Share & Connect
Considering the recent demise of Bandai’s North American anime licensing branch, and the closure of Tokyopop’s North American manga licensing offices in 2011, that old Western cliche seems still to hold true in America: There ain’t enough room in this town for the both of us.
In place of several publishers, licensors, and distributors that once offered a selection and variety to the translation and quality of the Japanese-imported anime and manga, the landscape now features two sole skyscrapers: Funimation for anime, and Viz Media for manga.
Unlike the North American comics industry, which has a “big two” of DC and Marvel, along with several notable smaller publishers such as Dark Horse and Image, the manga scene has steadily been thinning out since the early 2000s, and today, Viz is really the only big name in the business.
The easy answer is to blame the bad economy, but escapism into a fantasy world never gets old, and that is exactly what manga and anime sell. North American comics are more or less stable, and the video game industry is now even larger than the film industry in North America.
Escapism booms during economically tough times, but manga is busting. And on the anime side of things, Funimation’s nearest competitor, 4Kids, is now in bankruptcy. What have Funimation and Viz done that other companies have not?
For starters, they did not make stupid business decisions like Bandai’s North American wing, and they went with safe and solid titles. Funimation and Viz were both able to acquire several properties during the late ’90s that would each have been flagship titles for lesser companies.
So is it a simple matter of strong-arming the competition into destitution? Selling established North American comics such as Batman or X-Men to North Americans is a much easier task compared to importing Japanese media. A certain level of cultural and linguistic empathy bolsters the potential sales of DC and Marvel’s comics in America. Add a familiar name to that, and by comparison, half the marketing is done before you even start to sell an issue of Spider-Man.
That creates a larger market for those titles. Dragon Ball, on the other hand, had several failed attempts at being introduced here before it caught on like wildfire, because it was a very Japanese title.
Take some characters from the Journey to the West (a story that would be instantly recognizable within Asia), add in a Shaolin monk and ubiquitous references to ladies’ underwear (some of which, such as Bulma’s name, didn’t even carry over), and you have a mixture of nonsense that turns out as popular as green tea in Asia, and as popular as, well… green tea in North America, at least at first.
Companies cannot afford to follow the model of Dragon Ball. They need to create something familiar and established to give it appeal, and that ends up meaning one thing: a lack of innovation.
Viz and Funimation are successful because they play it safe, licensing only the most popular titles and then holding on to them for as long as possible. At the same time, Japanese content creators are realizing the same thing, and putting out nothing but the same familiar archetypes season after season, year after year.
Remember the original GameBoy, with its blocky grey body, its green screen, and its inexplicably purple buttons? Who said the buttons on that thing should be purple? Who knows? It was a weird decision, a silly risk, but it made for one of the most iconic handheld platform designs to this day.
Anime needs purple buttons. Just a few weird, innocuous twists to pull it out of the ordinary, make it interesting, and make it iconic. Dragon Ball would probably be too risky and foreign to introduce into today’s market, but surely something like 2008‘s Kaiba would have been warmly appreciated stateside.
Playing it safe results in diminishing returns at best. Funimation and Viz may be doing well for the moment, but when the mediocrity reaches a fever pitch and fans are aching for something novel, plucky risk-taking little companies will be the ones reaping the rewards.