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Sunday, March 23, 2003


Comic culture is serious business

Japan Times film writer

Can anyone be in this country a week and not notice manga -- Japan's unique contribution to comics?

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Adverts for a manga/anime-art book

Perhaps, if you never venture into a convenience store, where half the magazine racks are filled with manga magazines (including the many whose stock-in-trade is sex), or onto a train platform, where the newsstands do brisk business selling Big Comic, Shukan Morning and other popular manga titles to commuters for that long ride home. Then there are the thousands of general bookstores that stock manga -- and are being driven to the wall by the growing number of bookshops, led by the Book-Off chain, that sell barely used manga paperbacks at cut prices. And every dentist's office, ramen joint and massage parlor in the land seems to have manga lying about for their patrons as well.

In short, Japan is so awash with manga that visitors would have to spend their entire time here in a bubble of temple tours or taxi rides to avoid them -- and even then their driver would likely have one on his seat, with a pixie-faced, big-bosomed nymphette gazing sweetly from the cover.

What's inside? The answers are as diverse as the manga themselves, from the wacky pirate adventures of the boys' manga "One Piece," to comics for women featuring beautiful youths falling in love with each other. What is striking, especially to outlanders used to the formulaic superheroes of American comics, is the unbuttoned, unhinged quality of so many manga -- even ones for schoolkids. The hero of Eiichiro Oda's "One Piece," for example, is a boy who runs off to seek fame and fortune as a pirate -- and happens to have a rubber-like body from ingesting a magical plant. Imagine a stretchy Spider-Man, minus the latex suit.

Also on the far side is the title sleuth of Gosho Aoyama's "Meitantei Conan (Detective Conan)" -- a supersmart teenager who has shrunk into the body of a 6-year-old after ingesting a mysterious toxin. With his mop of hair and big specs, Conan resembles a pint-size Harry Potter -- though Harry doesn't live with his former teenage girlfriend, who is unaware of his true identity.

Even farther out is Yoshito Usui's "Crayon Shinchan," whose title character is a 5-year-old boy with a potty mouth and a dirty mind. The usual comparison is with Bart Simpson -- if Bart had a unabashed interest in women's undies and the raunchier men's magazines.

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A bookstore piled high with manga

But as wildly imaginative -- or gross and violent -- as manga can be, the most popular ones nearly always form the basis of a profitable multimedia franchise.

All the three of those mentioned above have generated hit TV programs and animated films, as well as a slew of character goods. In fact, all of the cartoon shows currently in the ratings top 10 for their category had their beginnings in manga. The longest-running and best-loved is "Sazae-san," which has been on the air since 1969 and is rarely out of the No. 1 spot. A gentle-spirited sitcom about a three-generation family living in suburban Tokyo, the show is based on a manga by Machiko Hasegawa that, since it began in 1946, has become a national institution.

Meanwhile, of the 10 top-grossing Japanese films in 2002, four started as manga. Though one of the exceptions, "Pokemon the Movie," may have begun as a game, the Pokemon brand is well-represented in the comic racks. In nearly every Japanese pop-culture franchise, manga is a crucial cog -- if not the main engine.

It wasn't always this way.

Manga used to be what comics still largely are in the West -- cheap entertainment for kids that was not allowed at the grownups' table of the publishing business. In the postwar years, however, a young star arose who would change the face not only of manga, but of publishing in Japan. His name was Osamu Tezuka, and his manga, beginning with his 1947 hit "Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island)," were explosively popular.

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The popular Weekly Morning

An avid movie fan, Tezuka incorporated cinematic techniques into his work, including closeups and long shots, with the aim of adding dynamism and impact to every panel. His early manga -- such as the "Tetsuwan Atom (Atom Boy)" series about a superpowered boy robot -- were mostly adventure yarns for kids, but in the 1960s, as he graduated to industry-icon status, Tezuka turned to heavier, more complex themes, including the life of Buddha and the political struggles of Japan's feudal clans.

In short, Tezuka and his disciples not only made manga an enduring obsession with Japan's Baby Boomers, who boosted sales of fat weekly and biweekly comics to the millions in the 1960s and '70s, but produced manga that adults could enjoy without embarrassment (though men might hesitate to take some racier ones home).

The numbers are still impressive. In 2002, revenues from comic magazines amounted to 274.8 billion yen, and from comic paperbacks, to 248.2 billion yen, according to figures compiled by The Research Institute for Publications. Comic magazines and books together rang up 22.6 percent of all publishing-industry sales. In terms of units sold, comics took a 38.1 percent market share.

For manga publishers, however, recent years have been anything but rosy. Earnings on the 281 comic magazines published last year fell by 3.1 percent -- the seventh year-on-year drop. Meanwhile, comic paperbacks eked out a 0.1 percent gain. In other words, the industry, particularly its magazine sector, has been sliding downhill since its 1995 peak. The best-selling manga magazine, Shonen Jump, once moved more than 6 million copies per issue. That total is now down to 3.2 million.

