Bridging the Gap between US Comics and Manga with Kodansha USA

by Deb Aoki,

In Part 1, ANN spoke with the editorial team behind the Attack on Titan Anthology.

Part 2 is our conversation with some of the top executives at Kodansha USA Publishing and Kodansha Publishing Japan, as they look back on one of their earliest efforts to bring Japanese manga to American comics readers, the colorized version of AKIRA by Katsuhiro Otomo published by Marvel Comics' EPIC imprint in 1989, and look ahead to their latest cross-cultural comics initiative, the Attack on Titan Anthology, and the possibility of more projects like it to come.

ANN spoke with these Kodansha executives at New York Comic-Con 2015:

  • Yasumasa Shimizu, Senior Vice President and Board Member, Kodansha
  • Kohei Furukawa, President and CEO, Kodansha USA Publishing, Board Member Kodansha and Vice-President, Rights/Media Business Division, Digital/International Business Division
  • Hiroaki Morita, President, Kodansha Advanced Media and Vice President and Board Member, Kodansha

                                                   
They each began their careers on the editorial side, as editors on popular manga series including AKIRA, Fairy Tail, and Space Brothers, and as editors-in-chief at Kodansha's flagship manga magazines, Weekly Shonen and Weekly Morning. They're now all senior executives and board members. While the business of publishing manga is still focus of their day-to-day work, they also have their eyes on the big picture: to bring more Kodansha manga to more readers around the world.

For Shimizu, Furukawa and Morita, their visit to NYCC was the first time in several years that they had attended the show. All three men remarked at the huge crowds and the growing presence of anime and manga in a convention that was mostly regarded as a superhero comics-centric show.

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For all of you, this is your first visit to New York Comic-Con, yes? Did you have any idea how big this show has become?

Kohei Furukawa
I just remember once it was held in February, and we talked about going, but I thought, 'No, it's in February, it's going to be too cold.' So we just said never mind! (laughs)

I'm of course joking when I talk about the weather, but we saw that most of our audience was on the West Coast, so we focused more on going to San Diego Comic-Con. We always thought that New York Comic-Con was more focused on superhero comics. But we've come to realize that our presence here is very important here too. I'm fully realizing it now, seeing it all this for myself.

When last I spoke with Mr. Furukawa and Mr. Morita last in August, at at the reception for the launch of Kodansha Advanced Media in San Francisco, you two mentioned a manga editor who had come to an American comics convention many years ago. You described how he told you about the impact that AKIRA had on all kinds of comics readers and sci-fi fans, not just people who read Japanese manga, and how inspiring this story was to you two. Is Mr. Shimizu that editor you were referring to?

Kohei Furukawa:
Yes, that's correct!


Yasumasa Shimizu:
When first came to NYC, it was with Katsuhiro Otomo in 1983. And we were meeting with Archie Goodwin, who was the Editor in Chief at Marvel at that time.  He was working with Spider-man, and said that he had seen AKIRA and really wanted to publish it.

Otomo-sensei didn't want AKIRA to be perceived as some 'strange thing from Japan,' so we put a lot of work into making it accessible to American audiences. It's unimaginable to put in that kind of effort now, but at the time, they worked on making it all color, and flipping the artwork (to be in left-to-right western style pages). When you flip manga artwork, the artwork ends up shifting a little bit, it can look a little off.  So Otomo-sensei went into the flipped artwork and made adjustments that are specific to the American version.

What inspired you to put in that much effort to make that story appealing to American readers?

Yasumasa Shimizu:
Otomo-sensei is a huge fan of French bande dessinée and American comics. He felt like he had the potential to be a world-renown artist, so it was very important to him for his work to be understood and perceived as an international comics creator. Otomo-sensei really enjoyed the acclaim he received from international fans, and as editors, we really enjoyed trying to achieve that goal with him.

I think you really succeeded in that goal with AKIRA – to this day, it's one of the few Japanese manga series that is well-known and read by both manga and American comics readers. But that was really was one of the only efforts of its type I've ever seen, until what you're doing now with the Attack on Titan Anthology came up…

Yasumasa Shimizu:
Oh, don't forget Ghost in the Shell. That's another example.

That's true! But that was almost 30 years ago, that sort of focused effort to reach American comics readers…

Yasumasa Shimizu:
It took 30 years, true. But 30 years ago, it was really important to us to present these comics in an American style. Our editors worked really hard to make a seamless transition from the Japanese to the American editions of AKIRA.

But now, 30 years later, as I look at things now, it's a little bit crazy to see that Japanese manga now is accepted just as it is by American readers – with pages that are not flipped, not colored. Readers are taking it in as it was originally intended for readers in Japan.

