Thinking about the problems facing the transplantation of manga kissa to the new world, I got to thinking about the vast number of otaku cultural elements that are wildly successful in the Other Country, and simply do not exist anywhere else. Even in the relatively short time that I have been interested in anime and manga, the official releases seen in North America have seen an exponential increase in both quantity and quality. Things that it seemed would never get an official release even two or three years ago are now considered perfectly normal. It’s now possible to find genuine gachapon in all sorts of places, genuine manga anthologies are showing up in otherwise normal locations, and translated light novels are coming out almost every month.

However, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, we need to remember that an otaku’s work is never done. For all the progress that has been made, it is important to remember how much further we have to go. Certain things are still not suitable for release in gaijin-land, and no matter how badly we may want them, they probably never will be. I promise that I won’t make a habit of doing posts that are nothing but enumerated lists, since I think that pretty much every other blog on the tubes has got that style covered, but since it is the beginning of the year I would ask you to grant me this one indulgence. Without much further ado, I would like to present a list of ten things that will NEVER be officially released in English for a North American market. I would invite all those reading to please prove me wrong.

10. Big-Name Bishoujo Games

Moeeeee...

It’s something of a miracle that we are blessed with more-or-less regular releases of PC bishoujo games at all. This is primarily due to the heroic efforts of Mr. Peter Payne and his glorious utopian vision of J-List (full disclosure: Shingo works for J-List, but I don’t! Nor do I see any money that may or may not come in from their advertisements on this site). Through these efforts, North America now has some semblance of a functioning marketplace for bishoujo games. This year, they even managed to acquire and release some relatively big names, such as Lightning Warrior Raidy and Princess Waltz.

Unfortunately, as much as this represents incredible progress, the market is still a tiny, tiny shadow of its source. There is essentially only one company doing this, and they can only do so much. Only a small handful of games are released each year, and although many of them are reasonably high-quality, none of them are really the “big names” that English-speaking otaku would be familiar with. Aside from Ai Yori Aoshi, none of the games released thus far were popular enough to warrant an anime adaptation, and Raidy is the first game so far that I had actually heard of prior to it being picked up by J-List.

Where are the Key games? The recent Kanon anime got licensed within a matter of months, but the game has languished for almost 10 years without any hope of being brought stateside. For that matter, where are all the Navel, and Aquaplus games? These games are big enough that any self respecting otaku knows them, but there’s still no (legal) way to play them in English. Not acceptable.

My understanding is that the obstacles to these games seeing English releases are primarily financial, which makes a certain amount of sense. Publishers of very successful games are going to want substantial amounts of money to license them, and are probably not going to be very understanding or sympathetic of the circumstances surrounding the English market. The economics of Other Country media are mind-boggling to begin with, and it is somewhat miraculous that the sole functioning importer and localizer of bishoujo games can manage to take games that originally cost 9000 yen (or more) and drop them onto the American market at $25.00 (or less). To be fair, anime distributors perform a similar kind of alchemy, but these games, particularly the 18+ games, are catering to a smaller market and will always do lower volume. Most of these games are also available in an “All Ages” edition, but thus far that hasn’t been the direction the market is going.

I won’t lie, any company that would risk paying out the nose for one of these licenses, then following through with a localization and release would almost definitely lose a substantial amount of money when all was said and done. From a purely otaku perspective, though, I simply don’t care. I want my games, and I want them now.

9. Specialist Magazines

2008 was not a great year for anime magazines in North America. Newtype USA, which has appeared to be going strong, abruptly halted publication back in February, only to be replaced with PiQ, a magzine designed to appeal to a broader audience, but which died a dog’s death after only four issues. Otaku USA is surviving, but underwent a price reduction and a minor format change (no DVD, no more…) and can still only manage six issues a year.

Even at its height, the American market only allows for for a very small number of otaku magazines, each of which touches on a very broad range of topics (I’m deliberately not counting manga anthologies here, since they really do not qualify as “magazines” for these purposes). This is something where my expertise is a bit limited, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like the situation is not much better in other English-speaking countries. Meanwhile, the market in the Other Country seems to sprout more and more specialized publications ever month. Things like Newtype Romance seem to sprout up like weeds with no warning, and any number of really odd publications will appear as one-shots for a month at a time.

Aside from issues stemming from the relatively small size of the target demographics involved, some of the magazines simply wouldn’t server much of a purpose in North America. Things like Megami really do not have enough verbal content to require localization, so anyone that wants them can import them easily enough. Hobby Japan could have a target audience, but a very small one, and without a thriving local plamo/bishoujo figure industry in place to support it, it seems like it would be impossible to arrange the pages and pages of advertisements that would be required to sustain it. This enters into a chicken-and-egg problem with the American plamo/figure industry itself, which has made steady gains in recent years but is still laughable compared to its origins.

