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Hawaii Kawaii

Nemu-nemu starts with a simple premise: two tween-age girls acquire two magically animated plush puppies, and hilarity results. Like the hugely popular print manga Yotsuba&!, nemu-nemu combines a cute drawing style with naïve characters (the pups, Nemu and An Pan) who are puzzled by ordinary objects. In their eyes, a flashlight beam is a weapon, the clothes dryer becomes “the wheel of hot,” the microwave is a magic food-generating device, and the line between animate and inanimate objects is constantly being blurred.

Creators Audra Furuichi and Scott Yoshinaga, who live in Honolulu, have crafted a comic that is cute enough for kids but has touches an adult will appreciate as well: Bits of Hawaiian and Japanese culture, a backstory that isn't completely rose-tinted, and a fresh look at everyday life.

"Life in general is humdrum," says Furuichi. "Turning things topsy-turvy makes it more interesting."

"Most of the web readers are a little bit older, so it lets them focus on being a child again," adds Yoshinaga.

While the puppies steal the show, the framework of the comic is the friendship between the tomboyish Anise and the more reserved Kana. Both share a love of Henshin Rider, a fictitious character that is an homage to the tokusatsu (special effects) television shows of the 1970s such as Kikaider and Kamen Rider. “We were all enthralled by the original live action version [of Kikaider] from Japan, where he fights monsters, rides off on his motorcycle, and plays guitar,” Yoshinaga says. “We wanted to bring that into the comic.” There is also a backstory that hasn’t been revealed yet and a whiff of mystery in a recent strip.

Nemu-nemu is drawn as a vertical four-panel strip, a format known as 4-koma in Japan. Each four-panel sequence has a punchline, and several strips usually build to a bigger punchline. Furuichi found the format, which she discovered while living in Japan, an interesting challenge. “When you have a comic strip going left to right, you can draw the panels so you move the eye to the end of the strip,” she says. “When the strip runs up and down, you have the eye moving left to right, left to right, and down.” The challenge increased when the pair started laying out their first print edition: “When you read each strip individually, it holds up by itself quite well, but when you have four strips on a page you see they are all facing in different directions,” Furuichi says.

Puppy love

Both Yoshinaga and Furuichi are graduates of the University of Hawaii, and both drew comic strips for the school paper. In 1999 Furuichi won the Charles M. Schultz College Cartooning award for her strip. The two met at an anime workshop Yoshinaga was coordinating in Honolulu.

The cute and funny nemu-nemu is very different from the comic Yoshinaga originally had in mind. “It was supposed to be a graphic novel,” he says, “kind of a deeper, darker storyline.” Things began to jell when he met Furuichi. “She brought some of the characters I had in mind to life,” he says. Progress continued to be slow until he gave her a stuffed dog as a gift. “She fell in love with the stuffed dog and came up with the idea of taking the characters we had and making them younger,” he says. Soon the puppies took over. “They ended up writing the stories themselves,” Furuichi says. “It’s like we imagine the stuffed pups playing with us. They have a personality of their own.”

The two work on the story together. “I always have a composition notebook, and I am always jotting down ideas and sketching out rough ideas for panels,” Furuichi says. She and Yoshinaga discuss the script, and once it is settled, Furuichi does the pencils. “She has this certain way of drawing everything exactly the way I can see it in my head,” says Yoshinaga. He does the inking and lettering and puts the comic up on the web.

“The characters really came to life once Audra started drawing them regularly,” Yoshinaga says. “It’s easy to draw something in your sketchbook, but when you draw something month after month, they start to look different.”

“I don’t think I got comfortable drawing all the characters until the fifth, sixth, even seventh chapter,” says Furuichi. “Even when I was writing the dialogue, I really didn’t get a good feel for the way the characters would interact with each other, how they would be positioned when they said it. All those things came together over time.”

While they have never specifically mentioned that the characters live in Hawaii, Furuichi and Yoshinaga have managed to bring in some of the local culture, especially in the way the dogs speak. Anise and Kana go shopping at a Conbini Mart, and the puppies refer to the bath, and the washing machine, as “botcha,” a Hawaiian term for “bath” or “washing.” “It’s something my grandmother would say,” Furuichi says. And Anise and Kana celebrate New Year's with a Hawaiian tradition, buying fortunes and tying them to a tree if they don't like the predictions.

Manga calling

Yoshinaga and Furuichi just wrapped up a successful appearance at Kawaii-kon, where they were selling the first volume of their print edition along with handmade Nemu and An Pan plushies. “Kawaii Kon was a lot of fun!” Furuichi says. “As our debut as vendors, it was quite a new experience. The best part was meeting the fans and making brand new ones.”

Readers find the site through the RSS feed, links from other sites, and searches for terms like “tokidoki,” as Furuichi often blogs about the things she buys. She also has been part of the LiveJournal and Deviant Art communities as a fan artist for some time. Yoshinaga posts on a number of forums, including Comixpedia, which also brings in the hits.

While neither Yoshinaga nor Furuichi has quit their day jobs—he’s a tech coordinator for an elementary school, she is an aide for a member of the state legislature—Furuichi is starting to think about making the transition to doing nemu-nemu full time. Honolulu-area stores are already selling nemu-nemu merch, an online shop is in the works, and Amazon and Barnes & Noble both carry the print book.

There is even a cell phone version of nemu-nemu. “ComiAsia approached us when we started out,” Yoshinaga says, so he converted the first few chapters of the comic into a Java-based cell phone format. “Cell phone sizes are all different, and the dialogue has to move from place to place in order to stay in the frame,” he said. “I had to make one frame into three frames in order to make the dialogue work. It took me about a week to do three chapters.”

“The strip looked different from how we publish them online,” Furuichi says. “One panel doesn’t fit nicely into a square for a cell phone. It has a really different flow, like a flash movie rather than a panel strip.” But their efforts paid off: Yoshinaga says nemu-nemu is one of the most popular comics on the site.

Nemu-nemu is still finding its audience. “We originally had intended the comics for kids the age of our characters, 10- or 11-year-olds,” Furuichi says. “It turns out the people who come to our site are our age or a little bit younger, maybe mid-20s to 30 or so. We keep it clean so that everybody can read it, everyone can relate to it, and it’s OK for people to come to our site.”