TokyoPop’s closure a tale of destiny

Courtesy of TokyoPop

I’m not a fan of TokyoPop, and this entry may be read as just one blogger’s loud-mouthed harangues on the grave, but this end is a lesson to be learned and the closing act of a tragedy.

I will not deny where credit is due. TokyoPop is one of the most influential presences in the United States’ J-Pop industry. Without it, there would never have been manga so readily available on bookshelves at your local Borders (which is, btw, also closing down). TokyoPop is also instrumental in launching the careers of a number of great artists. Felipe Smith, Lindsay Cibos, and M. Alice LeGrow are all from the crop of the visionary “Rising Stars of Manga” contest they used to run.

And TokyoPop was instrumental in getting manga started in the U.S. It began as Mixx in 1997 and was the SoCal rival to the San Francisco-based Viz Media. While they were the newcomers on the scene, the company cut corners and proceeded to make bank.

To place into perspective, let’s go back to 1997. Japan was still stereotyped as the Electronic’s Mecca, and a robotic entity where business was in vogue, not fashion. In Japan, Pokemon was becoming a hit and Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball’s anime were ending (the fandom was still growing). The harem genre was just starting, and Gainax had succeeded in making an anime that enjoyed widespread success.

Stu Levy and company came into the industry as fans and wanted to take the cultural landscape of Japan and transfer it to America’s youth. It was ambitious, but the timing couldn’t have been better. Their work to expand in the early new millennium was coupled with the explosion of interest in Japanese culture and in a seemingly positive-feedback loop, they cranked out more and more titles of manga at cheap costs to keep the consumers hungry for more.

With deals with Kodansha and HarperCollins under their belt, TokyoPop seemed like a juggernaut in the industry. So what if “hard-core” fans complained about them? Maybe OEL Manga was at times kitsch in value. Perhaps their legal work was a bit sketchy at times. But at the end of the day, they made money and it would seem like they would be doing so for the foreseeable future.

What they failed to see, however, was that they were saturating the market in an unending race to license everything ever created in Japan’s 60 long years of popular culture history. By no means is TokyoPop the sole culprit — CMX, DMP, Viz, everyone was guilty in over speculating (some more than others) — but TokyoPop was a sign that the industry would implode.

They cut corners by not “flopping” manga and cleverly explained that they were bringing the “real thing” in. They used lower grade paper and cranked out translations at wholesale. This allowed them to sell their comics for $8.99 compared to their competitors who sold for $10.99 (it used to be that a copy of non-chronologically ordered Ranma 1/2 comics sold for $16). TokyoPop was a machine and cranking out about 500 volumes of manga a year at its peak.

Today, lower quality doesn’t cut it. Today the market is saturated by horrible cash crop manga with no value save for it being manga.

You just can’t make it when you’re a company like TokyoPop. A business requires a visionary direction and a controlled plan of growth. When idealism ruled out business sense, the company had sealed its fate. And this isn’t even touching on everything going on with digital vs. paper publishing.

So with all due respect, I bid you adieu. Good luck with the future. I hear TokyoPop’s multimedia branch will continue to work, so perhaps the coffin isn’t nailed shut yet.

With all due respect, I bid you adieu. Good luck with the future. I hear TokyoPop’s multimedia branch will continue to work, so perhaps the coffin isn’t nailed shut yet.
About Tomo Hirai

For more than half a decade, Tomo Hirai has whittled his time away playing video games and reading comics. He has been writing about Japanese pop-culture since his start at the Nichi Bei Times working on Anime/Manga special issues.

Comments

  1. Last I checked, and as far as I can find, Borders as an entity isn’t shutting down quite yet. It’s only restructuring in the midst of a Chapter 11. Only ~30% of their stores are closing, as far as I can tell.

    • Tomo Hirai says:

      Yes, Borders is not entirely out, but their bankruptcy is all but a stake in the coffin. It’s only a matter of time before they are slowly phased out of our lives and goes the route of Emporium.

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