State of the Industry A Q & A with Fred Schodt on the end of the anime and manga boom

ASTRONOMICAL — Fred Schodt with Astro Boy, the subject of his recent book of essays. photo courtesy of Fred Schodt

Fred Schodt is a well-known expert on Japanese popular culture. He was one of the first to write about manga in English, and was Osamu Tezuka’s personal translator for both the man and his comics. His first book, “Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics,” was published in 1983, and is still an invaluable resource for people delving into the history of manga in English.

His recent works include a series of essays on Tezuka and “Astro Boy” in “The Astro Boy Essays.” He is currently working as a translator in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a noted writer and commentator on Japanese culture.

The Nichi Bei Weekly recently asked him a few questions in regard to the state of the anime and manga industry.

Nichi Bei Weekly: Why did the commercial boom in Japanese pop culture end? I recall TokyoPop and a number of companies regretting their over-expansion, leading to considerable downsizing for their staff and line-up. Was it the economy, as everyone was saying?

Fred Schodt: There are many reasons for the end of the commercial boom in Japanese pop culture, and they vary, depending on whether you are talking about manga or anime.

First of all, I think it’s important to remember that, just like the stock market, all booms end at some point. The anime business started showing problems earlier than the manga business in the U.S., partly because anime fans long ago figured out that they could obtain favorite shows without waiting for them to be imported and localized — they realized that they could copy and subtitle anime on their own, and make it available on the Web. But now, with an entrenched “scanlation” subculture — in which printed manga are also scanned, translated, and made available on the Web for free by fans — I think it’s fair to say that digital technology is taking equal bites out of both media.

Both manga and anime in the U.S. have also been hurt by the recession, which is severe. The recession means that young people, who are still the biggest target market, have less disposable income. On top of that, rights holders in Japan until recently had somewhat inflated expectations, resulting in higher licensing costs and reduced profit margins for American localizers. And it may also be that some of the novelty of manga and anime has worn off a bit simply because both are now, like sushi, an integral part of American culture.

NBW: So where is the industry headed? The drop in popularity is calling people to make cuts across the board. Will we see any kind of shift in the structure of the industry?

FS: We’re already seeing lots of cutbacks among companies publishing manga in America, and also among anime localizers. These will probably continue for a while. We’ll see more companies trim their offerings, and more layoffs, and we’ll see more companies disappear altogether. The amount of time devoted to anime on TV will shrink considerably and, unfortunately, after the failure of high profile projects like “Speed Racer,” “Dragon Ball,” and “Astro Boy,” fewer Hollywood studios will want to take a chance on making live action films based on manga/anime properties. But everything will eventually stabilize. Manga and anime are not going to disappear from America.

NBW: There has been a massive crackdown of piracy in the past two years. As Japanese animation studios and manga publishers move to suppress piracy, could that create a limitation on American fans? It already has in Japan, where the removal of copyrighted materials in Japan forced much of the doujin culture of Japan to move to copyright free works, such as doujin games and Vocaloids.

FS: As with all content businesses in the digital age, the piracy of manga and anime is a problem for which no one has an ideal solution. What we are discovering, I fear, is that once information — whether music, films or books — is digitalized, its commercial value tends to devolve towards zero rather quickly.

In the case of anime in particular, one additional problem is that North America anime’s current popularity is based partly on the practice of sharing information, established by fans in the early days when content was hard to obtain. This shared information took the form of translated scripts, illegally copied videotapes, and (eventually) fan subtitling. And without this sharing, the fan community would never have become as big as it did, because most people never would have been exposed to anime at all.

For that matter, manga, which have ridden on the back of anime popularity in North America, would never have gained as many fans, either.

In the early days, while grumbling about piracy, anime distributors and manga localizers and publishers often tacitly recognized that fans were helping to popularize their products, and they were willing to overlook some of the excesses of the fan community.

Today, however, when copying is far easier — with infinite, perfect copies possible now at the press of a button — the genie is, in a very real sense, out of the bottle. Thanks to bit torrent and scanlation Websites, anyone can get whatever they want — whether manga or anime — almost instantaneously, for free. We will see some crackdowns on piracy, but overly harsh crackdowns will ultimately not be successful, and may damage the brands of the companies and their products.

