Friday, March 12, 2010

Why Not KOR? Thoughts on Licensing

I've recently been reading an excellent book called The Star Machine by Jeanine Bassinger. It's about the Hollywood studios from the late 20s to the early 60s, and how they engineered stars. What's proving more fascinating is the section on stars that never were - they were attractive, they were talented, they had support... but they never hit it big.

I was thinking of this recently looking at the License Requests from my colleague David Welsh of Manga Curmudgeon. They're all deserving titles, and publishers should be giving them a chance. But invariably, a lot of those titles are never going to come out professionally in North America. And not just because of pure marketability, although that's one of the biggest factors.

As an example, let me pick a classic, incredibly influential romantic comedy from the days of Weekly Shonen Jump circa 1984 - in other words, a title running concurrently with the manga Dragon Ball. It's called Kimagure Orange Road, and is the story of a love triangle between three students, one of whom is protecting a secret - he's from a family of espers. It ran from 1984 to 1987, totalling 18 volumes. It spawned a very popular anime as well, which has been released in North American by Animeigo (though it is now out of print), and a couple of movies. And it was one of the first big fandoms online in the early to mid 1990s, along with Dirty Pair, Bubblegum Crisis, and Ranma 1/2.

When Ranma fandom took off, most folks thought that KOR would be an obvious pickup for Viz. It wasn't as hilarious and wacky a comedy, but the romance and love triangle madness were thought to have great potential, especially with titles like Tenchi Muyo and the like hitting it big in anime stores. But it never got picked up. Then, when the U.S. version of Shonen Jump was announced, people though that they'd definitely want a good old-school romantic comedy in there, to balance off all the shonen fighting mangas, and that KOR was an obvious choice. However, no shonen romantic comedies were slated for the Jump magazine, though one or two (notably Strawberry 100%) are coming out over here in volume format.

Well-written title, not a huge number of volumes, a built-in North American fandom... why not KOR? Or, for that matter, any number of titles that *seem* like obvious choices but never made it over here. Well, let's see.

1) It's not who comes first, it's who comes second. KOR was highly influential on manga's romantic comedies, in particular the waffly teen boy, his tsundere love, and the perky yet jealous other girl sort of thing seen in dozens of manga since then. However, everyone here has now read that story to death. Will they really appreciate seeing an 18-volume manga just because of its historical value? (KOR does have one advantage over many of its followers in that it has a real ending, and resolves its triangle.)

2) Trapped in the 80s. Art marches on, and while KOR's art is actually quite good, it's also very much of its time, and it's been noted that 'retro' art can sometimes hurt a title's sellability. Not that this hurt Dragon Ball, but what about Saint Seiya, or Here Is Greenwood?

3) HardKOR fandom? Uh oh. Everyone loves a show that has a built-in fanbase, but that can be a double-edged sword. KOR has been circulating around for years - the anime was a fansub favorite long before Animeigo put it out over here, and the manga was completely scanlated several years ago. If Viz announced 'Whimsical Orange Road' tomorrow, how many would say they aren't buying it because, let's say, they ruined the title? Yes, it's not in the same league as censoring child nudity (Dr. Slump) or renaming the lead character (Case Closed), or even changing one letter in a name for legal reasons (One Piece), but fandom, especially these days, needs very little excuse to NOT buy something. KOR fandom especially, like the female lead they adore, can be prickly.

(As a short aside, several of my friends at Otakon years and years ago found endless amusement in trolling fans of Kimagure Orange Road, talking about how we enjoyed the show but really hated that annoying girl... oh, what was her name... oh, right. Madoka. Generally speaking, the two reactions were a) Anger and outrage, or b) Fans 'helping' by telling us we were confusing the names of the two lead females. KOR was one of the first anime fandoms to seriously 'character bash', and Madoka vs. Hikaru wars still exist, though since the days of newsgroups have faded considerably. Personally, I like both female leads, but Kyosuke's indecisiveness, which is far worse in the manga, is really hard to read without wishing him a boot to the head.)

4) The manga creator doesn't want it licensed. This is not as common now as it was in the old days of 32-page floppies from Viz, when many creators absolutely refused to have their work flipped and reading left to right. That's less of an issue these days, but there are still many creators who either don't want North America to see their work at all, or add conditions such as 'you also have to release my 20 other non-famous titles' that make things hard to finance. A recent example would be Urasawa's holding back the license for 20th Century Boys until Monster had finished its run here.

5) It's a one-hit wonder. Generally speaking, when manga hits it big in North America, the first thing publishers do is find other titles by that artist. Fruits Basket is the perfect example. Yet the creator of KOR, Izumi Matsumoto, had only one other short serialization (called Sesame Street, a title that would HAVE to change to be taken seriously over here), and has been mostly invisible for the last 20 years. (He recently revealed he's been suffering from a cerebrospinal fluid disease, and hopes to return to manga soon.) So you're left looking for titles with a similar FEEL to Kimagure Orange Road... a great number of which are already out over here, and have been for years. Back to #1...

I like KOR, and hope people didn't see this as bashing the title. It just makes a good example to illustrate my point. What, if it's not the actual quality of the work, makes a title unlicensed? What are those little factors that make a Viz or a Tokyopop or a Del Rey say "We don't think that we can make this a success" or "various problems prevent this from being released" or even "we have no comment at this time"?

