It's March 2009. I'm in Tokyo to be fitted for my zero gravity wedding dress, but that's another story. I meet up with Ed Chavez, an American-born manga translator, freelance writer and now marketing director at Vertical Inc., for the Manga Taisho Award ceremony. We're waiting outside the Nippon Housou Building with a small group of other journalists. It's cold for March in Tokyo, and the sakura (cherry blossoms) have not fully bloomed, much to my disappointment.
The Manga Taisho Award—subtitled "Comics Grand Prize" in English—is presented once per year to a new manga series. The award is voted on by manga artists, booksellers, and critics. Any title published between January 1and December 31, 2008 with a minimum of one volume and a maximum of eight volumes available in the calendar year is qualified to win the award. Designers, editors, and employees of the publisher are barred from voting.
| The Manga Taisho Award is presented to the editor of Yuki Suetsugu, creator of prize winning manga Chihayafuru. Suetsugu could not attend the event. |
Chavez went to the Taisho Awards last year. "Don't dress up," he tells me over the phone. "I dressed up last year and I felt like an idiot." I've tried to achieve a casual-hip-journalist look with skinny black pants and Converse, but I'm irritated to see that the other reporters are better dressed. They chat with each other and ignore us, except to ask if we're also here for the Taisho ceremony.
After waiting outside for a little while we're lead down four flights of stairs to the second basement level. We're instructed to wait again, in the hallway outside the Nippon Housou Imagine Studio. Lyrics from John Lennon's "Imagine" are painted on the wall in English.
A small display of the finalist books are on a table for photographing. Chavez hasn't really read many of the finalists. I can't read sufficiently in Japanese yet, but by coincidence I have already purchased some of the candidates for my growing library of Japanese books.
Saint Oniisan (Saint Young Men) is about the comedic exploits of Jesus and Buddha, living as roommates in present day Japan. I like looking through it, even if I don't get the jokes. I desperately hope someone translates this soon.
Space Brothers is about two men from different backgrounds struggling to become astronauts. My fiancé and I share a special interest in the title. It's from IKKI magazine, so I have hopes for an English edition because of IKKI's partnership with Viz and the launch of SigIkki.com, a website that will debut seinen manga titles (Children of the Sea is the first release) aimed at an older more sophisticated U.S. readership.
Seishun Shonen Magazine 1978-1983 is a kind of documentary/memoir manga about the early days of Shonen Magazine. I attended a birthday gala for Shonen Magazine and Shonen Sunday a week prior to the Taisho Awards. The magazine gave rise to hit titles such as Ashita No Joe, Love Hina, and Devilman.
The other finalists include March Comes in Like a Lion by Chika Umino, author of Honey and Clover; Midnight Dining, about late night eateries in Tokyo; Tomohane! Suzuri High School Calligraphy Club, which features a girl with a giant shodo (Japanese calligraphy) brush on the cover; Toriko, a crazy gag manga about food from Shonen Jump; Yondemasu yo, Azeberusan, a gag manga about publishing manga and Mama is a Tempest.
After another short wait we're led into the Imagine Studio—it's a large sound studio with padded walls.
Before the ceremony starts, a woman named Yura (according to her business card her full name is Akiko Endo) from a website called mangaspirits.com introduces herself to Chavez and I. She's interested in what we're doing here, since we're the only gaijin (foreigners) present. She also wants to know what we think of some of the titles and who we predict will win. Chavez explains to her he hasn't really read any of them, and mentions my interest in Saint Oniisan. Yura doesn't understand why Americans might find Saint Oniisan controversial.
Next we're given a speech by last year's winner, the author of Gaku-Minna no Yama (Peak-Everyone's Mountain). Winning the Taisho Award last year really boosted sales of his book, he says. Ishizuka is a mountain climber who had never drawn manga until he began Gaku at the age of 30.
A fashionably-dressed string quartet plays over a brief video presentation of slides with information about the awards. The rules are read to us by an official. The staff stall for more time. Apparently the winning manga artist has not yet arrived.
Finally it's revealed that the winner is Chihayafuru, a josei (women's) title about a card game called karuta which is traditionally played during the New Years' holiday. Our host announces that Yuki Suetsugu, the winning manga artist, couldn't make it after all. Instead, she's drawn a sketch which is presented to the audience. Suetsugu's editor accepts the award in her place.
"The author's probably not allowed to leave her apartment," Chavez whispers to me. The schedule of a manga author can be particularly intense. Suetsugu does not live in Tokyo, her editor explains. I wonder why the presenters pretended to wait for Suetsugu.
Chihayafuru runs in B Love magazine, the same josei magazine as Nodame Cantible. Nodam, a manga series about the relationship between two classical music students, is a huge hit in Japan, but it doesn't sell well in the U.S. Chihayafuru is also a hit in Japan, but I don't hold out hope that it will be translated anytime soon. Josei books just don't sell well in America, so American publishers shy away from licensing josei titles.
The editor explains that Chihayafur combines elements of shojo and shonen stories. The three protagonists competitively battle it out over a game of karuta each year at New Years (shonen). They also grow up together, and there's a love story (shojo). In a response to one journalist's question, the editor explained that although there are karuta clubs in Japan, it is usually played casually rather than competitively.
Chavez explains to me that in Japan, a close-knit community of manga specialty stores help to make titles into hits. The retail chain store called Gamers may have started the trend, using Di Gi Ko and Rabbi-en-Rose, cat-girl and bunny-girl mascot characters created for the store, to draw attention to specific titles with in-store displays, hand-made posters, flyers featuring comic strips, and custom signs. Di Gi Ko and Rabbi-en-Rose have gone on to star in several successful anime and manga series.
In an earlier visit to K-Books in Tokyo's Ikebukuro neighborhood, I witnessed similar in-store displays. Hand-written signs placed by the employees recommended certain titles. I've seen similar in-store signs in some of the best of the best comic book stores in America. This kind of homemade signage in addition to an award can really sell a title.
Most bookstores in Japan shrink-wrap all their manga and magazines. Occasionally, a 20-page manga sampler is attached to the shelves with a string for a sneak peak. With only a tiny sampler to go on, a staff recommendation and an award can really drive sales. K-Books also has original pages and autographed sketches from different artists on the walls.
The ceremony wraps up and Chavez and I take the train in the same direction as Tadashi Sudo, a Japanese journalist who covers anime and manga news on animeanime.jp. "A lot of Anime News Network's stories are translated from his site," Chavez tells me. I'm embarrassed that I can't speak more Japanese, but Sudo and I manage to speak in English about Claymore, an anime title I've written about recently. Sudo and Chavez are off to dinner with some Japanese manga editors. I'm jealous, and I head to the Kinokuniya in Shinjuku to look at more manga.[Editors Note: Our intrepid manga correspondent Erin Finnegan was married to her fiancé Noah Fulmor in her very stylish Zero Wedding dress at an altitude of 34,000 feet in a plane flying a series maneuvers called parabolic arcs that recreate the weightlessness of outer space for everyone in the plane. Check Erin’s website for all the happy details.]