We’ve all been there: squashed onto a rush-hour commuter train with barely enough room to breathe, let alone open up a book to while away the journey; trying desperately to crush a book into an overstuffed backpack before a long trip; or cursing our own lack of foresight while bored at school or work with no handy distraction to relieve the tedium. But Japan’s enduring love for “manga” and its knack for innovation have led to a convergence so simple as to be self-kickingly obvious: cell phone manga.

Falling somewhere between a traditional manga — books that are hand-drawn in a variety of styles and covering a diverse range of subjects — and animation, the stories offer frame-by-frame graphic novels that pan across an image, display cartoon boxes with and without the speech bubble, and emit vibrations from the phone at key moments. It’s as subversive as a book but a darn sight more pocketable.

Leading the charge is Takarajima Wondernet, a subsidiary of publisher Takarajima, home to such magazines as Cutie and Smart. The company has licensed around 300 manga and painstakingly scanned every frame of the paper and ink versions, giving users an instant library to download and read anywhere. But more importantly, it has been creating its own original “keitai” (cell phone) manga along with leading manga artists. The first of these, “Rocket Girl,” was launched March 22, followed April 16 by “XX.” Takarajima Wondernet plans to release a new title pretty much every month until yearend, and beyond.

“Other companies use ready-made manga and transfer them into a file that makes them accessible through your cell phone,” K. Kurosaki, the company’s auditor, told The Japan Times. “But Takarajima works with animation companies, famous comic artists, scenario writers and directors to produce a whole new product.

“This allows us to develop the stories for theatrical release or to control the merchandise rights for the characters, and to offer the customer something unique.”

Each manga is split into chapters — 24 on average, although it depends on the story. Each chapter costs 50 yen to download, although the total for the whole manga is paid in one lump at the start. Each week, a new chapter is automatically downloaded to the user’s phone, ready for reading at their leisure. The manga are available to users on all Japanese cell phone networks.

The stories themselves are a varied bunch. The Japan Times tested the thriller “XX” (pronounced “Ex Cross”), whose happenings were made all the more suspenseful by the phone revealing one frame at a time. It’s up to the reader how quickly they advance through the story, just as with a book — you can savor each frame or rush through with the click of a button. The frame first appears sans speech bubbles, a great little feature, and then one click calls up the left out text.

“We want people to read the stories at their own pace,” said Toru Kenjyu, the company’s president and CEO. “You can go backward to refer to some small detail in the story, or even bookmark a frame and pick up from there the next time you want to read.”

The other title launched so far is “Rocket Girl,” which sees Japan’s first manned flight piloted by a hapless schoolgirl.

The potential is clearly massive. In Japan, graphic novels have been a major part of society since the late 1940s, and the art form has become a key export to countries both in Asia and the West. But while printed books are costly to translate and distribute, digital propagation could make manga’s influence practically limitless. Takarajima Wondernet already has fledgling plans to offer its stories to mobile phone users in the United States or around Asia once it finds partners in those countries, and faces relatively low costs to do so. In addition, it will be easier to tweak the digital content to suit foreign users.

“In America, we need to make sure that parents don’t object to the more sensitive material in the stories,” Kenjyu said. “So we can change the stories, or make different ones for the foreign market.”

Other future innovations for keitai manga include adding sound, giving users one further step of immersion into a fantasy world.

But before all that, the company needs to expand its catalog. Having 300 republished titles is all well and good, but with many of these older titles available only in black and white, with static artwork, the real allure rests with the original creations.

The initial artists include Shou Tajima, a character designer famed for his work on the cartoon segment of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1” as well as various Japanese anime and manga. These “mangaka,” or comic artists, work together with storywriters, a director and a production company — such as Production IG, best known for its work on the 1995 smash-hit anime “Ghost In The Shell” — to create stories exclusively for Takarajima Wondernet and its customers.

But Takarajima Wondernet is not stopping there; it plans to tap into Japan’s budding mangaka and expose new talent alongside its stable of established artists. To this end, the company will hold the Mobile Comic Award 2007, a contest that invites new and established artists and storywriters to submit their creations to a panel of judges. The winner will walk away with a 5 million yen prize, and see their work downloaded onto keitai across the nation. The contest will be held on Oct. 10, with an entry deadline of July 16.

“We expect this contest to generate a lot of great ideas,” Kurosaki said.

He’s likely to be right. After all, new outlets can inspire renewed creativity in an artist, and this brave new digital world has the potential to open many doors for the humble manga. Who knows what the next frame will hold.


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