Friday, November 05, 2010

Japan's American mangaka: Felipe Smith

SOFT POWER HARD TRUTHS / Galapagos vs global: Japan's American mangaka

Japan's "Galapagos syndrome," a phrase first coined to characterize the nation's highly evolved but globally incompatible cell phones, is lately being applied to other isolated industries, even to its people. "The Galapagosization of Japan continues," trumpeted one U.S. newspaper last month, when a survey of Japan's white-collar workers revealed that a full two-thirds of them never want to work abroad.

Such attitudes won't surprise anyone involved with Japan's producers of popular culture, whose minimal and often blinkered efforts to capitalize on the global appeal of their products have resulted in the downsizings, pinched margins and scant optimism plaguing Tokyo. Most of them are overworked, understaffed and underfunded; they don't have time to look up from their desks, let alone pay attention to the rest of the world.

Galapagosization is a two-way roadblock: Insiders cannot survive outside, outsiders cannot get in. Almost every one of those overburdened staffers is Japanese. "We have nothing to offer [foreign artists] here," says Shogakukan Co.'s Masakazu Kubo, veteran manga editor and executive producer of Pokemon. "That's shameful."

In 2007, Yukari Shiina set out to breathe new life into an industry she saw growing stale and self-absorbed. She founded the agency with the goal of introducing non-Japanese artists to domestic manga publishers, negotiating contracts and publicity between them. "I really wanted to bring some diversity into the Japanese industry," she says. "Diversity is one of the keys to survival. It's strange that we have tons of translated novels and films here, and Japanese love those works, mystery novels and Hollywood movies and Disney. But for some reason, we don't like the comics that others [like]."

Shiina surveyed the U.S. industry and found variety galore: Comics by non-U.S. artists are commonplace on the shelves and at conventions, and numerous nonnative born artists and employees work for U.S. publishers. Why not create a similar scenario in Japan?

It hasn't been easy. The language barrier, she says, is huge, "much bigger than I thought." In addition, the domestic manga business is strongly driven by fads and trends, with rapid turnover. The Internet may provide the illusion of greater proximity and transparency for overseas fans and artists, but trend spotting from thousands of kilometers away is inadequate. "People think that with the Internet you can follow everything, but that's just not true."

Thus far, the number of nonnative artists has managed to import and publish matches its years in operation: exactly three--hardly a trend of its own. Nevertheless, at least one of them has garnered considerable attention and praise, and his resume reads like a road map of diversity... [more here, and @ 3AM]

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