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Japanese comics and animation enjoy growing female audience in U.S

FEATURE: Japanese comics and animation enjoy growing female audience in U.S

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 7 Kyodo

For nearly 10 years, Kate Alexander has enjoyed the stories and characters portrayed in Japanese comics and animation, from the tales of bounty hunters and ninjas, to the adventures of cyborgs and magical school girls.

”I love the Japanese storytelling and how reading manga and watching anime keeps up my Japanese language abilities,” said 25-year-old Alexander, a biotechnology professional in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Japanese comics — called manga — and animated movies and series — known as anime — are developing influential roles in mainstream American entertainment.

Titles like ”Yu-Gi-Oh!” and ”Pokemon” have achieved crossover success in the U.S. as television series, comics, movies and games, while the animated film ”Spirited Away” by Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003.

The broadening appeal is especially evident in the increasing number of American female manga and anime fans. From high school students to industry professionals, women and girls are influencing the evolving Japanese comic and animation markets in the U.S.

”The early anime and manga releases in America were more heavily geared toward men, both in content and marketing,” said Trulee Karahashi, 30, CFO of the Anaheim, California-based Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, which sponsors Anime Expo, one of the largest annual anime and manga exhibitions in the U.S.

”I am so pleased that the marketing is shifting toward women – it makes manga and anime much more accessible to the general consumer, and it makes more products of interest available to me,” said Karahashi, who began watching televised anime as a child.

The expanded distribution of Japanese comics and animation in the U.S. has been an important factor in attracting a broader female audience.

In particular, manga has emerged from obscure comic shops to the shelves of mainstream American bookstores.

”Once the distributors hit the bookstores, it was easier to buy manga without feeling out of place in the store, and you had a wider selection,” said Stephanie Folse, 35, an information technology librarian and amateur manga artist from Fort Worth, Texas.

One of the fastest growing genres of manga translated into English is shojo, or girls’ manga, which features strong female characters and story lines focusing on relationships, romance and life pursuits.

Renowned ”Astro Boy” manga artist Osamu Tezuka created the first shojo title in 1953. The genre has since enjoyed a widespread readership in Japan, and a growing American fan base.

According to the trade publication ”ICv2 Retailers Guide to Manga,” North American manga sales, including numerous shojo titles, grew over 40 percent to $140 million in 2004.

More than a quarter of the top 50 manga properties in the U.S. listed for the third quarter of 2005 were shojo.

”The growth of manga in the American market has been primarily among women, and it’s brought a tremendous number of women into comic book stores and into book stores looking for graphic novels,” said Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, 23, junior editor of TOKYOPOP, a Los Angeles-based publisher of original and licensed graphic novels and manga series in North America.

The company currently publishes about 70 shojo titles, around half their catalogue, including the English translation of Japan’s best-selling shojo manga ”Fruits Basket.” The Natsuki Takaya series, about a family under the unusual curse that makes them transform into animals of the Chinese zodiac, is the best-selling shojo title in the U.S.

In addition to publishing individual volumes, TOKYOPOP’s original shojo titles also appear in popular culture and lifestyle magazines, such as CosmoGIRL, ELLEGirl and TeenPeople, which target teenage girl readers.

Evelyn Dubocq, 47, director of public relations of VIZ Media, LLC, a San Francisco-based multi-media company specializing in licensing and publishing Japanese entertainment in America, estimates that shojo titles generate at least 50 percent of the company’s manga and graphic novel revenue.

”It’s very exciting, because shojo is the hottest thing right now,” Dubocq said.

As a subsidiary of Japanese media companies Shogakukan Inc. and Shueisha Inc., VIZ published approximately 100 shojo titles last year in the U.S., including top sellers like ”Angel Sanctuary” and ”Imadoki.” They will increase that number by 40 titles this year.

VIZ’s new Shojo Beat monthly anthology features Japanese fashion and culture trends, and English translations of successful shojo titles like ”Nana,” Ai Yazawa’s trendy series about two young women with the same name pursuing careers and relationships in Tokyo.

Dubocq credits shojo’s growing popularity in America to the accessibility of its characters and themes to female readers.

”Women tend to gravitate toward the stories because they’re about things that women relate to, love and angst and heartbreak,” she said.

Avid shojo reader Selene Herrera, 14, a high school student, from Carson, California, is such a fan of English-translated titles that she is willing to learn Japanese to expand her personal manga library.

”For me, it’s the expressions and the looks of the characters, and the love that they show for one another, it’s so intense,” said Herrera, who dressed as her favorite character from the hit series ”Sailor Moon” at the recent Anime Expo in Anaheim, California.

Other female fans enjoy a range of Japanese comics and animation, not just titles aimed at girls.

”I read and watch series targeted toward audiences of various ages, both male and female,” said Julie Saracino, a technical editor in New York City.

Some of the 22-year-old’s favorite Japanese comic titles are those aimed at male readers, or shonen manga, including the much-hyped ninja adventure ”Naruto.”

Robyn Mukai, 23, marketing manager of the Los Angeles-based anime distribution company Urban Vision, said one of the company’s most popular titles, the violent gothic thriller ”Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust,” has a huge female fan base.

