Onimai author Nekotofu talks building an audience for original content - Overcoming obstacles to produce an anime during the pandemic
Interview by Yuka Abe
Onimai: I'm Now Your Sister! (hereinafter referred to as Onimai) is a popular TV anime that has been on the air since January 2023. This heartwarming gender-bending work depicts the daily life of Mahiro Oyama, a young man who wakes up in a girl’s body one day after his sister gives him some strange medicine. The original work, born as a post on pixiv, was later picked up by Ichijinsha and serialized in Monthly ComicREX before being adapted into an anime. Even after its commercial success, the entire story is still available to read on pixiv, and the author still regularly updates with new episodes.
In this interview, we spoke with Nekotofu about how he handled the evolution of his work from its humble roots as a series of posts on pixiv to a TV anime.
You can also see his reading recommendations in this article!
- Manga artist. He creates fan work and original manga as part of the doujin circle GRINP. He started his activities in January 2004 with ComicTreasure 3, and since then he has actively participated in doujin events such as Comiket and Comitia. He posted the first episode of Onimai on pixiv in February 2017.
Combining wholesome comedy with the essence of famous gender-bending works
── You were a fan of the gender-bending trope even before you started Onimai. What are your favorite works in this genre?
── Did you work on Onimai for a long time before releasing it?
People seemed to like it, so I started thinking about writing an original manga. However, I knew it would be hard to get people to pick up an original story right off the bat, so I started out by posting it online.
── Did you get positive feedback right away?
Also, after I started posting my work on NicoNico Seiga in addition to pixiv, the number of readers jumped significantly, which I feel like brought me to a whole new level. Because NicoNico makes it so simple to leave comments, I received a lot of them. The year I started posting on NicoNico Seiga, I believe Onimai ranked first or second in the annual ranking of total comments received. I got a lot of feedback, from fans of the gender-bending trope as well as from people who weren't as familiar with it.
── I think this kind of story is an easy entry point for newcomers since it often depicts endearing, everyday moments from regular people's lives.
I've always been good at creating mellow, wholesome comedy, so it's possible that the fact that I drew this story without changing my style contributed to its success. It'd be great if Onimai could help introduce lots of new people to this trope.
── What would you suggest to someone looking to publish their work online?
First of all, I think it's crucial to grab the reader's interest in the span of the 4 pages that can be uploaded at once on Twitter. In my case, the first page of the first episode reads, "One day when I woke up..." which gives a clear context and sets the scene. Also, I sometimes split episodes into two parts if I need to, but in general I think a story is simpler to read if it starts and ends in the same episode. The fewer pages, the better. That actually makes things harder for me since I have to come up with a fresh story after every episode (laughs), but I feel all these aspects have contributed to the success of my manga.
── Onimai's appeal lies not only in its tone and format but also in the depiction of issues unique to girls and its realistic portrayal of modern-day middle school kids. How do you achieve this realism?
I gained all my knowledge by reading the great gender-bending works of the past, and Onimai contains a lot of that information. However, for really detailed, specific depictions like the process of washing hair, I use sources like a hairdresser's blog and other sources (laughs).
I sometimes depict middle school students as they were in the past, but I usually try to make them fit into the present. For example, I might draw an episode about health checkups and not remember what they were like in my day. So I look them up, only to find that things are very different now. Since Mahiro is actually older than he looks in his new body, it’s a good opportunity to showcase that gap between my past and the present, too. It’s a very conveniently structured narrative for me.
As online fans increase, sales naturally follow
── Your manga have been serialized in magazines and sold as stand-alone books, yet you continue to self-publish and post your work for free online, including on pixiv. Why do both at the same time?
Onimai has been made into stand-alone books thanks to Ichijinsha, but profits from self-publishing remain significant. Ichijinsha agreed to let me continue selling my doujinshi after the manga was published, and I'm grateful for that.
However, things got a little out of hand and now the doujinshi has over 20 issues (laughs). As long as people keep buying them, I'll keep publishing them.
