* Japan's manga comic books a cult hit in Europe
* Cultural, historic roots help manga find new home
* Manga buying -- in shops -- a social activity for fans
By Reed Stevenson
AMSTERDAM, Dec 21 To understand Europe's growing
fascination with the wide-eyed innocents and baroque demons of
the Japanese comic books known as manga, it may help to look
back at the end of the nineteenth century.
"I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in
their work has. It's never dull, and never appears to be done
too hastily," the artist Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother
Theo in 1888.
Van Gogh, whose boldly outlined, vivid painting is now
instantly recognisable, copied some of the Japanese woodblock
prints by Utagawa Hiroshige that are considered precursors to
manga, which roughly translates as "freeform pictures".
"Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure
with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as
simple as buttoning your waistcoat," he wrote.
With bold black lines and graphic colouring, Hiroshige's
prints were delicate -- Van Gogh's 1887 painting of a flowering
plum tree, a copy of a Hiroshige print, hangs in Amsterdam's Van
Fast-forward through the industrial and nuclear age, the
cultural might of America and ensuing backlash against Mickey
Mouse, and there is a logic to the appeal for a generation of
Europeans of the hyperbolised cartoon characters.
Young adults are a growing market in publishing: Walk into a
bookstore in a European city on a Friday or Saturday afternoon
and you can find teenagers crowded in front of a wall of the
comic books -- a sight nearly nonexistent a few years ago.
On Duesseldorf's Immermannstrasse, an avenue lined with
shops catering to the city's Japanese population, is a scene
that could come straight from Harajuku, where Tokyo's youth
congregate -- except the butcher around the corner sells
German teenagers dressed as Japanese goth rock stars, with
multi-coloured hair and heavy eyeliner, mingle with Japanese
schoolchildren in a bookstore on the street, giggling as they
step into "purikura" photo booths that shoot instant snapshots
that people decorate themselves and print as stickers.
"They have something special," said Berenike Schmoldt, whose
fascination with manga has turned the German teenager into a
full-blown Japanophile at 17, during a Friday expedition with
her friends. "I spend hours every week reading them."
Already fluent in basic Japanese, she is making her fourth
visit to Japan this month to soak up the culture, eat her
favourite dish of 'yakisoba' fried noodles, and read manga.
It's a scene replicated in Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and
Rome: local bookshops have expanded their manga sections and
feature hundreds of French, Dutch and Italian titles. Often
without the credit cards to shop online, these teenagers visit
the stores as part of their social life.
"It is something that is much more than a fad," said Paul
Gravett, a publisher and expert on comics in Europe.
"The term 'manga' is becoming a global word."
Sales of printed manga books have fallen in Japan in recent
years but grown elsewhere, particularly among European young
people who are consuming such titles as "NARUTO", "Fruits
Basket" and "Death Note" with the same appetite as an earlier
generation showed for "The Adventures of Tin Tin" and "The
Adventures of Asterix".
Often featuring movement that spills across an entire page,
manga artists like to push creative boundaries, inventing
entirely different worlds or delving deep into human emotions.
The comics themselves are read from right to left and
printed mainly in black and white on smaller pages than European
comics, which are usually in full colour.
In Europe manga is an estimated 38 million euros ($56.5
million) market, according to the Japan External Trade
Organization's latest data. This is but a fraction of Japan's
480 billion yen ($5.3 billion) manga market, but its potential
could be huge: Europe's population of 500 million dwarfs that of
Japan's 126 million.
Recent trends suggest the manga market in Europe is
expanding at a pace of 10-15 percent each year according to data
from JETRO and publishers.
Where manga may once have felt distinctly Japanese or weird,
it is striding into the mainstream. As marketing executives in
Asia explore its potential for product placement, the Japanese
Embassy in London held a manga competition last year to recruit
manga talent from beyond the country's borders.
Earlier this year, two of Japan's top three publishers,
Shogakukan Inc and Shueisha Inc., moved to gain greater control
over their manga and anime networks in Europe, buying out
animation distributor KAZE as well as its VIZ Media subsidiary
to tap into demand.
Disney-ABC Cable Networks Group in September announced a
deal with VIZ to bring a NARUTO series to U.S. TV audiences.
"It is 100 percent certain that manga is (going to be)
established for a long long time," said Cedric Littardi,
president of Paris-based KAZE.
"The readership of manga in numbers of people is increasing
every single year in every single European country."
In Japan, manga is ubiquitous, read by young and old alike,
with genres across the entire spectrum. From fantasy and
pornography to archaeology, cooking, pre-school and business
strategy, it leaves few topics unexplored.
While "Tin Tin" offers complex mystery plots that can still
enrapture adults, "Death Note" by writer Tsugumi Ohba and manga
artist Takeshi Obata is a fiendishly complex psychological crime
thriller that spans an arc of 108 chapters.
"The challenge is to get the hottest series around," said
Peter Langedijk, buyer of manga titles at Amsterdam's ABC
bookstore. Currently at the top of his list is "Vampire Knight"
alongside perennial favourites such as "Dragon Ball" and
ANIME OPENED DOORS
As Van Gogh shows, manga's influence isn't new in Europe:
the modern comics made their first major inroad with Katsuhiro
Otomo's dystopian science fiction classic "Akira" 20 years ago.
"'Akira' was a turning point," said Paul Herman of French
comics publisher Glenat. He, like many manga fans, distinguished
between the cult of the manga comic and the influence of
manga-style art in anime, the poor-quality TV cartoons that have
spawned countless children's TV programmes.
"Some bookshops told me they would never sell manga. The
perception of manga was clouded by anime on TV, where quality
was bad," Herman told Reuters at the Belgian Comic Strip Center
But the fact that such anime from Japan as "Doraemon" have
been available since the 1970s helped manga find a market.
"France, Italy and Spain all have long histories of anime
broadcasting," said John Easum of KAZE. "For this reason the
current generation of young parents is receptive to Japanese
(Editing by Sara Ledwith)