In 1988, while Matt Thorn was taking a class at Kansai University, a classmate lent him Moto Hagio’s manga The Heart of Thomas. “That was a life-changing experience for me,” he said. “The biggest shock to me was that it made me cry. I mean really cry. I had never imagined that a comic could do that.”
That launched Thorn on a multifaceted career as a manga translator and scholar. As a translator for Viz in the 1990s, he witnessed the very beginning of the U.S. manga boom. Now he is an associate professor in the manga program at Kyoto Seika University, and recently he returned to translation with Seduce Me After the Show and Red Blinds the Foolish, two yaoi works by his former student est em. Late last year PW Comics Week interviewed Thorn via Skype chat about working at Viz and translating shojo in the years just before the U.S. manga boom.
PWCW: You started at Viz in 1990. What was the culture like at that time?
MT: Very laid back. I got in (as a freelancer) just as the [American] comics bubble had burst. Viz had fired a lot of people, and had only three full-time employees, including the president, Seiji Horibuchi. For [parent company] Shogakukan, it was almost a vanity project. They didn't expect it to make money.
PWCW: What changed that perception?
MT: Pokemon. I moved to Kyoto in 1997. One day, I got a call from Shogakukan Productions. They said, "We're going to try to promote Pokemon in the U.S., and we'd like you to help." I said, "I'd love to, but I'm really busy these days, so I'm afraid I can't. And to be honest, I don't think Pokemon will fly in America." Stupidest thing I ever did.
PWCW: When you started at Viz, were you translating shojo, or girls, manga?
MT: No, shojo manga was still a pipe dream at that point. I was doing whatever they hired me to do: LUM, Ranma, 2001 Nights, Horobi, Nausicaa...even Golgo 13. They knew I was interested in shojo manga, but they said it would be impossible to sell shojo manga in the U.S.
PWCW: Did you evangelize for it?
MT: I started evangelizing. First I told them, "This whole business model is unmanageable. You're selling to a subset of a subset. Normal people never walk into comic shops." I said, "You should skip the whole leaflet format, publish shojo manga in paperback form, and get them on the shelves alongside the youth novels or romance novels." The editor laughed out loud. "We could never even get a foot in the door of the big book chains."
So we started modestly. The first project was two short stories by Keiko Nishi, which we published in an 80-page comic book titled Promise. Critically, it was very well received. In terms of sales, not so much. Which isn't surprising, since you could only get it at a comic book shop. The growth of the anime fan community was what fueled everything, for better or worse. They were our core customers. And of course you know what came next. And not from Viz.
PWCW: Sailor Moon?
MT: Right. You had this domino effect, starting with Pokemon, which appealed to girls as much as to boys. Then you had Sailor Moon, which I think took American producers of "kids stuff" completely by surprise. "An action animation for girls? No way!"
PWCW: How did American girls find shojo manga?
MT: I think the Internet served as an incredible word-of-mouth community for girls who had gotten into the earliest shojo manga, and the market followed from there. There was a surprisingly short delay between the Sailor Moon phenomenon and shoujo manga appearing in Borders.
PWCW: It seems like shojo manga has gone in a different direction from what you like—it’s more Arina Tanemura (the Gentlemen’s Alliance) than Moto Hagio (They Were Eleven).
MT: I suppose we're reading Tanemura rather than Hagio for the same reason younger Japanese are. The former is newer and more accessible, the latter is older and more difficult to read. That's the simple answer. The more complex answer, I suppose, is that the American market is simply not nearly as developed as is the Japanese market. In Japan, there's a sizable market of women in their 30s and 40s supporting such artists as Hagio. In the Anglophone world, the market is still comparatively young and small. But it is growing, in both the sense of aging and the sense of expanding. And I think publishers are missing the boat when it comes to creating an adult readership. Adult readers will not accept the awkward translations and poor production values that teens tolerate.
PWCW: Recently, you returned to translation work with Seduce Me After the Show, by est em. How did that come about?
MT: est em, whose real name is Maki Satoh, is a former student and dear friend of mine. Most artists, including est em, have little input in the exporting of their work. So one day her editor told her, "We're putting out an English language edition of your first book," and then months later, she mentions it to me. So I freaked out and said, "Are you serious!? When!? Your work's too sophisticated to be translated by some hack!" So we asked her editor, and learned that the translation was already done, but the editor asked me if I would check it. I ended up pretty much redoing it. For the second volume, I was in from the beginning.
PWCW: Do you plan to do more translation in the future?
MT: I have some projects in the works geared toward adult women.
PWCW: Have any of your other students done manga that has come to the U.S.?
MT: Not yet, but it could happen within the next few years. One my first students just had his first paperback published from the magazine Jump Square.
Illustration of Matt Thorn by est em