If anyone has any other good examples, please feel free to leave them in the comments. And Viz, if you decide to license KOR tomorrow just to make me look foolish, I'll be very amused indeed. And will definitely pick up the series. Though I think a wideban might be more sellable. ^_-

9 comments:

  1. You know, it almost surprises me that it wasn't ever licensed when it was newer, but Matsumoto interfering is a pretty big reason...

    As someone who knows a bit about the decisions process, I would say that now it's about the art style. Classical manga doesn't really sell in a larger market, so Viz, Tokyopop or any other large-ish publisher won't bother picking it up if it's not STILL popular with tons and tons and tons of fans.

    I'd look to the smaller publishers like Vertical or Fantagraphics to pick it up, although I'm sure they've already got mile long lists that don't include KOR.

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  2. Aww, KOR was some of the first anime I saw, back in the days when anime clubs were trading dubbed videotapes (I am old). I do see how it would be basically impossible for anyone to pick up.

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  3. To throw another classic out there (are you listening, manga publishers?), I'm sure Glass Mask will never be published here because it's 40 volumes, not finished, and has an antiquated art style. And yet the multilayered plot is just as intricate and absorbing and well-executed as any Urasawa masterpiece. I would clear shelf space for it and offer up my credit card without a second thought, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

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  4. What about "Wingman"? This was a title from the creator of "Video Girl Ai," "Shadow Lady," "Ii's," & "DNA-2 {squared}." This manga/anime series probably won't see the light of day over here because it was his first (minor hit?) series and his art isn't as refined as his later works. Plus, it doesn't have nearly the fan base as his other titles.

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  5. I think of I's as the series that got picked up instead of KOR, and it makes perfect sense to me. The art is arguably better (or at least is in a more contemporary style), and the creator has a larger commercial fanbase with 2 or 3 other translated series available.

    I's didn't... or isn't... doing very well. In fact all of the slightly-sexy, not-that-wacky shonen romances tend to tank in North America don't they? I can't think of a sales blockbuster title in the genre.

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  6. I've never seen or read the series, but I love the art style. I wish there was more of a market for classic manga that isn't Tezuka (he's great, but I'd like to see others...especially from the 80s).

    You're right about how that kind of story has been done over and over. I generally don't like that kind of series, but for me at least, the 80's style would be enough to make me want to check it out.

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  7. I can't speak for anybody else, but during the time when I had some influence on what titles got licensed at Viz (years and years ago), the reason I didn't push for KOR was because the first four or five volumes are not drawn very well. A manga series in America lives or dies on its first volumes, and when they are weak, it dies. The Japanese, with the magazine-based release, can afford to wait until a title picks up steam because people can come in mid-stream. But in the American marketplace, mid-stream adopters are extremely rare. The same problem goes for Wingman.

    It's unfair to compare it to Dragon Ball which had a mature artist from the start, TV programs, games, and all sorts of other licensed material readily available. KOR only had the manga, anime, and pretty pictures of Madoka as drawn by Matsumoto or Akemi Takada.

    So KOR would not have gained a substantial amount of new readers, meaning it would have had to depend entirely on pre-existing fans (the most hard-core of which would have, at some time or other, taken some sort of issue with how it was translated).

    That isn't to say that I didn't explore the issue. I passed some ideas past our licensing people such as mixing in some later episodic chapters into the early volumes as a bonus or something so fans can see how good the art turns out to be, but those ideas turned out to be unworkable.

    Now, at over 25 years old, only an absolute labor of love with no hope of profitability will get the story licensed.

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  8. Peter Payne here. I'm the guy who translated the first two KOR novels -- man, I am so natsukashii right now. Making me remember the days when I could tell you every nuance of difference between the manga and anime, or our wacky days of dubbing a crossover between KOR and Akira (see seishun.org if curious).

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  9. this article is "old", but I read it now and I want to say my point. since I'm Italian, of course I don't have the problem of the manga not licensed. it has already reached its 3rd edition (a couple of years ago) here.
    as a hardcore-kor fan, I would even buy a pregnancy test, if it had an image of madoka on it; but I'm not the only one: the society owner for the rights for kor in italy is 90% going to release another official version
    of the OVAs. there are many people who still love kor here (and in spain and france, too). well, maybe not that many, but enough for new editions.
    but 99% of kor fans are more than 25 (included me of course) or at least 20, they are people who watched and loved kor when they were young and that is an important base of fandom for sellers.
    in the u.s. the anime of kor has only been released in dvd (if I'm not wrong) and pretty lately and DVDs cannot reach a public as large as that of the television, so most of the American guys who are now 25 to 40 didn't get to know kor then, so they couldn't love it as a part of their youth, while most of the younger ones wouldn't like it because of its art of 80ies, which of course they would find too old.
    so, the main point is that A LARGE BASE OF FANDOM WAS NEVER CREATED IN THE US, that's why the manga would be a waste of money for the editor and therefore is probably never going to be released.
    and I could add that Japanese are as chauvinist as Americans and don't like to sell stuff to people who they think are not going to understand their art (and honestly I think they're right, at least if we consider the majority. the differences between Japanese and American culture is larger than that between Japan and Europe).

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