Unico, the adorable baby unicorn created by “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka, with a pink mane, little cinnamon roll shaped ears, and a tragic backstory, is being reimagined in an all-new, full-color manga. The Eisner Award-winning artist team Gurihiru (Superman Smashes the Klan written by Gene Yuen Lang and lettered by the great Janice Chiang, and the highly anticipated Ultraman: Another Gene) and acclaimed writer Samuel Sattin (graphic novel adaptation of the Academy Award Nominated film Wolfwalkers) are reinventing the 1970s character for a new generation of readers in Unico: Awakening, currently being funded via Kickstarter.
The original Unico by Tezuka was serialized by Sanrio’s shōjo manga magazine Ririkafrom November 1976 to March 1979 and re-published in Shogakukan, a learning magazine for children, in the early 1980s. After all, getting hooked on phonics would be much easier with this adorable unicorn helping a young one learn. But Unico has always been about more than fantastical creatures and mythology, it also explores environmentalism and social issues plaguing our world today: exemplified in a 2000 animated short Saving Our Fragile Earth: Unico Special, in which Unico is voiced by Akiko Yajima in the original Japanese version and Aracely Arámbula in the Spanish dub.
In 2012, Unico first made his way to English-speaking audiences. While the West Wind has dropped him off all over the world during his lifetime, it’s exciting to get a reimagining of the character from such a dynamic team!
The Beat chatted with Sattin about bringing the characters of Unico to a new audience, working with Tezuka Productions on the project, and what unicorns mean to him. Check that out, along with a ton of artwork from the Kickstarter campaign, below.
Rebecca Oliver Kaplan: Unico is one of Osamu Tezuka’s characters from the 1970s. How have you and Eisner Award winning artist team Gurihiru reimagined the characters for 2022?
Sam Sattin: One of the things I really love about Tezuka’s work is that his ideas were big and timeless. Though Unico ran from 1974-76, and there are some parts that are outdated like all work from that era, the themes very much remain relevant. In UNICO: AWAKENING, Gurihiru and I are paying tribute to Tezuka’s vision by taking a deep look at the characters and reimagining the context of their adventures. Some of them will take on larger roles than they might be prepared for, as they try and help their imperiled friend.
Kaplan: What does a unicorn mean to you?
Sattin: I love that question. It’s the first time someone has asked it! From what I understand, the Unicorn’s place in myth varies, both culturally and historically… It can be a fierce beast that’s difficult to catch. It can be a pure creature, whose horn cures all ailments, and that only virgins can lure.
As I work on UNICO: AWAKENING, I try to think about what it might have meant to Tezuka… Unico is a character who embodies kindness, love, and beauty. But the type of beauty we’re talking about is more universal in its nature, which is why the goddess of a more ephemeral kind of beauty, Venus, becomes enraged by him. I love that angle, and am tempted to say that I feel similar. To me, a unicorn is a representation not of purity, but of the love and care that humans so badly want to understand, but often fall short of grasping. Some of us will do anything to capture lightning in a bottle. A unicorn is an embodiment of everything we want to be that we aren’t.
Kaplan: You said that Tazuka’s themes of social welfare and eco-consciousness were important to you. How does that inform this story in particular?
Sattin: In my mind, Tezuka had a complex view of human beings in particular, as it pertains to their place in the world. In Tezuka’s work, animals, nature, and, interestingly, robots are often depicted as more virtuous than people, who can be treacherous, abusive, and reckless. This isn’t to say that Tezuka hated humanity. I don’t think that’s true. But I do think he saw a lot of what we are capable of and pitied us for it. I believe he wished for a world where humans could practice more social and ecological responsibility. Honestly, I wish for the same thing. In my capacity as an American, I see the country we live in as more ruthless and more neglectful than it’s ever been. I don’t want to think of the place I live in this way, so I’d like to do what I can as a writer to imagine solutions. Books have helped me see the world differently, so I hope UNICO: AWAKENING can do the same for someone else.
Kaplan: How involved in the project is Tezuka Productions?
Sattin: Very! Tezuka Production has been incredible, both in terms of their involvement and encouragement. I was able to meet with the team in Tokyo, and it was truly wonderful to be able to interact with the people involved. Rather than focus on granular details, the project has involved gaining a “core understanding” of what we’re working on. In this case, we look at Unico through the lens of what Tezuka himself was trying to say, and that really builds into how we reimagine the story.
Kaplan: This version will be based on the “The Cat on the Broomstick” storyline from the original. For comic book fans who don’t know what that is, will you catch them up?
Sattin: “The Cat on the Broomstick” storyline revolves around a cat who, after being kicked out of her home by a neglectful owner, ends up befriending Unico. The particulars of the story get a little meticulous to lay out, but essentially, they befriend an old woman the cat mistakes for a witch. The cat then convinces Unico to turn her into a human being for a bit of time each day, out of a desire to leave her feline identity behind. This ends up leading to danger from a sadistic man who claims to be the keeper of the local forest. Overall, the story is compelling and complex, centered around notions of identity, and wanting to be something that you aren’t.
Kaplan: Osamu Tazuka was known for his workaholic work habits. Did you have a different philosophy in your process when bringing this character to life?
Sattin: I unfortunately am a bit of a workaholic myself. That said, I don’t think anyone in the history of comics has approached Tezuka’s level or productivity. It’s funny… I obviously think that Tezuka shouldn’t have worked so much. We could have traded a dozen books for a dozen more years on the planet. But then again, I can’t imagine Tezuka being Tezuka without his almost mythical productivity attached. He almost single handedly birthed modern manga and anime… Could anyone else have done that?
As for me, I work a lot. But I also take naps, and go on long walks every day. I try to eat well and sometimes I build dioramas. I like stories, so I take in as many of those as I can, in all the different ways that I can.
Kaplan: Were there any other influences that inspired your work on the project?
Sattin: I’ve been thinking about a lot of seventies and early eighties animation during this project—especially things that were aimed towards kids that might be considered too intense for modern children. I think Unico was in that category…I’ve read a lot of articles about the wonder and trauma that they felt reading or watching it in their youth. Though it’s a different kind of film, I’ve been thinking about The Last Unicorn film a lot. I also of course love Naoki Urasawa’s PLUTO. The way he reinvented Atom has really stuck with me.
Kaplan: Is there anything else you would like to include?
Sattin: I would just like to thank you for these great questions! They were a lot of fun to answer. And for those of you who haven’t checked out the UNICO: AWAKENING campaign yet, please head over to Kickstarter and have a look.
The campaign is offering an array of prints by some amazing artists. It’s a stellar lineup featuring new UNICO art by Akira Himekawa (THE LEGEND OF ZELDA), Junko Mizuno (RAVINA THE WITCH), Soo Lee (ASH & THORN), Katie Longua (ROK), Peach Momoko (DEMON DAYS) who will be contributing a total of 3 different prints to this campaign, Kamome Shirahama (WITCH HAT ATELIER), tokitotokoro (FOR A GOOD MAN), and Academy Award Nominated Animator Tomm Moore (WOLFWALKERS). There’s also some amazing UNICO: AWAKENING collectible artifacts by Katie Longua, Maddie Copp, Julia Reck, Amber Padilla, Steenz, and Rye Hickman. We would love your support.
The Kickstarter campaign for Unico: Awakening is live now, and will run until Thursday, June 2nd. Check out more artwork from the project below.