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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The "Burning Blood" Has Burned Out: A Final Look at Kurumada Manga North of Mexico

TokyoPop's release of B't X Volume 16, the last volume of the series, a couple of weeks ago give me mixed feelings; I am so glad to see it be fully released in North America, but at the same time it makes me have to accept something...  This will probably be the last time that a Masami Kurumada manga is released in the United States and Canada.


Masami Kurumada started his career as a manga artist/manga-ka back in 1974 with this first short story, Otoko Raku (made while in high school but went unpublished), but none of his works ever came to the United States and Canada until January 21, 2004, when Viz released the first volume of Kurumada's international hit, Saint Seiya. Oh wait, "Saint Seiya" was only the subtitle at that point; Viz released the manga under the name Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya. I had talked to Mari Morimoto, the translator for Viz's release of Saint Seiya, during MangaNEXT this past October and she admitted that she had recommended Seiya to Viz for many years, but Viz kept telling her that the manga was "too old" to release over here... That is, until DiC licensed the first 60 episodes of the anime adaptation of Saint Seiya. All of a sudden Viz was all over licensing the original manga, and at the very least they contacted Morimoto about having her translate it. But it was obvious that Viz was hoping that DiC's adaptation of Saint Seiya, which would be called Knights of the Zodiac, would be a big hit in the United States and Canada and that it would translate into manga sales, even though the title was already 18 years old at that point.

Probably with a similar goal in mind TokyoPop licensed the B't X manga, which was Kurumada's big title throughout the 90s and one of the few that wasn't initially released by Shueisha at the time, and released the first volume on January 4, 2004, actually beating Viz's release of Saint Seiya to the punch while also proudly declaring "From the Creator of Knights of the Zodaic!" in the corner of the cover art. Too bad DiC's Knights of the Zodiac was a horrible abomination of an adaptation, from having blood be referred to as "mystic energy" at one point (not mention changing the color from red to something that looks more like Gatorade) to Siberian-born and raised Cygnus Hyoga having a "surfer dude" voice, among other things...


Anyway, it's kind of interesting that Kurumada's time in the North American manga industry lasted exactly from 2004-2010, as both Saint Seiya and B't X took roughly the same amount of years to be fully released (Saint Seiya Volume 28 was released back in February). Both titles seem to have done less than expected, to put it lightly; TokyoPop's employees even joked around that "only 8 people bought B't X" and that they were even betting against each other as to whether the last volume will be released or not. Viz's release of Saint Seiya was forced to use DiC's name and terminology changes, so "Saints" became "Knights", Cancer Deathmask became Cancer Mephisto (which Morimoto found hilarious, as Mephisto refers to Mephistopheles, a.k.a. another name for the Devil himself), and Soari Kido became Princess Sienna. Aside from those changes, though, the manga is left intact; the artwork is unaltered, any characters that DiC's license never covered were left with their original names, and even Hyoga's Kolodnyi Smerch was left with the original Russian name. TokyoPop's release of B't X, from what I can tell, has no alterations whatsoever, though the translation did have an annoying obsession with giving main character Teppei cheesy one-liners for roughly the first half of the manga.

But why did Kurumada's titles fail in North America? Well, there are a number of factors to consider. First, I have to put a good part of the blame on DiC's half-assed licensing of the Saint Seiya anime. The anime was the first time anything related to Masami Kurumada ever came to the United States and Canada (I can't quite say "North America", as Mexico is technically a part of the continent and Kurumada's titles are pretty popular over there), and not only was it generally considered to be aired on TV "ten years too late", resulting in most viewers calling it a "DBZ-ripoff" and even a Ronin Warriors wannabe (though Ronin Warriors was obviously inspired by Saint Seiya), but DiC's horrible adaptation just wasn't going to cut it anymore in 2003, and barely anyone bought into it. ADV did try to give the anime a fair shake by sub-licensing it from DiC and giving it an uncut DVD release, complete with an English dub that was accurate to the original Japanese version, but the dub itself was one of ADV's lesser works and the release only covered the first 60 episodes. DiC didn't seem to be willing to license more of a show that was a failure in their eyes, and Toei didn't seem to be willing to let another company get the license to the second half of a show that they didn't even have the original license to in the first place, so ADV was left unable to continue the release. Since then, DiC was bought by Cookie Jar Entertainment and about a year later the original DiC license finally expired, making the Saint Seiya anime an open license once again. Still, Kurumada's biggest work had as bad of an introduction to the United States and Canada as one can possibly get, and I still feel that it transferred heavily to how both manga would end up selling.


