At the last manga fan-club meet in Mumbai, held in January, 26-year-old Geetanjali Shalve arrived wearing blue hair extensions, a large artificial flower, and a full-length black trench coat with red trimming.
She doesn’t normally dress this way; she was mirroring her favourite character, Konan, from the Japanese manga comic Naruto, as she participated in the very manga activity of ‘cosplay’ or costume play.
“Konan is the only female ninja in the criminal organisation in Naruto, my favourite manga, so it was an easy decision,” says Shalve, a copywriter.
She was among 40 young manga enthusiasts who participated in the cosplay ‘fashion show’ held as part of the meet-up in January.
Marching down the ramp alongside her were characters such as the robot Gundam, the grotesque god of death Shinigami, and Tomodachi, a character who wears a tuxedo, bandages on his face and a symbol of a raised finger and third eye imprinted on his forehead.
“People go all out for cosplay because it gives them a chance to show how much they care about the Japanese art form of manga comics,” says Akshay Ghag, 26, a videogame designer and founder of the Mumbai anime and manga fan club. “The guy who dressed up as Gundam came all the way from Pune and had made his own costume using Styrofoam, cardboard and wood. Most people make their own costumes because that’s the most fun part of dressing up.”
United by their love of the Japanese comic art form, the manga fans also staged a Japanese dance performance, music performance and culinary experience, all as part of the Cool Japan festival undertaken by the Japanese consulate and held at a city mall.
In all, 300 members attended the event, up from just four people at the first meet of the club in 2010. For many, it was the first time they were meeting offline.
Overall, membership of the Mumbai club has grown from the original handful to a total of 3,000 registered members, most of whom rarely meet offline, collaborating online instead to share manga comics or tips on sketching characters, and to offer feedback on a growing collection of independent works of Indian manga. At the official monthly meet-ups, attendance is now frequently upwards of 300 people.
This thriving club is part of a pattern across India’s metro cities, with dedicated fan clubs, manga libraries and Indian manga publications emerging in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai over the past five years.
The Bangalore anime and manga fan club, for instance, has grown from 500 members two years ago to more than 2,000 members today. In Delhi, there is a dedicated manga section in the Japan Foundation library, with more than 1,000 titles available in English and Japanese. The Delhi comic convention or comic-con also hosted its first manga-only stall in 2013, and sold all issues of the 40-plus titles on display.
Now, publishers have begun looking to cash in too. A manga work published in India in 2012, Stupid Guy Goes to India, became one of Blaft’s bestselling titles, selling more than 6,000 copies.
In black and white
So what’s driving the craze for this niche Japanese comic art form?
In India, it all began a decade ago, when animated version of manga, called anime, began to be broadcast on channels such as Animax, Cartoon Network and Hungama.
This style of animation has distinct characteristics — a sharply stylised black-and-white format, minimal dialogue, complex plots and characters, and extended storylines that can run on for months, or thousands of pages.
“The best thing about manga is that it’s never just a story; it’s an in-depth look into Japanese culture,” says Arinita Sandilya, 23, a Mumbai-based mass communications student who got her initiation into manga during her years at boarding school. “There are many manga series based on Japanese legends and on the stories of Japanese dynasties. It’s a fascinating look into a foreign culture.”
Having got hooked to the TV series, many young fans, hungry for more, took to the original comic versions and found that the anime was just the tip of an artistic iceberg.
“After the anime series Bleach and Fairy Tale ended, I began reading manga comics,” adds Chennai-based student Sai Sudarshan, 15, who also creates manga art in his free time. “I love the storylines, which are very detailed. I like sketching manga because it’s such a different style.”
It was the lengthy storylines that hooked Bangalore-based Vishal Yamunan, 26, too. “I started reading a manga series on the Buddha three years ago,” he says. “That series took 13 years to complete, and making my way through it all, I fell in love with the art form. Because of how detailed and beautifully sketched manga is, the books stand up to a second and third reading. They become books you can go to to relax.”
Now, some Indian fans are making the transition from viewer to creator (See case studies: Sketchbook).
For publishers, this segment holds out promise. Blaft’s bestselling Indian manga title, Stupid Guy Goes to India, was based on manga artist and writer Yukichi Yamamatsu’s visit to Delhi to translate Japanese manga into Indian languages. The sequel, Stupid Guy Goes Back to India, was published this March, and features Yamamatsu trying to run a tiny noodle soup stall in a Delhi slum.
“Yamamatsu’s book illustrates the range of topics that manga can tackle,” says Rakesh Khanna, editor of Blaft. “And it says something about the market that we sold 6,000 copies with very little marketing.”
Next, Viz Media, the US subsidiary of Japanese manga houses Shueisa and Shogakukan, will launch in India with about 75 series.
“The Indian market is ripe for a manga takeover and we will be facilitating the entry of over 125 manga series into the Indian market over the coming months,” says Kevin Hamric, senior director of sales and marketing at Viz. “The Indian audience has already been initiated into manga via cartoon channels. Some of our titles have been brought into the country by parallel importers and they have done very well.”
Bidisha Basu, a founding member of the Leaping Windows graphic novel library and café with outlets in Mumbai and Bangalore, has seen a similar trend. “Leaping Windows was modelled after Japanese manga cafés, and manga has always had its own dedicated section here,” she says. “Since 2010, we have increased the number of manga titles we carry from 20 to 45. It’s expensive, but the manga books have a strong fan base.”
(All images courtesy publisher Viz Media)
(With inputs from Poulomi Banerjee and Danish Raza)