Interview: Kodansha Advanced Media on the Future of Manga

by Deb Aoki,

In early August 2015, several top executives from Kodansha, one of Japan's largest publishing companies came to Northern California to celebrate the opening of the Kodansha Advanced Media offices in downtown San Francisco.

Kodansha Advanced Media is the latest outpost of the Kodansha's expanding business operations in N. America, and is a reflection of their growing focus on digital publishing.

The effect of KAM on the availability of Kodansha titles in digital format is already apparent: from a revamped website for Kodansha Comics and the addition of Kodansha manga on ComiXology, in addition to their availability on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Apple iBooks and Google Play, to more experimental initiatives like the Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches app, and the virtual reality manga demo at J-Pop Summit 2015, featuring Attack on Titan, Fairy Tail and Knights of Sidonia on the FOVE virtual reality headset.

Kodansha executives Kohei Furukawa, Vice President and Head of Rights, Advertising, Digital and International, and Hiroaki Morita, Vice President in charge of all of Kodansha's Editorial Divisions made a rare visit to N. America to talk about their plans for expanding Kodansha's offerings in digital manga for readers worldwide, and had some interesting things to say about the current and future prospects for manga publishing outside of Japan, the impact of scanlation on digital and print publishing, and how Attack on Titan proved to be a game changer that is fueling a lot of changes in manga today.

Both Furukawa and Morita are Board members at Kodansha. They have many years of experience in the manga publishing business in Japan, and have their eyes on the long game, as well as the immediate future.

Furukawa started his career as an editor for Weekly Shonen Magazine, then moved on to become an editor at Monthly Afternoon magazine. He was also the Editor in Chief of Weekly Morning magazine from 2004-2009. Under his supervision, hit titles that began their run in Morning included Space Brothers, Saint Young Men, and Chi's Sweet Home. His main focus now is on the business side of Kodansha's expansion into new markets.

Meanwhile, Morita's focus in on the editorial side of Kodansha's manga businesses. He started at Kodansha in 1987, and went on to work as an editor for several series at Weekly Morning magazine, then became the Editor in Chief at Weekly Shonen Magazine, a position he held from 2004 to 2013. During his tenure as EiC, Morita oversaw the launch of hit shonen manga series including Fairy Tail and Attack on Titan.

In addition to comments from Morita and Furukawa, other execs from Kodansha were in the room and added their perspective to the conversation, including Alvin Lu, General Manager of Kodansha Advanced Media, Kana Koide, General Manager of Kodansha USA Publishing, and Osamu "Sam" Yoshiba, Executive Director of International Business.

THE EVOLUTION OF KODANSHA COMICS PUBLISHING IN NORTH AMERICA


Can you share a little bit about why Kodansha opted to go from being a solely a licensor of manga to US publishers to publishing under the Del Rey Manga imprint to running your own publishing imprint as Kodansha Comics?

Kohei Furukawa: We established Kodansha USA Publishing (KUP) around 2008, and started publishing our titles on our own. There were multiple reasons for this decision, but the biggest one was to make more manga available in English so that it can reach out to more international readers.

At the time KUP was founded, the N. American manga market was shrinking, and not in the best shape. In spite of the market situation, we never forgot our aforementioned goal. While growing our catalog, a big hit Attack on Titan came onto the scene. I believe the success of Attack on Titan played a big role in the manga market renaissance (in N. America), and things have changed since then.

The Attack on Titan boom is giving us confidence to advance in this new direction. By having own publishing imprint, we are able to challenge different marketing methods that have been successful in Japan. Of course, the audience for manga is different in Japan and in the US, but I believe there ought to be some things in common between both markets, and we can leverage our experience in Japan in the N. American market too.

Kodansha has published long list of beloved manga titles that are both classic and current favorites. The return of Sailor Moon was a very big thing, and now Attack on Titan is a huge multimedia hit.  How have these relatively recent sales successes influenced your plans to expand in the English / overseas market?

Hiroaki Morita: I'll leave answers about Kodansha's business development plans to Mr. Furukawa, so let me give you editorial point view. Compared to the days when AKIRA was first published, technology has advanced so much. It has made me believe that great stories can overcome language and culture barriers.

