At first glance, the manga industry looks to be on shaky legs. Several publishers have folded; Tokyopop, once Viz’s only serious American competitor, has scaled back its production schedule and shed staff; and recent sales figures indicate that readers have no compunction about cutting back on Naruto if money is tight. Tempting as it may be to conclude that the industry is collapsing, or experiencing the kind of brutal market adjustment that follows a fad (think Uggs or Beanie Babies), there are several reasons why it’s a little premature to declare manga’s demise.
Supply and demand
Some of these adjustments are a necessary correction to oversupply. As recently as eight months ago, Tokyopop was releasing over thirty new volumes of manga every month, while Viz, Del Rey, DMP, and Yen Press blitzed the market with anywhere from ten to forty books apiece. Factor in the volumes published by smaller companies—Aurora Publishing, Broccoli USA, Go! Comi, Vertical, Inc.—and it’s easy to see why retailers couldn’t handle the sheer amount of new material arriving in stores: very few had the shelf space to accommodate both newcomers and older titles, forcing them to make strategic choices about what to stock and display.
The not-so-secret corollary to the oversupply problem was an abundance of mediocre books. In the first wave of licensing, publishers like Viz and Tokyopop acquired A-list titles from name-brand creators: Ai Yazawa, CLAMP, Rumiko Takahashi, Akira Toriyama. The success of Chobits and Dragonball inspired other companies to jump into the market, eventually leading to intense competition to acquire titles. As a result, publishers licensed a lot of B- and C-list material that never caught on with readers. In some cases, this material was simply too quirky or dated to command anything but a niche following; in many others, the material was too generic, too poorly executed, or too poorly adapted for English-speaking audiences to generate much enthusiasm. Without an obvious marketing hook—say, a popular anime adaptation or video game tie-in—many of these titles vanished before they could find a readership.
Publishers’ understandable desire to diversify their product lines by licensing light novels exacerbated the supply problem as well. In the abstract, light novels made sense, as they seemed like a natural extension of manga publishers’ core business. But these books posed a vexing problem for retailers: should they be shelved with manga—where hardcore fans are most likely to find them—or should they be shelved in the sci-fi, fantasy, or YA sections—where other consumers might find them? Moreover, light novels lacked the graphic appeal of their anime and manga counterparts, relying heavily on hackneyed prose to re-tell stories that fans already knew. Lacking an obvious home or dedicated readership, light novels compounded retailers’ difficulty finding adequate shelf space for manga.
Developing new audiences
The over-saturation of the teen market hasn’t been entirely bad for the manga industry; in fact, I’d argue that the glut of shojo and shonen titles has inspired publishers to explore new territory: manga for elementary school students and adults. The first demographic offers considerable opportunity, as there’s almost nothing available for seven-to-ten-year-olds save a handful of Pokémon manga, several discontinued Broccoli books (Honoka Level Up!, Koi Cupid, Nui), and Tokyopop’s aborted line of Manga Readers. UDON’s recent announcement of a new all-ages imprint suggests the emerging importance of this category, as well as a special awareness of the challenges that parents, teachers, and librarians face when searching for kid-friendly comics. As part of its marketing strategy, UDON guarantees that their Kids Manga line has been vetted for readers twelve and under, meaning it’s free of the innuendo, violence, and/or language that make certain shojo and shonen titles inappropriate for the grade-school set.
Also noteworthy are the books themselves. Unlike some of their competitors, UDON has licensed four series without obvious ties to video games, card games, television programs, toys, or manga for teens (e.g. the Naruto chapter books). That strategy marks a big departure from most companies’ approach to selling comics to kids; Viz and Del Rey are hardly alone in turning to video games (Blue Dragon, The Legend of Zelda) and Saturday morning cartoons (Bakugan Battle Brawlers) for licensing opportunities. At the same time, even conservative players in the all-ages manga field are becoming more adventurous with their licensing choices. Viz, for example, announced plans to release Dinosaur Hour! and Leave It to PET!, neither of which began its life as a toy, TV show, or video game.
