The Godzilla-Sized Appeal of Japan's Pop Culture

MICHAEL T. JARVIS

October 26, 2003

When Stuart Levy started Tokyopop Inc. in 1997, he had a tough time convincing venture capitalists that Japanese comic books could be popular in America. But "comic books" doesn't adequately describe the mass appeal of full-length black-and-white graphic novels spanning every genre from hard-boiled action-adventure sagas to sci-fi and fantasy. Today L.A.-based Tokyopop has a projected revenue of $35 million for 2003 and brings to the U.S. about 40 English-language manga titles a month in addition to producing spinoffs in formats such as anime, soundtracks and CD-Roms. Levy, 36, has a degree in economics from UCLA and a law degree from Georgetown University. He first visited Japan at 21 on a student program, returning for a year after law school to immerse himself in the language. After his Northridge apartment was destroyed in the 1994 earthquake, the self-described "digital guy" went back to Japan, read his first manga and promptly put his multimedia and legal chops to work unleashing Japan's graphic operatics on the U.S. We went to Levy for some East-West synergy.

Why manga?

I didn't grow up reading comic books. I grew up a music and film fan. When I was living in Japan, a graphic designer handed me a manga. I read it and thought, "This is like a Hollywood film." This was in 1995. The whole [Japanese] video game thing was happening, but manga was very nichey and it wasn't on my radar. I thought, "Wow, the design style is so aesthetically arresting." It was just incredible pop culture that [finally] hit me.

Anime and manga had cult status here in the U.S. for years. Is there a crossover into mass popularity underway?

There was a buddy of ours in high school and everybody thought he was kind of freaky because he had this huge collection of laser discs of Japanese animation. Five or six years after that I'm getting into this with my job. He was like an "early, early, early adapter" guy. I didn't know about cult status. I only saw it as something with potential. It's timing. These [Japanese] kids who are creators have been influenced by thousands of years of their own artistic upbringing as well as our Hollywood entertainment mentality. They've come up with some really great stuff. Whoever says the Japanese are not creative is [wrong].

How do anime and manga differ from American cartoons and comics?

It's a stylistic thing. You look at [Disney's animated feature] "Treasure Planet," and how it did not do well. DreamWorks came out with one that bombed too, "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas." I just look at the ads and say, "Gawd, that's never going to do well." The design style is not poppy enough; it's a little too rendered. Kids today are into more of a simple, funky, pop-art style look. [Also], content in manga is just so broad. You do your taxes and the pamphlet that comes with it has a little manga explaining how you do it on the form prepared by the government. It's brilliant.

Female characters in Japanese pop culture often have "little-girl" voices and clothing, yet frequently play heroic action roles. The typical Japanese view on female attractiveness tends to be more on the side of "cute," whereas in America it's more on the side of voluptuous. The cutesy voice and cutesy little look they call buriko. It's a kind of a female personality. She acts a little ditzy, a little airheadish, kind of childish to make a guy think she's irresistible. Kind of like Marilyn Monroe.

How do anime voice-overs transfer to the U.S.?

The Japanese have a different perspective on silence, whether it's in music, in speech or even in a meeting. Silence can be just as important and can say as much as sound. There can be something really loud happening and then all of a sudden dead silence, but to an American that's weird. In [an anime film] we'll do what's called sweetening and add in different sound effects and different music and different lines to fill the silence for America.

Japan once emulated American culture, but that seems to be reversing. I'm not a big history guy, but Japan has been a country that has gone from saying, "We don't want any outside influences, we're going to figure it out ourselves," to "We welcome outside influences," and then tweaking them into their own style. They've sort of gone back and forth on that for millennia. Manga was based on a combination of Japanese woodblock drawings plus the original Disney stuff. A lot of the older Japanese guys now talk about growing up and reading "Blondie" and those kinds of American comics. That's what's amazing about Japan. I really think that mentality is perfect for the digital generation because everything is about remixing-using existing tools and turning it into something aesthetically more pleasing than existed before.

Are you a manga devotee yourself?

I'm what the Japanese call a casual user. I dabble in everything. I love karaoke even though I can't sing.