A Glass Half Empty?

kindle mangaLast month’s column discussed the ongoing drift of manga into digital publishing. In the weeks since, new statistics have come to light about just how pervasive digital publishing has become. A recent report by Yano Research revealed that digital manga publishing in the fiscal year ending in spring 2014 raked in an incredible 65 billion yen (£363 million), accounting for a whopping 80% of the entire digital book market in Japan.

zu01Digital publishing continues to rise all over the world. Many of you will actually be reading this article on a digital edition of NEO, so well done all you early adopters, you. But there are other knock-on effects. Manga are going to become less visible in the real world, as e-publishing initiatives slowly strip them from shelves in corner shops and bookstores. I predict the almost total disappearance of erotica from public view, as furtive consumers squirt it all directly onto their tablets without having to slide it under their raincoats. Teen stuff will be next, and their older cousins in mature manga will lag behind. Before long, there will just be a few legacy titles in the Luddite pensioner market, and smaller print-runs for coffee-shop and noodle-bar browsers.

There is also talk of “enhanced” publishing. Once a creative work is “digitally ingested”, you can fiddle with it and add whistles and bells. Manga publishers are talking of sound effects and read-along audio, maybe even flash-animated panels. This is being billed as some form of higher-level augmentation of manga, which leads me to sound a note of doubt.

Will it really mean better manga? Or will it end up meaning really low-rent, stripped-back, bare-bones anime? Just as marketers put a polite spin on cheapo, minimal-choice adventure games by calling them “virtual novels,” will we find anime companies in the future tempted to rebrand themselves as “enhanced manga publishers” in order to get away with the cheapest animation possible?

Of course, it might be a fad. Paper might come back in, like flares. This was all reported in a magazine called Nikkei Computer, which obviously had an interest in bigging up the digital future. Maybe it’s only the magazines that are going digital, while consumers will still want those bespoke reprint volumes in print. But how will all the enhancements work then…? Pop-ups?

[Time travel footnote – Since this article was published, the University of Hertfordshire has revealed that it is transitioning its 2D Animation course into a Digital Comics and Concept Art course… the first sign of the changes to come?]

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, and the co-author of The Anime Encyclopedia: A Century of Japanese Animation. This article first appeared in NEO 135, 2015.

Game Changing

pacmanMere hours before April Fools’ Day, and hence confusing a bunch of foreign pundits, the Japanese contents conglomerate Bandai-Namco announced that it was “opening up” the rights to a number of its classic games titles. From here on, anyone wanting to make a cellphone variant of Pacman, or a sequel to Dig Dug, is welcome to get stuck in, without any of the miseries of, you know, paying for a licence, or dealing with licensors.

Although Bandai-Namco is promising not to subject anyone to the extensive colonic investigation that is “licensing”, it still expects everyone to register for a perfunctory rubber stamp of approval. It promises to wave everything through unless it’s dodgy, so no chance of Pacman Porno. It also expects a rake-off of a few percent from any revenue generated, and a percentage of any ad-buys. This offer currently only applies to creators in Japan – foreigners can’t be trusted yet.

What on Earth is Bandai-Namco playing at? This new announcement is an intriguing, and seemingly rather business-savvy extension of the pre-existing rights market, where intellectual property owners expect to cream off around 5% from any licensed merchandise. That Nigerian Astro Boy remake? 5% to Tezuka Pro. That Indian version of Star of the Giants? 5% to TMS. That Overfiend plushie? Go away, that’s my idea.

With a bunch of forgotten titles, like Tower of Druaga and Sky Kid, Bandai-Namco opening the have-a-go floodgates. Let a hundred flowers bloom! Want to make an animated series based on Galaxian? Be their guest! A Battle City-inspired line of clothing? Go right ahead. After all, what’s the risk? These are corporate-owned titles that the company plainly couldn’t give away for the last 20 years… so now they are literally giving them away. As long as you fill in the correct paperwork and give them their cut, they won’t sue you.

