photo courtesy of Bjoern Eichstaedt
This summer, Viz Media, LLC, North America’s first-ever distributor of Japanese popular culture, turns 30. Founded in 1986 by Seiji Horibuchi, who has since moved on to other projects, the company is now housed in the so-called Twitter building in downtown San Francisco, and boasts the largest library of Japanese media content outside of Japan.
But don’t expect buses festooned with Viz banners circling through town. Viz plans to celebrate through events with and for fans, says Chief Marketing Officer Brad Woods. That means special offers at North American anime cons, starting with July’s Anime Expo in Los Angeles and Comic Con in San Diego, and rolling out through autumn 2016.
“We’re not going to throw a ridiculous party,” Woods says. “We just want to thank the fan base. That’s what it comes down to. A high-five for the people involved who made us.”
Anniversaries can make you feel old. When I first met Horibuchi several years ago in San Francisco, he told me of his bohemian youth in the Bay Area, his return to Japan, and his desire to relocate to the region and establish a company that would introduce Americans to the wonders of manga.
“That’s what I recall telling Seiji, quite bluntly — A great idea, and best of luck!” says Horibuchi’s friend, translator and author Frederik L. Schodt, one of the first Americans to deliver manga in English. “The rest is history. Manga are now almost like sushi in America. They are part of modern youth culture. And Seiji deserves an enormous amount of credit for this.”
It was a high hurdle. In the 1980s, only a small dedicated group of sci-fi fanatics even knew what the word “manga” meant. Horibuchi roped together Japanese parent companies Shueisha Inc., Shogakukan Inc., and Shogakukan-Shueisha Productions, Co., Ltd. and rolled the dice.
“Every time I start a new business, I always think it's going to last forever,” Horibuchi tells me. “Manga was a totally new kind of content for the US, so I knew [the market] would grow slowly and take a long time to develop. It will take another 30 years to grow even further in the US, but people who love manga speak the same language everywhere.”
Today, Viz is the chief licensor of mass-market titles such as “Naruto,” “Dragon Ball,” “Sailor Moon” and “Pokemon,” and digitally publishes in English one of Japan’s most successful manga magazines, Weekly Shonen Jump.
Viz Chief Marketing Officer Brad Woods
But it’s also seeking to expand via multimedia franchise deals. Woods, a veteran of Mattel, DC Comics, Warner Brothers and Dreamworks joined Viz roughly a year ago. He sees potential in bringing manga to mass English-speaking audiences via feature films, TV series and possibly Broadway shows.
“We have access to more titles than Marvel,” he says, “but in terms of Western influence, manga is only in its infancy as a mainstream media.”
That is changing fast. The medium that Horibuchi and Schodt introduced to Americans in the ’80s is now receiving tons of attention from Hollywood studios — in addition to piles of offers and money.
The timing is apt. Japan has a shrinking population, declining consumer market and low-level of IT awareness. America needs to project its soft-power overseas more than ever, with the possibility of a demagogic, freakoid president called Donald Trump.
In Tokyo, record-breaking licensing fees are being paid by big-pocket entities including Netflix, Amazon Prime and Alibaba. The bubble is ripe — and dangerous.
For its part, Viz is not getting in the ring of inflated licensing prices.
“Viz has always been selective about bringing titles that will do well,” says Woods. “It’s not like Crunchyroll and Funimation. We tend to be more careful.”
Sailor Moon Crystal 3
In all the years I’ve watched manga and anime become mainstays in American homes, I’ve never seen a moment quite like this: Where “Ghost in the Shell ‘whitewashing'” is an Internet meme and serious talk in Los Angeles revolves around “Akira,” “Death Note” and other major Japanese hits.
What seems to be happening is that Japanese storytelling — with its emphasis on longing, nostalgia and earnestness — and stylized visuals are finally exploding in global markets. And Hollywood wants to get in on it.
But thus far, most Western adaptations of manga and anime properties have been horrible failures — critically and commercially.
“It’s a tough combination,” admits Woods. “When you Americanize, you shouldn’t take away what makes it a great story as a manga. A lot of the difference lies in character development and storyline. What keeps it manga and Japanese is the amount of depth to character and the richness of the backgrounds and back stories. It’s about how we tell that story, the art style and the storytelling.”
Woods believes that the best adaptations might be in TV series instead of feature films, though he is eager to see what Paramount and Dreamworks accomplish with their controversial “Ghost in the Shell” feature due next year, and he sees great potential in Viz's list of manga titles.
One Punch Man
“I’m most excited by ‘One Punch Man,’ ” he says. “I think the combination of satire and action is going to resonate incredibly well with U.S. audiences, even if they don’t know manga art style.
“Second would be ‘Tokyo Ghoul.’ The manga is phenomenally successful, and people gravitate to the storyline. It still has zombie-ghoul stuff, but it’s a very engaging property of the kind I think usually translates well.”
Thirty years after Horibuchi tried his hand at a hippie outpost for Japanese pop culture, Viz has grown into a vast media empire. Now that Hollywood is fighting and paying for a piece, get ready for manga in your multiplex.
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.