Epic. Innovative. Intimate. Those were the adjectives used by the jury to describe Sakana Sakatsuki’s Planetarium Ghost Travel, which won the 2023 BolognaRagazzi Award for Comics in the Young Adult category. The 256-page book from Tokyo-based PIE International revolves around the philosophical and emotional musings—on loneliness, restlessness, and sorrow, for instance—of a young space traveler.

The uniqueness of Planetarium Ghost Travel lies in its three-part composition with each section expressing a different visual style. “The first chapter is a collection of illustrations like an art book,” editor Kaori Saito said. “The second and the fourth chapters, respectively titled ‘Insomniac Boy Goes to the Moon’ and ‘The Journey of Two Tobiases,’ have picture book-style illustrations and short poetic text while the third chapter is a monochrome manga. The four chapters—resembling an elaborate puzzle but with sufficient ambiguities to ignite the reader’s imagination—are tied together by a theme color, which is a deep blue to represent the tranquil sci-fi world.”

Production-wise, two types of paper were used. “For the monochrome manga, we chose a paper with a slight yellow tint to better match the atmosphere of the story, which is bathed in gentle night light,” Saito said. “The rest of the pages were printed on a paper that best replicates the colors of the author’s original full-color illustrations. By using these two types of paper, we are able to create different impressions and moods within a single book.”

The cloth-textured book jacket hides a surprise. “When the reader removes the jacket, some illustrations that exist in the book but are not drawn in detail—the hotel room plan and the menu of the cafe, for instance—are revealed,” Saito said. “This element of playfulness is our way of entertaining the reader.”

Planetarium Ghost Travel is set in the same universe as the author’s popular manga series Hoshitabi Shounen (i.e., Star Tripper). The first volume of the latter is PIE International’s bestselling manga with around 42,000 copies in circulation. Both Planetarium Ghost Travel and Star Tripper will be translated into Simplified Chinese in 2024.

For president Hiromoto Miyoshi, winning the BolognaRagazzi Award is an exciting and surprising occasion. “We started the Star Tripper web-manga series only about two years ago and decided to publish its paper edition last April,” said Miyoshi, who is at the Bologna Book Fair with his team to further promote and sell Planetarium Ghost Travel. “The creation of this award category marks a new trend in children’s book publishing and is a reflection on the global popularity of comics.”

Back home, Planetarium Ghost Travel won the Jury Selections award in the manga category at the 25th Japan Media Arts Festival, which received more than 3,500 entries from 95 countries and regions around the world. As for Star Tripper, it came in fifth in the female readers category at the popular and influential Kono Manga ga Sugoi (This Manga Is Amazing) annual competition.

The Japanese manga industry, Miyoshi said, “is growing rapidly not just in sales but also in its variety. Many publishers are entering this segment and leveraging their unique capabilities. For PIE International, our strengths come from our origin as a design book publisher and so our goal is to create and publish quality manga that are not only unique and entertaining but also offer great visual aesthetics.”

It is indeed surprising that PIE International is the first Japanese publisher to win the BolognaRagazzi Award for Comics since the category was launched in 2020. Japan is, after all, renowned for its manga and manga artists (or mangaka), and is the largest comics market in the world with a share of around 43%. (South Korea, the U.S., and France are the next three major comics markets.)

According to the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Publications, the overall manga sales in Japan in 2022 were estimated at 677 billion yen (or $4.97 billion), a marginal increase of 0.2% compared to the 10% hike in the previous year when people stayed indoors during the pandemic and read more. Still, manga sales were at a record high for three consecutive years now and accounted for 41.5% of the total Japanese publishing market, exceeding 40% for a second year running.

Sales of comics in digital format went up 8.9% last year to hit 447.9 billion yen ($3.29 billion), representing roughly 89.3% of the country’s digital publishing market while print comics saw a 13.4% drop compared to 2021.