Pe­na­trat­ing Gala­pa­gos

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - R.AGE - by ROLAnd KeLTS

JA­PAN’S “Gala­pa­gos syn­drome”, a phrase first coined to char­ac­terise the nation’s highly evolved but glob­ally in­com­pat­i­ble cell phones, is lately be­ing ap­plied to other iso­lated in­dus­tries, even to its peo­ple. “The Gala­pago­si­sa­tion of Ja­pan con­tin­ues”, trum­peted one US news­pa­per last month, when a sur­vey of Ja­pan’s whitecol­lar work­ers re­vealed that a full two-thirds of them never want to work abroad.

Such at­ti­tudes won’t sur­prise any­one in­volved with Ja­pan’s pro­duc­ers of pop­u­lar cul­ture, whose min­i­mal and of­ten blink­ered ef­forts to cap­i­talise on the global ap­peal of their prod­ucts have re­sulted in the down­siz­ings, pinched mar­gins and scant op­ti­mism plagu­ing Tokyo. Most of them are over­worked, un­der­staffed and un­der­funded; they don’t have time to look up from their desks, let alone pay at­ten­tion to the rest of the world.

Gala­pago­si­sa­tion is a two-way road­block: In­sid­ers can­not sur­vive out­side, out­siders can­not get in. Al­most ev­ery one of those over­bur­dened staffers is Ja­panese. “We have noth­ing to of­fer (for­eign artists) here,” says Shogakukan Co’s Masakazu Kubo, vet­eran manga edi­tor and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of Poke­mon. “That’s shame­ful.”

In 2007, Yukari Shi­ina set out to breathe new life into an in­dus­try she saw grow­ing stale and self-ab­sorbed. She founded the World-manga.com agency with the goal of in­tro­duc­ing nonJa­panese artists to do­mes­tic manga pub­lish­ers, ne­go­ti­at­ing con­tracts and pub­lic­ity be­tween them.

“I re­ally wanted to bring some di­ver­sity into the Ja­panese in­dus­try,”she says. “Di­ver­sity is one of the keys to sur­vival. It’s strange that we have tons of trans­lated nov­els and films here, and Ja­panese love those works, mys­tery nov­els and Hollywood movies and Dis­ney. But for some rea­son, we don’t like the comics that oth­ers (like).”

Shi­ina sur­veyed the US in­dus­try and found va­ri­ety ga­lore: Comics by non-US artists are com­mon­place on the shelves and at con­ven­tions, and nu­mer­ous non-na­tive-born artists and em­ploy­ees work for US pub­lish­ers. Why not cre­ate a sim­i­lar sce­nario in Ja­pan?

It hasn’t been easy. The lan­guage bar­rier, she says, is huge, “much big­ger than I q Roland Kelts writes the col­umn Soft Power Hard Truths for The Daily Yomi­uri of Ja­pan. He is a vis­it­ing scholar at Tokyo Uni­ver­sity who di­vides his time be­tween Tokyo and New York. thought”. In ad­di­tion, the do­mes­tic manga busi­ness is strongly driven by fads and trends, with rapid turnover. The In­ter­net may pro­vide the il­lu­sion of greater prox­im­ity and trans­parency for over­seas fans and artists, but trend spot­ting from thou­sands of kilo­me­ters away is in­ad­e­quate. “Peo­ple think that with the In­ter­net you can fol­low ev­ery­thing, but that’s just not true.”

Thus far, the num­ber of non­na­tive artists World-manga.com has man­aged to im­port and pub­lish matches its years in op­er­a­tion: ex­actly three – hardly a trend of its own. Nev­er­the­less, at least one of them has gar­nered con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion and praise, and his re­sume reads like a road map of di­ver­sity.

Felipe Smith was born to a Ja­maican fa­ther and Ar­gen­tine mother in Ohio, raised in Buenos Aires, trained at the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago, and dis­cov­ered while liv­ing in and cre­at­ing comics about Los An­ge­les. At 32, he has lived in Tokyo for two and a half years, pub­lish­ing his se­ries Peepo Choo (Pikachu rib-poke) first in Ja­panese with Ko­dan­sha Co, then in English with Ver­ti­cal, Inc.

It helps that he walks the walk: Smith is an au­to­di­dact who learned to speak Ja­panese flu­ently in Los An­ge­les via a Ja­panese room­mate, a job in a karaoke bar, and sheer will. Now he writes at least some of his orig­i­nal text in the lan­guage, the rest of which is trans­lated by Shi­ina.

“What drew me to manga was that there wasn’t this tem­plate,” he tells me. “It wasn’t so much the con­tent, but the di­ver­sity of styles. There is no sin­gle draw­ing style for manga. That’s why I’m here. What’s be­ing sold to the rest of the world is very limited, but here (in Ja­pan), you can do all kinds of things.”

In 2003, Smith won the “Ris­ing Stars of Manga” con­test, the brain­child of US pub­lisher and dis­trib­u­tor Toky­oPop’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer and founder, Stu­art Levy.

“Felipe’s art re­ally stood out,” Levy re­calls. “Each and ev­ery page was filled with de­tails, from the back­grounds to the char­ac­ters’ fa­cial ex­pres­sions, and his line-work was pol­ished.”

Toky­oPop pub­lished Smith’s first se­ries, the three-vol­ume

The World of Sho­nen­jump ex­hi­bi­tion at the Is­tan­bul Mod­ern art mu­seum. There’s great in­ter­est in an­ime and manga out­side Ja­pan, but Ja­pan’s pro­duc­ers of pop­u­lar cul­ture do not have time to pay at­ten­tion to the rest of the world. MBQ (which he now de­scribes as a seinen, or young man’s manga set in Los An­ge­les), in 2005, gar­ner­ing the at­ten­tion of agent Shi­ina, who helped land his cur­rent edi­tor at Ko­dan­sha. Smith’s is an ex­cep­tional story, to be sure, as is the story of Peepo Choo it­self – a USJa­pan cul­ture clash com­edy mock­ing and cel­e­brat­ing pop cul­ture fans in both coun­tries, drawn in riv­et­ing and some­times sur­re­al­is­ti­cally vi­o­lent graph­ics. His achieve­ment would seem many a for­eign manga fan’s dream.

But un­like the salary­men in his adopted home­land, Smith is de­ter­mined to tran­scend Ja­pan’s Gala­pa­gos men­tal­ity. He wants his work to be read and ap­pre­ci­ated world­wide. “We have to get be­yond these silly clas­si­fi­ca­tions of manga and comics, Ja­panese or Amer­i­can. The hard­est thing is try­ing to make it a global thing, not just for the reader here, but ev­ery­where. It’s def­i­nitely pos­si­ble, though, and I think it’s nec­es­sary. It’s just re­ally hard.”

At least he and Shi­ina were will­ing to leave home to make the ef­fort. — The Daily Yomi­uri / Asia News Net­work Send your fan art to otakuart@thes­tar.com.my or via post to Star Pub­li­ca­tions (M) Bhd, c/o Otaku­Zone-R. AGE, Me­nara Star, 15 Jalan 16/11, 46350 Petaling Jaya, Se­lan­gor. In­clude your full name, age, MyKad num­ber, ad­dress and con­tact num­ber. You may add a pseu­do­nym if you wish. Art pieces sent in by snail mail are not re­turn­able. All sub­mis­sions must be orig­i­nal and not copied whole­sale from else­where.

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