Nekotofu is active in the circle GRINP. His doujinshi and goods are available on BOOTH.
── You've been tweeting about how you'll continue to publish your work for free online.
今こそ過去話数非公開にしたら売り上げ増えるかもですが…応援してくれた皆さんのお陰でここまで来たので、その結果見れなくなるのは不義理じゃあないですか。— ねことうふ@おにまいアニメ放送中！ (@nekotou) January 28, 2023
Yeah, I was kinda showing off there (laughs). I've always known that if I could increase the number of people who saw my work online and grow my fan base, sales would follow, so I've been sticking to that approach.
Right now, I'm posting my manga online, which I later collect into doujinshi, which are later published as commercial books. Actually, I'd like to devote more time to drawing stories exclusively for doujinshi, but I haven't been able to do so.
── Speaking of your doujin activities, in addition to attending events you've also been making good use of pixiv's services like FANBOX, a monthly subscription-based fan community, and BOOTH, our online shop creation service.
I began using FANBOX as soon as it was released. At first, I considered Patreon, another creator support service based outside of Japan, but the fact that it was an international platform made me a little hesitant. And then FANBOX launched! When I looked into it, the description said, "Get started at whatever pace works for you," so I decided to give it a shot.
Nekotofu's FANBOX is currently offering five plans, including one for 100 JPY/month and another for 300 JPY/month (as of March 2023).
── What do you think about FANBOX?
After I joined, the number of subscribers gradually increased for about three years. Although it has since leveled off, FANBOX has been a huge help.
I've been publishing a doujinshi of Onimai once every three months for the past few years, and while I try to include about four previously unreleased pages in every issue, the content is mostly a reprint of what's already available online. People who buy them do so because they want to support me as an author. I believe the FANBOX service is a good fit for these readers.
── Speaking of supporting creators, BOOTH also has a Boost feature that allows buyers to add any amount of money to the price of a product. Do your followers use it?
Yes, and far more than I anticipated. Some people boost a significant amount of money, and in those cases, I occasionally add something extra to their order. BOOTH is fantastic because it makes things like this so simple. However, since the start of the TV anime, the number of orders has increased so dramatically that I can hardly keep up. (laughs)
── You must have a ton of stuff to ship out! (laughs) What advice do you have for creators who want to start using FANBOX and BOOTH?
I'm still experimenting with FANBOX, but for example, I'm using the 100 JPY/month support plan to let people read the latest episode of Onimai a week early. The main plan is 300 JPY/month, which gives subscribers access to unpublished manga and illustrations I created for my doujinshi, as well as the storyboard and setting materials that go into the creation process. At first, I released a slew of sketches and old illustrations, and while I'm still fumbling around, nowadays I'm focusing more on delivering content that matches the price point of each plan.
I'm using BOOTH to save money on shipping. What's more, if you're not great at inventory management, using BOOTH’s warehouse service will make things much easier. I'm trying to reduce the amount of inventory I have on hand, so I handle the goods myself, but it's nice to have the option.
A self-published drama CD blessed with fortuitous connections, from the production company to the director and voice actors
── The self-published Onimai drama CDs available on your BOOTH are surprisingly high-quality!
They aren't much different from the drama CDs sold in stores, are they? (laughs) Takumi Kodama, the director, is a very passionate person who created an excellent product. Through a chance encounter, I asked Junichi Sato of Fhána (*1) to produce the music for the second drama CD and he graciously agreed even though it was an independent project. I've always been a fan, so I was overjoyed. I feel very lucky.
Formed in 2011 by Junichi Sato and Kevin Mitsunaga, the band Fhána has performed many anime theme songs, including "Que Sera Sera", the ending theme song for the TV anime The Eccentric Family, and "Rhapsody of Blue Sky", the opening of Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid. Check out their official website.
The third drama CD, Onichan wa Oshimai! EX is available on BOOTH!