I watched that panel of American comics creators talking about the Attack on Titan Anthology and they mentioned reading manga in its original Japanese right-to-left page format when they were growing up. So now the influence of Japanese manga has extended into the American comics creative community, which is really fantastic. I think there are lots of mutual benefits are becoming apparent now, from the American and Japanese comics community being influenced by each other. That's a really great thing.

I don't think it's just what we did as editors from the Japanese side or just what Otomo-sensei did, but also thanks to the efforts from the American side of the equation. Editors like Archie Goodwin at Marvel, all the fans who supported it, so it was definitely a collaborative effort!


I actually still have all of those issues of the EPIC / Marvel edition of AKIRA in some long box at home! (laughs) Those books are way out of print, but are fondly remembered. Would Kodansha ever consider republishing that color edition of AKIRA?

Kohei Furukawa:
We're not sure where the rights are for this anymore for the color edition… might be with Marvel? But if there's a demand for it, and we have the rights, it would be an interesting thing to do.

So Shimizu-san, you worked with Marvel on the first English edition of AKIRA, and more recently, there was the Attack on Titan/Avengers one-shot story, which was also a collaboration with Marvel Comics. Does Kodansha have a special relationship with Marvel? Why Marvel Comics, and not another comics publisher like say, DC Comics?

Kohei Furukawa:
Our first office was in New York, and Marvel is also in New York, so it was just kind of convenient.  This kind of thing, it's perhaps because over the course of 40 years knowing each other, I guess? There's not a lot of thought going into this! (laughs)

Yasumasa Shimizu:
At the time AKIRA was first published, we received a lot of offers from various publishers! VIZ Media had just established right around then too, so they made an offer as well.

Archie Goodwin was really close to French artists that Otomo was really into, so that was a big part of his decision.

When I spoke with Kana and Ben, they mentioned how supportive the senior executives at Kodansha have been toward this Attack on Titan Anthology project. Now, this project is something that's VERY unusual for Japanese comics properties. Kana mentioned that you gave this your 100% support from the very start. Can you talk a bit about why you are so enthusiastic about this?

Kohei Furukawa:
We've been talking about how the manga industry has changed over the past 30 years since AKIRA was published here. But the N. American manga boom as we understand it, started around 2003-2004. It was largely focused on the West Coast, where there was strong interest in manga. It wasn't necessarily American comics readers, but more people who were just really interested in manga.

But manga reading habits have evolved. What we noticed with Attack on Titan is that it's popular with American comics readers too, not just people who read manga. For us, we saw that it was popular with an American readership that we hadn't been reaching before, so we decided it would be interesting to do a collaboration with American comics publishers, so we reached out to Marvel and other publishers and creators to see what we could do.

As you've mentioned, many of those readers who discovered manga in the early 2000's are now comics creators themselves. Many of the creators who are very enthusiastic about participating in this Attack on Titan Anthology project are from that generation.

Kohei Furukawa:
Yes, that's true. To add to that, many of those young people who were manga readers in the early 2000's are also now parents who now have children who enjoy manga too.  We're entering a second generation of manga readers now.

Attack on Titan is a rare manga title that I see in American comics shops that are displayed alongside American comics, not just in a special "manga section." The other manga titles that have similar wide recognition and readership from American comics readers are Lone Wolf and Cub, Ghost in the Shell, AKIRA, and Sailor Moon – it's interesting that many on this short list are Kodansha titles.

Kohei Furukawa:
Just as a counter-distinction, Shueisha (publisher of Shonen Jump) is more focused on marketing their manga toward teens and younger readers. Kodansha is more oriented to older readers and adults, generally speaking. Maybe it has more commonalities with American comics publishers because we're coming from a slightly older point of view, editorially speaking.

Koide-san also pointed out that Kodansha Comics has been publishing special editions that are unique to the American market – such as the Attack on Titan Volume 16 with the deck of playing cards, and Attack on Titan Volume 17 with the limited edition anime DVD, not to mention the oversized, hardcover Attack on Titan Colossal Editions.  These extras and oversized editions are not duplicates of what was published in Japan, but are unique offerings for the American market.

Kohei Furukawa:
That's right. We're actually in talks now to reverse import these editions to the Japanese market. We're also seeing that the market for American comics in Japan is quite small, but we think that maybe by offering the Colossal Edition and books like Attack on Titan Anthology in Japan, we might help in some way to help the market for American comics to grow in Japan too.


If this anthology succeeds, would you consider doing something like this with Sailor Moon or AKIRA? For example, have you seen BARTKIRA? (the unauthorized Simpsons/AKIRA fan comic) The whole AKIRA story is retold with Simpsons characters, so for example, Milhouse is Tetsuo…

(We look it up on the Internet and they all laugh)

Kohei Furukawa:
Otomo once did a Batman comic, so AKIRA has had its collaborations.

