Tuesday, January 10, 2006

[Blog Entry] Still More Comic Reactions

Still More Comic Reactions

On The Japanese Manga Revisited:

It is claimed that at its peak in 1995, Japanese manga publications comprised about 40% of Japan's total publishing industry. Since then, like all other print publications, its numbers began to decline but not as significant as one would like to believe. In an article appearing in the online version of the "Japan Times", it is reported that as of 2003, manga publications comprise 20 to 27% percent of Japan's total publishing industry. This percentage is still a huge number.

The stats are more or less right, as I have a similar book (Adult Manga) showing the uphill and downhill trend of manga. Is the manga industry dying? No. But admittedly, dropping to 27% from 40% is a big hit. That's like losing one third of your sales.

But experience has shown that the influence of manga is still prevalent. Take a look at the manga Hikaru no Go, a manga about the strategic Japanese game of Go. When the manga (and anime) was being circulated, interest in the game soared. So manga is still a big contender in the media, although perhaps not the giant it used to be.

What could have brought about this downhill decline? For one thing, the Japanese economic recession of the late 1990s has affected the spending power of manga readers as the depression extended itself beyond 2003. It is only recently that a gradual economic turnabout has occurred and that it remains to be seen if the Japanese manga will surge back to its former peak sales and maybe beyond.

I said it before and I'll say it again: recession hits everyone. That's still no excuse to stop buying luxury goods (unless the economic status is something on the scale of the Great Depression). There are actually several theories as to why manga has declined in Japan. Alternative forms of entertainment is one suggestion, from the Internet to video games to movies. And just in case you didn't notice, Japan is like the video game capital of the world (unfortunately for Microsoft, the X-Box ain't popular there).

Another good example of this is the nature of manga cafes, places where you can rent manga. Currently, they're diversifying their selection, not limiting themselves to manga but exploring other forms of entertainment like anime, video games, Internet, etc. Whereas manga cafes used to survive on the manga and cafe alone, now they're depending on other forms of entertainment as well. A manga cafe is a good example on how the media entertainment industry in Japan is evolving.

In the same aforequoted Japan Times article, Schilling notes the rise of used or previously read manga discount shops as seriously cutting into the sales of manga, and of most manga publishers' stubborn and proud insistence of selling their books with no discounts.

Yes, I'd like to think that the used-books shops do hurt the publishers. There are also several online shops that sell used manga and the like. The manga cafes also hurt the publishers for the same reason the used-books shops do. Then there's also doujinshi, fan-made manga, which remains popular, but of course, the sales of which doesn't directly benefit the manga publishers.

In certain ways, manga publishers shouldn't give discounts. The mass-consumption model of manga is that of the anthologies which come out either once a week or once a month. The comics there are printed on newsprint. The compiled manga or tankoubons are printed on better quality paper, and cost less than the weekly/monthly anthologies.

Writing, drawing, printing, distributing, marketing and licensing billions of copies of print manga on a weekly basis is such a phenomenal feat that one cannot just oversimplify and ascribe the creative force or motivation behind all this to "selfless devotion to art" or for "monetary considerations". As previously mentioned in Go Tchiei's article, a large percentage of creative manga people do not earn a decent living through manga work alone.

Yes, that's true. Only the most successful ones can earn a living through manga alone. However, that's also applicable to other related industries, such as the book industry. Many authors, unless they're a Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, write on the side and have a day job to support themselves and their families.

From the foregoing, we are thus faced with the portrait of a country run essentially by obedient and efficient drones. Ever wonder why those manga copies are so intimidatingly thick? Why the art is so detailed? The production values high? Why most of these manga do not give credit to the numerous production and art assistants helping the main writer and artist behind the scenes?

The answer is the hierarchical, near feudal, Japanese corporate system. Because of this system, there is no ego or individualistic pride of creators in the comics work. Every art assistant's contribution is for the betterment of the main writer or artist. The assistant remains unknown and he is expected to be happy with it. He or she must adopt to the main writer or artist's style and maintain the latter's original vision. All contributions are for the main writer or artist's benefit.

Yes, Japan's production cycle is as intimidating as it is efficient. While it is true that contributors don't always get credited to the public, they do get credit within their industry. There are typically two ways to make it as a manga artist. One way is to win a competition and make a name for yourself. The other is to apprentice yourself to an existing manga artist, which means doing all the drone work. Between the two, the former is the quicker, although perhaps more competitive, way of achieving manga-ka status. The latter is not without its rewards though. Despite taking more time, "drones" do get promoted and get to come up with their own manga. Take a look at Eiichiro Oda, creator of the highly successful One Piece. He himself was a drone, an assistant to another highly successful manga-ka, Nobuhiro Watsuki (who made Rurouni Kenshin).

I'm not saying that Japanese manga production is fair to everyone involved, but it does have its own merits as well, and is not as bleak as you point it out to be.

Applied to the Philippine (and even American) situation, can we honestly imitate the Japanese comics industry by having the same hierarchical social structure run by oligarchies? Apparently not. Filipinos have had the same intense social and historical experience with the Spaniards but with the coming of the Americans in the early 20th century and of Filipinos' indoctrination to American style democracy and individual freedom, willingly going back to a hierarchical and oligarchic set-up would be difficult. Although in recent times attempts were being made towards that direction by the Marcos dictatorship and by the current political crisis plaguing the country.

