Are American Comics Popular In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Sarah asked:

Are American comics/movies popular in Japan? I know there have been some recent American Comic Book franchise adaptations into Anime like X-Men and Blade so there must be some interest I imagine, but how popular are American Comic book based franchises in Japan? Is there a non-anime comic book convention in Japan?

They're a niche, but a significant one. To put it in perspective, the second annual Tokyo Comic Con took place in December, and hosted 43,000 attendees. (For comparison, AnimeJapan had 143,000, while Comiket gets over half a million.) While Japan's own domestic manga industry turns out enough comics to keep most of the country occupied, there is a Japanese fan base for the characters themselves more than their original comics. Much like in the US, most people don't read the original comics, but know the major characters and stories through the various other media that has come out over the decades.

Superman was published in Japanese as early as the 1950s, as part of the flood of American pop culture that came to Japan in the years following the postwar occupation. In the late 60s and early 70s, manga magazines started localizing American comics and releasing them in a similar format to manga: first serialized in magazines (often mixed in with local manga titles) and then as graphic novels. A young scholar named Kōsei Ono led the push, producing the first Japanese translations of Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Captain America. Many, many Western comics, including independent ones, have been released in Japanese since. But not every book store carries these, and some fashionable shops just carry the original English versions that people buy for the artwork.

As one might expect, the biggest fans of Western comics tend to be manga artists, who are often looking for inspiration from other artists worldwide. Local manga artists were also hired to put a Japanese spin on popular characters. Some noteworthy attempts over the years include Ryoichi Ikegami's 1970 adaptation of Spider-Man (which was written by Ono), and Batman comics by Katsuhiro Otomo and Kia Asamiya. Other manga artists, like Masakazu Katsura, often cite American comics as major influences on their work.

Giant Hollywood blockbusters and their related marketing are inescapable in most of the industrialized world. Japan is no exception, although American comic book films tend not to do as well over there: the top Comic Book Movie of 2017 was Spider-Man: Homecoming, which only ranked #16, having been beaten by Beauty and the Beast, Despicable Me 3, The Last Jedi and Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell No Tales... and also by anime like the latest Detective Conan movie, the latest Doraemon movie, the latest Gintama movie, the latest Pokémon movie... you get the idea. They do okay, but they're hardly the giant hits that they are here.

American Comic Book Movie Box Office Rankings, 2017
Movie Title US       Japan
Wonder Woman #3 #38
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 #4 #48
Spider-Man: Homecoming #6 #16
Thor: Ragnarok #8 #47
Justice League #10 #38
Logan #11 #69
The LEGO Batman Movie #16 #139

Source: Box Office Mojo

Some comic book movies do better than others. Spider-Man seems to have connected in Japan more consistently than other franchises, and in 2012 The Avengers actually cracked the Japanese top 10 at the box office. But most superhero films end up somewhere in the middle of the road, neither big hits nor bombs.

In addition to the original comics and movie adaptations, there have been many American superhero TV series that have found their way to Japanese airwaves. In the late 70s, Toei Company produced a Spider-Man tokusatsu series (Spider-Man is known as Takuya Yamashiro in that one, not Peter Parker), as well as a hilariously bad anime special of The Tomb of Dracula. American superhero cartoons were broadcast in Japan (in dubbed form, often on satellite channels). They make Marvel anime for the Japanese market, too - not a whole lot of it, but it's out there. Marvel Future Avengers is a Madhouse TV anime that has a second season due out this summer in Japan, for example.

How do you describe something that keeps popping up again and again in the consciousness of a country without ever being a major breakthrough hit? That would be the space where American comics lie in Japan.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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