While working at a large magazine company in Japan, Eiji Han Shimizu had a vision to use Japanese comics, or manga, to change the world. The general concept was well received at his company, but his vision was not considered commercially viable. Despite this, Shimizu began culling a network of manga artists and creators, and formulating ideas for a new kind of informational/inspirational manga. Four years later, having left his job at the Japanese company, Shimizu is head of Emotional Content, a collective of Japanese manga artists who adapt and publish the biographies of 21st-century visionaries like the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and Che Guevara in the graphic novel format. Shimizu calls these manga-styled works “BioGraphic Novels.”
Based in Los Angeles and Yokohama, Japan, the small publishing venture was able to showcase its books at the Frankfurt Book Fair and published its first biographic novel, The 14th Dalai Lama by Tetsu Saiwai, over the summer. Emotional Content has 12 additional projects lined up, including a manga-styled biographic novel on Mother Teresa, which was published just last month, and another on revolutionary Che Guevara, coming this month. In 2009, its biographic novel list will feature works on the imprisoned Burmese democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as such revered figures as Gandhi and Anne Frank.
“I believe in the power of manga,” Shimizu told PW, emphasizing that Asian comics typically address all kinds of nonfiction subjects for all kinds of readers. “It's an established medium in Japan. We can learn the value of compassion, history and philosophy through manga. The majority of Japanese people do that,” he said. Shimizu added that he still reads businessman manga, a nonfiction genre of manga that focuses on the challenges of working in a large company.
It's relatively common for manga to be used in schools in Japan and with the welcome reception that graphic novels have received from American libraries, Shimizu sees libraries and the U.S. education market in general as key targets for his books. But overall, he believes his books are for everyone. “When I'm asked, 'Who's your main target [audience]?' I can't say 'males 16—23,'” Shimizu said. “It's for anybody.”
To produce Emotional Content's books, Shimizu calls upon a cadre of creative talent in Japan and matches the right creator to the right project. From his experience scouting artists in Japan, Shimizu has found many more artists interested in working in the Japanese manga industry than the very competitive commercial manga market uses. Given that situation, a lot of talented artists are available to work on independent projects. “The Japanese comic market is shrinking,” he said. “There are only a limited number of outlets [for manga artists].”
Shimizu found that with page count constraints and strict editorial direction placed on mangaka (or artists) by large Japanese publishers, manga artists like Tetsu Saiwai were eager to work with a startup company that allowed greater creative freedom.
Emotional Content's books are distributed through the book wholesaler Ingram and distributed online through the publisher's Website, www.biographicnovel.com. For the Dalai Lama book, Emotional Content is sharing the revenue from the downloadable PDF version with organizations like the Tuberculosis Control Project at Tibetan Delek Hospital. “In order to enhance the usability [of the downloads], we are exploring this kind of content distribution, using handful devices like iPhone and iPod, as well,” he said. Shimizu plans to donate proceeds from Emotional Content downloads in the future as well, although he adds that the company is a for-profit publisher. “We have to sustain ourselves,” he says and the company is looking to work with international publishers to get its books to the largest market possible.
“In the rest of the world, manga is primarily a vehicle to tell the story of the superhero, or Mickey Mouse. It's a comedy thing,” Shimizu said. “But there are huge resources of talent available, and manga is a powerful storytelling vehicle. I hope we can contribute to a better world.”