The Mike Toole Show Mr. Smith Goes to Osaka
by Michael Toole, Mar 10th 2013
“[Japanese companies] know we're here, folks, and they're starting to get serious about us... Fan activity continues to grow, and indeed, the numerous subtitling groups working around the country are making Japanimation accessible to thousands of new fans.”
--Toren Smith, A Viewer's Guide to Japanese Animation, May 1987
How do I measure the impact of Toren Smith, a man I've never met, on my life? For me personally, it's easy. All I have to do is get up, walk from my office to my library, and point, one by one, to the many, many books in my stacks that he's translated and/or published. I just recently finished a re-readthrough of Ghost in the Shell, so let's start with that. There's Oh My Goddess!, which happens to be the longest-running ongoing manga to be published in English - One Piece might be higher volume, but it's a decade younger. There's Makoto Kobayashi's wonderful cat comedy What's Michael?, and Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, and Blade of the Immortal. There's some great but sadly-unfinished fare, like Kenichi Sonoda's action-packed, unapologetically smutty Cannon God Exaxxion and Yuzo Takada's 3x3 Eyes. Toren Smith was a key figure in the western manga business, and by this proxy, a crucial influence on me. As you may well know, he's gone.
I'm gonna try to avoid making this into yet another milestone-by-milestone obituary, because Jonathan Clements already did that, and he did it better than most of us could have. There are plenty of other remembrances of the man out there, as well, filled with great stories of a fearless and ambitious craftsman who got so excited by Japanese comics and animation that he put everything he had on the line to share them with the rest of us. That quote up there seemed like an appropriate opener-- it came from a booklet that Smith first published at Baycon ‘86. Ostensibly just a B&W, stapled-together set of movie and TV synopses to help fans through the convention's largely-untranslated video program, the Baycon ‘86 program guide proved to be so extensive and vital that fans around the country begged for a commercial reprint-- and they got it, courtesy of Books Nippan. It cost $3.95, a price I gladly paid when I stumbled across it at a comic store in Amherst, MA in 1995. I was in the throes of Japanimation fever back then, eagerly buying up anything that even looked Japanese (Ninja High School totally fooled me!), and by pure coincidence I got what is known among older fans as the “Baycon book” at the same time I bought issue 1 of Dark Horse's You're Under Arrest! release-- which happened to be translated by Toren Smith's company, Studio Proteus.
Instead of a broad eulogy, I'm going to focus on a couple of points of interest in Smith's career. BayCon ‘86 happened on Memorial Day weekend-- just three months later, Toren Smith was at another convention, the Japan SF Convention, more popularly known as TOKON (if it's in Tokyo) or DAICON (if it's in Osaka, as it was in 1986). He was there at the request of his friend James P. Hogan, the award-winning science fiction author, who was the convention's Guest of Honor. In the eulogy linked above, Clements theorizes that Hogan might've owed some of his popularity to the fact that one of his novels, Giant's Star, is titled in Japanese (巨人たちの星, or Kyojin-tachi no Hoshi) in such a way that made it look similar to the famous baseball manga Star of the Giants (巨人の星 - Kyoji no Hoshi). I would totally agree with this except for the fact that Hogan had already won the Seiun Award, the convention's equivalent of our Hugo Award, in 1981 for a previous book, the most excellent 星を継ぐもの - Hoshi wo Tsugumono, or as we call it, Inherit the Stars. Check out these radical painted covers by Naoyuki Kato!
Yep, while American SF books were using splashy, embossed fonts and crazy cover artwork, this is what science fiction in Japan looked like. I'll get back to Hogan and his work in a bit, but someone else won the Seiun Award for comics at that 1986 edition of Daicon-- an artist named Masamune Shirow, who'd dazzled fans nationwide with his debut work Appleseed. Smith, his interest piqued by the win, got a look at Appleseed, liked what he saw, and by the end of the convention had negotiated with Blue Hearts Co., Shirow's publisher, and successfully secured the rights to publish Appleseed in English.