── What led you to create a drama CD in the first place?
I had a friend who worked at a drama CD production company, and they suggested that I make a drama CD of my manga since it was getting popular. Full-scale self-published drama CDs were still uncommon at the time, and I thought it would be a good way to promote my work, so I asked for their help.
── How involved were you in the production of your drama CDs?
── Did you also delegate casting decisions to him?
In general, yes. I wasn't confident in my ability to choose the right voice actor for the character, so he suggested a few candidates, and I chose the ones I liked best.
Since it was an independent drama CD, there were no auditions. It was a one-shot deal because we had to record the scenes right away, but everyone was extremely professional and skilled at what they did. Kodama did a great job with the casting.
── The TV anime features many of the same voice actors as the drama CD, including Marika Kono as Mahiro, Kaori Ishihara as Mihari, Hisako Kanemoto as Kaede, etc. That's quite rare, isn't it?
Yes, casting different voice actors in anime is standard practice. But the voices fit the characters of Onimai perfectly, and we owed them for their participation in the production of those self-published drama CDs, so when we started working on the anime, we asked the voice actors to join us.
Many agencies are probably hesitant to have their talents work on independent projects, so the fact that Onimai was able to link self-published drama CDs with a TV anime gave those involved in doujin activities some hope.
The Onimai TV anime reflects the preferences of the staff
── The Onimai TV anime was produced by Studio Bind, best known among anime fans for their work on Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation. As the original creator, what did you think of the anime?
When we first started planning the anime, Studio Bind had only released the first promotional video for Mushoku Tensei, so I didn't know much about them. They eventually proved to be amazing, lucky me! I got very emotional when I saw the characters I created moving around so freely.
── In addition to the detailed movements, the overall coloring and the screentone-like dot patterns that appear at the edges of the screen also show a great deal of attention to detail. Did those ideas come from the production team?
I think they were director Shingo Fujii's ideas. He previously animated promotional videos with a similar style. When we first got the design, there was some debate about whether the color scheme would be too tiring for the eyes. However, the director said that using standard colors would make the anime look too plain, so we settled for this look. We had to make some changes, but for the most part, the anime was created in the style that was originally suggested.
── Were you personally involved in the creation of the anime?
Yes, very involved. Actually, before they approached me with the proposal for this anime adaptation, I approached various companies myself with the assistance of friends working in the industry. I had a good feeling about the project, but it wasn't going to be easy, and with the pandemic and all, I honestly thought making an anime would be even harder. Then, Ichijinsha was approached by the anime planning company EGG FIRM (which produced the TV anime Onimai), and from there we began the planning process.
── Even if approaching anime companies yourself didn’t work out, it's incredible how Onimai has grown over time! Can you talk more about your involvement in the anime production?
I attend every script meeting, check character designs and storyboards, attend recording sessions, inspect official illustrations and merchandise, and so on.
── Do you provide feedback during script meetings?
The producers and staff told me that the script is the most important part of the production, so I was encouraged to speak up and express my thoughts. I mainly focus on the characters' tone and manner of speech. As for story structure and direction, I prioritize the suggestions of the director and scriptwriter, and only request specific changes for certain parts that I believe are critical.
I also made some character design requests, but when the staff expressed their own preferences, I told them to do as they please without pressuring them to do things my way. I’m well aware that the staff is very talented, so I delegated a lot of tasks to them so that the project could proceed smoothly.
── It seems like that approach paid off since the anime was received so positively!
The day the first episode was released, I searched Twitter for the hashtag Onimai, but there were so many comments that I couldn't read them all. (laughs) That's when I realized how enthusiastic the response was.
Also, the number of doujinshi orders placed through DLsite and BOOTH skyrocketed. I think the buyers were mostly new fans, and I was so glad that the anime got such a positive reaction.
── Manga drawing is generally a solitary activity. Did your involvement in anime production teach you anything new as a creator?
