Just when we thought they were done, TOKYOPOP rises again. Krystallina actually has some hope -- but also some major concerns in this week's Please Save My Money.
It had been their stated goal for quite a while, but now it’s official: TOKYOPOP is back in the licensing game.
The History of TOKYOPOP
TOKYOPOP started in 1997 as Mixx Entertainment. Although Sailor Moon was its breakout hit, the company exploded thanks to its 2002 announcement to release their titles in the original Japanese right-to-left format. TOKYOPOP became the #1 manga publisher. This led them to dabble into other fields like anime and light novels, signing artists to create their own manga-styled comics (OEL), and live action works.
By 2008, the company started laying off some of its employees. The following year, TOKYOPOP had lost all Kodansha manga licenses, a huge blow considering Kodansha series were some of their biggest hits. Bookstore chain Borders’ bankruptcy in 2011 appeared to be the final straw; only a couple of months later, TOKYOPOP announced it would essentially close its American manga operations. (Their German branch remained and is still active.) A few titles continued to be released thanks to a partnership with Right Stuf, and the film/TV division remained active. They’ve said they wanted to return to publishing books since 2011, but it wasn’t until 2015 that they announced a partnership with Disney and that they were accepting OEL submissions again.
And now, 2018 marks the official return of TOKYOPOP with its acquisition of Japanese manga licenses not tied to Disney.
So let’s take a look at their first three titles: Futaribeya, Hanger, and Konohana Kitan. All three are Gentosha titles, a publisher TOKYOPOP has worked with before (Hetalia: Axis Powers, Rozen Maiden), and they’ve even released Innocent Bird from the author of Hanger. Konohana Kitan has been released by TOKYOPOP Germany as Fox Spirit Tales, and they also released Hanger.
Hanger appears to be a boys’ love title while the others have girls’ love subtext. This suggests to me that TOKYOPOP thinks they have a better chance of getting their foot back in the door with the more niche market of yaoi/yuri, rather than trying to compete with titles with a broader appeal. For instance, Gentosha manga series Otome Yokai Zakuro also features spirit girls like Konohana Kitan, but it also has quite a bit of action. It might have a bigger audience than a series set in a hot spring.
However, boys’ love and girls’ love fans tend to be pretty dedicated in supporting new titles. If TOKYOPOP’s initial offerings are successful, it will be interesting to see if they continue as primarily a yaoi/yuri licensing company or if they’ll branch out to other genres and be an all-around publisher like the days of old.
Of course, the big question right now is IF they’ll be successful. It’s not really a question of whether there is a market for these titles — there almost certainly is — but will the market welcome back this particular publisher?
A Welcome or Unwelcome Return?
Fan reaction across the web appeared pretty muted, matching the announcement of their return in 2015. In fact, as of this writing, there is no word on TOKYOPOP’s Facebook or Twitter about them licensing these titles, and the only notice on their website is a link to the article on Anime News Network under their press section. Not exactly a great way to make a splash.
But a lot of manga fans still have are bitter toward TOKYOPOP. While some manga were given the loving treatment, others like Initial D suffered from questionable practices like heavy edits and Americanization, and their fast release schedule meant there were a lot of translation errors, swapped speech bubbles, and sloppy art touch-ups. By and large, their attempts to expand out of the manga field failed; in many cases, they left a lot of bridges burning between TOKYOPOP and fans and/or creators. Some people blame TOKYOPOP’s hubris in licensing anything in the manga field, assuming everything and anything would be a hit, and their responses to fan criticisms. (See this letter about Initial D.) Plus, they closed suddenly and with many of their titles one, two volumes away from completion. With several books still due out in April and May, I find it hard to believe they weren’t able to be printed or shipped already. It’s not like they went bankrupt.
They certainly deserve a lot of flack. Some of their releases were just plain sloppy. But it’s easy to forget that some titles received a lot of love and care (Fruits Basket), and their influences remain even today. TOKYOPOP struck a balance between standard Japanese manga size and the oversized format that other publishers were using in the late 90s. Their $9.99 a volume undercut their competitors by as much as 40%. A large number of titles are still published in the $10, $11 range. Their Marmalade Boy anime releases were also quite good.
And while they shouldn’t have been chasing every idea or license, TOKYOPOP also was a victim of circumstances. Major Japanese publishers decided to enter the U.S. through direct partnerships and investments, essentially freezing TOKYOPOP out. Sword Art Online, Real Account, Yona of the Dawn? Spread across the big three in the American manga market, and yet all are published in German by TOKYOPOP. The German branch has the pick of the litter; the American branch has the leftovers and scraps. The other publishers eventually forged their own first choice or exclusive agreements, and perhaps TOKYOPOP should have made similar agreements with a different Japanese publisher.
In addition, TOKYOPOP’s first major signs of their downfall also occurred during the beginning of the Great Recession, giving them a double whammy as the overall market took a hit and their licenses were also being limited. Even when the publisher managed to get what they thought were major titles (Gakuen Alice), the sales were dismal and well-below their popularity on scanlation sites (mark at 17:10). And it’s not like VIZ Media or Kodansha (well, Del Rey back then) always finished their series.
Finally, I think TOKYOPOP was just a little ahead of the times. Back then, a lot of us were shaking our heads at how much they were pushing to get into movies and live action projects. Now, both Japan and the United States have a bunch of anime/manga live action films in the works. And while their quality was suspect in cases, they also were among the first on the light novel bandwagon. Again, you can blame their faulty releases, but they still were ahead of the curve. They even released shoujo light novels, a rarity even today.
So what should TOKYOPOP do?
First, and most obviously, don’t drop any of these series. They have already announced release dates for the second volumes and beyond of their three new titles, which is good news. But fans want to see a commitment.
Second, and most obviously, a quality release. Choose a good translator (probably a good editor as well), find someone who is good at lettering, and package it together nicely. I assume they have both digital and physical rights, but make sure both versions are easy to read.
Avoid PR blunders. Don’t say, “Well, that’s how it is, take it or leave it!” when people have concerns. Don’t upload material you don’t have rights to. Don’t throw fits. People are going to keep asking TOKYOPOP if they’re going to finish releasing such-and-such series. Give a simple response: “We’re sorry, but we no longer have rights to [series].” Maybe add a plug and suggest one of their other titles.
Stay with the niche. A few months ago, Media-Do didn’t exist. Pantheon Books released My Brother’s Husband to critical acclaim. I’m not saying TOKYOPOP should stick to boys/girls’ love titles, but find the holes in the market and devote themselves to those gaps. Don’t make it seem that this is just a passing fancy to help fund the CEO’s next video project.
TOKYOPOP has some severe blemishes on its past history, and no doubt they need to rebuild trust among the manga community going forward. But until we see how TOKYOPOP 2018 is different from is early 2000s version, I’m going to reserve judgment. If their U.S. division could be anything like their German version with some great series and gorgeous box sets, fans would have a hard time remaining angry, especially if their translations are solid.