On JManga’s Closure, and the Movement of People and Technology

JManga, the digital manga service backed by a number of Japanese publishers, is shutting down. No more points may be purchased, and all titles will be taken down by May 30, 2013. Any remaining points on users’ accounts will be refunded to them in the form of Amazon Gift Cards.

JManga, unlike so many other official manga sites, was at least partly accessible in regions outside of the US, and it was for this reason that I initially supported it in spite of its initial convoluted pricing scheme. Eventually, they changed the pay format to something a little more enticing and easy to understand, but when a friend told me that he wished he could purchase a title that was already on JManga, it made me realize just how unknown the site was. I tried to do my part and encourage others to use JManga, but for one reason or another it apparently wasn’t enough. It’s a shame, because I think they really made some excellent strides in getting manga to a digital format, even if their reader left something to desire in terms of functionality and ease of use.

The news of JManga’s impending demise brought up conversations about piracy and users’ rights that is affecting industries well beyond manga at this point (the Sim City server problems being currently the most prominent), and one of the arguments being made is that it’s in the end the fault of scanlations. I have a problem with this. While I don’t doubt that scanlations impact sales, especially when it comes to the popular titles, the fact is that none of the manga on JManga were heavy hitters. Their famous titles were things that simply don’t sell too well, like volume 1 of Golgo 13. I believe their most successful manga was Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru (some of which I purchased and am kind of miffed that it’s going to vanish in a couple of months), which to put it lightly is not a Naruto or a Sailor Moon.

The lineup at JManga was extremely esoteric, and while this had a great amount of appeal for me personally, I’m also aware that the average manga fan, whether they read free manga online or not, is not going to chomp at the bit to go read about a Heian era fujoshi (another purchased title I will miss). Essentially, the titles on JManga were so out there that for the most part they were not the things people would look to scan and distribute, so the traditional argument of piracy doesn’t really apply here. Also, JManga was apparently shackled by the fact that publishers would not hand over their A-List titles. Tokyopop tried the flood of mediocrity approach as well, and that didn’t go so well in the end. While it is possible to say that fans should have subscribed anyway in order to give JManga the opportunity to go after the big titles, as Narutaki over at Reverse Thieves and the Speakeasy podcast pointed out, you can’t expect people to pay money in the hopes that they might someday get the titles that they want, especially if they’re from wildly different genres and demographics.

I could see it argued that manga scanlations created the environment which made publishers fear handing over their major titles, and by extension was the cause for JManga’s demise, but I think this would be overlooking the fact that media companies tend to be conservative about trying out new platforms until they absolutely must. HBO’s business model, for instance, is based on subscriptions to their premium cable service. This is fine and all, but it turns out that people who only want to watch online (legally, mind you) must also buy cable and HBO anyway. Media companies, if they can help it, will dig their feet into the ground to the point that they pretty much have to be dragged kicking and screaming to evolve alongside their potential customers’ habits. As a classic example, would the music industry have even bothered with digital distribution and the mp3 format if something like Napster hadn’t forced them to do so?

This is not me defending piracy as some kind of noble endeavor, but merely making the point that if scanlations did not exist and were not so ubiquitous, then I highly doubt that Japanese manga publishers would have simply decided to put manga online “just because.” In other words, to say that JManga would have been fine had readers of manga behaved all along is I think a flawed argument because there’s a good chance we wouldn’t even have sites like JManga or J-Comi. Valuing creative talent and creative output is still important, but defining that value according to current conventions and blindly accepting the current distribution methods (or lack thereof) is problematic itself. That’s not to say that one must rebel against the system in order to “save manga” or “stick it to the man,” but it would be beneficial to acknowledge where it is flawed, and to also not put blame squarely on the shoulders of readers, especially when the site was not giving them what they want.

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Anime Fangirls Unable to Handle Geriatric Hunks

Let’s face it, most girls are not Ohno Kanako, first true female member of Genshiken and lover of bishounen who are not shounen at all (“biteinen?”). So with an anime like Ristorante Paradiso, a sort of “Ouran High School Host Club” starring men ages 40 and up set in Italy, streaming legally (for free!) on Crunchy Roll, it’s only natural that the viewers on Crunchy Roll seem unsure how to handle this unusual setup.

