Of Yakuza and Their Secrets: Jack Hsu on '8-9-3'

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You’ve probably seen Jack Hsu’s work without realizing it many times over the years. The prolific storyboard artist has worked a number of hit films, and pulled off the unique feat of winning the Xeric Grant twice, first for Poppie’s Adventures, and again for his graphic novel 8-9-3, which premieres from Automaton in August.

The action-packed, much-buzzed-about book takes readers deep into the world of the Yakuza (Japanese mafia), drawing from such influences as Crying Freeman and the films of John Woo. We sat down with Hsu for the 411 on 8-9-3.

Newsarama: Jack, what's 8-9-3 about?

Jack Hsu: 8-9-3 is a tale of loyalty, betrayal, and forbidden love set in the violent underworld of modern-day Japan. Without giving too much away, here's a 60-second pitch:

Shin, a prized Yakuza assassin, is sent by his boss to Rio de Janeiro on a job. It’s an assignment out of desperation, as Shin’s organization will otherwise suffer financial ruin. The person holding all the cards in this high stakes game is none other than the beautiful Carmen, girlfriend of Shin’s boss’s son.

Besides money and power, Carmen is motivated by one other factor: She and Shin share a secret past, which she is unwilling to let go. As ensuing events begin to unravel his world, Shin finds himself like an actor in his boss’s favorite Noh play, where nothing is what it appears to be.

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NRAMA: What does 8-9-3 stand for?

JH: It's the direct translation of the Japanese word “Yakuza.” 8, 9, and 3 add up to 20 - the worst hand in the traditional Japanese card game Oicho-Kabu. The name Yakuza symbolizes the organized criminals' pride in their status as social outcasts.

NRAMA: Now tell us who you are and what has led you to get into comic-bookery.

JH: I am a storyboard artist at Sony Pictures Animation. The movie I just finished, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, will be coming out in September. In the past, I have been involved with a multitude of assignments, from designing characters and environments for animated TV shows to storyboarding blockbuster movies like Spider-Man 2.

My road to becoming a comic book creator is a long and twisted one, but basically it goes like this: It had been my childhood dream to become a professional comic book artist, but for one reason or another I was unable to pursue it. Instead, I became an architect, and ended up designing airports and hospitals for several years before switching to my current career as a storyboard artist.

A few years ago, my wife Julie Yeh, who is as much a fan of comics as I am, "persuaded" me to illustrate a 40-page all-age comic book she wrote called Poppie's Adventures. It ended up winning a Xeric Grant, and that's when it occurred to me that I was finally realizing my childhood dream.

NRAMA: How did your background in storyboards prepare you for doing comics? Have you worked with any comic artists who also do storyboards?

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JH: In a way, it's the other way around. My skill set for storyboarding was honed, albeit unintentionally, by my lifelong love for comics. Even though there are obvious differences in language between the two mediums, there's plenty of overlap, as demonstrated by Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art.

That said, my background in film definitely has influenced my approach to making comics, both in terms of cinematics and pacing.

I've had the privilege to work with two great artists who do both comics and storyboards: Mike Docherty (Conan the Barbarian) on The Incredible Hulk TV series, and Ricardo Delgado (Age Of Reptiles) on The Haunted Mansion.

NRAMA: One of your collaborators was saying the amount of research you put into this was insane. What did you have to do? How deep did you go into the dangerous world of the Yakuza?

JH: If you're referring to my venerable colleague Nagi Koyama's blog, then she is talking about the fact I had to lose a pinky. Okay, just kidding...

I claim no ties with the Japanese underworld, other than the occasional sightings of these agents of crime. When you come across tattooed men sporting a combination of Hawaiian shirts, Italian suits and wooden clogs in the sea of dark-suited salarymen of Shibuya, it's not something you'd easily forget.

Anyway, I did most of my due diligence like anyone else - through books and the Internet. I also took notes from friends who have had more direct dealings, with the Yakuza and lived to tell about it.

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NRAMA: Why did this subject matter fascinate you?

JH: To begin with, I'm a sucker for crime stories. Unlike in the mainstream society, where a gray line separates good and evil, the criminal world consists of nothing but a spectrum of gray. There are simply no absolutes. It's in this ambiguous state of right and wrong, of good and evil that I find the most compelling conflicts.

And conflict, after all, is the backbone of good drama. Think of The Godfather and Road to Perdition, just to name two obvious examples.

There are two reasons why I chose the world of the Yakuza to frame my story in: One, nostalgia. I spent a couple of teenage years in Japan and those were some of the most formative and memorable years in my life. Doing a book about the Yakuza gave me an excuse to revisit the world of my youth.

Two, the Yakuza's unique pedigree. Specifically I'm talking about the fact that its rigid social structure and code of conduct hearken back to the Samurai. Strangely, Yakuza members are able to reconcile their criminal activities with a sense of nobility - a very ambiguous state indeed.

NRAMA: What were some of your major influences -- John Woo? Paul Schrader's The Yakuza? Something else?

JH: Yes, those and many others. Just to name a few of the films and filmmakers that influenced me: Suzuki Seijun, Wong Kar-Wai, Kitano Takeshi’s Sonatine, Ridley Scott's Black Rain, plus The Godfather and Road to Perdition, as mentioned before.

Among the great manga creators that influenced me are Saito Takao (Golgo 13), Ikegami Ryoichi (Crying Freeman), and, for general awesomeness, Samura Hiroaki (Blade Of The Immortal).

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NRAMA: Tell us about your collaborators on this project.

JH: My wife Julie was my editor. She was instrumental in helping me tweak some of the most crucial plot points. My friend Ming Tai came up with the fantastically bold graphics and cover design. To say I owe them a great deal is an understatement.

NRAMA: What was it like getting the Xeric Grant?

JH: Obviously, it was an incredible thrill. I am flattered by the Xeric Foundation's recognition as much as I am appreciative of its financial support. Even though technically this is the second time I won it, it's the first time for something created and drawn entirely by me. It feels like I no longer have the training wheels on this time around.

Also, the folks at the Xeric Foundation couldn't be more supportive. Thank you Kendall!

NRAMA: What's next for you?

JH: I do have a couple of stories stewing, but sorry - I can't divulge more for the time being except to say one of them continues the saga of 8-9-3.

NRAMA: Give our readers the hard-sell on this book and why it's worth their funnybook dollars!

JH: If you are interested in lots of action - guns, girls, and fast moving vehicles - all passionately illustrated in a story full of twists and turns and double-crossing characters, then for God’s sake run out and pick up a copy of 8-9-3 today!

(Actually it's hitting the stores in August, but available for pre-orders now)

As the man said, 8-9-3 blasts into comic shops this August. For more on the book, visit www.wayoutcomics.com/893 

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