January 28, 2016

Galapagos art

The "Galapagos syndrome" refers to technological solutions native to Japan that evolved in relative isolation and with little external competition, and thus ended up incompatible with the rest of the world. Cell phones and ATMs, for example. Infrastructure mods and retrofits hope to insure that, come the 2020 Olympics, visitors can make phone calls and withdraw cash with their Apple gizmos.

But there is a positive definition that can be drawn from Darwin's observation of a species diversifying to fill every available ecological niche. I'm thinking here specifically of the way that art finds an audience, and specifically art that strives to be popular or at least "accessible."

There's the "big dinosaur" approach: put all your eggs into one basket and watch that basket. But there's only so much room at the top. Even before a wayward asteroid wipes out the big guys, a lot of little critters are scampering around in the undergrowth, making nests in tight and overlooked places, doing well in marginal environments that could never support the lumbering giants.

New York and Hollywood are giants in publishing and movie making, not only in the U.S. but around the world. No asteroids on the horizon. Well, Amazon is a pretty big rock, but as the whole self-publishing scene is proving, as long as you avoid getting stomped on, it's much easier for the little, furry animals to be everywhere the giant isn't.

Self-publishing has been alive and well in Japan for decades, in the doujinshi (self-published manga) market. Doujinshi made Comiket the biggest comic book convention in the world.

Despite the healthy amount of fan fiction involved, Japanese publishers generally refrain from pursuing copyright claims on not-for-profit IP, instead using doujinshi as the minor league teams of manga world and Comiket as the playoffs. The broad acceptance of manga as a literary form has kept the young adult book market in Japan alive despite the slumping population.

Manga attracts talent from across the spectrum, with a lot of cross-pollination. As with anime, low production costs (first-run broadcast and publishing rights break-even at best) mean that publishers can target smaller niches and experiment with marginal projects without breaking the bank. (I don't mean vanity projects where the editor is thinking "Newbery" and not "a good read.")

In other words, playing "small ball"--getting base hits--instead of trying to smack a home run every time at bat.

Tie-ins are famous in Hollywood, but in Japan they're a necessity: novels based on manga; manga based on novels, manga artists illustrating novels; television and movies based on novels and manga, fiction and non-fiction, in every imaginable genre. The anime series A Certain Magical Index alone has generated over 30 novels and spin-offs (Yen Press has picked up the print license).

In an odd but revealing way, there's an upside-down and backwards version of this at work in the U.S. market vis-à-vis Japanese media. The Japanese movie titles available on Netflix, for example, might suggest that all Japanese watch are perennial classics by a handful of directors (mostly Kurosawa), Studio Ghibli, schlock horror, budget samurai actioners, and exploitation flicks.

That's because either these titles have built-in audiences (thanks to John Lasseter, Ghibli films have no problem attracting Hollywood talent to do voice-overs), or, at the other end of the spectrum, can be licensed for dirt cheap because they're not worth much in Japan either.

Otherwise, Hollywood is so dominate that if GKids or Disney aren't interested, "general interest" family films like The Perfect World of Kai and The House Imp and The Great Passage end up nowhere to be found. The best-selling novel of 2014 in Japan was a YA adventure title: Daughter of the Murakami Pirates. It hasn't been licensed in the U.S.

The Japanese publisher doesn't want to license the IP for a song (and risk a quick and shoddy translation on top of that), and no American publisher yet wants to risk the investment.

The only way to make it work is to zero out the upfront costs. Digital Manga has been trying this approach with some success (although with "minor league" IP). The anime industry is heading in that direction in the streaming space. Publishers could likewise release titles directly as ebooks and cut out the middleman completely. In fact, emanga are currently more popular in Japan than ebooks.

Unfortunately, when it comes to digital, the big publishers in Tokyo are determined to stick their heads in the sand as firmly as the big publishers in New York. Observes Jason Thompson,

Most Japanese publishers have no coherent digital strategy, and the extra step of licensing them in America makes them even slower to react to change. Perhaps wary of creating an iTunes-like behemoth which could drive prices down, publishers haven't united in any reasonable way to create a consistent digital newsstand/bookstore format for their titles.

Welcome to the club. The bitter pill to swallow is that properties worth tens of millions in Japan are worth tens of thousands in the U.S. The music industry in Japan is only begrudgingly beginning to accept that fact. As Justin Sevakis notes:

The Japanese music industry is both ridiculously luddite, and ruled by thuggish talent agencies with delusions of worldwide grandeur. They want to hold back their precious artists from America until they're ready to make a big splashy debut, but when they do, they refuse to play ball with American media and expect their completely unknown artists to be able to throw their weight around like they do back home.

Little by little, legit DRM-free tracks from established Japanese artists are appearing outside the walled garden of iTunes-Japan. The upside of Japan's declining consumer base is the realization that something is better than nothing and thus the inevitable need to grow outside the home market. And there's always Amazon waiting in the wings to shake things up.

The model here is what Crunchyroll did a while back when it streamed all of Makoto Shinkai's films for a weekend. Because before the world can clamor for your product, it has to at least know it exists.

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