If you did a Sailor Moon Anthology with western comics creators like the Attack on Titan Anthology, you'd have to shoo away a mob of artists who would want to participate! You would have almost too many creators who would want to be a part of it! (laughs)

Kohei Furukawa:
Sure, if we can do that type of collaboration if there's interest in us doing more, definitely. However, keep in mind, it's not up to us, it's also up to the original artist too.

Speaking of manga creators, last year at NYCC, Takeshi Obata, the artist for Death Note was a featured guest. This year, Masashi Kishimoto, the creator of Naruto came to NYCC. It struck me as I was watching these two hugely popular manga artists see their fans here, and they seemed really surprised to see the huge crowds they attracted; they didn't seem to really realize how popular they are overseas.

But you three seem very aware of the popularity of manga around the world. Where do you see the most potential for the manga market to grow outside of Japan?

Kohei Furukawa:
Digital changes everything. It makes it possible for more content from Japan to be translated more quickly, and be available in N. America much faster than ever before. That's going to change everything, as far as giving us the ability to pursue more opportunities globally.

So there's a huge opportunity to communicate information about titles, even if they're not available yet in English. Of course, there's the issue of piracy, but overall, the Internet makes it possible for fans to know about what's going on in Japan to a greater degree than ever before.

You've seen the American comics scene 30 years, and it's changed a lot since then. If we look ahead 30 years in the future, what do you hope to see by then? Do you have a vision or dream for what it will look like?

Kohei Furukawa:
I don't know, but in 30 years, to see more Japanese manga done by non-Japanese people would be very interesting.

But actually, that is happening now. There are many comics creators around the world who make "manga" or their own style of comics that are heavily influenced by manga…

Kohei Furukawa:
Sure, but more than what we see now – to the point where international comics creators creating comics for Japan is a given; much more than it is now.

How about you, Morita-san? Do you have a vision for how you think the market will change in 30 years?

Hiroaki Morita:
I might be dead in 30 years! (laughs) For the American comics scene, it seems like there aren't many new characters. I'm seeing a lot of revisions of old characters. So I think there's a lot of room for new things to happen in the American marketplace. I mean, it can't be Batman forever! (laughs)

Yasumasa Shimizu:
Welll… Those perennial titles are perennial titles for a reason! They have some enduring appeal to fans here.

Hiroaki Morita:
Sure, but I think fans are also hungry for new things too!

I find manga very exciting because every generation of manga creators comes up with new characters, new ways to tell stories, rather than feeling tied to telling and re-telling stories with the same set of characters and same worlds.

Kohei Furukawa:
Well, that's a fundamental difference between American comics and Japanese manga. In Japan, every artist creates their own thing. In America, every character can have several different artists and writers. In America, you can say, 'I only like Batman if it's drawn by this particular artist.' That's not something you hear in Japan.

But that being said, are there lessons or impressions you're taking away from American comics from your experiences at NYCC?

Yasumasa Shimizu:
It's interesting to see how Japanese comics are being accepted here. In this particular venue, the density, the intensity, and seeing how much money everyone is spending on comics has been really fascinating to see.

Hiroaki Morita:
I don't see a big difference in the big American comic-cons, in San Diego or New York. Every time you come to one of these shows, you kind of see the same things. In Japan, there's always something vastly different every year – there's always something different that is the big popular thing, and that changes all the time.

When we come back to these American shows, it's always Star Wars, Walking Dead, Batman – the same series/properties are being showcased. We were asking ourselves, what's missing here?

Kohei Furukawa:
We saw Avatar on the exhibit floor! I mean, that series is TOTALLY over in Japan! (laughs)

Hiroaki Morita:
That's not meant to be a diss on American comics – it's just kind of fascinating to us to see the same properties featured again and again at these shows, which is very different than Japan. We're left wondering, what's the gap here? Why is it different?

Shows like this are such diverse market places. It's interesting to think about a 10-13 year old kid coming to this show, with so many things competing to their attention, what will they be most attracted to? The standard American things that are perennially here at these shows year after year, or some new weird Japanese things? We don't know.

Well, that brings up a good point. Star Wars, Batman, Walking Dead – a lot of the primary audience for these franchises are men in their 20's and 30's. Meanwhile, manga tends to attract younger fans, and more women. One could argue that manga already has won those younger fans you're describing.

Kohei Furukawa:
From my point of view, things that change, change for the better. There's also virtues in things that stay the same year after year too. It's not an either or thing where one thing is better than the other. But as we go forward, it will be interesting to see if these two things can work together to create something new, or if they can co-exist, or if they will compete with each other.  In America, there's a lot of diversity, a lot of choices. I wonder how it will continue to mature and evolve from here.


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