Not quite true. Can Japanese culture be applied to us? No, because we're Filipinos. We do things differently, not necessarily because of our Spanish history or American history. Yet some part of the Japanese production is apt for us. I mean Filipinos are great at copying, at mimicking. If Filipinos did indeed adopt the Japanese production cycle, we'd be good at in-betweening and the like. And to a certain point, we do. We are part of the Japanese production cycle, just not manga-wise. We do animation for the Japanese. If there's anything more labor intensive than making manga, it's making anime. Even Japan can't cope up with such intensive labor that they outsource to countries with cheaper yet equally talented labor such as Korea, China, and yes, the Philippines. You might not know it, but we're doing Japanese animation. We don't get much credit for it, but we're part of the "drone" system. Unfortunately, the recognition goes to someone else (Japan). So it's not as far-fetched as it seems.

Comics production is labor intensive. It is supported by one of the most stringest labor laws in the entire world slanted to favor the laborer; at least in Philippine law, that is. Most comics artists and writers weaned on the American democratic way of life, are fiercely egotistical and individualistic. They demand high payment. Production assistants do not stay long and do not often emulate the lead writer or artist's style. Their names need to be acknowledged over all others. There is no sense of duty, obligation, or of patience. The fast buck is often the norm. There is no willingness to share what was learned. Everything stops when every one of them dies with nothing passed to the next generation.

As I pointed out earlier, Filipinos do work for little recognition. I'm not saying everyone does, but it happens. Perhaps not in our comic industry, but in the anime industry. In a way, such labor intensive production is suited for us, because we have cheap labor. Labor is our of our primary commodities (and all our OFWs can be classified as labor as well).

However, even if we, or the Americans, adopted the Japanese-style production, we still wouldn't meet our deadlines. Why? Because we simply have different aesthetic sense and production. Take American comics. Each issue is some 20+ pages, fully colored. They get released in a month. Take the Japanese tankoubon. It's nearly 200 pages long, and takes around two months to get released. But that's only possible not just because of its efficient production, but because it's in black and white. Some manga even lack detail; little or no backgrounds, simple art for the characters, etc. You can't get away with that for American comics. For Filipino tastes, people suddenly start paying attention when you're in color, even if you're tissue-paper thin, or your drawings are as simple as Snoopy. I think that fact, more than anything, explains why the Japanese system won't work for us. Not because of our egos, but because of our tastes.

True, most Filipino comics creators are "creative", but they are also fiercely individualistic as well (for all the wrong reasons). Not enough budding comics creators with huge egos are willing to make temporary "sacrifices" for a higher goal. They all think that "art" and ONLY art, specifically THEIR respective styles of art, can save the world. No wonder the comics industry the Philippines today is so infantile, imitative, and chaotic. Must we become obedient drones as well like the Japanese to jumpstart our near catatonic Philippine comics industry?

That, my friends, is a loaded statement. Of course there are egotistical artists and writers. But not everyone is like that. And again, as I have pointed out, there have been several instances when Filipinos have sacrificed credit or their egos to achieve certain goals. And even if we adopted Japanese policy, that still won't necessarily jumpstart our "comics industry".

Meanwhile in Japan where the economic recession is almost over, manga creators are poised to recoup lost ground. Will they regain their former 40% publishing output status? To recall, such a hierarchical and oligarchic society breeds a boiler plate situation of repressed and disgruntled workers silently keeping their resentments to themselves. Such repression (as discussed elsewhere in this blog) is one of the reasons why manga is so successful in Japan, for manga serves as an outlet of expression for such a repressed class. It is a national pastime and escape with such diverse and rich categories.

And that is why adopting manga production won't necessarily solve our issues either. Manga was made for the typical Japanese in mind. While we do have a lot of manga fans in the country, adopting manga sensibilities, production, and styles won't necessarily jumpstart the local comic industry.

Recent developments in Japan however, indicate that the dominant oligarchy steeped in tradition is being challenged by Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi. Challenging the repressive status quo and of the overall hierarchical structure of society is brewing. Today's generation of Japanese are more outspoken and open-minded. If this trend develops, one could only speculate if this could affect the growth of Japanese manga.

If more freedom of expression is granted and psychological/societal repression is lessened, then it just may be possible that manga readership could dwindle. Indeed, why pour all your fantasies and daydreams in a printed comicbook when you can now do something about it in real life because of the freedoms now acknowledged to you by society?

No, another development that could happen is that there would be more people willing to venture into the manga industry on their own, without the big publisher's backing. It could be independent publishing (and indeed, that happens with doujinshi). It could be online publishing (web comics, alternative online mediums, etc.). The only difference is perhaps the time it will take to release it. Whereas it would take a staff to churn out manga in a week, it would take one guy to produce it in a month. For some, that's worth the wait.

But this euphoric surge of komiks readership peaked only a few years until it began to dip in 1991 until by the late 1990s they were no more; inundated by the new surge of diverse and alternative media such as pirated dvds, romance pocketbooks, the internet, ipods, and mobile phones, which media better serviced the Filipino public's freedom and hunger for diverse and better information and entertainment. Could the same thing happen to the Japanese manga industry if the same wave of liberalization continues to rise?

I'd like to think that the comic industry died here because it failed to evolve. Old formulas won't work for a new audience. I obviously can't speak for Japan, but as long as it learns and evolves, it'll survive the years to come. In the face of competition, there's value in the philosophy of survival of the fittest. As for us, many comic creators are trying out different stuff, trying their hand. The good thing about the lack of a big industry is that anyone can try their hand at experimenting without fearing that a big company will try to shut you down.


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