BIG IN JAPAN
It’s not just Gwen Stefani who’s fascinated and enthralled by Japanese culture these days. Sudoku puzzles are published in even the most rural newspapers. Nearly all of the most popular children’s cartoons are at least inspired by the style of Japanese anime, if they’re not actually anime, translated and packaged for the US audience. J Horror, the stylish and often deeply creepy take on genre, has spawned several extremely American remakes of Japanese hits like The Ring and The Grudge, with more remakes and retreads on the way. But there’s something conspicuously absent from the flow of books, games, movies and media coming from Japan.
While a number of the country’s classic novels and non fiction works have been translated and published in America, there’s an ocean of popular books, fiction and nonfiction alike, that have been left untouched and, in the US, largely unknown, something that publishing house Vertical intends to change.
Vertical is taking a different approach to Japanese literature, selecting titles that are literate and engaging, allowing new readers to jump right in even if they aren’t familiar with the island nation’s history and culture. In short, Vertical is putting out the books that people will actually want to read, from horror titles with a built in audience like The Ring trilogy to the classics like A Rabbit’s Eyes to the epic fantasy of the Guin Saga.
They’re also not afraid of nonfiction and manga, publishing books from the ubiquitous Sudoku to the acclaimed epic Buddha by Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka. Anything worth reading has a shot at winding up on the energetic publisher’s plate.
Vertical was founded five years ago by Hiroki Sakai, a veteran book editor and reporter in his native Japan. Despite speaking little English and not having much in the way of start-up capital, Sakai came to New York with the ideas and ambition that would lead to the creation of Vertical.
Director of Marketing and Publicity Anne Ishii tells the tale: “Hiroki Sakai, our president, had the idea to start packaging and agenting Japanese children’s books in the US. The idea stopped short of actually publishing, until Sakai met Ioannis Mentzas, our Editorial Director and co-founder of Vertical, who convinced Sakai of the viability of a market for contemporary entertainment from Japan that wasn’t just for kids. I think the motivation for the company was a combination of the ability to do it on the part of two aimless visionaries and evidence of an interest in their ideas from the general public.”
Since then, working with funding from Sakai’s former employer Nikkei and the Japanese trading house Itochu Vertical has built a staff with an excellent academic and practical pedigree, with several degrees in Japanese literature floating around the office as well as a wealth of experience in publishing and translation. The name on the staff that will be most recognizable to the average comic fan is art director Chip Kidd.
Kidd is perhaps best known to comics readers for the work he’s done for Dark Horse and DC Comics on Frank Miller’s Sin City and The Dark Knight Returns, as well as inventive work with Chris Ware for The Acme Novelty Report to Shareholders and other graphic novel releases from Pantheon Books. He has also designed award-winning covers for numerous book publishers, including the iconic cover for Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park, and he is no stranger to Japanese fiction, having designed the cover to Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
So while Kidd is making sure that Vertical’s books look good, it’s the editorial staff that makes sure that what’s inside the book is as good as what’s on their cover. They work to find the books in the Japanese market so that they are not only great books, but great books for an American audience.
The differences between cultures mean that just because something might be a huge hit in Japan doesn’t mean that it will be something an American audience will appreciate. The art is in finding the books that can cross cultures.
“Number one on our selection protocol is the crossover capabilities of the title. We might see a title that is really good, but if the subject is very obviously not American reader-friendly, we won’t publish it,” explains Ishii. “Our motto is ‘Read different. Read Vertical,’ so I’d like to think we look for new-ish things.”
Vertical isn’t all about the new, however. Their premiere comics import is the classic manga Buddha by Osamu Tezuka, which was originally published in the ’70s and ’80s. The eight-volume tale has won Eisner Awards two years running, with nominations again this year, with the entire series now available in hardcover, and the first few volumes recently reprinted in paperback.
Rather than take a stodgy, ascetic approach, Tezuka’s take on the religious leader is gritty, sexy and often humorous; it offers a view of the future holy man more real in its emotion than any history book could ever be. More than just a tale of enlightenment and spiritual awakening, it’s also got sex, violence and the occasional cursed monk, all rendered in the Tezuka style that defined the look of manga and anime.
Vertical has another big Tezuka project coming in the fall, as explained by Ishii: “This October we’re coming out with Ode To Kirihito, which is like Tezuka’s Elephant Man. It’s an 800-page adult graphic novel with themes of deformity and acceptance, Christian virtue and the eternal and internal battle of man vs. beast. I’m hoping this publication will nail the coffin shut on Tezuka’s moniker as the guy who wrote Astro Boy.”
There’s a lot in the Vertical catalog for horror enthusiasts as well. There’s also a number of books by Koji Suzuki, such as the Ring trilogy that would form the basis for the successful series of Japanese and American movies or the book Dark Water, the title story of which was also recently made into a movie.
But if you’re not a fan of trippy reality-bending horror stories, then there’s A Rabbit’s Eyes, a classic novel by a veteran teacher about a first year teacher and her hard luck students. There’s also the aforementioned Guin Saga, a story of heroic fantasy centering around two young princes saved by a mysterious leopard-headed man. Or maybe even Saying Yes to Japan, a nonfiction book on the history and future of Japan’s service sector.
Yeah, I almost fell asleep reading the description of that last one, too. But it’s an example of the wide net Vertical has cast in trying to find the right titles to bring to an American market. There’s something for virtually every reader, even if your tastes don’t run strictly to gaming and comics.
Vertical has an advantage in this regard in that they don’t have to gamble on authors, since their ability to cherry pick the best titles means that they’re able to bring in titles that have already proven themselves.
That approach allows the company to avoid some of the risks and sundry grind work associated with publishing and focus on the philosophy that led to the creation of the company; to bring in books from Japan that tread the line between literary works and simple reads.
Vertical aims to bring books in that their only real clue to Japan is the name of the author, books with universal themes. The goal isn’t to educate in any overt way, but there’s always going to be a certain amount of the cultural ingrained in the works themselves.
The company may not be out to help people learn about Japan, but they’re going to regardless, showing the casual reader a world of entertainment that’s more than big eyed cartoon characters and giant robots.
Vertical’s publishing plate might always be expanding, but they’re helping to make the world a little smaller, giving people a chance to experience a wealth of new authors and ideas. A little more culture, in short.
And a little culture is never a bad thing, even if it’s someone else’s.
(Originally appeared in Comic Foundry)