Manga artists and editors used to be very focused on satisfying the Japanese domestic readership, but now they are simply delighted with the success of our titles overseas. As the head of Kodansha's Editorial Department, I feel it's even more important to create lots of fun manga for readers everywhere.

Manga is largely made for Japanese readers, but as interest grows in manga from overseas readers, is the Kodansha editorial department considering content from a perspective of, 'Hm, will it work overseas?' or are you opting to focus solely on Japan readership's interests and trends?

Hiroaki Morita:  Most of Japanese manga are created for either weekly or monthly serialization. If a manga series doesn't catch on with readers when it's serialized in a magazine, even series by well-known artists get cut off. This focus on reader-oriented marketing is why Japanese manga is so good at creating entertaining content.

So given that, our first priority is to create manga that will appeal to Japanese readers. I think this basic policy won't change.

Speaking from the Kodansha Editorial Department, what we need to focus on most is to make sure that our artists keep meeting their deadlines. This is most difficult thing…

Speaking of trends in Japan, Do you see any new trends in stories or genres?
What sorts of stories are selling well now in Japan?

Hiroaki Morita: Speaking of Japanese market, almost any genre and story will work. Personally, I think attractive characters are the most important element in manga. For example, without Mikasa and Levi, Attack on Titan would be a much less interesting story. If we can make the readers think, “Oh, I want to keep watching these characters," then a hit is almost guaranteed. In fact, manga that feature strong, compelling characters are generally the ones that sell well.




ATTACK ON TITAN: GAME CHANGER IN JAPAN & ABROAD


How has Attack on Titan changed the business in Japan, if at all? Has it led any trends, in terms of storytelling?

Hiroaki Morita:
My perspective is that all good manga has something in common. Can't say what that might be, but every manga that sells well has something similar. In that sense, Attack on Titan is no different.  It became hugely popular in Japan, and eventually, caught on around the world too.

What is it about Attack on Titan that makes it universally compelling to readers around the world?

Hiroaki Morita:
I think the great quality of the animation in the Attack on Titan series played a key role in its success.

If we look at the manga solely, it's been said the key elements behind its appeal to readers overseas is that it's a strong horror story with lots of thrilling scenes full of terror. It has brilliant characters. It takes place in a closed setting, where walls surround the characters. I guess it's something that teenagers can relate to. (laughs)

Meanwhile, the author and editors of Attack on Titan put a lot of effort into making it a mainstream manga. Scenarios where the weak try hard to beat the bad tough guys have been a mainstream theme in Japanese manga for many years. Attack on Titan follows this basic theme, and that's one reason why it's such a big hit with readers.

When I first read it, I thought the art was ugly! (laughs) It took me a while to see its potential.

Hiroaki Morita:
Me too! (laughs) I was Editor-in-Chief of Shonen Magazine when Attack on Titan debuted in 2009. The first Japanese print run for Volume 1 was 40,000 copies. Now print run for each volume of Attack on Titan is 3 million copies.

Kana Koide: To put that in perspective, in Japan, 40,000 copies for a first print run of a tankobon (graphic novel) is not so big. It's considered to be a starting point, for a new title by a new creator, who is just starting out.

So what was the moment that made you change your mind about Attack on Titan? Was there a moment in the story, where you realized ‘this is big’?

Hiroaki Morita:
Actually it was right from the beginning. I saw the storyboard from Chapter One, I thought maybe filmmakers would like to work with this story. I thought if they'd adapt it into film or animation, or a film, that would make this manga a big hit.
At the moment I saw the small human and the giant titan, I thought it was a very dynamic contrast. I saw that and thought filmmakers would be interested in adapting this title.

What have you learned from the success of Attack on Titan?

Kohei Furukawa:
What we learned from Attack on Titan that besides the anime, is that this one series could lead to a lot of spinoff stories, and light novels too, all set in the same world. This kind of multimedia approach for a single series was a first for Kodansha. We learned that by creating a lot of types of outlets for this series, we can make the series even bigger, even more popular.