And if a project fails, Bandai-Namco has lost nothing. Just as Amazon will carry almost any self-published Kindle book, on the understanding that even if it only sells 100 copies (which is, believe it or not, the average), the company hasn’t had to work for that money and still gets a cut.

Or look at another way. Bandai-Namco has just solicited every company in the creative sector to work for it, for free, while it creams off a stipend. Everybody else will be watching this one very closely. The moment there’s a success story, expect to be pig-piled by imitators.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, and the co-author of The Anime Encyclopedia: A Century of Japanese Animation.

Paper View

Weekly_Young_Magazine_10th_issue_(2011)2015 begins with an announcement from the Japanese publisher Kodansha that it plans by June to have all 22 of its manga magazines available as digital releases on the day of their print publication. The first three are already in e-stores – Kodansha has chosen to lead with the big hitters Young magazine and the weekly and monthly Shonen.

Of course, this has been a long time coming. The industry was subjected to an unexpected test in 2011, when paper shortages and transportation snarl-ups after the Tohoku Earthquake led several publishers to go straight to digital on a few titles. The “first three” are not even really first, since Morning magazine has been day-date digital since 2013. But Morning is a magazine for grown-ups, whereas this blanket policy will now incorporate all titles, including Afternoon, Evening, and Good Afternoon for the boys, and Be Love, Nakayoshi and Kiss for the girls.

As a spokesman for Kodansha recently confirmed, the big issue in recent years has not only been the logistics, but a basic change in commuter habits. In effect, it is a statement of faith that teens can, and will access their manga on iPads and laptops in increasing numbers. And, just maybe, that within a few years it will be time to phase out paper altogether. Kiss-Plus

When I first went to Japan in 1992, every carriage on the train was packed with people reading books and magazines. Just as in Europe, any railway station concourse was populated with news-stands offering something to keep you busy on your journey. So, too, were the recycling bins, as commuters discarded tonnes of paper daily. But the rise of the cellphone has completely changed that paradigm. Now there is often barely a single book in evidence per carriage, while everybody thumbs at their mobiles, playing Angry Birds or texting their mates.

Kodansha’s move seems to be a wise bet in ensuring that if the reader won’t buy a physical manga to read any more, they will still have the opportunity to squirt it onto their mobile device.

Will we soon see the death of the double-page splash, as editors fret over the size of phone screens? Are panels going to become squarer and less varied? Or will showmen editors start to offer audio effects and narration, leading not to more vibrant comics, but an excuse for cut-rate “anime” with significantly less animation? Digital manga are nothing new, but the drift towards all manga being digital may have some long-term stylistic effects.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, and the co-author of The Anime Encyclopedia: A Century of Japanese Animation. This article first appeared in NEO 134, 2015.

Inside the Shadow Factory

I’ll be on PBS on 8th April in a repeat The Emperor’s Ghost Army, meanwhile, here’s a repost of an article I wrote about the First Emperor on film.

Jonathan Clements investigates the continuing fascination Chinese filmmakers feel for both the First Emperor and the man who tried to kill him.

It was a messy, scrappy struggle in a chilly hall, lasting less than a minute. A suicidal assassin pulled a knife out of nowhere and chased the ruler of the Qin dynasty around his throne. Bodyguards watched in frustration, forbidden on pain of death from mounting the steps to protect their leader. The court physician distracted the assassin by hurling his medicine kit at him, and when the man ducked, his would-be victim was finally able to tug his own long ceremonial sword from its scabbard. The murder attempt was over scant seconds later, as the attacker died under a rain of blows from the man who was supposed to have been his victim.

The incident changed history. Now, nothing stood in the way of the man who would become the First Emperor. The would-be killer, Jing Ke, had been the very last man who stood a chance of getting close enough to kill the power-hungry ruler. His failure to do so was a crucial event in the birth of the nation we now call China, and has been dramatised on countless occasions, not the least on film. Continue reading

Zen & Now

pirsigIn the late 1960s, a thoughtful, troubled man on a motorcycle rode from Minnesota to California, in the hope of reconnecting with his young son. On the way, he reflected on his life in and out of a mental institution, the ups and downs of his career in academia, and the nature of “Quality” – what is it, and where do we find it in the modern world? Robert Pirsig eventually wrote up his experiences into his first book, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Published in 1974, it became an instant classic.

