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Manga attempt to evolve against multiple threats

by Janet Ashby

Manga and anime from Japan are increasingly popular overseas, with Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” receiving an Academy Award earlier this year. In their birthplace, however, manga seem past their glory days when loyal readers eagerly awaited the next installment from their favorite authors, such as giants like Osamu Tezuka or Tetsuya Shiba.

While the market for comics is still huge, pulling in revenues of 523 billion yen in 2002, total sales have been declining for seven years. Manga magazines have been particularly hard hit — sales of the popular weekly Shonen Jump have dwindled to only half their peak of 6.5 million in 1994.

Why are sales falling? The history of manga is inextricably intertwined with the baby boomer generation, according to the experts at Tsukuru magazine (6/03). The first manga magazines were founded in 1959, when they were children. But the golden age of manga, presided over by the weekly shonen Magazine, arrived when they entered college — it is said that demonstrators in the student movement of the late 1960s carried Shonen Magazine in their right hand, and the now-defunct leftwing intellectual Asahi Journal in their left. When they graduated to adulthood in the 1970s, magazines with more adult content became popular as well, turning the manga divisions at the top three publishers — Kodansha, Shogakukan, and Shueisha — into cash cows.

Now, however, the manga industry is facing an increasingly adverse climate filled with multiple threats — the long-term triple threat of an aging core readership, bad economic times and competing forms of entertainment, and the more immediate triple threat of “new-used” bookstore chains, manga kissaten where customers read for free, and manga rental shops.

In the past, readers would buy two or three manga magazines as a matter of course. But now they may only buy one, or wait for their favorite series to be compiled into tankobon (book form) rather than buy them each week or month in serialized form. Unlike the heyday of manga, readers’ attention and money are now apparently divided among manga, video games, cell phones and the Internet.

Publishers have been taking countermeasures to stem the decline, recycling classic manga into the smaller bunko (paperbacks), reformatting older manga to trigger impulse buys in places like convenience stores, or even commissioning new episodes of older but particularly beloved manga.

Impact expanding

Paradoxically, while the overall trends for manga are downward, their cultural impact is expanding because record numbers of the comics are being turned into movies and TV shows, either as anime or live-action dramas. This spring, Kodansha alone had 11 of its manga put on TV. A dramatization of “Black Jack ni Yoroshiku,” for example, a timely manga exposing problems in the medical industry, started this April. Sales of volumes 1-5 of the tankobon version shot to 5.7 million copies. The initial run for volume 1 was 100,000.

Another recent manga illustrating their power to strike a chord with readers is “Nana,” by Ai Yazawa (Shueisha, Ribon Mascot Comics). Serialized in the magazine Cookie in 1999, sales of volumes 1-7 of the tankobon version are flying along at 8 million.

“Nana” is the tale of two young women named Nana (one in kanji, the other in katakana), who meet on a train to Tokyo at the age of 20 and end up becoming roommates and friends.

Komatsu Nana, later nicknamed Hachi, is a sweet young thing from a loving family who has no other thought in her head beyond finding the love of her life and being fulfilled by him. Osaki Nana is her opposite — a singer with a punk band whose mother dumped her on grandma when she was 4. Although outwardly tough, like the other Nana she is vulnerable, needy and beset by doubts about what course she should take in life. By vol. 8, published in May, Hachi is torn between two men and has accidentally become pregnant, while Nana is struggling between her ambition to sing and pressure to have her lover’s baby.

In an interview in DaVinci (3/03) Yazawa said her goal is to help young women through their emotionally turbulent early 20s, as she herself was helped in junior high school by Francoise Sagan’s “Bonjour Tristesse”: It can be a source of comfort and encouragement to realize one is not alone in one’s pain and self-doubt.

She deliberately divided the characteristics of ordinary young women into the two extremes of Hachi and Nana because she believes everybody has the two Nanas inside and can thus identify with the manga. She hopes her audience, by reading about the struggles and mistakes of the two Nanas, will be able to forgive their own failings and find the energy to keep struggling to define, if not fully achieve, their own dreams in life.

As the Japanese manga industry itself continues to evolve through TV shows, movies and video games, it is also moving aggressively to expand overseas, a subject I will reveal more about next month.