Friday, August 27, 2010

Profile of Tokyo's manga busker, Rikimaru Toho

Back from the cleansing rivers and hills of northern Honshu for another Tokyo story.

I encountered and interviewed Rikimaru Toho beneath the railway bridge at Shimokitazawa station while he was preparing for a night of performances. Toho-san is a street performer who theatrically, and sometimes with frightening urgency, performs scenes of manga titles selected by passersby. During his performances, crowds accrue, their faces going slack in absorption, wide with surprise, and sometimes softening into pathos and laughter.

Kamishibai, or Japanese 'paper theater/drama,' is an oft-mentioned precursor of modern manga, together with emakimono (scroll paintings/narratives) and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints often featuring images of the pleasure quarters/red-light districts). Amid our rapid and quasi-hysterical embrace of digital media, Toho-san is an apt reminder of the power of storytelling and the magnetism of paper.

If you live in or have visited Tokyo recently, you know how rare such comparatively spontaneous and unchoreographed street activities have become in a city that often rigidly maintains its authoritative hold on public order.

The story is published at CNNgo with graphics generously provided by a local neighborhood NPO, 4Connections, and a YouTube video clip at the end, wherein Toho-san's antics are on ample display:

"It's 10 p.m. in Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood of circuitous alleyways 10 minutes or so west of central Tokyo by train. Think Long Island City or Williamsburg in Brooklyn, early 1990s. Three separate bands busk on street corners at the bottom of a hill. Above them looms a giant McDonald’s and several closet-sized ramen shops. Three cops appear, batons in hands, nodding sternly, and the bands crumple their gear into canvas sacks and disappear. A few minutes later one of the bands, a hyper-speed blues trio, reappears and plays two more numbers in front of applauding passersby. Then they fold it all up again.

Rikimaru Toho manga man was once a recluse

Manga is music to the ears

Just past 10:30 p.m. Rikimaru Toho bounds down the station stairs with plastic bags in both hands and a plastic washbasin under one arm. Toho is a professional manga reader. He has been out here every Saturday night since five years ago, when he moved to the city from the seaside village of Chigasaki. On Sunday afternoons, he’s at nearby Inokashira Park, only a few stations away."

Read more: Tokyo’s manga man makes you sweat |

Friday, August 20, 2010

Porn, Piracy, Manga update/upgrade @ TCJ

Had and took a chance to update, expand upon and upgrade (I hope) my porn, piracy and manga summer review essay for The Comics Journal. Special thanks to Shiina-san--and to my editors for issuing and incorporating clarifications of her comments.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


For my latest column in The Daily Yomiuri and 3:AM magazine, I interviewed Yukari Shiina of World Manga, an agency specializing in connecting international artists with the domestic manga publishing industry. The following insights and comments by Shiina-san, an agent and industry consultant, survived the final edit:

Shiina believes the depressed economy and exaggerated expectations (i.e., oversaturation of the market) are key factors behind collapsing sales. But she doesn't ignore the digital elephant in the room.

"I'm not sure exactly how much it is contributing to the declines, but scanlations are a problem," Shiina says, referring to the unauthorized posting and translation of manga titles on the Internet. "I don't buy scanlation groups' argument that they promote manga in general. It might be true with some obscure titles, but it can't be with hits such as Naruto."

What may not be clear to some readers is that in the passage above, Shiina-san is addressing conditions strictly in the North American manga market, not those in Japan. Declining sales in the latter are cited in a preceding paragraph, which may cause the confusion.

I aim to clarify this issue in all online versions of this column, on behalf of Shiina-san--and myself, of course.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Friday, August 06, 2010

Porn, Piracy and the Summer of Manga

SOFT POWER HARD TRUTHS / Porn, piracy, summer of manga

In the annals of manga, a medium roughly 60 years old and a primary driver of Japan's pop culture juggernaut, the summer of 2010 has been revolutionary--though the season launched long before last month's brutal humidity simultaneously smothered my two hometowns, Tokyo and New York.

As reported earlier in this column, the sentencing in February of American manga collector Christopher Handley to six months in prison for possession of obscene materials (an Iowa court cited seven manga titles) sent ripples of anxiety through fans of Japanese pop culture worldwide.