Even mags with popular series are feeling the pinch. Kodansha's Shukan Morning (Weekly Morning), a weekly mainly targeted at adult men, runs "Vagabond," Takehiko Inoue's manga about legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. The 15 paperback volumes have sold 30 million copies. The magazine has a new hit in Shuho Sato's "Black Jack ni Yoroshiku (Say Hello to Black Jack)," a realistic medical manga (the subject of one recent story: pancreatic cancer), whose four paperback volumes have passed the 4 million sales mark. The magazine itself, however, remains stuck at 700,000 copies per issue.

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A talking alarm clock of the bumbling 1930s' Norakuro soldier-dog character

This state of affairs does not please Weekly Morning's aggressive new editor, Yasuo Kihara, who places much of the blame on the Book-Off chain and its imitators. "The number of manga readers hasn't declined," Kihara explains. "But they aren't buying as many magazines as they used to because places like Book-Off have made paperbacks so cheap."

In other words, instead of following the "Vagabond" story as it appears in the latest issue of Weekly Morning, fans wait until a used "Vagabond" paperback appears on a Book-Off shelf. Though they may be getting a bargain, Kihara points out that "the publisher and manga artist earn nothing from the sale because Book-Off is not obligated to pay royalties."

The solution, he says, is regulatory reform aimed at making the used-book stores cough up. "If talented artists can't make any money from manga, they will go to other industries," he explains.

Kihara is already seeing this hollowing out. Although Weekly Morning's two semi-annual manga contests still draw large numbers of beginners, "few artists today can sell more than a million copies of their paperbacks," he says. Weekly Morning is lucky to have two big sellers like Inoue and Sato but, Kihara adds, "We would like to have three or four."

The view from the sales trenches is bit different. Masuzo Furukawa, the president of Mandarake -- a chain of 20 stores specializing in Japanese pop culture phenomena, both old and new, sees the root of the problem in the troglodytic mentality of Japan's publishing industry. "Their way of thinking belongs in Meiji and Edo times," he complains. Instead of adapting to new conditions -- recession-era consumers with more entertainment options but less money to spend -- publishers still force bookstores to sell their new comics at list price, with no discounts allowed.

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"Ponzuhyakkei" in Weekly Morning is a humorous take by award-winning newcomer Tadayuki Imanishi on Hitler's last hours in his Berlin bunker.

"If we didn't have this stupid system, we could price more flexibly," Furukawa says. "But the present situation can't last -- change has to come."

With his trademark goatee, sunglasses and stocking cap, Furukawa is still very much the hippie businessman he was in 1987, when he launched his present company. But instead of going with the flow, he has been busy implementing his own changes. Among the most successful is an online store ( www.mandarake.co.jp/english/index.html) for both domestic and overseas customers, who can buy from Mandarake's 1.2 million-item inventory. Not quite Amazon -- but then Amazon is no match for Mandrake's line of hentai (pervert) manga.

Mandarake also conducts periodic live auctions of its rarer items that attract bidders from around the globe. The most expensive? The original manuscript of a manga that Osamu Tezuka drew in junior high school. The asking price -- 10 million yen.

For all the industry's woes, however, the manga dream still draws thousands of newcomers every year, only a few of whose work will ever appear in mass-market magazines.

One of these is Tadayuki Imanishi, an Osaka-based artist who won the Chiba Tetsuya Prize awarded by Weekly Morning last year. Named for a famous manga artist, the contest awards a grand prize of 1 million yen and, more importantly, a slot in Weekly Morning. Appearing under the pen name Ryuta Pon, Imanishi contributes a humor comic whose recent subject was Hitler's last hours in his Berlin bunker, with a disconsolate Fuhrer lamenting his fate in the Kansai dialect.

Formerly a city hall employee, 27-year-old Imanishi is now drawing manga for a living -- though his sister still has to help him out. "It's something I've wanted to do since I was a child," he says, "but it's only since last spring that I've been able to give up my day job and draw full-time."

Where did he get the idea for the Hitler comic? "From watching a candid-camera [dokkuri] comedy show," he says. "I imagined Hitler trying to escape from his bunker with a candid-camera sign." In other words, saying, "Sorry guys -- I was just kidding."

Imanishi's own struggle to survive is no joke, however. Like many other manga magazines, Weekly Morning solicits response cards from readers -- and if an artist ends up at the bottom of the popularity rankings, he (or she) is history. "If a manga's not interesting, we bring in another one," comments Kihara. "We don't carry anybody."

Manga, however, will no doubt continue to delight (and occasionally dismay) Japanese of both sexes and all ages. And foreign visitors? Check out Mandarake's warren of shops in Nakano's Broadway Building in Tokyo. You may not walk off with its prize Tezuka, but you'll better understand why manga is a national passion -- and maybe you'll even discover what your taxi driver sees in that dewy-eyed babe.

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