Tezuka on iPad represents shift in manga biz

by Patrick W. Galbraith

Special To The Japan Times

Manga is an integral part of the entertainment industry in Japan, and has been for decades. There are numerous weekly and monthly manga anthologies. Series carried in those magazines often become bestsellers in paperback form and are adapted into anime, live-action TV shows and films. However, with fewer young readers and increasing competition from portable electronic devices, the manga industry has seen better days.

Against this backdrop, it was announced last Wednesday that the works of Osamu Tezuka — one of manga’s founding fathers and greatest masters — are now available in English as a digital archive accessible via an application for Apple’s iPad.

“I hope that we will consider the spirit of Osamu Tezuka as we transmit his works to new audiences using digital technology,” said Takayuki Matsutani, President of Tezuka Productions Co. Ltd., at the Toyko launch of the app. “I am aware of the troubles in the market, and hope that we can contribute to a recovery.”

Born in Osaka in 1928, Tezuka’s career spanned over 40 years and 150,000 pages. His works have been collected into some 400 volumes, culled from over 700 manga penned before his death in 1989.

In addition to iconic characters such as “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion,” Tezuka is remembered for pioneering “story manga” — sweeping narratives traversing hundreds of pages.

Tezuka is often called the “god” or “godfather” of manga due to his creation of a solid, imitable system of manga that influenced generations of creators and became the bedrock of the industry.

Looking to tap into a rich catalog and legacy, Tezuka Productions, which handles the licensing of Tezuka’s works, teamed with SOBA Project, Inc., to develop a digital archive and distribution system.

Because there is no exclusive publisher for Tezuka’s work and Tezuka Productions retains the rights, many companies publish Tezuka’s manga, sometimes even different editions of the same series. The purpose of this new digital archive is to consolidate Tezuka’s collected works and make them available in a convenient location, organized not by publisher, but by title. In an increasingly tough market, with many publishers struggling, this shift in control from publisher to artist may be yet another nail in the coffin for traditional paper-based media.

A Japanese version of the digital archive has been available for the computer for some time, and the iPad application started in January of this year with all Tezuka’s collected works available in Japanese.

As of July 13, content in English is now also available through the Osamu Tezuka Magazine Club, as the subscription-based digital archive is called, with content in French, Italian, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and Korean to follow. For those without an iPad, services will expand to Android tablets later this year.

The app is free, and anyone with it can subscribe to the free Weekly Astro Boy Magazine, which is comprised of episodes from some of Tezuka’s most popular works. Content is updated every week and sent directly to subscribers.

Members willing to pay $9.99 a month gain unlimited access to the 62 volumes of Tezuka’s work that have been translated into English. In addition, paying subscribers can view 39 subtitled episodes of so-called Motion Manga, where a camera pans across the frames of the manga and the story is told with the aid of vocal performances, sounds and effects. SOBA Project’s president, Kazushi Inui, describes Motion Manga as the future of both manga and anime.

Because SOBA Project is making use of cloud computing, subscribers to the service can access the entire digital archive without downloading or storing large files on portable devices. This perhaps also has the advantage of limiting the danger of piracy.

For Matsutani, who describes himself as a man who grew up with paper and has never used a computer, much less an iPad, this shift to digital has been a big leap. While it could be argued that the Magazine Club may cut into sales of physical books, Matsutani thinks actual paper manga have their own appeal and that the app may even increase exposure to Tezuka’s work and encourage people to purchase his manga.

On the other hand, many iPad users seem to have “graduated” from paper so may not be motivated to buy physical copies. Either way, Tezuka Productions, which is a licensing company and not a publisher, has little to lose and much to gain from making old classics available in a new way.

Osamu Tezuka Magazine Club is expected to attract 10,000 paying subscribers by the end of the year, which means somewhere in the ballpark of ¥10 million a month in fees.

In order to secure content, Tezuka Productions and SOBA Project had to reach out to distributors in the English-speaking world. Rather than partner with any single company, the decision was made to enter into profit-sharing contracts with all of them — including Vertical, Viz Media and Dark Horse Comics — to increase the available content.

“Tezuka Productions wants to make the Tezuka Osamu brand famous and distribute all the Tezuka works,” Inui explained. “For the Osamu Tezuka Magazine Club, all the English translated Tezuka works are included, regardless of the publishers.”

While 62 volumes may not seem like much, it has taken decades to come this far.

Looking back on the process, Matsutani explained that in order to make Tezuka’s works palatable to a foreign audience, pages had to be flipped to make them read from left to right, word balloons originally drawn to accommodate vertical Japanese had to be made horizontal and onomatopoeia drawn as part of the art itself had to be translated into English. The result was major revisions, which Tezuka insisted on doing himself. Due to his hectic schedule, not many works were released overseas before his death.

On the other side of the equation were people like Frederik L. Schodt, who read Tezuka’s “Phoenix” in 1970, met the author in 1977 and struggled to get his translation of the work published.

“Unfortunately, we were unable to get the translation published,” said Schodt, author of “The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution.” “We were too naive, and we were also far too early, because commercial interest in Japanese comics would not start appearing in the U.S. for another decade.”

The translated “Phoenix” remained dormant until it was finally published by Viz in 2002. That same year, Dark Horse Comics began publishing “Astro Boy.” Schodt was involved in both translations (and many more by other manga artists), and in 2009 received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette from the Japanese government for his efforts to introduce manga overseas.

Despite the difficulties of the market past and present, Japanese manga continue to make progress in digital and global arenas. The announcement of the Osamu Tezuka Magazine Club comes just before a consortium of 39 publishers — including giants such as Kodansha, Shueisha and Shogakukan — is scheduled to unveil Jmanga.com, the largest and most concerted effort to date to make Japanese manga officially available online.

For his part, Schodt sees the potential of artists and their licensing companies setting up digital distribution the way Tezuka Productions has.

“To me what is so interesting about this is that it points in the direction of an entirely new business model, where established content owners who have a strong brand may decide to go global, and not rely on traditional publishers or distributors at all,” he said. “It’s an interesting experiment, and I think that we will see more like it in coming years.”