Publishers aren’t neglecting grown-ups, either. Adult-friendly titles made a strong showing on numerous “Best of 2008” lists, with Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s Goodbye (Drawn & Quarterly), Hideo Azuma’s Disappearance Diary (Fanfare/Ponent Mon), and Seiichi Hayashi’s Red-Colored Elegy (Drawn & Quarterly) getting nods from mainstream media outlets such as NPR and New York Magazine. Looking at next year’s offerings, publishers big and small plan to release a greater variety of seinen, josei, and gekiga titles. Viz again provides an instructive example, as their shojo- and shonen-heavy line-up is leavened with some offbeat, adult-friendly choices such as Detroit Metal City, a comedy about a mild-mannered music nerd who moonlights in a heavy metal band; Ooku, a historical drama about a female shogun; and Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit, a sci-fi parable that sounds a lot like “The Lottery.” Other publishers seem equally interested in courting adult readers with classic manga—Tezuka’s Swallowing the Earth (DMP)—josei—Kan Takahana’s Awabi (Fanfare/Ponent Mon) and Ima Ichiko’s Beyond Twilight (Aurora Publishing)—and full-color graphic novels—Benjamin’s Orange (Tokyopop).
Few, if any, of these titles will post big numbers. But they suggest a growing awareness that grown-ups need to be part of manga publishers’ marketing strategies, as thirteen-year-old boys are a very fickle foundation on which to build an industry.
Not just Naruto
Another sign that the manga industry’s resilience is the increasing diversity of titles on BookScan’s monthly bestseller list. David Welsh nicely summarizes this development in his latest Flipped! column:
Prior to this year, the monthly BookScan lists of best-selling graphic novels (primarily consisting of manga titles) was dominated by comics for boys with an associated animated property, titles like Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist from Viz. The exception to the rule was Natsuki Takaya’s heartbreaking and elliptical Fruits Basket from Tokyopop. While Naruto is still enjoying pride of best-selling place, along with Viz entries like Bleach and Death Note, I’ve noticed an increasing number of Japanese comics for girls among the best-sellers.
Most notable (and possibly least surprising) is Matsuri Hino’s Vampire Knight… Several other series from Viz’s shojo imprint crop up in BookScan’s monthly top 20, as does Del Rey’s charming, surprisingly deep Kitchen Princess.
The strong showings by Fruits Basket, Kitchen Princess, and Vampire Knight are no mean feat, as none of these series have an anime adaptation airing on Cartoon Network—which, according to industry wisdom, is an essential pre-condition for turning a manga into a mega-hit.* Girls’ voracious, omnivorous reading habits have made hits of shojo and shonen titles alike, suggesting that the industry can survive the end of Naruto without a Black Friday crash—girls will always find a new series to champion, even if it doesn’t air on Cartoon Network.
Put another way, Naruto isn’t the alpha and omega of manga. Matt Blind explains in a recent post at Rocket Bomber:
The popularity of Naruto is an expression of Demand: it’s on TV, it’s aimed at kids and tweens, it’s about freakin’ ninjas, so yes Naruto seems to do well in the US market.
Do not equate Naruto to Manga however. One is a tie-in to a TV show, and the other is the future of the industry. Naruto pays the bills at Viz; we should hope every publisher finds a comparable revenue stream. But when Naruto ends… well, there will be something else. Not as good, not as insanely popular, but something else to take up the flag and represent the brand or else a goodly number of business school graduates have dropped the ball and deserve to be fired.
In sum, I think the overall picture is better than sales figures and staff layoffs might suggest. The industry is clearly in a transitional phase that is likely to spur further contractions and consolidations, especially if Kodansha begins releasing titles directly to the American market. But these restructurings may also produce a tougher, more diversified industry with enough depth to outlast fads.
* Of the three, only Fruits Basket has been released on DVD. (As far as I know, Fruits Basket has never been aired on American television.) Vampire Knight has yet to be released in the US, and Kitchen Princess has yet to be make the leap from page to screen.