Thirty years later, Mark Richardson retraced Pirsig’s tracks, revisiting the places of his epic journey, tracking down the surviving characters mentioned in the book, and meditating further on Pirsig’s life and work. Zen & Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is his well-crafted pastiche of the original. Where Pirsig rode the road and thought of Phaedrus, his alter-ego, Richardson travels the same path, and thinks of Pirsig himself – the strange history of the certified genius who now lives as a recluse and refuses to engage with his fans.

Richardson travels on a temperamental Suzuki with a GPS strapped to the gas tank, carefully replicating Pirsig’s original journey, even down to the wrong turns. He buys cold drinks from machines, and observes that there is nobody to tell him a story. Richardson’s world, a generation removed from Pirsig’s book, is one of mobile phones and shoes without laces, lonely pink-haired moteliers and former bankers trying to shake off the shock of 9/11. He rereads Pirsig’s book in the context of the 21st century, noting such little details as the protagonist’s lack of concern for where he poured away his dirty oil – ecology being yet another discipline that had yet to trouble the original Zen riders. He takes hundreds of photographs, spoilt by the capacities of a digital camera, whereas only a paltry handful of analogue pictures survive of Pirsig’s famous ride.

ZEN_coverRichardson doggedly tracks down as many of the people he can who appear in the book, many of them now doddering and old, and usually quite touched to find themselves visited by a man who has read about them in a famous book. His inch-by-inch recreation of the route allows him to exercise a stern, robust form of literary criticism, noting those places where Pirsig gentle elided reality or rejigged a person’s character to suit his narrative. An amusing proportion of them have heard of Pirisg’s book, and even started reading it, but never made it to the end – that’s okay, it’s all about the journey, anyway.

Richardson also writes about the writing of the classic itself, charting its long road to manuscript form, and its sudden, meteoric success in the mid-1970s. There are details of Pirsig’s terrible enquiry letter, outlining his plans for his book and making it sound about as exciting as a Honda manual (no wonder 121 publishers weren’t interested), and the multiple draftings and redraftings, alongside wrangles at the publisher over the saleability of a 400-page “enquiry into values.” Mere months after its publication, Bantam are offering $370,000 for the paperback rights… and that was back when $370,000 was a lot of money. Pirsig probably never needed to work again, which makes his later fame only the more ironic, as his attempts to write a follow-up are plagued by hippies and hipsters, bikers and fakirs, all trying to get his opinion on matters of philosophy and, or course, engineering.

I’ve known for many years about the original book’s tragic coda – that Chris, the inquisitive young boy who accompanies his father on the famous motorcycle trip, would barely make it into his twenties before his untimely death in a San Francisco stabbing. But I hadn’t quite registered the other sad stories that a smarter reader might have picked out from the original manuscript, such as the fact that Chris had a younger brother, Ted, who has since disowned their father. Moreover, although there are ample clues in the original book, neither its author nor my younger reader-self made what now seems to be an obvious connection between the occasionally odd behaviour of the teenage Chris and the mental illness that hounded his father. Richardson’s biographical sections on the Pirsig family offer grim glimpses of troubled minds and tearaway teenagers, with Pirsig as a driven, silent man, eternally wrestling with philosophical abstractions, oblivious to the problems elsewhere in his family.

Just as Pirsig pastiched the 1948 classic Zen in the Art of Archery, Richardson pastiches Pirsig, finding moments of enlightenment and peace in the time it takes his hard-drive to defragment and his clothes to dry. There is Buddha-nature even in the technological present, but only insofar as Quality shines through. For the Zen thinker, hell dwells in the built-in redundancies and airy obsolescence of the instructions for an Ikea flat-pack.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Zen Haiku (US/UK), re-released this month by Frances Lincoln.