I don't usually hire assistants and prefer to do everything myself. I draw backgrounds and other things myself, but being involved in anime production taught me that specialized fields like design and such should be left to professionals. I feel that being exposed to other people's ideas aided in the evolution of my work.
I love anime, and while this may sound like a total lie, I have watched almost every anime that has been broadcast in the last 20 years or so. I watch them all the way through, though I’ll admit that I’m usually drawing manga as I do. (laughs) Of course, I like some more than others, but I believe that having so much exposure to anime has given me quite an advantage as an artist. As an anime otaku, I found this behind-the-scenes look at the process of making anime to be particularly fascinating.
Unexpectedly smitten with Miyo?!
── 2023 marks six years since Onimai's debut. Have your feelings for some of your characters evolved since you first started working on it?
My feelings toward Mihari have shifted since I began drawing her. I didn't delve too deeply into the character's background at first because I had planned for the story to be about three doujinshi volumes long. At first, Mihari was a character who is tough on her brother, but as the story progressed, she began doting on him more and more. Also, Mahiro is also becoming more and more like a regular girl, but I believe that's part of his character's development. (laughs)
── Has your opinion of any of the characters changed after the production of the anime?
Yes, of Asahi. In Episode 8 of the anime, where she's one of the lead characters, she looks like she's having a great time. She was always energetic, but she went above and beyond my expectations, and my opinion of her improved significantly.
── Asahi and Miyo don’t make an appearance in the drama CDs. Did you hold auditions for the anime adaptation?
Yes. I didn't know what I wanted Asahi's voice to sound like. I don't really imagine the character's voice when I’m drawing manga, and even during the auditions, I couldn't find a voice that I immediately felt was right for the part. The director and other staff members all had different opinions, so we held a meeting and decided that Kana Yuki, who was hired for the role of Miyo, would be a better fit for the role of Asahi. It took me a while to picture how Asahi would sound when she spoke, but once I heard the final product, I knew it was the right choice.
── Which characters did you enjoy drawing the most, and who are your favorites in the anime?
I love all the main characters. Aside from them, I like the supporting classmate characters, like the two gyaru girls (Miyako Nagase and Mai Yasaka). But for some reason, the girl who's always sleeping (Nemu Fujimi) is a fan favorite. (laughs) They were supposed to be secondary characters, but they quickly gained a special place in my heart as I drew them in the episodes dedicated to them.
In the anime, it's Miyo. She didn't stand out much in the manga, so I worked hard to give her a personality, and now she's been portrayed in a very cute way in the anime and I'm completely smitten with her now. (laughs)
── We're all excited to see more of Miyo in the TV anime! (laughs) Finally, do you have a message for your readers?
It's thanks to the support of my fans that Onimai could grow from a doujinshi to a full-fledged anime series. It means a lot to me.
I'd also like to encourage those of you who enjoyed Onimai as an anime to read the manga as well. It's not exactly like the anime, but it flows quite well and you can read an episode in the blink of an eye! It's available for free on pixiv!
We asked Nekotofu which of the manga's 70+ episodes he would recommend. Check out his suggestions below!
Read the entire series from Episode 1!
The entire series is available to read on pixiv, from Episode 1 to the latest updates!
The manga is available for purchase thanks to Ichijinsha!
Onimai vols. 1 to 7 and Onimai's Official Anthology vols. 1 to 3 are now on sale, and they include some never-before-seen content!
Vol. 7 includes Nekotofu's new illustrated booklet, Oniichan wa Oyasumi!, and is also available in digital format.
☆TV anime currently airing!☆
New episodes every Thursday from January 5th, 2023!
AT-X from 11:30 pm / TOKYO MX from 00:00 am* / BS11 from 00:30 am* / ABEMA from 01:00 am*
*On Friday mornings
Also available on various video distribution services listed on the official website from 01:00 am on Monday mornings.
Find out what Nekotofu is working on right now!
Check out Nekotoufu's circle website GRINP WEB!