Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Japan Media Arts Festival: Where Comic Books and Cartoons Win Big Awards!

The Japan Times Online has an article about the recent Japan Media Arts Festival. It's going on right now through February 15th in Roppongi and seems like it would be a blast to catch. High-tech, digital media, Miyazaki Hayao-phobia, creators on the cutting edge and all that neat-o super-keen stuff the beatniks and teddy boys are into these days when they're not playing bongos and hanging out at the malt shoppe. With my economic status it's doubtful I'll get to make even a one day jaunt to Tokyo to catch it, but here are my favorite bits of comic-related info gleaned from the article:

Music-themed manga are now popular in Japan, thanks to artists such as Akira Sasou. His "Maestro," about an orchestra revived by an enigmatic conductor, won a second-place prize. A professor at Kyoto Seika University, Sasou hopes to publish the first Japanese university textbook on creating successful manga.

"High-quality drawings are important, but the story needs to pull the audience to the next page," he said.

That's news to me and I live here in Japan! I do know that Nodame Cantabile remains a favorite and just mentioning it to some of my students usually lights up their faces. And I don't just mean teeny-boppers. I'm talking all ages, from teens to middle-aged women who, if American, probably wouldn't read a comic book with your eyes. I wish music-themed comic books were all the rage in the United States and comics themselves were as mainstreamed there as they are here. And:

Of the 35 manga winners, only 10 were women. Critic and festival judge Yukari Fujimoto recommends "shojo" (girl) manga as a way for overseas women artists to enter this male-dominated arena. Shojo manga is targeted at a female audience.

It seems women have more inroads both as creators and as readers here in Japan than they do in the States, so I'm surprised at these numbers. I'd kind of assumed a more 50-50 split. But I'm pretty stupid when it comes to this kind of analysis and I don't have the patience or the time to go digging through the numbers. Then again, if a comic book festival were handing out thirty-five awards in the U.S., do you think as many as 10 women would win, or even receive nominations? Ten?

And shojo manga may be targeted at a female audience, but when the book is as groovacious as Yazawa Ai's Nana, there's no reason its popularity can't cross gender lines. I'm addicted to Nana, and weather some funny looks whenever someone asks me what Japanese comics I like and that's the first thing out of my mouth. I'm proud of my ability to recognize something superior despite its being aimed at an audience I'm ostensibly not a member of.

I think if the story quality is there (as per Sasou Akira's quote above), the audience for a book can grow beyond its intended demographic. That's one thing that seems to be missing in a lot of the "what can we do to make American comics appeal more to female readers" discussion (which I think needs to be broadened to a more general "how can we get more people buying comics period" movement)-- quality will generally draw readers and quality itself will generally replace all those problematic tropes, cliches and dramatic failings we always complain about.

My answer will always be to challenge our creators to produce better books. And if that idea fails, I seriously doubt there's more you can do to get anyone into comics.


"Shojo manga is booming," [Fujimoto] said.

What's the American equivalent of shojo manga? Hmm... probably actual shojo manga. Is that booming back home as well?

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