Like all good manga industry people, I keep up with ye olde awards and happenings. And most of the happenings are about stuff I don’t care about. Which actually makes it easy to keep up. I don’t need to bother reading manga for which I am clearly not the target audience. Like, I know Space Brothers has gotten a ton of accolades and sells really well, but I just don’t care. I’m sure it’s great and if anyone asked me to translate it, I totally would and I’d probably enjoy it (I just enjoy translating fiction), but I’m not going to go out of my way and shell out a bunch of yens for twenty-three volumes of the thing. Which is pretty much how I feel about the majority of manga that make the happenings.
That said, there are always one or two nominees for the Manga Taisho award that look interesting to me as a reader or as a professional translator. And this year, there was one nominee that wrapped up my professional and personal manga interests in a single story: Juhan Shuttai! by Naoko Matsuda. Because it is a manga about making manga! Meta manga!
Kokoro Kurosawa was aiming for a spot on the Olympic judo team when an injury slammed that dream into the mat. So weirdly enough, she decides she wants to go into the manga publishing industry. She gives a rousing speech at her interview with the fictional publisher Kotokan, takes down the company president with an overhand throw, and still gets a job in the editorial division of a manga magazine called Vibes. She attacks her work at Vibes the same way she attacked judo: by slamming her head against walls until they break. Kokoro is relentlessly optimistic, something that would normally put me off. But like the relentless optimism of IS, there’s something meaningful underlying it, and by the end of Volume One, Kokoro and her gyoza ears (cauliflower ears in Japanese!) had won me over.
The art seemed incoherent and inconsistent at first, veering from realistic proportions and faces to scrawling, wandering lines that distort faces, but it settles down after a bit, and the whole thing ended up coming together for me. Her lines tend toward loose and any legs depicted seem to be broken in multiple places. But Matsuda is really expressive and manages to get some really great faces in these pages, especially Kokoro’s, who seems to wear every feeling she has on her sleeve. There’s also some interesting panelling work in here, lots of diagonal panels, shots from above or below or just unexpected angles. This works really well to bring a sense of action and drama to a story about people publishing a magazine. Not that people publishing a magazine isn’t interesting, but really, there’s not a lot of action.
There is, however, a total embrace of all aspects of the publishing industry. Usually, in this kind of meta story, the focus is on the manga artist, as the protagonist of a fictional or biographical narrative. And although Juhan Shuttai does spend some time with the manga artists published in the pages of Vibes, its main focus is the people behind the scenes: the editors, the sales people, the bookstore clerks. There’s even a rousing shoutout to all these behind-the-scenes people in one of the chapters. It’s surprisingly interesting to watch the head of sales duke it out with the head of editorial about how many copies they should print of the third tankobon in a series by a new artist. There’s an explanatory note that manga magazines generally lose money and it’s in the publication of the tankobons for the series these magazines publish that the magazine earns back the money spent on it and lives on within the publishing company. So sales and editorial are coming from different places when it comes to how many copies to print. Sales doesn’t want more than it can sell and editorial wants as many as possible to justify the magazine’s continued existence.
Matsuda throws in a fair number of these kinds of nitty-gritty scenes with explanatory notes to clue her readers into why these scenes are important, so the series offers a very nice insider’s look at the world of publishing manga. If you’ve ever wondered why certain manga tankobons get big displays at bookstores, wonder no more!
Everyone in these pages is deeply passionate about their jobs, or else they learn to be within a chapter arc or two, and they are all given a chance to tell you why, directly or indirectly. And you will roll your eyeballs at some of them, but those eyeballs might also be a little teary. For something so relentlessly optimistic, it’s surprisingly moving. Or maybe it’s that optimism that makes it moving. Or maybe it’s because I work in this industry too and I know how fragile it can be, how many parts all have to come together, the right people in the right place at the right time, to make a book sell. So it is kind of nice to throw away all my grumpiness about my favourite books not having a hope of being published in English, and just embrace the idea that if we all work hard enough and care enough, we can make it happen.
Matsuda also has a healthy sense of humour and tosses in little digs at her own work through the voice of her characters. (“Matsuda’s handwriting is so terrible.”) And every time a tankobon gets a reprint (juhan), Kokoro does a reprint dance! That alone won my heart forever. But then everyone does their own reprint dance and my heart exploded.