Let's think about that for a moment. Shirow's a real talent, so his work was bound to attract some attention from overseas sooner or later, but it was Smith who got to him first, pretty much right away. He got Appleseed-- which led to the Appleseed OVA, one of the first commercial anime VHS releases, picked by US Renditions because American comics fans would recognize it from the translated manga. Appleseed, which is still in print in manga form. Appleseed, which lives on as high-gloss CG anime. Appleseed would lead to Orion, and Black Magic M-66, and Dominion Tank Police, and eventually Ghost in the Shell. So it's not a stretch to say that without Toren Smith, we might not have Ghost in the Shell as we know it. We might not have gotten the manga, or the movie, which was picked for feature development in part due to the manga's popularity in the west (Smith did script rewrites for the film, too!). That same movie's aesthetics heavily informed The Matrix just a few years later.
Another 1986 Seiun Award Winner was Haruka Takachiho, SF author and creator of the Dirty Pair. Takachiho picked up a prize for The Dirty Pair's Great Reversal, which is actually available via Dark Horse under the title Dirty Pair Strike Again. Takachiho was well-known to Smith, who was exultant in his praise of the feature film adaptation of the SF writer's Crusher Joe in the BayCon book. Smith made his introduction to Takachiho at Daicon 5, which turned out to come in damn handy a couple of years later. Smith, who'd actually spent a couple of years writing comics before going head-on into translation, was buddies with a comic artist named Adam Warren back in San Francisco. They were both fans of Takachiho's Dirty Pair, but there was no manga for the young Studio Proteus to localize-- all of the source material was Takachiho's books. The duo decided to make their own manga! Thanks to Smith's prior relationship, what could've been a devilishly complicated negotiation was sorted out with a couple of letters and phone conversations, and in December of 1988 the first officially licensed Dirty Pair comics hit newsstands, a full six years before Carl Macek and Streamline Pictures had the bright idea to import the animated version.
When I got word that Toren Smith had died, I went straight for a certain piece of animated comfort food.
Yep. It made a certain kind of sense that Smith, with his introduction to the Japanese anime/manga industry coming as an attache to a popular science fiction novelist at the country's big SF event, would himself end up being a minor star (sorta) of Gunbuster, since the OVA is so grandly evocative of western science fiction-- that is, when it isn't showcasing hot mecha action or swiping pages from Aim for the Ace!'s playbook. Gunbuster's most frequently discussed reference is the way its depiction of hyperspace time dilation calls back to The Forever War, Joe Haldeman's tale of a soldier shunted from war to war, using hyperspace travel as a kind of time tunnel, and consequently witnessing entire civilizations rise and fall as he fights to keep going. It makes sense; while it didn't win the Seiun award, The Forever War has been in print in Japan since 1978.
In any case, the Gunbuster appearance (which came about because Smith spent some time crashing at Gainax House during Gunbuster's production-- Kazuki Yao voiced the above character, but if you listen closely, you'll hear Smith's panicked baritone as a bridge officer!) would seal Smith's notoriety on both sides of the pacific. By the time I first saw Gunbuster, I'd read my manga and figured out who he was, so it was neat to put two and two together. By the way, if you've been waiting patiently for the prices of Bandai Visual USA's sweet Gunbuster box set to fall, you're too late-- it's well and truly out of print, and getting rarer.
I said I was going to get back to James P. Hogan, so I will. The late Hogan (he died in 2010) enjoyed sustained popularity in Japan, buoyed largely by his Giants series but helped along by other works, including his 1978 Seiun award-winner The Genesis Machine and 1979 novel The Two Faces of Tomorrow. That second one is particularly important, because the book reprint of it was one of Studio Proteus’ last major projects. You see?
That's right-- Hogan's work was popular enough that numerous of his stories were transformed into manga, with many of them adapted by Yukinobu Hoshino and published in Big Comic. I'm actually bummed that The Two Faces of Tomorrow is the only one we got in English, because Inherit the Stars was also adapted for Big Comic. The original is a premium book; I dig it all the way. It was one of my favorite sci-fi novels growing up; its central conceit of mankind finding millennia-old technology and human remains on the moon really fascinated me. I always felt like the book, Hogan's debut (he wrote it and got it published as part of an office bet, no less) never quite got its due in the west, so it's neat to see that it was so embraced in Japan.
