Japanese Comics Invade; Can They Conquer?

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It's invaded the comic book world and children's entertainment. But can manga make it at the movies?

Simply, manga (search) is Japanese for "comics." Dishpan-sized eyes, samurai-like movements and girls in microscopic miniskirts are a few of its tell-tale elements.

Technically, you can bring a Superman comic to Japan, and it will be referred to as "manga." But nobody's bringing Superman comics to Japan. And everybody's bringing manga to America.

"Manga is one of the fastest-growing segments of the [American] publishing industry," said Milton Griepp, founder of ICv2 (search), a research organization that deals with the animation industry.

According to ICv2, manga sales in the United States jumped from $55 million in 2002 to a monstrous $125 million last year.

Still not sure what it is? The children's TV cartoons "Yu-Gi-Oh!" and "Pokemon" are both anime (search), the animated version of manga (same dishpan-eyed characters, same storylines involving the battle against evil, same magic and spirituality).

Non-Japanese kids' cartoons, such as the American "Teen Titans" and the French "Totally Spies!," are heavily influenced by anime, while Nickelodeon's hit series "Avatar" is pure anime, only completely written and voiced by Americans.

The Cartoon Network even devotes a block of cartoons, "Toonami," to the genre.

But at movie theaters, anime hasn't done so well — and naysayers say it never will.

"I think it's such a cultural thing that it won't work in the U.S.," said Jonathan Hung, a Hollywood "lit" manager who represents some of the industry's top screenwriting talent.

But a look at manga's history might prove otherwise.

Though its true origins can be traced to 12th century Japan, manga's life officially began in the early 19th century, when famous landscape artist Hokusai (search) — who, along with others, produced colored, wood-block paintings very similar to comics — published some sketches in a collection entitled "Hokusai Manga."

When Eastern folklore met Western art forms after World War II, true manga was born (as were those dishpan eyes — a direct effect of the Western comic influence.)

In the United States, manga took root in the 1970s, when VIZ Media started translating and releasing popular Japanese comic books. Today, VIZ is still the leading publisher of manga for English-speakers, serving an estimated audience of nearly 15 million fans.

Manga has become so dominant in the comic-book world that DC Comics (search) recently started an entire division dedicated to it. "CMX: Pure Manga" (search) feeds English-speaking fans more than a dozen manga titles.


The tale of "Yu-Gi-Oh!" (search) is a story that perfectly illustrates the power of the monster that is manga.

"Yu-Gi-Oh!" (for which VIZ Media is a licensee) started out innocently enough as a Japanese comic in 1996. Then an animated version hit American Saturday-morning television in 2001, and within six months it shot to No. 1.

Like a monsoon, it flooded toy stores in three forms at once: video games, action figures and trading card games.

4Kids Entertainment, an American firm that specializes in picking out Japanese fads and marketing them here, has brought in more than $98 million in revenue since it brought "Yu-Gi-Oh!" to the states.

The only leg of the Yu-Gi-Oh! monster that's proven lame so far is film.

Last year's "Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Movie" grossed a paltry $28 million and proved to be a huge misfire for fans and critics alike. That failure of something related to so powerful a franchise begs the question: Has manga met its match in the movies?

Manga and the Movies

Comics were just the larval stage of manga's life. After living inanimate on the page, manga started to move. "Anime," they called it (an abbreviation of Japanese 'animeshon,' from English 'animation').

In the United States, it started somewhat underground with "Akira," which was first a manga comic and then a 1988 anime movie by Katsuhiro Otomo.

But so far, manga has not been able to make that leap to the movies in the United States.

Before starting Hung Entertainment Group, Hollywood "lit" manager Hung worked with Chris Lee (search), producer of 2001's "Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within," a computer-animated, manga-influenced American-Japanese co-production that was based on a series of video games.

The feature film turned out to be a huge miss for Sony, grossing about $35 million on a $150 million investment.

But according to Hung, there were more than just cultural factors that felled the "Final Fantasy" franchise.

"I think it was twofold: Basically, when you CGI [computer-generated imagery] humans, it just looks funny," he explained. "Second thing was the script — it was a very cultural thing, so they had to include things from the game that didn't really work. It was a very spiritual story, and American kids just want shoot 'em up — they don't want to know about Mother Earth.

"Thirdly," he added, "it was just a bad movie."

According to Hung, even 2-D animators have a hard time making manga work.

"They tried to use manga styles in [Disney's] 'Treasure Planet' and it didn't work," explained Hung, referring to the cartoon characters' large eyes and the art's bold contrasts. "They tried it with [Dreamworks'] 'Sinbad' (search), and that didn't work."

"The only way manga is going to make it here," said Hung, "is when they make it live action."

Live action meaning the old-fashioned way of making movies, with actual actors. Movies such as the "Spider-Man" and "Lord of the Rings" series — in fact, pretty much all action/adventure movies these days — are CGI mixed with live action.

Hayao Miyazaki's 2001 anime masterpiece "Spirited Away" (search) grossed more than $250 million in Japan, but even though it made many American movie critics' best-of-year lists, it barely limped to the $10 million mark at the U.S. box office.

Another Miyazaki movie, "Howl's Moving Castle," made less than $5 million in America in 2005.

Perhaps taking a lesson from those American misfires, studios have started buying up rights to huge manga titles such as "Akira" and developing them for live-action blockbusters.

But even with that, they're having a tough time.

"'Akira' is at Warner [Brothers]," sighs Hung, "somewhere in development hell."

For a short time, Hung also represented Canadian manga comic-book company Dreamwave, which offered Japanese-style comics with American storylines.

Hasbro gave Dreamwave the licensing rights to create yet another comic for "Transformers," Japanese toy-maker Takara's phenomenally successful line of mutating toy robots that spawned a TV show, a comic book and a movie in the mid-1980s.

And here's where we come full circle.

Slated for 2007, Dreamworks' as-yet-untitled "Transformers" movie (search) will be the closest thing we'll see to a major mainstream attempt at bringing manga to the big screen.

Though it didn't follow the traditional manga path (comic-anime-movie), producer Don Murphy makes the link.

"Just the whole idea of giant robots is a very manga-type thing," he said.

The "Transformers" movie will be an interesting test of whether the current hunger for manga — combined with the box office's lust for superheroes — can go one step further. If giant robots can't conquer American audiences, then, what can?