Watanabe said the international growth of manga and anime had been an organic one. “Japanese comics were like none other, often tackling hard-hitting issues and presenting them to young readers while still packaged in fantasy and visual elements.”

Al Remaithi said that Japanese comics and cartoons had become particularly popular in the Arabic-speaking world, perhaps because they were so different from western comics and cartoons. “Manga and anime are as much a pop culture phenomenon as Disney comics are,” she added.

Meanwhile, Almandalawi celebrated the prevalence of events such as Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, which should go on to inspire young audiences.

“It is heartwarming to see the exposure and opportunities available to children and young people here, to learn from artistic works worldwide and to promote their own talent. It paints a very happy and optimistic scenario for the creative future of this country,” he said.

Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival runs at Expo Centre Sharjah until May 14

Updated: May 09, 2023, 3:03 AM