Japanamerica: Size Matters
By Roland Kelts.
The cosplayers, fans, artists and academics gleefully thronging the halls of the Hynes Convention Center earlier this month at Anime Boston, a three-day convention, seemed to know they were breaking attendance records even before the final tally of 17,236 was announced to prove it. Their enthusiasm and spirited camaraderie were palpable. Boston’s annual celebration of Japanese popular culture is listed among the top ten North American anime conventions by size; it is the largest of its kind in New England, where I spent most of my childhood.
But just before my Saturday presentation and book-signing, another crowd, albeit more casually dressed, had amassed along the same street less than a block away for a celebration far less culturally rooted, but arguably just as entertaining and potentially transformative. The masses gathering outside of Boston’s Apple Store were awaiting the release of the company’s latest device, the much-hyped iPad.
The coincidence was rich. While thousands whooped and hollered, posed, exclaimed and literally wore their passions on their sleeves for two fast-receding media formats – print (manga) and DVDs (anime) – a possibly powerful new platform for both was being birthed just minutes away.
The migration of manga and its cinematic cousin, anime, to the small, handheld screen is not new, of course. Two years ago, Masakazu Kubo, executive producer of Pokemon and director of mega-manga publisher Shogakukan’s Character Business Center, told me he was bullish on the medium’s future in the form of cell phone downloads, even if technology had not yet caught up. “The main problem right now is the dialogue,” he said, etching an oblong bubble into the air with his index fingers. “It pops up on the screen so you can’t see the illustrations and read the dialogue at the same time. But that will change.”
And it has – as have the screens themselves. One of the iPad’s chief assets is its ultra-high resolution interface, reducing eye-strain for any format that needs to be read, such as books, periodicals, comics and manga. Unlike the comparatively bland, colorless Electronic Ink technology used by most e-readers on the market, the iPad delivers vivid and colorful imagery in a format that won’t make your eyes ache.
I took a break from the festivities at Anime Boston and sipped a fresh mango juice in the adjacent plaza, eyeing the cameras and consumer hordes at the Apple Store across the street. A young comic-book artist approached me and introduced himself. He’d seen the VIP pass dangling from my neck and asked if I could get him into the convention.
I told him I didn’t think so (I wasn’t that VI), but we began to discuss art and the future of media – and the commotion in both the convention center and the computer store. The artist told me he was frustrated with publishers and their conservative view of the market. “Most of the best artists working today started in the indy market and then became embraced by the mainstream. But today, no one will take a chance. There’s no way to reach readers, except on the internet.”
Which may be a big “except,” I reminded him, especially if portable digital reading devices can make the channel from creator to audience that much more direct, fluid and accessible. The narrow-mindedness of penny-pinching publishers could become immaterial if the new format renders their gate-keeping role negligible.
What excited him most, however, was not access or audience or fluidity. Size matters. He’d always dreamed of a way to enlarge his drawings so that readers could appreciate each and every detail in his work. “Costs a lot physically, but if you can just touch the screen and enlarge an illustration? Wow.”
A few days later, a writer friend at a dinner party in Manhattan told me of an older author he knew who was reading more now – mainly because of her new e-reader’s font-size enlarger, enabling her to pick apart and decipher individual words on the screen.
Ed Chavez, Marketing Director for Vertical, Inc., New York-based publishers of Japan-related books and manga, agrees that screen size counts a lot. “The iPad takes care of the limited screen of the iPhone, and there is a general consensus within the publishing communities I have worked with on both sides of the Pacific that it has the potential to create a new paradigm in manga publishing. While most of the same people agree that manga will continue to be deeply rooted in paper, the iPad’s screen and Apple’s well-maintained app marketplace could create new avenues for many of the struggling manga magazines.”
Chavez is only cautiously optimistic, however, noting that the iPad’s opportunities are not limited to professionals or publishers. “The future of manga on the iPad within the American market will remain in doubt. There have been multiple attempts by pirate sites to distribute apps preloaded entirely with illegally procured content. As license partners in the U.S. are often almost entirely dependent on Japan for their content, it’s hard to gauge whether they’ll be able to compete with the growing number of scan sites waiting to turn the iPad and iPhone into manga’s Pirate Bay.”
Dreamland Japan author Frederik L. Schodt, a veteran manga authority dating back to his days as interpreter for the late Osamu Tezuka, has been closely tracking the manga-to-digital movement in publishing industries in both Japan and the US. “I think the market for manga on phones in Japan has been overpublicized and inflated by Western and Japanese media,” Schodt says. “But I can also imagine a huge rush to a digital platform occurring very soon. Japan has [so far] been sheltered from a lot of the web trends in publishing, for a variety of reasons, but it may be hit by them fast. I’m not sure that iPhones and iPads are the right iteration of the technology, but very soon something will come along that will replace paper.”
Schodt adds that Japan’s current manga publishing model is deeply flawed. “The Japanese manga business has huge inefficiencies at its core, and readers have a enormous space problems when they try to collect longer series. So on the downside, the question is: Can the traditional manga format survive the transition? When pagination is no longer required, when audio and video can easily be added – will manga remain manga?”
Of course, the fantasy that a new technology can save the precarious fate of publishers, let alone artists and writers, is being met with a wall of “dream on” caveats. As many media critics have noted, most of the successful recent IT-related content platforms incorporate sharing and interactivity – social networking sites, file-sharing software, et cetera. Unless publishers and creators find a way to connect their audiences with themselves and one another, as anime conventions do in the bricks-and-mortar world, the new formats will merely be new facades.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. This article is hosted by 3:AM and Daily Yomiuri.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 21st, 2010.