“These are not beautiful people by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, they are all very plain. Hope the action picks up.”

“well they are old and the girl is so ugly i will not be waching these sorry..”

“They emphasis too much of the double eyelid, with the depth and shadow, it gives them an aging look. *sad face* Either way, the plot is interesting and it’s rereshing. For those who are used to the whole shoujo thing, the art grows on you.”

“their mouths are huge, like freakin’ muppets. Their smiles are awful”

…among other comments.

What I find really interesting here is the amount of comments that basically amount to, “Whoa they’re old! Old men aren’t supposed to be handsome!” as if they had totally been entrenched in the Expanding Bishie Empire and its doctrine of “youth=beauty.” Of course, anime isn’t the only source of this belief, it’s something a part of most cultures in the world, but here it’s referring specifically to that type of effeminate beauty that one can usually see in series such as Fruits Basket or even Saint Seiya.  Nor is it gruff manly manhood, or rather what GUYS think sexy men who get all the women should be like. Ristorante Paradiso sits in a unique position, especially in American anime fandom, and I look forward to each episode teaching you young whipperotaku a thing or two about what it means to charm the ladies when all you had was a spoon in your pocket and a chip on your shoulder.

Are the releases we want going to be the releases we get?

One complaint always leveled at anime companies is that they charge too much for anime. It’s something I’ve criticized in the past myself. Well, companies are finally listening and we’re seeing a variety of attempts to lower the cost of watching anime.

Gonzo plans on continuing its free online subtitled broadcasts with a continuation of Strike Witches.

Gainax and Bandai Entertainment have made it possible to watch the smash hit Gurren-Lagann on network cable via the Sci-Fi Network. Not only that, Bandai is planning a blitzkrieg release with 9 episodes per disc with a release of 1 disc per month. That’s 3 months for ALL of Gurren-Lagann.

Maria-sama ga Miteru, officially titled now as Maria is Watching Over Us, has an upcoming release of the entire first season at once. That’s 13 episodes from the get-go. No waiting, no nothing.

Media Blasters is releasing the second half of Gaogaigar all at once for practically nothing as well. This has less to do with plans and more to do with the fact that GGG did not do so well in the US, but it’s there.

And finally, Toei Animation has given the courtesy of releasing episodes of Hokuto no Ken and Slam Dunk online at $2 per episode. Granted, there’s some Digital Rights Management crap that we have to deal with, but they at least figured out that this is a better way of giving exposure to older series such as these.

So the anime industry has finally stepped up their game, and made it easier than ever to obtain anime from legitimate sources for affordable prices. It is now up to us as fans to support them, to tell these companies that, yes, we are willing to give you money directly provided you make it possible for us without sacrificing an arm and a leg when we do not have the fortune of being Edward Elric.

I don’t expect people to buy every single example I list here, and of course people’s income situations vary greatly, but I think it’s important that the anime fandom show that we are supportive of new attempts to get anime in our hands.

Fansubs, Digital Distribution, Shenanigans

This post is perhaps far too late, and even then, lots of people have more knowledge and insight than me, so I won’t really bother with explaining about WHY the anime industry is in danger. To sum it up, the people in charge need to catch up to modern times. That’s about it.

All this talk though has reminded me that Nintendo is planning on a service for their Wii where a person can purchase something from their online shop FOR another person. You buy, say, a virtual console game, and then the game gets sent to the person you bought it for. And I think this would be a great system to implement somehow for anime.

There’s little doubt that a good number of anime fans love to spread word about their favorite anime, and having the ability to purchase episodes for your friends (because they’re lazy or refuse to watch but you just know they’re going to like it!), I think, would only be embraced by people.

Granted, once the episodes are obtained, it’d probably be pretty easy to pirate them. Maybe there could be some kind of reward system for recommending a show to someone, a way to earn goodies like Naruto headbands or copies of Iroha Gokko and Anato no Tonari. Barring that, I look at the Wii again, with its library of virtual console games, and the fact is, people are ACTUALLY buying them, including the NES ones. You can download the entire NES library for like 50mb onto your computer, and people are still buying NES games.

I know that selling old games isn’t exactly like selling new anime, though.

Except perhaps when the anime isn’t new at all, and it’s just never been released here.