An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro: Manga, AI, and Other Sources of Inspiration

Kazuo Ishiguro speaks at the Banquet in the Blue Hall of the Stockholm City Hall on December 10, 2017.

 

After being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2017, Kazuo Ishiguro—a Japanese-born, British novelist and screenwriter—talked with members of the press in Stockholm, Sweden on December 6, just four days prior to the award ceremony. He had a lot to say about what impacted his life, about his writing, and current affairs. Here are excerpts:

 

His place of birth

I grew up in the shadow of this atomic bombing and, throughout the 1970s and 1980s during the Cold War, here in Europe people were very afraid of the nuclear holocaust as tensions developed.

 

Possibility of nuclear weapons being used again

To me, it has been surprising, and I feel concern since the end of the Cold War people seem to have assumed that nuclear weapons disappeared at the same time and, of course, they haven’t. The weapons are there and, of course, the Cold War finished, but with the weapons moving around there’s less control.

 

I think it’s something we became very complaisant about at the end of the Cold War, but it’s a very serious situation and…I hope, somehow, we can continue to live in safety because the world has become increasingly dangerous.

 

 

 

Manga as Japan’s most influential export

It’s funny that you should say this because recently I’ve been thinking of writing a comic series myself. All my life I’ve been fascinated with this way of telling stories. As you say, in Japan, manga is a big force. I think in Britain and America its seemed quite low-brow form until just recently. In the last 10 -15 years there’s been a recognition that what you might call comic form can actually be a groundbreaking way of telling stories.

 

It’s a very interesting time because the Western traditions are based around, supposedly, the superhero comics of the United States in the 1930s and ’40s, but that stuff has now married with the more sophisticate style of manga, and there’s a whole new language or way to tell stories. I find that exciting.

 

I think all storytelling forms need to be explored at this time. We’re in a time of great technological changes—you know, reading stories, consuming stories, in different kinds of ways all the time. Now we have Netflix and we’re streaming stories; so, it’s an interesting time for storytelling, and there’s so many different ways stories are told. But from my childhood, I’ve always had a special love for this way of telling stories in manga form.

 

So, for the manga, I think it’s a very important form that will continue to be an important form in the future. It’s one of the great contributions of Japanese culture, which has made its way to world culture—I think.

 

What the Nobel Prize symbolizes

Like many people around the world, I grew up with this idea about the Nobel Prize. Not just is it a very great prize, but I think it’s a symbol, it’s an idea, it stands for something. I think it’s something that most people around the world think is important too. It symbolizes what we have to climb to, what we have to try to excel in as human beings regardless of which country we come from. It emphasizes a connected human exercise. This is why we’re here today, the Nobel Prize captures the attention of people all around the world.

 

 

Future projects

I have no idea. I’m going to study other writers who won the Nobel Prize and I’m going to look very carefully at what happened to them and their books after they won the prize. I’m going to see if they went downhill or changed. There must be some sort of staining effect, but I’m going to do my best to make sure it doesn’t affect my writing at all. That might not be possible, though.

 

Brexit

I’ve written quite frankly about Brexit. I make no secret that I’m a staunch what they call a “remainer.” I think leaving the European Union is a tragedy and great mistake. I think the British people should have a second chance to think about this now that the details and the meaning of leaving the European Union has become more apparent.

 

If the people of Britain generally wanted to leave democratically, then that’s what we’d do, but I think we have to have more time. I don’t think many people knew what it meant during the vote.

 

 

Childhood and upbringing

Well, I grew up in Britain…but I was brought up with Japanese parents in a Japanese home speaking Japanese accent, expecting to return to Japan at any point. I always expected to lead my adult life in Japan. I never thought of myself as someone who was British in terms of citizenship until my 20s. This was long before there was an international community in Britain. All my friends were English—sometimes Scottish. I became a product of British upbringing and education. I was a prototype for an international Japanese person because the Japanese very rarely traveled in those days. So, I was rather unique.

 

Now I think there are many more people like this. But I think people in Japan looked at me as a kind of prototype to see what kind of monsters will turn up because a Japanese child grows up outside of Japan. On a more positive note, it’s not the end of the world if you’re a Japanese child growing up outside of Japan. On the contrary, it can be a very rich confluence of culture and, indeed, I think it’s given me a unique perspective both on Japanese and British culture. It has a lot to do with why I write on the subjects I do. I think I benefited from an international background.

 

I can honestly say, for me personally, it wasn’t a difficult thing. I heard from somebody who was at my school who had a Chinese background that he found things very difficult. So I think it’s very much a personal thing. When I arrived in England in the 1960s, this was before the large waves of immigration to Britain that started in the late ’60s from parts of the former British empire. So there was no set attitude towards foreigners. I was the only foreign boy in our small little town, but strangers knew me by name in this little village. They often knew who I was before I knew who they were.

 

 

Environment of 20th-century Britain

Back in those days Japan was associated with the Second World War, but it was also associated with judo and karate and samurai. It gave me a special aura. Now Japanese is much more assimilated in the West and it’s entered a sort of international phase. I have seen Britain become a much more racist country in the 1970s. I was already grown up by then but could sense this. The climate changed rapidly, but I have a great respect and admiration for that generation that received our family, which wasn’t long after the end of the Second World War. I’ve maintained a fascination for that generation. I think they were a great generation and very generous generation and that’s who welcomed my family.

 

Interest in artificial intelligence

For some time, I’ve been interested in things like artificial intelligence, considering what a breakthrough in scientific and technology might do to our society in the future. I think there are many exciting positive effects of this that are bound to come, but of course many societies would have to adjust. Some of the most basic assumptions we’ve made about things—like anthropology, our relationship to machines, our relationship to each other, the nature of meritocracy, why one person deserves to have something better than another—we’re going to have to look at all these things again.

 

Implications of technological breakthroughs

I think we’re moving very fast at the moment on the technological and scientific front, and I think to some extent the discussions haven’t kept up in society at large. We haven’t really addressed what the implications are with coming breakthroughs in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics. In many ways, the world is much better prepared for a zombie attack on our major cities. This is something we’ve prepared for through media, so, I think, if zombies attacked us we’d all know what to do. We haven’t had a proper discussion about breakthrough that are either already atop of us or right around the corner.

 

 

 

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