Manga Answerman - Does Manga Need An Anime Adaptation To Hit In The West?

by Deb Aoki,

A friend of mine and I had an argument about this and I was hoping you had an opinion on it. Do you think it's true that outside of a few cases, most manga needs an anime adaptation in order to really catch on in the west?

Hm. Let me preface my thoughts on this with a disclaimer – that this is just some general observations and anecdotes, and it's not super-duper scientific. For every example of “yes, that's true,” there will always be another example that makes you wonder, “well, maybe not.” So I'm guessing that my response won't exactly be the end-all to your argument with your friend.

Okay, now that that's out of that way, I'll start by noting that differences in fandom and how people consume entertainment in Japan vs. N. America plays a role in this discussion.

Reading and buying books and magazines, and especially manga and light novels is a big deal in Japan – more than it is in N. America. There are lots of bookstores and newsstands everywhere you look in Japan. Convenience stores have manga, airport bookstores have manga, and there are huge ads for the latest volume of a new manga in major train stations in Tokyo. When's the last time you saw a billboard for a comic book (not a movie based on comics, but a large mainstream media ad for an actual printed comic book)?

I did some math recently for a librarian colleague. Roughly speaking, the total N. American book market is 26 billion $USD, of which comics/graphic novels/manga sales is $1 billion, or less than 4% of the total book sales in N. America (US and Canada). According to Dallas Middaugh's recent article for Publishers Weekly, he estimates that manga sales represented “26% of all graphic novels sold in (N. America) in 2018.”( )

By comparison, the Japanese book market is smaller in terms of total sales, but manga sales make up a much larger proportion of those sales. The All Japan Magazine and Book Publisher's and Editor's Association (AJPEA) reported that the combined sales of both physical and digital manga in 2016 was about 448.3 billion yen (about US$3.93 billion) total. With the total book book industry total for that same time racking up 1.6618 trillion yen or $14.6 billion in total sales, manga's share of this total is about 25%. When you add in the factor that the population of N. America (US & Canada) 362.24 million and the population of Japan is roughly 126.8 million (as of 2017) that means that a much higher percentage of Japan's population is buying and reading comics than their N. American counterparts.

When you see that 25% of books/magazines sold in Japan are manga vs. 4% in N. America – that says to me that more people are exposed to and are reading manga as part of their usual pop culture consumption diet in Japan.

(in case you're curious, here's the articles that I dug up to come up with these numbers)

My point here is that in Japan, a manga can be super successful without and many times before any anime is produced of that series. Sure, an anime series will boost awareness and popularity of a manga series, but many times, a series' popularity in its manga/print incarnation is what leads to the anime production.

By comparison, pop culture consumption in N. America seems to be more focused on video/TV/movie consumption – watching something versus reading something. This is even more so now that anime is available via various streaming and broadcast channels than ever before.

When I've taken pictures of cosplayers at N. American anime conventions and asked them about the characters they're portraying, I've sometimes come across situations where the cosplayer mentions only knowing about or watching the anime, sometimes not even knowing that a manga (or light novel) is the source material for the anime.

Anecdotally, it appears that the arrival of an anime will boost awareness and increase online conversation about a manga series, and has the added effect of increasing manga sales vs. the arrival of a manga series without an anime tie-in.

I've heard stories about how the popularity of the Attack on Titan manga only really took off after the anime started airing. Same goes for JoJo's Bizarre Adventure and Golden Kamuy, both of which had a fair amount of online buzz, but interest in the series boomed after the anime started airing. Factor in exposure via broadcast TV networks (such as Cartoon Network) and mainstream streaming platforms that broadcast a variety of popular Western movie/TV fare and have anime content in the mix (like Netflix) that reach a broad array of viewers (not just the already converted anime and manga fans), then that gives a series an even greater boost.

I'm hoping the same formula of greater exposure and manga sales will pay off for other great manga series that have anime adaptations in the works, such as Vinland Saga and Children of the Sea, but we'll just have to wait and see…

There are of course many, many manga series that succeed / sell well in N. America without an anime tie-in. Yotsuba is one example. So is Goodnight Punpun and BL sensation TenCount. And more than a few manga series with anime tie-ins where neither the anime nor the manga catch fire with N. American audiences,

That said, when you look at the manga bestseller lists in N. America, the vast majority of titles, such as One Piece, Attack on Titan, and even Pokémon have a tie-in with a popular anime or game series, which kind of tells me (and many publishers in N. America) that an anime adaptation can give a manga series a boost in N. America that they wouldn't get from just print sales and exposure alone as they would in Japan.

Anyhow, that's been my observations. Anime isn't a guarantee that a manga series will be successful in N. America, but it certainly can help.

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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for Manga, and now writes about manga for Anime News Network and Publishers Weekly. She is also a comics creator/illustrator, and has been a life-long reader of manga (even before it was readily available in English). You can follow her on Twitter at @debaoki.

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