(NOTE: Besides the original Attack on Titan manga series by Hajime Isayama, Kodansha Comics has published several Attack on Titan spin-off series drawn and/or written by other creators along with Isayama's supervision/cooperation, including the prequel manga series Attack on Titan: Before the Fall and Attack on Titan: No Regrets, along with comedy spin-off Attack on Titan Junior High, and companion books, Attack on Titan: Inside and Outside and The Science of Attack on Titan. Meanwhile, the Attack on Titan prequel light novels, Attack on Titan: Before the Fall, Attack on Titan: Kuklo Unbound and Attack on Titan: The Harsh Mistress of the City are all available from Vertical.)

Of course some artists won't allow us to do spinoffs. We can't apply it to every hit series, but we see the potential of this multi-outlet approach for intellectual property (IP).

That's actually how much of the American comics industry works, as far as how it handles its IP! (laughs)

Kohei Furukawa: (laughs) Yes, that's true!




WHAT IS KODANSHA ADVANCED MEDIA?


The latest step in Kodansha's evolution in its N. American publishing operations is the debut of Kodansha Advanced Media.

Alvin Lu, the general manger for Kodansha Advanced Media is also the former Executive VP of Publishing at VIZ Media, so he has many years of experience with the N. American manga publishing business. As he explained it, KAM is like a start-up within the larger Kodansha company, tasked with focusing on digital distribution.

Alvin Lu: In a nutshell, Kodansha Advanced Media is a digital publisher. We're getting started publishing Kodansha Comics’ digital book catalog; Kodansha has an ebook library obviously, that's published by Kodansha USA.

So Kodansha has set up, at this point they have a few subsidiaries. Kodansha USA Publishing is set up in New York City, and that's what most people are familiar with. That's the entity that's been publishing Negima! and Attack on Titan. They employ Random House Publishing Services to distribute and sell books, much in the way VIZ Media contracts with Simon & Schuster, or the way Tokyopop used to work with HarperCollins. The difference is that unlike VIZ or Tokyopop, Kodansha USA has a fairly small staff in New York, so the editorial team is all Random House editorial employees. This isn't always made clear. Their full-time job is to work for Random House client services on behalf of Kodansha.

It's somewhat complicated. VIZ, Kodansha and Yen Press all have very different structures. Yen is a subsidiary of Hachette, Kodansha is basically an outsourced function to Random House but has an independent office in New York.

Kodansha Advanced Media doesn't have a production or editorial component – we receive manga files and we work directly with Amazon, iBooks, Nook, and other eBook platforms/online distributors.

Vertical's Marketing Director Ed Chavez, has said in the past that there were distribution challenges getting Vertical titles on the ComiXology platform difficult, for example.

Alvin Lu: Yeah, we look at it as a blank slate. We look forward to making announcements concerning that stuff. The expansion will be fairly immediate two-fold; one, the platforms our library will be on will expand, but two, our title selection will expand. So we are looking to expand the Kodansha library in terms of titles that are currently not in print and how that will work in conjunction with the print side. Some other companies have explored this, but we're looking to do more digital-first releases as we go along.

[NOTE: And sure enough, on September 1, many popular Kodansha USA titles were added to ComiXology's website and apps, while Kodansha titles published by Vertical are to date, not available on ComiXology.]

So Furukawa-san, from your perspective, why was it necessary for Kodansha to launch Kodansha Advanced Media as a separate division?

Kohei Furukawa: KAM was set up for 4 reasons: First, we need to have the official contents released as soon as possible, that's the only way to combat piracy, we think. The second reason is, thanks to technology, we're capable of doing simul-translations, which enables us to simul-publish. Before this, it was very difficult to have all the translation and production work done with the right timing. The third reason is that the manga market in the US is growing again now, so we think this is a very good time to expand our business. And fourth, we have very good experience with marketing (digital content) in the Japanese market. By setting up KAM, we can leverage that experience globally.

We've been involved in digital stuff for 6 years in Japan. This isn't something new for us, and given those experiences, we've seen from the domestic Japanese market, it's been very successful. That's why we wanted to bring it to the US. We're shifting from just the domestic Japanese market to the global market. It wasn't a sudden realization, but something we've been working on for a while.


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