But on its face, taking a manga version of a hard science fiction novel like Two Faces of Tomorrow and bringing it back to English seems like sort of a strange decision. Studio Proteus, however, was always run on the tastes of Toren Smith-- he hand-picked just about every title that the studio translated, and famously admitted in a 2002 interview that he didn't pursue any shoujo manga licenses because he didn't personally care for the genre. In particular, The Two Faces of Tomorrow made a beautiful sort of sense, because Smith wasn't content to merely translate Hoshino's already-adapted text-- he used Hogan's original as a sourcebook, completely wearing out and destroying his own paperback copy in the process. And when things weren't 100% clear or he wanted some extra details, Smith just picked up the phone and called his friend, James P. Hogan. Add to Hoshino's 576 pages of gorgeous artwork a large-format reproduction, retouched and flopped with care to left-to-right format, and you've got one of the finest English-language manga adaptations ever made. It's still in print, folks!
But pointing out the high quality of the adaptation is kind of funny, because these days, we turn our noses up at flopped pages, don't we? When the manga boom got underway in 2002, Smith was dismayed to see so much poorly-reproduced, sloppily-translated fare climb the charts, especially since much of it bore Tokyopop's 100% AUTHENTIC stamp. He complained about this publicly, and the resulting lengthy online discussion was one of my only interactions with him-- I agreed with his misgivings about quality, but I was happy with the flood of new product and urged him to take BookScan sales into account as well as his Diamond figures. Clearly, I thought, his dire predictions about the eventual flop of the manga boom were misguided-- a grand assembly line of minimally-altered manga was the way of the future!
Yeah, we know how the manga boom turned out, eh? You know, it's funny-- you look at the name Studio Proteus and figure that Smith chose that moniker because the mythological Proteus could change his form; he was elusive, ever-adapting to challenges. But Homer specifically dubbed Proteus the “old man of the sea,” an oracle who could foretell the future but kinda didn't want to, hence his eagerness to shape-shift and escape from the men who'd use his powers. Maybe Smith didn't want to play doomsayer in 2002 (and again, in 2005), but his words certainly seem prescient now.
It's also kind of funny to compare Studio Proteus's exhaustive adaptations to Tokyopop's old 100% AUTHENTIC line. Serious manga fans want their books minimally retouched and unflopped, because that's the way of the purist, right? But when you read one of Toren Smith's Studio Proteus adaptations, which unfailingly use professional comic letterers and retouch artists (including his wife, the illustrator Tomoko Saito), original photos of source material (you know that Tokyopop's standard approach was to microwave the Japanese tankoban to soften the glue and then just scan the pages in, right?), and a staff of accomplished translators who double as professional interpreters and authors, you start to realize that Toren Smith was the real purist-- a craftsman who wouldn't settle for a translation that wasn't perfectly comfortable and comprehensible in English. This is why most Studio Proteus releases are flopped-- Smith acknowledged the advantages of unflopped books, but remained unsatisfied with the feel of flipping pages right-to-left, but still reading word balloons and text left-to-right. Even back in the Baycon book, he advised readers to “support quality, and show no mercy to shoddy adaptations!”
I'm going to close this remembrance of sorts by starting a really good argument. What's the best way to translate manga? Is a rough, nearly-literal translation, unflopped pages, and unretouched sound effects ideal? Or do you want a fully immersive, adaptive translation, with redone FX, artfully rewritten dialogue (even if it obfuscates certain points of interest), and flopped pages? I would love to say that I'm on the 100% authentic bandwagon, because intellectually, I definitely want stuff relatively unchanged, but you know what? An awful lot of the really good manga I've been buying lately has been flopped, and I haven't found myself minding this, or even really noticing. Fare like Osamu Tezuka's Message to Adolf, A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Susumu Katsumata's Red Snow... that kinda stuff.
In fact, out of the large volume of Tezuka manga we've gotten over the years, only a handful of titles-- DMP's releases, and Vertical's Dororo and Black Jack, mainly-- have been unflopped. Viz's fine and thorough Phoenix adaptation, and the entire run of Astro Boy by Dark Horse (translation by Studio Proteus, natch) went flopped, and nobody said boo. In fact, I think many of the flopped translated books I've got are better than some of the unflopped ones-- the stuff I mentioned is definitely better than Bat-Manga, Chip Kidd's weird repackaging of Jiro Kuwata's 1960s Batman manga, and probably better than ADV Manga's passable but error-ridden stab at Azumanga Daioh. What's the best way to translate manga? Is there a best way for everything, or is it a case-by-case basis?
I'm sure Toren Smith would've relished a discussion like this, so let's make it a good one! When it came to his life and his craft, the guy always aimed for the top. That's the best any of us can do.
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