Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Whither Manga?

As I've explained before, most anime was something else first. Sometimes a light novel series, sometimes the plot from a first person computer role-playing game (like a dating sim game). Most commonly, however, the source material for anime is a successful manga.

We use the loanword because a manga is not precisely newspaper comics (though it's usually originally serially published in a magazine with other manga in a weekly or monthly format) , nor book comics, nor graphic novel (though it usually has a strong plot arc with defined beginning and end, and usually has better art than US comics). There is, however, a simple linear-panel variant still popular in Japan called the four-panel comic (yonkoma) which is frequently published in general interest publications and is very similar in sensibility to a US newspaper comic strip. Jumpy sketch-comedy animes like Azumanga Daioh, Hidamari Sketch, and Doujin work are derived from yonkoma.

In any event, historically there has been a steady and large demand for a lot of different manga. Couple the big demand with the low production cost (newsprint, black ink, and staple binding is a cheap combination), and the result is dozens of weekly and monthly manga magazines catering to every possible niche of the manga market.

At least that's how things used to be.

Manga circulation in Japan is dropping. It's way down from the boom years of the mid-1990s, and it has lately been dropping at a steady (and not especially gentle) rate. I can't regard this as a good thing, because a lot of the manga (and manga-derived anime) I like are from marginal stories in marginal magazines. If Shounen Jump (the biggest single circulating manga magazine) is falling in circulation, I have to be somewhat concerned - I want mangakas (authors) to make money and keep making manga!

So why is this happening and what are some of the likely results? Here I tie into a post I made on mangaforums when Sphinx asked about the recent spate of erogame-based anime.

Frankly, I think the v-novel based series are a symptom of a somewhat worrying trend. The reasoning goes like this:

1. Japan is busy having a population collapse. As a proportion, it has one of the oldest average ages in the world.

2. this means that there are, proportionately fewer young adults, fewer high school kids, and even fewer still elementary school kids than at any previous time in living memory.

3. guess who the biggest consumers of manga and anime have historically been? Yup. Kids. Adults frequently read manga as well, but not so religiously - they also tend to gravitate toward the slick monthly manga aimed at adults and away from the pulp weeklies where most manga are published.

4. add in the Nintendo factor - "books are old school, my console is cool."

5. result: manga consumption is dropping rapidly.

6. result: the anime market is getting increasingly bimodal: one group is A. the traditional kids and young adults, the other group is B. the otakus who obsess over manga/anime, but have somewhat different perceptions of goodness than the average population.

7. result of 5: manga are going to get somewhat rarer, and new mangakas are going to have a harder time getting published. Most mangakas will likely also make less money.

8. result of 6. b: More and more otaku-centered manga/anime out there: Lucky Star, Genshiken, Doujin Work, Welcome to the NHK, as well as more 'moe-moe' extreme character designs (Misaki Chronicles, the generic kawaii loli character, etc.).

9. result of 4: since kids aren't reading manga, but are playing dating sim games, guess what you make anime around if you want to target a young audience. Yup, eroge anime isn't going anywhere any time soon.

I wonder where this leaves complex stories like Ai-Ren, Gunslinger Girl, or Hataraki Man. As the non-manga-reading kids age up, they're not going to be interested in seinen or josei manga, either...

We may all be hanging out at manwhaforums in a few years...
The last remark is a comment that Korea has a steadily growing but not-very-mature graphic story telling medium called 'manwha,' which is basically the Korean version of manga.

There has been a lot of computer game-based anime lately. This season, for instance, we have Clannad (from the Key game of the same name), Ef-A Tale of Memories, (derived from Ef- A Fairy Tale of the Two by Minori), Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni Kai, School Days, and Myself, Yourself among those I could easily spot.

It's true that there are plenty of good manga-based anime coming out as well, but the scripted computer games (I refuse to call them visual novels, as some of their creators do) definitely seem to be here to stay.

Is this bad?

Right now, yes, it is bad. All the sim games follow pretty straightforward plots, and, because the total text content of one of these is small relative to a good anime or manga, there's not a lot of room for subtlety of character or convoluted plot twists. I have yet to see a character in an erogame-based anime as complex as, say, Enzou from Hotman, Aaeru from Simoun, or even Kozue from Mahoraba, and I don't think it's likely that I will anytime soon. The formats are conventional and the plots are either straightforward schoolboy love stories or murder mysteries.

We can hope that the sim game consumers mature into desiring more complex plots, but the format doesn't encourage that sort of growth. I have 20-something coworkers who spend large amounts of their free time playing MMORPGs. They don't seem to grow bored with the sameness of trying to beat a rigged system with a small decision set, and they never seem to become interested in reading the Tolkien novels that form the basis of the thin milieu in which they play.

The one upside to this is that there does seem to be a minority trend in focusing more effort toward complex seinen and josei stories in manga. A manga like Honey and Clover would never have been published 20 years ago, and would never have been made into a successful anime even ten years ago.

That said, it's starting to seem to me that the Japanese love of shiny flashing things may mean the loss of a lot of diversity in the manga and anime market.

I really hope I'm wrong.

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