Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Comic book enthusiasts embrace manga mania

"Raijin", a weekly manga anthology, was recently released in the United States.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

 •  Manga and anime: What's the difference?

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

For proof of manga's graduation to the American mainstream, look no further than Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Kahala Mall. The store maintains its own manga section, complete with aisle display.

"They're always good sellers," said manager Tina Martelli. "Demand for (manga) has grown exponentially over the last couple of years."

Generations of Hawai'i kids have grown up with manga around the house, purchased from Shirokiya and other Japanese stores. In fact, Hawai'i, with its large Japanese population and close proximity to Asia, is and has traditionally been the United States' strongest market for manga.

Maneuvering her empty shopping cart hurriedly through the crowed aisles at the K-Mart in Iwilei, Lois Cunney catches up with her AWOL son, Joshua, just as he reaches the store's video section.

"I turn my back and he just disappears," she says, prying a "Dragon Ball Z" video from the 7-year-old's sticky hands. "But he always ends up here."

Kim Fujiwara can easily find manga at Barnes & Noble Booksellers at Kahala Mall. Fujiwara is a member of O'ahu's No Brand Anime Club.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

It seems magnetic north for Joshua is a six-tier metal shelf where dozens of "Dragon Ball Z" videos have been nefariously positioned at kids'-eye level. They take up the center three rows, elbowing aside inferior competitors like "The Best of Percy" and "Pilates for Dummies."

Lois brought Joshua to the land of red aprons in search of roach traps and laundry detergent. But under sway of the boy's protruding lower lip, she'll leave with yet another one of those $5.99 videos.

"I tell him only one at a time," she says. "But there are so many of them, it could take forever. I may never get out from under this."

No kidding. Over the last year, companies that produce anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese comics) have aggressively stepped up their sales and merchandising efforts in the United States.

Anime has been a growing business in the United States. Now, apparently, it's manga's turn. With manga products targeted to specific age and sex demographics, companies like Bandai Entertainment and Gutsoon! Entertainment have taken advantage of the inroads anime has made on network and cable TV to work their way into mainstream retailer chains like KMart, Wal-Mart and Borders.

The movement got an indirect push from the breakout popularity of Yu-Gi-Oh, which started as a manga in 1996 and blossomed into a $2 billion juggernaut with a top-rated cartoon on Kids' WB. Yu-Gi-Oh collector cards have become a nationwide obsession for kids under 10.

Last November, the first American edition of "Shonen Jump," a manga anthology, sold an impressive 250,000 copies, largely on the strength of its "Yu-Gi-Oh" manga content.

A month later, Gutsoon launched "Raijin," a weekly manga anthology, in the United States. The comic is presented in the standard manga format, read right to left, and offers the first English translation of some of Japan's most successful manga series, "Raijin."

Missing the mystique

Jake Nishikawa, 27, used to get his manga from a Japanese bookstore downtown. These days, he and his girlfriend, Naoko Fukushima, loiter in the aisles of Barnes and Noble or Borders looking for new titles.

"I'm not sure how I feel about (manga) getting so big everywhere," Nishikawa said. "It was kind of nice having it as our own unique taste in Hawai'i.

"I guess it's cool that I can actually read along and follow what's going on now," he said. "But even that I have mixed feelings about. Part of the mystique used to be trying to guess what the story was from just the pictures."

Nishikawa said many of the manga series that are being released in the United States are tamer what he is used to.

Indeed, while some of the U.S. publications do contain highly stylized violence and sexuality, few indulge the decapitations, Lolita imagery and bizarro alien sex often associated with Japanese comics.

Still, Jerry Chu, a producer and marketing specialist for Bandai Entertainment, said too much attention has been given to the controversial aspects of manga and anime intended for adult audiences.

"Anime in particular has evolved a lot, and there are different products for different audiences — kid shows, dramas, everything you can think of."

Seeking fertile ground

Attempts to market manga in the United States are being driven as much by need as by opportunity.

"The biggest reason for entering the market in the U.S. is that the market in Japan is not expanding," Gutsoon chairman and CEO Nobuhiko Horie said through an interpreter.

"After 2006, (the population in Japan) is expected to decrease. We need to export to a larger market. Manga is very popular in Asia and Europe. The U.S. was the last place that manga had not been to."

Horie said roughly 40 percent of "Raijin" readers had never read manga before.

"We wanted to concentrate on that 40 percent and develop that market," he said.

To do that, Horie said he and his staff carefully consider which manga they will translate for the U.S. market. Rather than catering to American expectations about what a comic should be, Horie said he tries to offer pieces that are complex and challenging.

"I've read American comics and they are usually very simple — mostly hero stories," he said. "In Japanese manga, the stories are more sensitive and they address many different themes. Manga was often compared to comics, but now people are comparing them to movies and novels."

The manga market will get even more crowded in the coming months when Tokyopop, the leading North American publisher of manga, presents the "cine-manga" versions of Disney programs "Lizzie McGuire" and "Kim Possible."

'This cool, hip thing'

Bandai Entertainment, a twice-removed subsidiary of Bandai Japan, the third largest toy company in the world, has provided the model for marketing anime-related products in the United States.

"A big part of it is marketing the cartoons on TV not just as cartoons, but as Japanese anime," he said. "There were a lot of popular anime series in the 1980s — like 'Robotech' and 'The Transformers' — but they weren't identified as Japanese programming."

By tying anime together with manga, toys, video games and other products, Chu said Bandai and other companies are selling a unified consumer experience, one that can be carried on as the audience matures from Pokemon to Dragon Ball Z to Gundam.

The increased willingness of network and cable TV to invest in anime-style programming has boon all around. The Cartoon Network has built a strong niche with its "Adult Swim" block, and the Kids WB has dominated the ratings with "Yu-Gi-Oh" and other shows.

The cross-over success of anime movies like "Metropolis" and "Princess Mononoke" and the Oscar-nominated "Spirited Away" has also given anime a glow of respectability.

"Anime has become this cool, hip thing," Chu said. "Before Japanese anime was on TV, it was more of a specialty. Now Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit is a big anime fan. Madonna used anime video on her tour. You can find anime now in Wal-Mart in Iowa."