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Paper power: How Japan's manga industry embraced special editions amid digital surge

Copies of the final volume of manga series "Attack on Titan" are seen lined up on a store shelf. Many shops have sold out of the final volume's limited edition. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The manga sections of book shops and convenience stores have been through a lively period of late. From the June 9 release of the final volume of "Attack on Titan" to the huge success of "Jujutsu Kaisen," the hits have kept on coming. Among these popular titles, higher priced special editions with elaborate designs and supplementary materials have seen particular success.

    Hajime Isayama's manga "Attack on Titan" began serialization in Kodansha Ltd.'s Bessatsu Shonen Magazine in 2009 and was marketed primarily at teen boys. The series has sold some 100 million copies including electronic versions. June 9 saw its 34th and final volume go on sale, and in addition to the standard edition for 572 yen (about $5.20), two special versions have also been released.

    One edition exclusive to book shops includes "Beginning," an extra booklet with two storyboard chapters of the start of the series, and a convenience store edition that collects the 138th and the final chapters into a supplementary book titled "Ending." Both versions cost 1,100 yen (about $10) apiece including tax.

    Since the seventh volume of the series released in 2012, almost all volumes have had standard and special editions. What has particularly drawn attention this time is the convenience-store limited "Ending" edition. On the day of release, Twitter was full of readers expressing their joy at getting their hands on it.

    In recent years, special edition release practices have spread. Shueisha's series "Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba" became a huge hit in 2020, and its 20th to 23rd and final volumes were released with special editions or bundled with merchandise and other goods.

    Jujutsu Kaisen, another Shueisha series, has gone on to sell more than 50 million copies including electronic editions. It has been decided that the 18th volume, earmarked for release in December, and its 19th volume going on sale in April 2022 will be the first to include bundled options.

    An image the first limited edition volume of an instalment in manga series "Jujutsu Kaisen," which will include bundled merchandise. (C) Gege Akutami / Shueisha

    Volume 18 will sell for 3,850 yen (about $35) before tax including merchandise such as an acrylic calendar, while volume 19 will sell for 4,620 yen (some $42) tax included and come with a model of an item that appears in the story. The company is accepting preorders for the books until Aug. 6.

    Shueisha explained, "Even before the anime adaptation of Jujutsu Kaisen, a book of illustrations from the original manga was exceedingly popular, and we heard from people saying they wanted extra value in the form of products like supplementary material, and so this time, we are preparing the special editions to respond to the needs of those customers."

    But when did these special editions become a regular sales tactic? Hiroshi Yamamori, a lecturer at Kyoritsu Women's University and an expert on publishing and manga, says the practice began in earnest in 2001. It was the same year the Japan Magazine Publishers Association amended its rules and eased regulations on the size and weight of supplementary materials.

    In response, fashion magazines and other publications began planning special editions with luxurious additional items. The new sales tactic spread. Yamamori told the Mainichi Shimbun that it was then that "comics also rode this wave to include a number of goods with limited editions. Initially they were aimed at only the most obsessive fans."

    Now many hit series release special editions. Yamamori says gaming and publishing firm Square Enix Co. provided a catalyst for the trend in the 2000s. As with its popular manga series "Fullmetal Alchemist," it made efforts via TV anime adaptations and other forms of media to create products that could become widely popular with male and female readers alike, and actively published comics with special items included.

    Yamamori posited that "at that time, the boundaries had blurred between what was marketed for boys, for girls, for obsessive fans or general audiences, and comics with special promotions gained wider acknowledgement." Recently, special edition comics have also become easier to obtain from convenience stores and from online book stores, and it appears part of what has made them so widely accepted is the increased ease of access many people have to them.

    The Research Institute for Publications, a market survey and research body, reported that in 2020 total sales from print editions of manga magazines and books had risen 13% from the previous year due to hits like "Demon Slayer," reaching 270.6 billion yen (about $2.44 billion). Electronic book sales climbed even higher and far exceeded paper sales, rising 32% from the year before to hit 342 billion yen (about $3.1 billion).

    "If you just want to consume the contents, then digital is enough," said Yamamori. "But, if you're selling paper manga, you have to create something that is appealing enough as a physical item for people to buy it. In recent years (each publisher) has placed an emphasis on the books themselves, including elaborate cover designs and the touch of the paper; it seems that limited editions are part of that strategy."

    Wider uptake of social media like Twitter has also helped boost the popularity of limited editions. It's become very common to see fans use the sites to report that they've bought a product on the day of its release. Yamamori said, "Buying something itself has become an event for fans." It seems this kind of tangible-goods sales strategy is part of what makes a hit.

    (Japanese original by Yusuke Matsukura, Digital News Center)

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