”Females aren’t really limited anymore to liking the cute, bright titles, they just like things that are well done,” she said.

Distributors are noting the growing number of female fans contributing to America’s sizeable anime market, which generated an estimated $500 million in DVD and video sales in 2004, according to the ”ICv2 Retailers Guide to Anime.”

Keith Burgess, 32, fan relations manager of Manga Entertainment Inc., a Chicago-based anime distribution and production company, has in recent years seen a substantial increase in the number of older professional female anime fans.

”We’ve had women who are doctors and lawyers pick up the ‘Street Fighter’ and Jet Li-style titles, but then they’ll pick up ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ or ‘Perfect Blue,’ because they’re almost like the thinking person’s anime,” said Burgess, citing some of Manga Entertainment’s most popular action, science-fiction and mystery titles.

For many female fans, watching anime, like the popular series ”Sailor Moon,” has served as an introduction to reading manga.

Like much of the televised anime in Japan, the series about a team of brightly uniformed, space-age girl heroines began as a serialized comic.

”I discovered ‘Sailor Moon’ the animated series and I fell in love. Then I discovered manga and started reading more of it than American comics,” said Baltimore, Maryland-based manga creator Christy Lijewski, 24, who began watching the series at age 11.

Cartoon Network first broadcast ”Sailor Moon” to American cable audiences in the mid-90s. Since then, the Atlanta-based network has expanded their distribution of animated programming to 160 countries, including Japan, through Cartoon Network Japan.

Jason DeMarco, 33, is associate creative director for Toonami, Cartoon Network’s action-oriented program block and top franchise for anime, which featured ”Sailor Moon” and the influential shonen-style series, ”Dragon Ball Z.”

”We’re seeing more 18 to 34-year-old women viewers. The ones who grew up with ‘Sailor Moon,”’ said De Marco, an eight-year veteran of the network.

”They’re watching more anime then they ever have before, especially on ‘Adult Swim,”’ he said.

”Adult Swim” is Cartoon Network’s late-night showcase of adult-targeted animation, featuring mature characters and edgy, sophisticated story lines.

Regular broadcasts of favored anime series like ”Cowboy Bebop” and ”Inuyasha” have made the program one of the most popular among the desired 18 to 34-year-old American cable audience.

According to Cartoon Network, ”Adult Swim” increased its 18 to 34-year-old female anime audience by 23 percent in the second quarter of 2005, compared with that in 2004. Its most popular anime series, ”Full Metal Alchemist,” averages 186,000 women viewers each broadcast.

”Women are discovering that there are anime programs for adults, and they’re not insulting to their intelligence,” said DeMarco.

Cartoon Network hopes to attract more female viewers to other programs, like Toonami’s upcoming series ”IGPX” (Immortal Grand Prix) set for release in October in Japan and November in the U.S.

DeMarco said one of the goals in creating the futuristic action series was to consider the interests of women audiences.

”We wanted to create strong female characters who were real. I think we’ve achieved that,” he said.

In addition to becoming fans, an increasing number of women are working in the American manga industry.

”A look at any one of our ‘Rising Stars of Manga’ volumes shows there are many women out there who have the knowledge and skills to really make it big as pros,” said TOKYOPOP’s Diaz-Przybyl.

Inspired by Japanese publishing contests, the ”Rising Stars of Manga” competition gives amateur manga creators the chance to submit their work for monetary prizes, and a spot in a published TOKYOPOP anthology.

The contest was an important launching pad for 2002 runner-up Christy Lijewski, who successfully pitched her idea for ”RE:Play,” a shojo-style series about an aspiring punk band, to TOKYOPOP executives.

”I think a lot more girls and women are realizing that manga and anime aren’t boys’ clubs like a lot of American comic publishers are. Manga publishers publish things by women all the time. They know we’re a valid crop of creators, not just a rare novelty,” Lijewski said.

Los Angeles-based television script and memoir writer Rachel Manija Brown, 31, is such a fan of manga that she spent the past year developing her own series.

”I became interested in writing manga and anime because I became a fan of it. I like to write in genres that I love,” Brown said.

She described her original TOKYOPOP-published shojo title as humorous, with a focus on emotion and character development, qualities appreciated by her enthusiastic fans.

”They like that my women characters are strong and my men are sexy,” Brown said.

Professional artist and manga creator Katie Bair, 29, was first exposed to Japanese animation at age 4, while living Germany.

She actively pursued her interest in anime and manga culture after returning to the U.S., attending numerous related exhibitions as a fan and instructor on ”cosplay” – the practice of dressing in costumes based on comic and animation characters.

From 2002 until April 2005, Bair wrote and illustrated the humorous shonen manga series ”Ninja High School,” for Antarctic Press of San Antonio, Texas.

Now based in Fresno, California, Bair is continuing work on her internet manga series ”Aesir Corp.” She said the challenges of working professionally in the manga business are not limited to women.

”Women in anime and manga are often seen as role models for young female artists wanting to join their ranks, but gender has nothing to do with it,” Bair said.

”Boy or girl, this is a tough business, and it requires a lot of hard work and tenacity to survive.”

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