San Jose Mercury News Article on Viz and Manga Translation
Published by 27 August 2000, 8:30 PM EDT

The 26 August 2000 edition of the San Jose Mercury News ran an article about Viz, the translation of manga into English, and release concerns.


People once fretted that the world was becoming unified under an American framework of McDonald’s, Hollywood and Air Jordans. But the winds of trendiness now blow across the oceans in all directions, with none stronger than those swirling around the Pacific Rim.

And no enterprise defines pop culture’s internationalization better than Viz Communications, a Japanese-owned company in San Francisco.

Viz was created in 1986 as a tiny publisher for U.S. versions of Japanese comic books. “I thought I could contribute something as a bridge between the United States and Japan,” said Viz founder and president Seiji Horibuchi.

Today, the company is an elite center for the redesign and translation of Japanese entertainment. It features videotapes of dubbed and subtitled animation, news and anthology magazines, soundtrack CDs from TV series and video games, a slew of books and a warehouse of merchandise such as T-shirts and posters.

Just in recent years, the Japanese influence on U.S. life has ranged from the mania over Tamagotchis — “virtual pet” devices — to popular tattoos and logos of “kanji” writing symbols. At Viz (, the emphasis is on art and storytelling that vast numbers of Japanese adults embrace, but which traditionally have attracted only cult fans in the United States.

Viz’s ongoing target is consumers of all ages. Yet the company has soared in prominence because of licensing tie-ins with the kid-based Pokemon craze.

Revenues jumped tenfold last year to more than $100 million, said Horibuchi. He projects a leveling-off this year to $40 million — still huge compared with a few years ago.

Land of the rising profile

As dramatic as those figures are, they obscure Viz’s long-term goal of generating broad U.S. understanding and appreciation of all genres of Japanese comics and animation.

Even as the Pokemon phenomenon was going into overdrive last summer, it was easy for Viz employees to maintain perspective. Jaime Starling of the marketing department gave a series of library talks to children about anime and manga — Japanese animation and comics — and the kids’ reactions epitomized Viz’s cross-cultural challenges.

The young collectors in her audience, for instance, were stunned to hear that many Japanese throw away comics after reading them.

“One girl stared at me and said, ‘You lie,'” said Starling.

The ultimate payoff for Viz would be a much deeper blending of Japanese and U.S. cultures. American kids would grasp why Japan’s black-and-white comics are so disposable (it’s because the paper is cheap and quantities areenormous). If Americans could adjust, Viz wouldn’t have to reverse layouts on comics that read from right to left in Japan.

Still, the company has made obvious headway. Japan’s imprint, and Viz’s, has become increasingly prominent in any store with books, videos, comics, toys or games.

One of Viz’s newest efforts is a comic based on the “Gundam” space-battle stories. With luck, it will piggyback on the success of “Gundam Wing” on cable’s Cartoon Network, which carries a four-show “Toonami” lineup from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays — programming that exemplifies Japanese animation’s growing U.S. prominence.

Gilles Poitras, author of “The Anime Companion,” says anime conventions seem to be drawing more middle-aged people in addition to kids, teens and college-age fans.

Viz staffers are highly conscious of the chance to capitalize on that expanding curiosity. “The trick, after Pokemon and all the other exposure, is to maintain the interest these things generated,” said Dallas Middaugh, Viz’s new senior marketing manager.

Shared eccentricities

Jeff Yang, co-author of a guide to the Asian impact on American life, suggests that Japan and the United States are surprisingly alike in profound but subtle ways.

“When Japanese people take off their external masks, they display an individuality and eccentricity that matches American eccentricity,” said Yang, who’s also publisher of A. Magazine. “That shows up in their fantasy life — in things like comics and animation.”

Viz’s Horibuchi, slim and soft-spoken, describes being “shocked” by his first encounter with U.S. pop culture: the taste of Coca-Cola when he was a boy in Japan. “I liked it so much,” he recalled.

Horibuchi, 48, responded with the same type of intense fascination when introduced to other American experiences over the years. Moving to the Bay Area in his 20s, he said he tended toward a “hippie” lifestyle, lacking any steady career direction.

He eventually met a young executive of a major Japanese publisher, Shogakukan, and they decided to create Viz as a foothold for their trans-Pacific vision. By the spring of 1987, Horibuchi and a skeletal staff had three comics ready for sale.

There are now 50 employees at the open-studio offices south of Market Street. Of late, Viz’s growth has been stoked by glitzier Japanese material that’s becoming almost mainstream U.S. entertainment.

More than anything else, that means Pokemon. Viz publishes Pokemon comics, helps market the video compilations of TV episodes and puts out specialty items that include Pokemon origami, paper masks and a sticker book.

Other high-profile content ranges from Dragon Ball Z comics and Sailor Moon soundtracks to movie-length animation such as “A Chinese Ghost Story.”

But Viz has stretched U.S. imaginations in more formidable ways, too. Niche titles have accrued loyal followings, seeding the market for increasingly diverse genres and wider American acceptance of black-and-white comics art.

Among the leading examples are the extensive sets of “Ranma 1/2” videos and trade paperbacks. It’s an action-comedy about a teenage martial artist who is transformed from a boy to a girl when splashed with cold water, then back again with hot water. It originated as comics and was adapted for animation.

A customer magnet

“Ranma was the meal ticket for a decade,” said Oliver Chin, the Viz sales director until recently joining a Redwood City Internet company.

Joe Field, owner of the Flying Colors Comics store in Concord, credits “Ranma 1/2” and other Viz publications for “bringing in people who don’t come to the store for any other reason.”

Ann Palmer, 43, is a Field customer who discovered “Ranma 1/2” through her 15-year-old niece.

“It delves into issues that American comics don’t deal with, such as sexual orientation and misadventures,” said Palmer, an office manager. “It’s a hoot.”

Viz’s material, said Field, offers a distinct alternative from the U.S. superhero comics aimed at adolescent boys. Viz buyers, he said, are often men, women and girls.

Even in the case of Pokemon, Viz publishes a lesser-known comic adaptation, “Magical Pokemon Journey,” that focuses on the adventures of a girl. It’s a reflection of the large girls manga market in Japan.

It’s not easy summarizing the rest of Viz’s products. Many are mature-rated videos and novelized comics, which have varying degrees of sex and violence. Others include art and reference books. The defining factor is the breadth of subjects and the serious literary aspirations.

The trade paperback comics, known as “graphic novels,” span politics and romance, crime and magic. Among the most sophisticated titles is “Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President.” It’s a tale of politics and relationships, tracking the U.S. presidential campaign of a Japanese-American.

Viz is not the only U.S.-based anime and manga publisher, but the head-to-head competition among companies is tempered by a common desire to expand the overall American interest.

Horibuchi says his bridge-building efforts won’t be successful until that larger U.S. market has evolved.

“There’s still a cultural barrier to overcome,” he said. “But I think we have a chance.”

Thanks to Chibi-chan on for the heads-up!

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