In the end, it seems like magazines are more a pleasant side-effect of otaku industries, rather than a driving force in and of themselves. The only surefire way to grow the magazine market is to grow everything else first.

8. Licensed Food

Recovers 50 HP

I know, this one is a little insane, but bear with me. Licensed food and drink products are exceedingly common in the Other Country. Not too long ago, Square Enix released an official Final Fantasy “Potion” beverage, made available in ordinary convenience stores. There was also a reasonably widespread brand of Yakitate Japan bread for a while, and it seems like ever other week C.C. Lemon or Calpis are running some kind of 2D-affiliated promotion. Plus there is, of course, UCC Coffee.

It’s worth mentioning, since this is definitely a distinctly Other Country phenomenon, but as most of these products have a reputation for tasting like styrofoam soaked in paint thinner, it’s not entirely clear why, let alone how, this would be replicated overseas. Certain import businesses do make these things available (typically the ones with longer shelf lives) but again, if I walk into 7/11 I’m not going to find any.

Things like Pocky and Hi-Chew are increasingly common in America, even in otherwise perfectly normal stores, and I have to think that gaijin otaku culture had a hand in this. With that in mind, is it possible that someday we could see bigger franchises (although hopefully not just certain long-running Shounen Jump titles) get their own licensed food products outside of their native land?

Yeah…probably not.

7. Console Bishoujo Games

Youkoso!!

Similar in concept to #10, but lagging far far behind in execution, these games occupy a troubled spot in the cultural landscape. Since almost all console games are not allowed to be 18+ titles, these are typically “all ages” editions of their PC counterparts. Lacking the pornographic hook to attract the dedicated, if small, market that PC titles cater to, these games face the herculean challenge of attempting to interest gaijin gamers in “visual novel” gameplay.

Good luck with that.

Some of the big titles with large “crossover” appeal, such as Ar Tonelico and (arguably) the recent Persona games have made inroads in this respect, but none of them have yet turned enough heads in the gaming world to justify experimenting a purer breed. Even the titles that are tie-ins with anime and manga that have achieved massive success (relatively speaking) are left by the wayside if they stray too far from fighting and adventure game territory. The big businesses want nothing to do with these games, which continue to be treated like toxic waste even when some truly baffling titles are being selected for localization.

Unfortunately, the model that has achieved modest success in the PC space is unlikely to translate well, simply due to the ridiculously high bar set for entry into the console space. Publishing a console game and acquiring the distribution rights to a foreign property are each immensely difficult tasks on their own, asking a smaller company to do both at once makes it tremendously unlikely that a project will ever get off the ground.

The current generation of consoles indicates a promising shift, though. As well-networked consoles begin to make downloadable games a truly viable option, distribution costs come way down and publishers are willing to take (slightly) more risks. If this trend continues, then these technologically simple 2D games could become prime candidates to make an appearance as a downloadable title, be it with new content or re-releases of older properties. Should that happen, there’s a real chance that we might start to see them crossing international borders.

Of course, even then it wouldn’t be any of the really good ones. See #10.

6. Meido

Okaerinasaimase!

Now, before we even get started, yes, I do know that some enterprising souls have opened up Other Country-style meido kissa on North American soil, as well as in several other countries. Having said that, however, much like the manga kissa that was reported on previously, they are not exactly catching on. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that most countries lack a distinct Akiba-like otaku mecca where this sort of thing could blossom. These days it seems like meido kissa can carve out a sustainable existence in just about any part of Tokyo, and many places beyond, but I suspect that if the first few had opened in Shibuya instead of Akiba, they never really would have found their footing. Plenty of cities have “Japan Town” areas, but even the openly otaku-related stores are always blended in with a wide set “tradition” operations. None of them really approaches an Akiba level of shameless and indulgent otaku cloistering, which is likely necessary to foster a successful meido culture. And let’s face it, even if it proved that the business model could succeed, having a meido kissa in the middle of Times Square really wouldn’t be the same kind of atmosphere.

Furthermore, the “extended” meido culture faces even bigger challenges. The meido-bus, meido-massage, and meido-gaming operations are questionable business models even in areas where meido are plentiful. Trying to transplant them when they haven’t yet proven themselves in any form is a fool’s gambit. At the risk of sounding crass, I can’t help but wonder about the relative difficulty of finding suitable meido outside of the Other Country, to say nothing of drawing in a suitable clientele. The relationship between the meido that (in any decent establishment) show a genuine enthusiasm for their work and the otaku that enjoy their company with humility and respect is something that has to evolve organically, and no matter the intentions of the brave souls that try to make it happen, it’s unlikely to work out well in the near future.

