Just as I was preparing my contribution to the conversation, the word came to me about the death of TokyoPop, one of the few remaining manga publishers in American market. My career has been spent on both sides of the culture machine—I have worked equally as a scholar and as an editor of manga. So as much as I think of the idealistic side, I also consider the business side.
As the entire entertainment market moves slowly but surely to digital distribution, the million-dollar question is how the comics market in general and the manga market in particular will adapt, and whether it will survive. Manga is a superb form of literature, and I do a series of presentations and conventions and conferences extolling its virtues as both literature and as art. But the format is intrinsically connected to social and economic conditions that spawned it. Manga developed in a period after the Pacific War, when no other media was in any shape to successfully compete. Despite the fact that this period produced Japanese film makers who achieved world class status, such as Kurosawa and Ozu, post-war Japan did not have the technical infrastructure or the consumer spending power to produce a film industry such as Hollywood, and the television industry was practically non-existent. Cheap, mass-produced manga perfectly suited the social and material circumstances of the times, and hence it drew both creators and customers. The 400-page manga anthology magazine became a significant social force, no matter how much it was disparaged by cultural and educational elite.
But over the past few years, the work I have done has shifted from localizing manga for print to localizing it for digital distribution. During that same period, I’ve watched the print format manga producers in America bit the dust one after the other. My industry colleagues in Japan have also seen their markets crumble.
Some would say that manga will simply shift from paper to web page. But I think it’s not so simple. When society shifted from the horse-drawn wagon to the truck, it wasn’t just the mode of transport that evolved—the nature of the very goods delivered also changed. And as the consumers move away from manga to television, video games and social media, the energy and resources of Japan’s creative minds shift with them.