Second, when I asked Morimoto what she felt was the biggest reason why Kurumada's titles failed over here, she immediately answered "because they looks old". Admittedly, Kurumada's artwork doesn't really change all that much over time. For example, if you look at his artwork from the original Ring ni Kakero (which debuted in 1977) and then look at his artwork from the more recent Saint Seiya Next Dimension it's easy to see that, while his artwork has definitely become more refined over the years, there's not much if any real drastic change in how they look. Kurumada's artwork in general just has that old-school look. It's not "new" or extremely stylish, but instead it does look like his recent titles could have been serialized much earlier than they actually were. I had asked about this at the end of a panel she was in charge of and Morimoto was quick to add that no one should ever judge or dismiss a manga solely on its artwork, and I full-heartedly agree.

Finally, there was just a problem with the naming of each manga. As I said earlier, Morimoto admitted that Viz had to use DiC's changes when it came to names and terminology, so Viz had no choice but to make "Knights of the Zodiac" as the main title, and turn "Saint Seiya" into a subtitle. Even after the adaptation using that name was canceled, Viz had no choice at that point but to continue using that name, similar to how their release of the Kinnikuman Nisei manga still uses the "Ultimate Muscle" name to this day, even though 4Kids' Ultimate Muscle is all but forgotten now. As for B't X, well TokyoPop did use the Knights of the Zodiac name when promoting their title, as it was technically from the same creator, but after four volumes the promotional piece was dropped and never seen again... More than likely it turned people away from even looking at the title rather than attract people. Also, I will have to admit the title of the manga is just, well, completely out of left field. Unless you know how to say it beforehand, the title "B't X" looks unpronounceable, not to mention that TokyoPop generally treated the spelling as "B'tX", potentially leading to confusion when looking for volumes (Right Stuf, thankfully, knows that there's a space between the t and the X). Admittedly, B't X's title itself probably didn't help sales at all, but that can't be helped in the end.

Volume 15 over here, but this is actually the
cover to the final volume in Japan!

With Saint Seiya and B't X fully released now there really doesn't seem to be any chance at getting more Masami Kurumada mangas released over here. Ring ni Kakero 1 is "too old", as is Fuma no Kojirou, and Ring ni Kakero 2 is even less likely, regardless of it being serialized from 2000-2009. His many one-shots and canceled titles, no matter how short they are, aren't even going to be given the time of day, not to mention that, as mentioned before, Shueisha primiarly handles all of them now, leaving Viz as the only real potential licensor and with Saint Seiya not doing well over here there's no chance any of them coming over. The most-possible titles that could still be licensed and released over here are the Saint Seiya spin-off manga that are running in Akita Shoten's Shonen Champion magazine series. Whether it's Episode.G (drawn by Megumu Okada), The Lost Canvas (drawn by Shiori Teshirogi), or even Next Dimension (the canon sequel/prequel drawn by Kurumada himself), all three are the most possible as they are technically open to all licensors and not just Viz... But since they are all related to Saint Seiya the chances of licensing drop drastically. Even Ed Chavez, who works for Vertical, has said that he would love to license some Akita Shoten titles, but when I brought up those Saint Seiya-related works even he went "not likely".


I'd love to be proven wrong when it comes to this, and I do still hold out hope when it comes to the anime adaptations of his works, but I think I can safely, and unfortunately, say that when it comes to manga released in the United Sates and Canada Masami Kurumada's time is done.

[2016 ADDENDUM: Since this post, Masami Kurumada's clout has seen some brighter spots. Most of the anime based on Saint Seiya is now available with English subtitles on CrunchyRoll, the first four Seiya movies & the Lost Canvas OVA series are on DVD from Discotek, & Viz did re-release the Saint Seiya manga digitally, where it seemed to do okay (at least, every new volume, upon release, appeared on the Top 10 New Releases list). Also, Viz has been re-releasing old TokyoPop manga digitally via its Viz Selects label, & has recently been putting out some Shonen Ace titles, like Judas or Kannazuki no Miko, digitally, so there may be an ever-so-small chance that B't X may see a digital re-release one day, as well. While the hope of more physical releases of Kurumada manga may still be dead, there have been moments of new life in the years since this eulogy.]

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