Although if we could get that gaijin otaku mecca built somewhere, this problem could very well solve itself.

5. Pachislot

Gambling is bad, kids, don't do it

I don’t usually pay a lot of attention when people try to write something off as being “inherently Japanese” and try to assert that should be ignored or left alone because it is so deeply culturally entrenched that no one else in the world will ever really “get it” in any meaningful way, but in this case…

Pachinko is quite the national passtime in the Other Country, attracting attention mostly from bored housewives and listless, unskilled gamblers. To me, it also proves that it is possible to be under constant assault from all directions with audio and video stimulation and still be bored out of your mind.

What does this have to do with 2D culture, you ask? Well, modern pachinko (or pachi-slot, which adds elements of slots to the mix, but doesn’t change the core “sit on a stool and watch the game play itself” gameplay) machines all have themes. The theme doesn’t affect the gameplay, but to break up the monotony, they will play little animations and give off encouraging sound effects whenever some game event occurs. For whatever reason, the most popular themes are all anime and manga derived. One would assume, given the stereotypical clientele, that something with a Mito Komon theme would go over better, but it turns out that Hokuto no Ken and Evangelion consistently come out on top.

Weird, huh?

“Cultural differences” aside, I have a nagging suspicion that any area with looser gambling restrictions would really not take to the pachinko model. Real gamblers would be disinclined to go through such an obtuse mechanism to get results, and non-gamblers aren’t going to have the patience to play this type of game without getting real rewards. And the game is definitely not accessible for new players, resulting in added difficulties with trying to explain the ins and outs of the machines themselves.

Plus, even if pachinko somehow took off in North America, we wouldn’t get the themes we wanted anyway. We’d just end up with machines that had American Idol plastered all over them.

4. Doujinshi

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

I’m not talking about translating and re-releasing individual doujinshi here, since the Internet has filled that niche as much as it really ever should be filled, and asking for a commercial localization of an inherently non-commercial product is a bit bent. Instead, consider the lack or a proper doujinshi culture in North America, and the difficulties facing anyone that would try to close that gap. Although nowadays, any sizeable convention will have its own “artists alley”, dedicated events for buying and selling homemade publications are totally unheard of, and regardless of how you feel about the quality of the work on display at general-purpose cons, it is inarguably inferior in quantity.

If you take a step back, the fact that doujinshi sokubaikai manage to exist anywhere is a bit of a miracle. For several days, a convention center plays host to universe with rules completely different from our own. Hundreds of thousands of people buy and sell products that blatantly and openly infringe other people’s copyrights, most of it shameless pornography, and none of the rightsholders makes a fuss about it. I can’t think of a single thing in North America that displays this kind of blanket amnesty from our normal litigious society. Obviously the internet allows for free expression of this kind (more out of practicality than design) but the end result is really not the same. No one can argue that browsing Fakku is the same thing as actually going to comiket.

This brings me to one of the most unfortunate circumstances that gaijin otaku culture faces. By the time a product gets licensed and released outside of its country of origin, it is already serving two masters. If you want to create a derivative of that product, you have potential legal entanglements with both the localizer and the original publisher, and the burden is entirely on you to get it sorted out. This is the same legal nightmare that prevents the Super Robot Taisen games from ever getting localized (not including the “original” games, for obvious reasons). If you end up with a larger franchise, where different anime incarnations are licensed by different distributors, and a manga adaptation could be licensed by someone totally different, then you might as well just give up and go home.

Sorting things like this out will always be easier (not to claim that it’s easy) in the Other Country, and there is really not much that can be done about it. Furthermore, putting 2D ero material that far out in the open is courting disaster all by itself. Given the quality of some things that pass as “fan art” around here, it’s easy to say we’re better off, but I like to think that with a little practice we could get the knack of it.

3. Touhou

I'm scared...

Obviously a subset of #4 but with distinct enough circumstances that I feel it warranted its own entry. Also, it’s my list, and I’ll do what I want. Having long been an underground phenomenon with an astounding cult following, Touhou now seems poised to burst into the mainstream. At least what some people consider “mainstream”. For better or worse, and despite original creator ZUN’s strong objections I think we’re going to be seeing very big things come out of Touhou-land in 2009.

