Thursday, June 03, 2010

Tokyo’s Manga Madness

School girls on "Maiden Road" in Ikebukuro

Plastik magazine

By Paul Cochrane in Tokyo

The Japanese are crazy about manga and no where more so than in the manga capital of the world, Tokyo. Comic books come in all sorts and sizes, from samurai and science fiction to haute cuisine and porn. Comics café’s offer all you can devour for an hourly fee, while in “cosplay café’s” waitresses dress up as anime characters to serve drinks and, at times, a “happy ending.” Welcome to the wonderful world of manga, which in Japan alone is worth a staggering $31 billion annually.

To get a sense of how manga mad the Japanese really are you must visit Tokyo's “otaku” (geek) districts of Akihabara (Akiba) and Ikebukuro. Originally known as “Electric City” for its cut price electronics, Akiba in central Tokyo has morphed into a manga and gamers' paradise. Store employees call out deals on megaphones, young women dressed as saucy maids hand out fliers on the streets, music pulses from store fronts, while men and women of all ages browse the store’s shelves for the latest titles to bargain-bin deals at $1 a copy.

Building after building along the district’s main drag is covered in bright colorful strip lighting and advertising while the interiors hold floor after floor of manga: comics, dvds, games, costumes and merchandise of all that can seemingly be commercialized: chocolates, toys, bottled water, clothing, models, playing cards, headphones, plastic dolls.

Akihabara aka Electric City

Browsing for manga on "Maiden road"

One store has five floors of normal manga – Japanese for “whimsical sketches” or cartoons – while the top two-floor “adults only” section is stacked floor to ceiling with manga “dojin” (porn), ranging from feature-length stories and one-off 10-page sexual encounters, usually between a bug-eyed, big breasted, tiny waisted girl and an exceedingly well-hung male, to all-female-action, alien sex and hermaphrodites with colossal boobs and swinging dicks.

Vivid is hardly the word to describe much of the content – nearly all dojin manga involves such a copious amount of splattered cum that you can almost feel it oozing out of the bindings. Meanwhile, outside each floor are machines selling models of nude female manga figures in “interesting” postures dispensed in plastic cylinders for reassembly back home.

If purchasing models or dressing up in the costumes of a favorite character are not enough, then there are the cosplay (“costume play”) cafes, where waitresses are dressed up like anime characters. More personal maid cafes are dotted around Akiba, where massage “happy endings” and fetish inclined wants can be satiated.

Dojin manga on sale in Ikebukuro

Drink dispenser in Akiba

It is over in Ikebukuro in northwest Tokyo that you find “otome” (geek girls) on so-called “Maiden Road.” Otome hang out at manga shops to browse boys' love, or “boizu rabu,” a female-orientated manga that focuses on homo-erotic or homo-romantic male relationships that are usually created by female authors (but distinctly different from “bara,” or gay manga). There are even role-play cafes featuring women in drag waiting tables as butlers.

For the more mainstream reader who is low on funds yet wants to buy all the cartoon candy the eye desires, “manga kissaten” (comics cafes) are found all over Japan, where customers can read manga, watch dvds and surf the internet for an hourly fee or stay all night to plough through a 25-part manga series in-between cat naps.

The amount of manga available in Japan is truly staggering, with the all encompassing manga industry - from comics to anime to toys - worth an eye-popping $31 billion a year. The Kyoto International Manga Museum alone stocks what is considered a conservative number at 50,000 manga volumes. And manga, in all its forms, covers all genres: samurai tales, history, fantasy, science fiction, action, romance, porn and even educational content. Food is also an immensely popular genre, evidenced in the “Oshinbo a La Carte” series by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki, which have sold over 100 million copies worldwide.

Japan's visual entertainment has certainly made its mark on global popular culture, despite a lack of translations and promotion over the past 30 years. That Japan has done so in the face of the Hollywood entertainment empire is down to the vivid, artistically rich imaginings of futuristic and fantastical worlds coupled with a willingness to take the material, as well as the viewer, seriously. A realization that comics are not solely a medium for children as escapist entertainment and can verge on the high-brow in the stories and ideas expressed.

Indeed, the international commercial success of post-apocalyptic anime films “Akira” (1988), “Ghost in the Shell” (1995) and “Appleseed” (2004) showed that what some deride as “cartoons” requires not only a “Parental Advisory” warning but also a more than functioning brain.


What pushed anime into the realm of adult entertainment was the development of manga from the easily digestible American superhero comic of the 1940s and '50s into a more realistic, violent and sexually explicit style. Spearheading the rise of manga was legendary artist Osamu Tezuka – aka the “God of Manga” - who revolutionized the medium by adopting film-frame visualization in his drawings and taking manga from child-safe series (and current American film) “Astro Boy” to the likes of “MW,” a story about a gay priest sexually entangled with a schizo-psychopath whose mind was messed with as a child by exposure to a US-made chemical weapon.

Since Tezuka put pen to paper manga has never looked back, providing the inspiration for anime films, TV series, video games and e-manga. What is on the page is on the screen. And as entertainment in general became increasingly hardcore so did manga in its
über violence and graphic sex, particularly in genres such as “yaoi” (“boys' love”) and dojin.

But while manga comics in Japan are a $5 billion-a-year business, outside the Far East just a fraction has been translated or is readily available. Annual Japanese sales of manga magazines are estimated at $2.2 billion and manga books at $2.5 billion, while best selling magazine “Shonen Jump!” has a weekly circulation of 2.9 million copies. Manga is such big business that in 2009 the Japanese government made manga part of its economic recovery plan by aiming to boost exports of manga, anime and pop music from the current two percent of the country’s total exports to 18 percent over the next decade.

“Japanese content, such as anime and video games, and fashion draw attention from consumers around the world,” said Taro Aso, the then prime minister and a self-confessed manga addict. “Unfortunately, this soft power is not being linked to business overseas. By linking the popularity of Japan's soft power to business, I want to create a $212-$318 billion market by 2020 and create 500,000 new jobs.”

This is great news for manga aficionados around the world, some of whom are so starved of new content that they learn Japanese to be able to delve into the ever expanding universe of manga, while more translations will make manga grow beyond the largely “geek” sub-culture following it has in the West.

Yet for manga to hold truly global appeal, merely translating content may not be enough. Perhaps it is about time the “value added” visual entertainment readily available in Tokyo is exported alongside the newly translated content, so we can enjoy dojin, college-age girls dressed in drag and manga kissaten on the streets of Berlin, Paris and Beirut.







All photographs by Paul Cochrane

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