Shortly thereafter, the Tokyo metropolitan government announced its proposal of legislation that would protect the welfare of children from violent or sexualized depictions of what it called "nonexistent youth" (read: drawings). The legislation sought to amend child welfare protection laws already in place in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan.

Whether the events in Iowa and Tokyo were related remains debatable, but the proposed legislation was met by an unprecedented formal protest. A lengthy roster of otherwise reserved or even reclusive manga artists, including veterans Tetsuya Chiba, Fujiko Fujio A, Moto Hagio and Rumiko Takahashi, gathered for a press conference to deliver a petition and declare their opposition to the bill. This was followed by opposition from corporate IT heavyweights like Google, Yahoo and Rakuten, and members of the Japan P.E.N. Club, part of an international association of authors.

With suspicions rising nearly daily about the political motivations behind the proposal and its vague language and goals, its eventual rejection in June was hardly a surprise. Controversial archconservative Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a supporter of the bill (also a former novelist who in the past explored such taboo topics as incest and rape in his fiction and plays), even wondered aloud if the term "nonexistent youth" made people think the legislation was aimed at prohibiting ghosts.

Ishihara has vowed to redraft and resubmit the proposal as early as next month. And while many in the manga industry publicly breathed a sigh of relief when the bill was shot down, a number of artists, editors and translators later confided to me off the record that some sort of action must be taken to curtail the burgeoning number of erotic manga, especially those featuring very young-looking characters.

Meanwhile, arguably more ominous news darkened the manga industry this past spring: Manga sales are in a downward spiral, both in Japan and overseas. [more @ Yomiuri here; UPDATED @ 3:AM magazine]

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

TokyoPop Tour Update w/Stu Levy

TokyoPop hits the highway to save manga in America

Posted by Roland Kelts on August 2nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

TokyoPop will find you

The first time I met Stuart Levy, Founder, CEO and CCO of 12-year-old distributor, producer and proselytizer of Japanese comics and animation, TokyoPop, he was dauntingly sanguine. At the time I was conducting research and interviews for my book, Japanamerica, and Levy garrulously held forth in TokyoPop’s Tokyo headquarters about new movies, new TV outlets, Internet options and America’s mania for manga.

That was then, as they say. TokyoPop slashed its workforce two years ago, shrewdly trimming overhead before the industry crash hit hardest in ’09 and ’10, seeing peers like Viz Media hemorrhage profits and jobs, and others, like ADV and Central Park Media, disappear entirely.

Despite the setbacks, Levy remains as madcap passionate as humanly possible about his struggling business. Instead of griping behind corporate walls, he has hit the road this summer to meet and greet the audience, whose numbers continue to swell at conventions and expos across the US, and try to rescue his industry.

Levy’s self-branded “TokyoPop Tour” launched in early July at Los Angeles’s Anime Expo. When it finally winds down in Chicago at the end of August, he and his crew will have hit 28 cities in 54 days — all to get face time with fans.

For me, the move is rich with irony: the heavily Internet-invested manga/anime producer and retailer I first encountered five years ago is now using online social networking to turn back into old-fashioned traveling salespeople.

“I decided we should take the plunge this year and make it happen,” Levy tells me from his tour bus. “The goals are simple: To reach out to fans nationwide to meet them and see how ‘otaku culture’ in America has evolved.”

TokyoPop's magic bus at Anime Expo

Levy has plenty of gimmicks to help sell the jaunt. Six college students selected via audition are accompanying him, and an ongoing quest and contest to find “America’s Greatest Otaku” (the nation’s most obsessive fan of Japanese pop culture) sustains suspense. The entire tour is being filmed for a later video incarnation, and clips, pics and updates are posted constantly on the tour’s web site and via social networking outlets like Facebook and Twitter. There are freebies and promotional giveaways, too.

“I typically think up ideas on my own,” says Levy, “letting concepts gestate until they become a very clear vision. Sometimes I start to plan while that vision is still coming together in my head. A lot of this has to do with branding, design and aesthetic.

“The TOKYOPOP Tour has combined all those elements – and the vision crystallized for me as the planning stage progressed. My decision to attempt production on a show while on tour was the critical one – along with my decision to personally join the entire tour hands-on.”

Levy’s approach is not merely admirable, but necessary. [here]