The recent Maikaze anime adaptation poses problems that are almost unique in the history of anime localization and distribution. It’s unclear whether it will blossom into something larger than the single episode that exists (hint: it will) but even in its current incarnation, it represents a curious dilemma. Will anyone license it? Can anyone license it? Who, exactly, would it be licensed from? ZUN has made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t want it distributed to anyone, which I’m assuming includes us gaijin, and I’m guessing that whatever arrangement Maikaze has with ther (rather amazing) cast would put them in an awkward position regardless.

Would anyone want to license a Touhou anime? Probably. Anime distributors have a grand tradition of licensing tiny parts of a huge franchise that seem bizarre and off-putting to anyone not familiar with the source material, I see no reason they would stop now. It’s possibly someone might take an interest in licensing the games themselves, but honestly trying to sell 2D (ish) PC bullet hell games devoid of context really wouldn’t go very well. The might conceivably fare better as something like downloadable console games (XBLA or similar) but this complicates an already difficult task. What’s more, it definitely seems like this is the last thing ZUN would want, for reasons that are really known only to him.

The situation is essentially hopeless. Maikaze were kind enough to add English subtitles to their DVD, in a particularly obvious case of doujin-quality exceeding corporate-quality, but it’s still not as if I can just run down to Suncoast and buy the damn thing. Since there is really no local equivalent to the kinds of stores that would sell Touhou goods in the Other Country, or to the events that release them, any organized distribution would likely constitute the “commercialization” that ZUN is so opposed to.

I can’t say I blame him, but it’s somehow still a troubling thought. Much as it seems that Other Country Touhou maniacs can’t seem to decide how to feel about the Maikaze anime and all its implications, it’s tough to figure out just whether the licensing said anime (or said implications) would be a good thing or a bad thing.

2. Kodomo no Jikan

NO LOLI FOR YOU

A low blow, perhaps, but lest we forget…

It’s now more than a year since the Seven Seas debacle, wherein an American publisher licensed this manga of…err…questionable moral purity, and came within a breath of publishing it through the standard channels, only to very suddenly realize what an amazingly bad idea that would be. As the manga continues to reach new heights of…uhh…”cultural differences” and one season of an anime adaptation showing absolutely no signs of interest from overseas distributors, the situation looks more dire than ever.

I’m not a big Kojikan fan myself, but I can’t help but feel bad all of the American lolicon otaku who were eagerly anticipating that release, only to be snubbed at the last minute. Obviously it’s not the end of the world, since scanlations are always readily available, but it’s still kind of a kick in the pants when a distributor claims to be releasing something, typically slowing or halting fan translations in the process, only to change their mind without any clear change in circumstances.

It’s a reasonable question to ask why Seven Seas would have licensed this title in the first place, it’s not as though it started off as something innocent and suddenly took an unexpected turn in later volumes. The entire point of the manga is that there is a small child saying and doing inappropriate things to her school teacher. Admittedly it gets more explicit the longer it runs, but still, one can’t help but wonder if anyone at Seven Seas had bothered reading it when the acquired the distribution rights.

On the one hand, nothing is more infuriating than watching distributors buy up the rights to countless beloved series, only to then sit on them for years and years without any intention of releasing them. The practice of striking down fan translations while refusing to allow consumers to actually buy the products legitimately is a loathsome side effect of the growth of the international otaku industries. On the other hand, though, given the content involved, part of me cannot help but be a little grateful that Kojika is not sitting in a public library somewhere, just waiting for some uppity parents group to stumble across it and start imprisoning neighborhood otaku for possessing unapproved literature. Even now, we have to pick our battles carefully.

Of course, back in 2005, I would have said exactly the same thing about Welcome to the NHK, so you really never know.

1. Sakura Taisen

HA SHI RE!

There’s really just no excuse for this one. The Sakura Taisen franchise has been big business in the Other Country ever since it debuted in 1996. Having now sold over 3 million copies and given birth to various spin-offs and adaptations, it’s all but a household name now.

And yet…

Aside from a smattering of anime releases, none of the franchise has ever made it abroad. To a certain extent, this falls under the umbrella of #7, as the games feature enough “dating sim” elements to be considered alienating to westerners. Still, the games are far from pure visual novels, containing genuine strategy gaming elements to break up the lengthy dialog. Also, they are awesome, and should be played by everyone, regardless of how distasteful they might find playing a video game that involves reading. These games contain one of the greatest settings, and several of the greatest characters that I have ever encountered as an otaku. The fact that it’s been more than ten years and not a single game has made it to an English release is a disgrace to both the companies and the consumers involved.

Get it together, guys.