Eventually, there has to be a new business model, and a resetting of all price points, so that consumers feel they can get more value out of paying for something than they can by consuming it illegally.

NBW: Could this be a sign that the popularity is shifting from copyrighted and major corporate works to freeware and doujin works that allow a measure of less control, allowing more people to join into the fray? Is that culture viable in America?

FS: That would be great. I would love to see doujinshi [fan-made comic] culture take root in North America, and love to see people compete on a mass level to make their own manga. It would be difficult for anyone to make any money, I suspect, but it would be a lovely thing to see. It’s a more plausible scenario for manga than it is for anime.

NBW: How has Japanese popular culture changed the world? We know that throughout the years, Japan has had various aesthetic impacts on the world’s art and visual culture. Do you think the impact of this round of popular culture will affect American visual culture in the long term, and how?

FS: On a micro level, anime and manga have had a big influence on art styles used in American comics and animation, and even perhaps on fashion and general aesthetics. Just this week, there were news reports of Lady Gaga having used special contact lenses or Photoshop to make her pupils look bigger, à la Japanese anime.

But I think one of the biggest contributions Japanese popular culture has made to the world is to destroy many negative stereotypes of Japan. Thirty years ago, most Americans probably thought of Japanese as “economic animals” or “corporate automatons” who had no sense of humor. Fans of anime and manga today have a far better understanding of the richness of Japanese culture, and a far greater awareness of both the good and the bad in Japanese society.

Also, the popularity of anime and manga in America is a real demonstration of globalization. Pop culture is no longer an exclusively American export. As long as a country has something appealing, it can now export its pop culture. I like that idea.

NBW: What do you think of the Japanese government’s embrace of culture as a form of “soft power.” In 2008, the Japanese assigned a number of foreign ministers to present the best of “Japan Cool.” The popular children’s show character Doraemon was assigned as the Anime Ambassador while a young Japanese actress dressed as a school girl was elected as the Ambassador of cute. With the change in political power, again, will this pattern persist, or will we see a new direction for the promotion of Japanese popular culture in the future?

FS: I certainly understand the Japanese government’s embrace of its own pop culture, and its desire to use it as a type of “soft power.” What I am not sure of is whether the same officials have thought through the problems of using “pop culture.” Unlike promoting tea ceremony or more formalized, traditional art forms, “popular culture” is alive and active, and it possesses a type of animal spirit that cannot be controlled. It’s sort of like getting on a tiger; you may be able to ride the tiger, but it may not take you exactly where you want to go. Doraemon may be a good anime ambassador in Asia, and some European countries, but he is a completely unknown character in North America. Using young women dressed in Lolita costumes as “ambassadors of cute” may work well in some European and Asian countries, but in communities where there are strict religious, cultural and legal prohibitions to protect underage minors from sexual exploitation, any association with “Lolita” may not be in the interest of the Japanese government, especially when Japan’s loose laws against child pornography are already under attack.

NBW: What good comes from the end of this manga and anime boom? Is there something we can hope to see that’s positive? Will the fact that less series will be serialized and brought over improve the quality of what shows we see over here?

FS: There is a lot that is positive. As mentioned before, the end of the boom does not mean that anime and manga are going to disappear in North America. On the contrary, the end of the boom is the logical result of an explosion in popularity. It simply means that there will be a readjustment of expectations on the part of businesses here and in Japan. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the decrease in sales of English-language anime videos and manga does not necessarily mean a corresponding decrease in the number of fans. Attendance at some of the major fan conventions, for example, has continued to be quite high, even as sales of manga and anime drop.

In the new digital era, the fact that something does not make as much money as it once did does not automatically mean that it is less popular; it just means that it is less profitable. Hopefully, one result of the drop in sales will in fact be a greater emphasis on quality, licensed material.

NBW: What do you look forward to seeing in the future?

FS: I hope that Japanese manga and anime have already demonstrated a new potential for what are now nearly century-old, originally American, media, and helped to revitalize them. I have always thought that there is too much emphasis put on the country of origin for comics and animation, especially as we enter a more globalized era. Manga and comics, anime and animation… Who cares what they are called? They’re all essentially the same thing. They’re great visual entertainment, and lots of fun.

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