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Heisei Transformations: Stranger than fiction, manga reflects social change, internet age

The electronic version of a manga (C) Yuji Terajima / Kodansha Ltd. is seen on Jan. 8, 2019, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

TOKYO -- On an afternoon train on the Odakyu Line here, the majority of passengers have their eyes fixed on their smartphones -- a scene that grew to be the norm during the latter half of the Heisei era (1989-2019).

Kota Furudate, a 32-year-old illustrator in the suburban Tokyo city of Machida, loses himself gazing at an LCD screen displaying a fantasy manga title that had run in magazines in the late 2000s. He began enjoying reading his favorite manga not on paper, but via the electronic versions sold online a few years ago.

He said he made the switch when he found some past titles of his favorite manga artists online when they were not available in bookstores. Since then, it has become an essential pastime while he travels into the center of Tokyo for things like meetings. "I don't have anything extra to carry, and there is nothing filling up my shelves," he said.

According to the research arm of the All Japan Magazine and Book Publisher's and Editor's Association (AJPEA), domestic sales for manga titles hit 337.7 billion yen in 2017. Electronic versions made up 171.1 billion yen of that, surpassing printed volumes for the first time. While sales from manga magazines have fallen to less than one-third of their peak in 1995, 96 percent of those magazines are still printed on paper. It is the difficult-to-satisfy demand for titles of past manga that the electronic versions are answering.

"While it can still be said that printed versions of popular manga titles are selling better, with the rise of electronic versions, the concept of manga being a printed medium found in stores has changed," said Ken Akamatsu, 50, a manga artist and a managing director on the board of the Japan Cartoonists Association.

The spread of e-books is not the only impact of the internet on manga, a national pastime since the Showa era (1926-1989). Comments left on social networking sites (SNS) are now seen as an important factor in judging the polarity of titles, and SNS have created communities where people from different places or generations can get together. There are manga that reflect this shift in society online, while many events that seem as though they happened in a fantasy world are going on in reality.

--- Blurring line between manga and reality

Manga author Shin Kibayashi writes drafts of his work at his home in the suburban Tokyo city of Musashino, on Dec. 13, 2018. (Mainichi/Naotsune Umeda)

It was Sept. 11, 2001, and when manga author Shin Kibayashi, 56, glanced at the screen of his television in his Tokyo home, he could not believe what he was seeing. Was the footage of passenger airplanes striking the World Trade Center towers in New York City some kind video editing trick? Was it real? A few terrorists had struck targets in the heart of the world's most powerful nation one by one. The attack was truly stranger than fiction.

Kibayashi had served as an editor of the "Weekly Shonen Magazine" manga periodical from 1987 to when he went independent in 1999. He had also authored many works under seven different pen names, with one series selling a total of some 100 million volumes.

For his series "Bloody Monday," which began serialization in 2007, the themes were terrorists and hackers. In addition to the 9.11 attacks, there are also instances in the pages of biological attacks reminiscent of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by the AUM Shinrikyo doomsday cult. At the time, other manga artists were also putting out stories of "evil organizations" carrying out terrorist attacks that rocked society, and the works were being accepted by readers. "Incidents that seemed like something out of a manga were actually happening in our world, and there was an added sense of reality when handling those topics," Kibayashi said.

Following online computer services and the birth of the internet age, the Heisei era became a time when the line between reality and fiction often blurred. "Due to a post on an online message board or Facebook, someone would be murdered in reality, and the number of people who turned away from society in favor of the internet began to grow. That 'border' disappeared," explained Kibayashi. People began to hear of incidents that went beyond past common knowledge, and manga artists had no choice but to change with the times.

Meanwhile, however, chief editor of the Weekly Shonen Magazine Hirotoshi Kurita, 49 says that with the easy access to any information people wish to know, Japanese became more knowledgeable about a variety of things. "Because of this, the range of the 'dreams' that manga could depict narrowed in scope," he said. Including when the magazine was overseen by Kibayashi, titles that were based in reality had been the mainstay. However, "The level of reality called for increased so much that it left no breathing space," Kurita said.

Then, in the 2000s, the whole industry took a turn toward fantasy, and there was a period when the magazine's course was also affected. At the time, things like large disasters and economic recession were causing ripples of anxiety through society, and manga was not left untouched. "The number of people who felt like their efforts in real life were not rewarded increased, and works that took place in a fantasy realm attracted the sympathy of those readers," Kurita explained. Some of the magazine's fantasy titles gathered quite a following.

So where exactly is the future of manga heading? At the closing ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, a video was presented to promote the 2020 Tokyo Games. The video featured not just scenes of Tokyo and historic buildings, but also popular manga characters like "Doraemon" future cat and "Captain Tsubasa" soccer boy.

"That presentation came to fruition precisely because manga is understood both domestically and internationally as Japanese culture," said Akamatsu. According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, manga is estimated to make up roughly half of the global comic market, and it is expected to expand even further as electronic versions of titles become available in other Asian countries. "Translation of electronic titles into multiple languages using AI is evolving, and I believe this could lead to a new business model," Akamatsu added.

Kibayashi, meanwhile, is in the middle of preparing a new work -- his last of the Heisei era. The relationship between humans and AI, a theme that the next generation must face seriously, is the theme. "We live in a time when reality is affected by non-reality," he said. "What will happen if that proceeds even further?"

(Japanese original by Hirofumi Nohara, Hokkaido News Department)

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