TokyoPop hits the highway to save manga in America

Posted by on August 2nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

TokyoPop will find you

The first time I met Stuart Levy, Founder, CEO and CCO of 12-year-old distributor, producer and proselytizer of Japanese comics and animation, TokyoPop, he was dauntingly sanguine. At the time I was conducting research and interviews for my book, Japanamerica, and Levy garrulously held forth in TokyoPop’s Tokyo headquarters about new movies, new TV outlets, Internet options and America’s mania for manga.

That was then, as they say. TokyoPop slashed its workforce two years ago, shrewdly trimming overhead before the industry crash hit hardest in ’09 and ’10, seeing peers like Viz Media hemorrhage profits and jobs, and others, like ADV and Central Park Media, disappear entirely.

Despite the setbacks, Levy remains as madcap passionate as humanly possible about his struggling business. Instead of griping behind corporate walls, he has hit the road this summer to meet and greet the audience, whose numbers continue to swell at conventions and expos across the US, and try to rescue his industry.

Levy’s self-branded “TokyoPop Tour” launched in early July at Los Angeles’s Anime Expo. When it finally winds down in Chicago at the end of August, he and his crew will have hit 28 cities in 54 days — all to get face time with fans.

For me, the move is rich with irony: the heavily Internet-invested manga/anime producer and retailer I first encountered five years ago is now using online social networking to turn back into old-fashioned traveling salespeople.

“I decided we should take the plunge this year and make it happen,” Levy tells me from his tour bus. “The goals are simple: To reach out to fans nationwide to meet them and see how ‘otaku culture’ in America has evolved.”

TokyoPop's magic bus at Anime Expo

Levy has plenty of gimmicks to help sell the jaunt. Six college students selected via audition are accompanying him, and an ongoing quest and contest to find “America’s Greatest Otaku” (the nation’s most obsessive fan of Japanese pop culture) sustains suspense. The entire tour is being filmed for a later video incarnation, and clips, pics and updates are posted constantly on the tour’s web site and via social networking outlets like Facebook and Twitter. There are freebies and promotional giveaways, too.

“I typically think up ideas on my own,” says Levy, “letting concepts gestate until they become a very clear vision. Sometimes I start to plan while that vision is still coming together in my head. A lot of this has to do with branding, design and aesthetic. “The TOKYOPOP Tour has combined all those elements – and the vision crystallized for me as the planning stage progressed. My decision to attempt production on a show while on tour was the critical one – along with my decision to personally join the entire tour hands-on.”

Levy’s approach is not merely admirable, but necessary.  The gap between American fandom and the producers and purveyors of Japanese pop culture has widened into a chasm in the years since he and I first met in Tokyo.  Manga sales have plummeted by a third in North America in the past two years.  And even in the domestic market, manga is losing ground to digital media and scanlation offerings.  The last year alone in Japan saw a 6.6% drop in overall manga sales, and a dizzying 9.4% fall in the manga magazine market.

This June, the 36-member Japanese Digital Comics Association, which includes Japanese publishing giants such as Shogakukan, Shueisha and Kodansha, announced that they would be teaming up with their US counterparts Viz Media, TokyoPop and Yen Press (part of the mighty Hachette Book Group) to form an international coalition seeking legal action again scanlators and scanlation aggregator sites.

Shortly thereafter, a 14 year-old Japanese middle-schooler was arrested in Nagoya on charges that he illegally uploaded hundreds of manga onto YouTube.  And two of the largest English-language scanlation aggregators, MangaFox and OneManga, responded in short order, with the former pulling hundreds of manga titles from its site and the latter announcing it would close completely at the end of last month.

Levy’s support of these actions is unequivocal. “It’s definitely necessary,” he tells me from his latest stop on the East Coast. “Piracy plagues the industry, but the industry has to offer a reasonable alternative to fans as well.  Still, without the support of our Japanese licensors, we’re stuck.  Things [in America] will collapse.”

TokyoPop founder Stuart Levy in Baltimore for Otakon

Like others in the beleaguered manga and anime industries outside of Japan, Levy is betting on fandom, the sheer enthusiasm of millions of cosplayers, convention attendees and passionate enthusiasts to prop up the Japanese pop culture phenomenon.

“As far as DVD and manga sales go, [the problem] is a combination of less interesting stories and piracy.  But every city in America has passionate fans. The passion is everywhere.  And cosplay itself is a significant trend which contributes to the success of anime conventions. I’d say over 50% of attendees are cosplaying now.”

TokyoPop is seeking to connect the dots of Japanamerican fandom–cosplay, conventions and consumerism–in order to create a coherent whole that works for fans and producers on both sides of the planet.  It’s an ambitious agenda, executed via one big and amply illustrated bus.

But will it work?  “I don’t think we will know until the America’s Greatest Otaku show is complete and broadcast on Hulu later this year,” says Levy. “This show memorializes our search for otaku culture and everything we’ve done this summer.”

Here come your traveling salesfolk, eager to meet you where you live and deliver Japan’s best to your doorstep, with all hands on deck.  Don’t miss them.

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One Response to “TokyoPop hits the highway to save manga in America”

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