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Japan cracking US pop culture hegemony

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"The American 20th-century ideal of the individual superhero is wearing thin," says Roland Kelts, professor at the University of Tokyo and author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S." "The Japanese model is of self-denial and the sublimation of selfish desires for the sake of group harmony. This is becoming a multipolar world. The desire to be a part of something harmonious rather than the leader of a pack is growing."

Most weekdays, manga creators Shin Kibayashi and his sister, Yuko, can be found sitting elbow to elbow in their modest studio in a stylish section of Tokyo. She types dialogue while he comments. She does the same as he sketches. They switch roles – effortlessly – as the spirit moves them.

The world they work in is not one of American-style comic strips. Their serial cartoons – which are regularly bound into large volumes – follow sophisticated characters and plots over long periods of time, much like a soap opera.

The team's work spans the spectrum, from the Kindaichi Case Files, a detective series aimed at boys to the soccer manga Shoot! to The Drops of the Gods, a series for adults that focuses on wine and is read weekly by 500,000 Japanese. In France and Korea, the series is so popular that sales of wine brands mentioned in the comic often spike.

Shin says he's noticed a dramatic rise in interest in their work. "It took a long time, but manga's role has developed citizenship everywhere," he says.

In France last year, for example, 1,787 foreign comic books were translated – 64 percent of them Japanese. In the US, total manga sales in 2007 rose about 5 percent, to more than $210 million, according to ICV2.com, a trade website. Otakon, a convention devoted to Japanese pop culture in Baltimore, saw a record-breaking 26,000-plus attendees this past summer.

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