Ima, kore ga hoshiin da! - I would have bought it a year ago, Missed Opportunities.

May 31st 2002


By nature, I'm a reader. I've been reading as far back as I can remember, and I'm not talking about the simple skill of being able to read, I'm talking about actual books, novels and the ever popular comic books. As a young lad, I remember working part time and using ever nickel, dime and quarter at my disposal to buy comic books. For me, comic books were the ultimate type of reading. Sure, its pictures with words, but still the stories took me to other worlds. This of course took me into the world of Anime and the Manga industry that often spawns many an Anime title. While the emphasis of the North American market tends to push Anime over Manga, there are the tried and true who go out of their way to pick up their favorite Manga titles.

Of course, in comparison to Anime distributors, the number of companies that also handle Manga is a much shorter list. You would actual expect the opposite because the general feeling is that Manga has fewer production costs. No voice actors, sound engineers or DVD/VHS authoring houses to pay. Of course, it's harder to get "comic books" into the video stores, toy stores or other mass-market locations that DVD/VHS can sneak into.

Enter TOKYOPOP, a small company trying to change the way a lot of people look at Manga. With a lot of their current press, and a look at their release schedule, you would get the feeling these guys are just getting started. Well, it's not quite that simple as they've been around a while, and learned things the hard way. It's really only be the last year that they've taken the things they've learned and turned it into a practical marketing plan.

So what have they learned? 1) To sell a lot of books, it helps to have a good price. I purchased a first printing of Sorcerer Hunters. It carried a nice price point of $12.95 US: a nice price considering their competitors books often carry a price of $14.95 to $15.95 US. Well, going for that more competitive edge, the new price is now under $10.00 US (9.99 to be exact, but why quibble).

2) TOKYOPOP has made quite a few marketing decisions to help push their books to the top. While a lot of these can be viewed as cost cutting decisions, a lot of this push the envelope of being Manga fan friendly. The first is sticking with the Japanese right to left reading style. For those used to the English way of doing things, this basically means reading a book backwards. For the purists, this is the only way to view the artists' original intent when the material was created. For TOKYOPOP these means a saving on creating flipped versions of the pages and not having to clean up the art to make some text readable. The other part is leaving the original sound effects intact. This saves on having a team of artists redoing whole panels of artwork just to place the English word "BANG" into the background of the action. So now, it becomes a bit clearer on why they can bring the books in at just under 10 bucks.

TOKYOPOP has done one other thing: they've worked with Suncoast (a popular video chain store) to bring Manga to the masses. Knowing the marketing style of Suncoast, the Manga will probably be placed right near the Anime, and similar to the way the supermarkets get you with the candy at the check out counter, more and more people will be picking up Manga.

So what does all that have to do with this column? Simply stated, the stories that inspire the Anime we're often clamoring for is making its way here well in Manga form well before the Anime will appear. One of the first series I took a look at was Chobits. The Anime will probably not make its way here until next year at the earliest, but the Manga it is based on is already out, a TOKYOPOP release. Other wanted series are making their way via Manga. Support of these titles can help point out that people actually want these properties here.

Of course, one company has been at this game quite a bit longer than TOKYOPOP. In fact, this company has built its reputation on its Manga releases since many of its Anime releases come under continual fire. I'm talking about Viz, one of the minor players in the Anime market, but one of the big boys of Manga. They've got quite a few titles that definitely fall under the "I Want It Now" label. Ironically enough, a lot of these fan desired titles come from a single Manga creator, Rumiko Takahashi. For the uninformed, Ms. Takahashi is responsible for a few infamous Anime/Manga series with names such as: Urusei Yatsura, Ranma ½, Maison Ikkoku and her latest project Inu-yashu. Of those 4 titles, Viz controls the Manga rights to all of them and the Anime rights to all but Urusei Yatsura.

The release of Ranma ½ has been received fairly well, with some concerns over bizarre editing choices and the rearranging of many of the episodes. The last season of Ranma is currently making its way to DVD and VHS with the previous seasons slowly making their way to DVD box sets. Maison Ikkoku hasn't seen any releases in the last few years and the DVD sets are currently in limbo. All of this makes the fans wary of the way Viz will handle Inuyasha.

The manga has been out for the last few years, with steady releases coming out every few months. Ms. Takahashi continues to produce the Manga, so the North American releases will probably go on for a while. Much like the majority of their Manga line, Viz flips the Japanese pages to fit the English left to right standard. Fans are still buying them, but the purist tend to hit the second hand market to pull in the original Japanese books.

Coming from the prolific Ms. Takahashi, Inuyasha already has a stable of fans awaiting its release. The series features many familiar tones from Ms. Takahashi's previous work. The leads, Inuyasha and Kagome, butt heads from the start, but build that familiar bond that all leads have. Another trait is the many romantic interests that help push Inuyasha and Kagome closer together. Unlike her previous work, Inuyasha takes on the guise of an action/adventure series. The villains are more deadly, the situations much more serious and the overall goal is quite clear. The Anime, based solidly on the Manga, has taken on the quality of a monster of the week show, but maintains many of the magical elements found in all of Ms. Takahashi's work.

The problem here is the series just can't come fast enough. In Japan, the series has reached its 70th episode with more on the way. The ratings are steady and the original movie based on the series did quite well in Japanese theaters. Unfortunately, Viz has been dragging their feet on this one. Work has begun on the English dub, and Viz has shown themselves capable with DVD authoring. Viz has even moved away from their horrible 2 episodes per release format, adopting the industry norm of 3+ episodes per release. The real problem is Viz is set on a TV release of Inuyasha. Yes, Inuyasha is ideal for the TV market, especially with Cartoon Network's new Adult Swim line-up, but this is not a valid excuse to tie up a release that will sell quite well for them.

Inuyasha, aside from its great plot, dynamic characters and level of wit, also sports some of the best looking animation to come out of Japan. For a TV series, the animation and art rival that of many high quality OVA series. Based on the designs of Ms. Takahashi, the characters stand out as familiar and intriguing. The effects and action sequences will also bring in a large diverse audience. Viz has a goldmine in their hands, but only serve to hurt themselves by delaying Inuyasha's release.

Inuyasha is a hot series, and will sell well with the fans. Due to inconsistent releases in the past, many fans felt Bandai would have been a better distributor than Viz. (Bandai has close ties with Sunrise, the animators behind Inu-Yashu.)

Maison Ikkoku also falls into the category of potential missed opportunities as Viz continues to drag their feet on a DVD release. Viz is not alone here, as AnimEigo, holders of the Urusei Yatsura license, takes their time with releases of that series. Each of these series suffers a potential loss of momentum as each is delayed to market. Fans will wait, but only the truly devoted will wait forever.

It's an easy step from, "I want it now", to "I would have bought it a year ago." For many fans, their "I want it now" feeling can be maintained by a faster Manga release. It's always wise to keep your options open, and at least we have more companies seeing the worth of Manga.

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