Casey Brienza, Manga in America: Transnational Book Publishing and the Domestication of Japanese Comics
Bloomsbury, 232pp, £17.99, ISBN 9781472595874
reviewed by Susan Burton
Previous scholars of Japanese popular culture have viewed manga as 'culturally odorless' (Koichi Iwabuchi, 2002) and 'like air' (Sharon Kinsella, 2000), able to permeate any cultural or national boundary freely and successfully because the medium's 'national, racial and ethnic characteristics are undetectable'. Manga were, they note, developed in a postwar Japan influenced by the influx of comics from America and as such they are by nature international. Brienza rejects this interpretation, claiming that it renders invisible the concerted efforts of American publishing companies to obtain manga titles from Japan and ignores the labour-intensive process of adapting manga for the American market.
Earlier theories have ignored the fact that manga were not initially commercially successful outside Japan. The first manga published in English in 1980, Gen of Hiroshima, about the artist's experiences after the atomic bomb, was a flop. American publishers such as Viz and the now defunct TokyoPop experimented with different formats before hitting upon the idea of marketing manga not in anthology comics or fanzines but as small books featuring one continuing character. These books were then picked up by the likes of Borders who gave them their own section in their bookstores. But it was not until in 1998 when the Sailor Moon animé series was broadcast on Cartoon Network that manga sales took off. What led to the success of the accompanying Sailor Moon manga collection was its availability in the bookstores of big shopping malls where girls in groups were more likely to hang out, as opposed to generally male-only comic shops as seen on the the television show, The Big Bang Theory.
Another scholarly interpretation of the spread of manga and animé outside Japan is that they represent a form of 'soft power', a cultural invasion engineered by a global commercial power. In 2009, under the moniker of 'Cool Japan' then prime minister Taro Aso even attempted to harness this soft power to boost Japan's sagging economic fortunes while American commentators viewed manga as having conquered America and revolutionised their home-grown popular culture. But this view discounts the frustrations encountered by American publishing companies in their attempts to buy the licensing rights to manga titles. It was not all international goodwill and hands across the sea. Japanese businesses didn't think there was a market for manga abroad, and when foreign companies sought out licences from unreceptive Japanese publishers and rights agencies who oversaw negotiations on behalf of manga artists (who unlike Marvel and DC own the rights to their characters), the Japanese employees grudgingly placed in charge of dealing with foreign rights were 'unhappy people,' at least until they began to realise how much money was involved. Notes one Japanese rights agency insider, 'I still make a point of making this clear to people that there wasn't a market. No Japanese publishers went out to find a market. So it was all very passive.'
Brienza has interviewed over 70 Japanese and American company insiders and they are vocal in their complaints that cross-cultural resentment and downright racism from both sides have tainted efforts to maximise manga sales. Notes one American publisher, 'I want to beat up the big companies [in Japan]. No, I meant it. We've been treated so poorly by those big companies just because they have the brand, they have the money, they have more resources. They really look down on us.' Japanese licence holders have attempted to keep tight controls on how manga are translated and marketed in the United States. American sales are relatively unimportant to the Japanese, whose domestic manga market is worth $4.2 billion dollars annually, so they can well afford to throw their weight around.
However, American licencees want the freedom to adapt the works to the interests of the American market. To prepare manga stories for publication pages may be reversed or 'flopped' (since the Japanese read from right to left), although many English-language editions no longer do this as fans prefer a more authentic read. Dialogue must be translated and a degree of adaptation or rewriting may be required since Japanese is a language which cannot be rendered literally into English without it sounding unnatural. This allows for some artistic freedom, and one adaptor admits to Brienza that wherever possible, she tones down the sexism. Elsewhere, characters' names are changed to make it easier for an English-speaking readership to pronounce, and some characters even change sex to make them more gender appropriate. Endnotes are sometimes added to explain obscure cultural references. Editors must also be vigilant against depictions of drug use including smoking, expressions of prejudice, particularly racism and homophobia, and religious themes. Age-inappropriate drawings and stories must be excised with those buoyant manga breasts and panty shots toned down or obscured by dialogue, a task undertaken by the graphic designers who retouch artwork and craft the overall look of the books. And all this with the Japanese licensor looking over their shoulders and vetoing the changes they feel take the stories too far from the originals: a valid concern, Brienza admits, since some of her informants talk of 'conquering of the text', using them as avenues for their own self-expression, improving the stories they think are not up to standard, superimposing themselves and their views upon them and in effect 'owning' them. Brienza calls this whole adaptation process 'domestication.' Manga may have a distinctive Japanese look but they also have to speak to the host culture. This effectively demolishes the view that manga move across cultures 'like air.’
Working in the manga industry is a labour of love. The generally small American manga publishing companies are staffed mostly by fans working on tight budgets, and some titles are increasingly being crowdfunded by fan groups in order to raise the money to bring a new title to the American market. Translators too are often freelancing young fangirls (surprisingly, Brienza says it's a female-dominated industry), scratching a living while facing competition from illegal scanlation websites which upload manga translated for free by fan clubs. Considering the future of manga publishing, Brienza questions whether these enterprises can survive in the digital age. However, some Japanese insiders note that several manga stories are only still being produced in Japan because they remain popular in the United States, a small shift in the balance of power. And recently, Brienza notes, American artists have been taking the manga look and style and creating OEL or Original English Language manga, home-grown stories such as Peepo Cho by Felipe Smith (who moved to Japan in order to create it) and Twilight: The Graphic Novel. Far from revolutionising American popular culture, Brienza suggests that, through the process of domestication, it is manga that are being Americanised. She asks an intriguing question: could there come a day when American-produced manga are exported in volume back to Japan?
The overseas manga boom peaked in 2007 and declined after the Lehman Shock in 2008 and the bankruptcy of Borders in 2011. Yet in the United States in 2012, manga sales still reached $120 million while Animé Expo (America's largest Japanese popular culture convention) topped 50,000 visitors the same year. Although manga remain a niche market their cultural influence stretches far beyond their country of origin. Hollywood adaptations of Marvel and DC comic superheroes have dominated the box office for the last few years but at the time of writing, Scarlett Johansson is in New Zealand filming the Masamune Shirow manga story of a crime-fighting cyborg, Ghost in the Shell. Death Note and Akira are apparently in development. Film fans point to heavy manga influence in other Hollywood blockbusters such as Inception (strikingly similar to Paprika) and Pacific Rim (not unlike Neon Genesis Evangelion). Manga may not have invaded the United States nor revolutionised American culture, but they are a culturally relevant and commercially important industry worthy of study.
Having carried out so many interviews with industry insiders on the lengthy and often conflict-ridden process of preparing manga for the American market, I would also like to have heard the voices of those at the end of the domestication chain, the consumers. Who are they? What is it that they enjoy so much about Japanese manga stories? Brienza notes in passing that although manga can be drawn in many different styles, the bestselling manga in America nearly always conform to stereotypical characteristics: a meticulously detailed drawing style and often science-fiction or sexually explicit stories. Are manga fans expressing an appreciation of 'cool' Japanese culture, or are they comic fans for whom manga is simply one course in a diet of Marvel, DC and graphic novels?
Brienza, who is also the author of Global Manga: Japanese Comics without Japan?, is a lecturer in publishing and digital media at City University in London. Manga in America is more for the academic or the book industry specialist than the manga fan and is primarily aimed at the American market, but is a very useful addition to knowledge on the subject.