January 17, 2024

Galápagos entertainment

Returning to the story about the international rise of Japan's domestic entertainment industry in The Hollywood Reporter, the article also touches upon the unique way IP rights are handled in Japan, which I think deserves additional attention. It is an example of what has come to be referred to in Japanese business lingo as the "Galápagos syndrome."
The term was coined to describe Japan's homegrown 3G mobile phones, that emerged "like the endemic species that Darwin encountered on the Galápagos Islands, fantastically evolved and divergent from their mainland cousins." And now refers to the development of goods "in relative isolation from the rest of the world because of a focus on the local market."

That "focus on the local market" is key.

I think the same metaphor can be applied to popular culture in Japan. It's what made anime both familiar to kids who grew up watching cartoons such as Jonny Quest and Spider-Man and also so unique. But like those 3G mobile phones, other forms of entertainment, especially live-action television, have evolved completely out of sync with Hollywood expectations.

One reason for this is that Japan's economy is large enough to comfortably sustain both the production and consumption side of the equation. Add to that Japan's isolationist past during the Edo period, which even today is not seen as a bad thing. A Japanese business with an established home market needs a compelling reason to look elsewhere.

And then there's the unique way IP rights are handled in Japan.

The Writers Guild of America made a lot of noise about the rights of content creators during its extended strike. In Japan, with nothing like the bargaining power of the WGA, writers retain rights to their own IPs in ways that WGA members can only dream of.

At the same time, an aspiring mangaka can only dream of making the guaranteed minimums that a working screenwriter is paid in Hollywood. A mangaka with a syndicated series won't earn a living wage unless and until that series is successful enough to justify the publication of a tankoubon edition. Until then, it is sink or swim.

Netflix likes to say that it doesn't impose its production approach on foreign content industries, but rather finds compromise modes of dealmaking, development and production that take into account prevailing local practices. In Tokyo, however, the company undoubtedly has had to bend far further to the Japanese way of doing things than elsewhere, adapting to local realities such as the strong control manga creators often retain over their IP even after licensing agreements and the outsized industry power of Japan's notoriously fickle talent agencies.

Those notoriously fickle talent agencies resemble the old Hollywood studio system that ruled the roost until 1948, when it succumbed to an antitrust ruling by the Supreme Court.

Like the Hollywood studio system, Japan's talent agencies take it upon themselves to recruit new talent and sort the wheat from the chaff. They have traditionally exerted enormous control over all aspects of the domestic entertainment industry, including dictating which of their stars will be cast in a show. As Mark Schilling analogizes the system,

Talent agencies control their talent much in the way the feudal lords controlled the samurai in their clans, supporting their livelihoods in return for absolute fealty.

Unsurprisingly, as the ugly demise of the biggest and baddest talent agency of them all, Johnny & Associates, made clear, absolute power corrupts absolutely. And yet despite the horrible publicity, the influence of the talent agency system on the live-action side of television production in Japan remains undiminished.

The constraints under which Jdrama is produced is another example of the Galápagos syndrome, a big reason I remain dubious about Jdrama finding the same kind of overseas market as manga and anime and Kdrama.

Manga publishers perform a similar function, soliciting content from across the country and vigorously testing that content in the first-run print syndication market. But they do so at an arm's length. Your audition is a PDF file or an over-the transom manuscript. Moreover, there are dozens of self-publishing platforms (doujinshi) and numerous online options.

As noted above, starting out, even the majors (Shueisha, Kodansha, Shogakukan) won't pay you enough to live on, but they let more feet in the door. I like to compare the system to Minor League Baseball. Every mangaka starts out down in the Rookie leagues and aspires to make it to Triple-A and then to the Majors (also known as Weekly Shonen Jump).

If and when that happens, like an up and coming baseball star, the mangaka rises to the top with a proven track record. Unhampered by the talent agency system, there is nothing holding back a mangaka's publisher from actively exploring all of the available licensing opportunities, both at home and abroad.

Related posts

Whither TV Japan
Japan's phantom content boom

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