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Shueisha manga push hard into the global market

by Roland Kelts

One week before Thanksgiving on Nov. 28, readers of The New York Times were greeted by a spiky-haired, wild-eyed manga character named Monkey D. Luffy, his fists clenched and chest bare, charging forward as if the newsprint could barely contain him. Behind him in massive text screamed the words: “Hey world, this is the manga!!” above a smaller query, “Are there real adventures in this country?”

Most NYT readers over the age of 40 probably had no idea who he was or why he was bringing it on. But millions of others do — 345 million worldwide, to be specific, according to Japanese publisher Shueisha, and U.S. distributor Viz Media — making Luffy the wily and mischievous pirate hero of what is now the most popular manga series in the world: Eiichiro Oda’s “One Piece.”

But it wasn’t only English-language readers or Americans who faced Luffy and the “One Piece” clan. The ad also ran in Taiwan’s China Daily, and in various permutations in newspapers across Japan, featuring local products, foods and geographical icons.

“It’s such a milestone,” says Andy Nakatani, editor-in-chief of the English edition of Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. “Three-hundred million in print in Japan and 45 million in the rest of the world. Shueisha wanted to do something very special. They called it a ‘newspaper-jacking,’ hijacking each newspaper in Japan and tailoring local images, such as characters on the beach in one prefecture or eating the local fruit in another.”

Like most print media, manga sales have struggled against the challenge of cross-platform digital piracy. A couple of years ago, a friend told me of a fellow American passenger en route to Tokyo gleefully perusing manga titles on his iPad. “I love this stuff,” he told my friend, “and the great thing is, it’s totally free.”

Manga sales peaked in the early to mid-2000s. Afterward, the perfect storm of an oversaturated market, global economic crises and the proliferating accessibility of high-speed uploading and downloading capacities nearly crashed the ship — all of which makes Shueisha’s bold global ad campaign and boffo sales figures at the close of 2013 that much more arresting.

“(‘One Piece’) has amazing consistency in terms of content and quality,” explains Leyla Aker, vice president of publishing at Viz. “Oda has managed to keep it fresh over 70-plus volumes. I’m always astounded to see that there’s the same creative energy and freshness as there was in Volume 1. I think he’s a creative genius.”

Other Viz titles with high sales include “Naruto,” “Death Note,” “Dragonball Z” and “Bleach.” But by a wide margin in global numbers, Oda’s pirate-adventure episodes outpace them all, selling 3 million in the United States alone.

The consistency of “One Piece,” and its engaging mix of adventure and heartbreak, is merely an accident of a short attention span, according to Oda. “The thing is, I get bored easily,” he says. “So if my manga was just about the action, or comedy, or tear-jerking moments, I would get bored. I change the style of the series to keep up my motivation to draw.”

Oda claims that the inspiration comes from sheer exhaustion. He doesn’t sleep or eat much while he’s working, and maybe that’s why his characters are so extreme and seem perpetually desperate.

“Humans can only come up with new ideas when they’ve reached their limits,” he says. “When I finish a manuscript, I am completely exhausted.”

Oda’s abiding interest in pirates and adventure emerged from one of his favorite childhood anime series called “Vickie the Viking.” “I learned that Vikings were a kind of pirate, and I thought it was awesome to have friends on your team. That series’ spirit is carried on in my work.”

Team spirit and mutual reliance is one of the hallmarks of Japanese popular culture, from manga to anime to the communal spirit of cosplay. Oda says that he writes for himself — or the boy he was at 15 — imagining what his teenage self would want to read in a riveting story.

“A lot of Oda’s stories and themes are not as Japan-centric as other series,” says Alexis Kirsch, the English-language editor of “One Piece” at Viz.

Aker agrees. “(‘One Piece’) has a lot of the characteristics of properties that do well across international borders. Fantastic universal settings like those in ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Star Wars’ seem to have a universal resonance. Oda does that very well.”

This year is turning into a banner one for manga abroad. A little over a month ago, Crunchyroll, the popular legal online portal for Japanese popular culture, launched its digital manga site. Vertical Inc. and Viz are pushing digital manga via their own branded outlets, and Crunchyroll just received a big investment boost from the Chernin Group, Fox media veteran Peter Chernin’s investment team, who were wooing Hulu as recently as last spring. “(Japanese pop culture) fans are early tech adopters and passionate,” says Jesse Jacobs, president of the Chernin Group. “That’s the future.”

Still, manga sales in Japan and overseas face the deluded assumptions of a generation of so called “digital natives,” who assume the content should be free and easily accessible via fan translations and computer scans (aka “scanlations”).

“It’s been a few years since we saw the main impact from piracy,” says Viz’s Aker. “It was the rise of the aggregator sites where we really saw the impact. In the intervening years not much has changed. The fact is there are now legal and fast ways to get manga content, so of course, we’re hoping this is going to help. We’re serializing ‘One Piece’ in Shonen jump magazine. It can’t get much faster than that.”

Print sales of 345 million would be astonishing at any time, let alone now, when e-books and other digital media are crowding out paper. Manga is a global phenomenon, however, and its reach is still expanding. Readership is growing in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, with new translations hitting the shelves.

Sadly, admits Aker, “the (free) scanlations have become so established and so broad, it will take something pretty dramatic to change people’s minds. It’s going to take a lot.”

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.