“We’re a niche within a niche.”
That’s how publisher Glenn Kardy describes his company, Japanime, publisher of the Kana de Manga and Kanji de Manga language books and the Manga University how-to-draw series. Up till now, Japanime’s niche has been instruction, but this year the company is varying its line quite a bit, bringing fiction, gift books, and a new type of guidebook into the mix.
Japanime is based in Japan, with office space in a converted restaurant near Tokyo where Kardy sometimes holds meetings sitting in a tatami room. From there, he and his team produce books designed by Japanese artists to appeal to an American audience. Their newest offering, Moe USA, is a twist on global manga: An Original English Language manga by a Japanese artist.
I spoke to Kardy recently about Japanime’s new direction.
MangaBlog: How did you get started in this business?
Glenn Kardy: I was never a big manga fan until I came to Japan, about 12 years ago. The first thing that struck my interest was the type of manga that teach people different things. In Japan, we’ve got manga to teach people how to quit smoking, there are manga for expectant mothers to teach them how to prepare for the birth of a child, there are all kinds of educational manga—science, math, history. That’s what really interested me, the type of manga that can teach.
As I looked at properties to license, I came across the How to Draw Manga series. We started purchasing the Japanese language editions from the publisher and reselling them to customers in North America. Even though those books were only in Japanese, we were getting good sales from that, so I talked to the publisher about licensing them in English. We started with four volumes and went up to 10 before we moved on to other products.
MB: Some people have criticized manga-based Japanese language books as ineffective. What would you say to that?
GK: I will be honest and tell you I haven’t seen the criticism you cite. We’re always interested in hearing what those who are instructively critical, as well as critical in general of the products, have to say. My response would be how else are you going to get young people to try to learn something new unless you do it in a format that they are interested in and have fun with? Unfortunately, learning by rote is boring, and that’s how a lot of language books approach it. Just the fact that kids are reading translated manga shows they are reading. That’s a wonderful thing. If they want to explore other subjects, language being one, then I don’t really see what the problem is.
MB: Who is your target audience for the language books?
GK: I certainly would love it if parents bought these books for their eight-year-olds or even six-year-olds, but for a young person to study on their own they would need to be 10 years old. Otherwise the books would be a bit confusing.
MB: Where do you find your artists?
GK: All the artists are Japanese, except for one. A couple of them we have sought out, a couple have found us because they became familiar with our educational materials and like what we are doing.
MB: Tell me about Moe USA.
GK: Moe USA is about two American teenage girls who are in Akibahara, taking pictures of cosplayers. They go into a cosplay shop and they try on the costumes and they are overwhelmed by the quality, but when they bring them to the cashier, they realize they can’t afford them. So one of the girls gets the bright idea that they will get jobs in a maid café so they can buy the costumes.
I think this is one of the first OEL manga that is done by a Japanese artist. We are in Japan, and I think that it’s important that we use Japanese artists.
MB: What about Manga Moods and 50 Things We Love About Japan? They don’t look like anything else in the manga world.
GK: If you go into any bookstore, they will have either a spinner rack near the counter or an end cap filled with tiny little books on all these different subjects—there are a zillion about cats, dogs, daisies, pictures of lighthouses, anything you can photograph. What we want to do is create manga gift books. It’s a hardcover, it’s a keepsake, and it’s a no-brainer purchase for the customer who doesn’t know anything about the series but wants to get something for a nephew, a niece, a grandchild. And a manga fan could pick it up for another fan as a gift.
Manga Moods may look like it’s for girls, but at Anime Expo we had a lot of guys buying it. The artist is female, and females don’t often work in the moe style, but it is a moe style.
MB: A lot of people here think the moe stuff is kind of creepy.
GK: It may have a creepy vibe in the States, yet the word otaku doesn’t. In Japan, most people would much prefer to talk about moe. A girl would be more inclined to refer to herself as moe than a guy would be to say he’s otaku.
The moe stuff that is getting into the States is getting in more as underground stuff. Manga Moods is, can we say, wholesome moe. It’s cute. That’s what moe is, it’s an ultra cute, an unbelievably cute look.
MB: What else do you have in the works?
GK: Harvey and Etsuko’s Manga Guide to Japan. It’s kind of your typical city mouse/country mouse story, but in this case it’s Manhattan mouse visits Japan and meets a Japanese neko girl. The mouse from Manhattan is a cartoon character, and he’s frustrated that he’s not getting good gigs because his cartoonist is too busy drawing manga these days. The neko girl will introduce Harvey to one of Japan’s leading manga artists, and that manga artist can turn him into a star all over again, but in order to meet this manga artist he has to pass this test about Japan.
This is a collaboration between two artists, Charles Danziger and Mimei Sakamoto. Charles has written about Japan, but he is a high powered Manhattan art attorney. His passion is drawing; he has done some things for Nickelodeon. Harvey and Etsuko will be bundled with a guide book to Japan. It’s kind of a guerrilla style approach to doing manga: You have a mix of Charles’s simple, very nice line drawings and Mimei’s very elaborate manga illustration. It’s going to challenge the way readers look at manga and the way they look at American comics as well.
MB: Would you consider publishing these books in Japanese?
GK: If the interest is there, we definitely want to do it. We really thought about these two titles, Moe USA and Harvey and Etsuko’s Guide, and their potential beyond the North American market. Mimei Sakamoto is well known in Japan—she has a fan base that will want to buy the book even in English. If we see a large enough demand, we would do that in Japanese. The question is, do the Japanese want to read about Japan? Some do, some don’t. If it’s done from an American perspective, they do more than if it’s from a Japanese perspective.
MB: I’m curious about the manga cookbook. Will it focus on the food you see in manga?
GK: The original idea was to take the foods you see in manga and show people how to make them. Kids seeing Japanese translated manga see a rice ball and they say “What the heck is that?” and they can’t find a recipe. What we needed to do was come up with recipes kids could make without burning themselves with the oil or chopping off their fingers. We wanted to make things kids could find in manga, that they want to eat, and that they could make. The main thing was to be kid-friendly, and it was very extensively kitchen-tested. We hope that parents will get involved. Hopefully it’s something they will do together. It’s going to be a fun book, an after-school book.
MB: What’s next for Japanime?
GK: We’re kind of exploring the market. Something that I don’t foresee us doing, just because too many companies are doing it very well, is going out and licensing hot manga properties. We are looking at other things that can be done. To me what is important is that they are wholesome, educational—even Moe USA has some education in it, Manga Moods has a language lesson, 50 Things shows the overseas reader some things they already know about Japan but other things they might not know. We want even the kind of person who feels that they know a whole lot about Japan to flip through the pages of the book and say “I didn’t know this.”