JManga

JManga Splash Page

This review was going to be about the manga Aoi Hana (translated as “Sweet Blue Flowers”) and how much I love it and its author, Shimura Takako (who also wrote Hōrō Musuko, released by Fantagraphics as Wandering Son). I was delighted when JManga announced that it would make Aoi Hana available in translation, and I visited the website immediately to see how the translation and presentation looked.

I have had trouble with JManga in the past, but that was about a year ago, and I figured that the site would have fixed most of its problems since then. Alas, I was horribly mistaken. Instead of talking about Aoi Hana, then, I’d like to talk about my experience of using JManga.

I am basing what I’m writing on my experiences of accessing JManga during the past eight days (November 26 – December 3) using a laptop running Windows 7 and equipped with a 13.1″ screen. My main browser is Firefox, but I tried using Opera and Internet Explorer as well. All three browsers are the most recent releases and running fully updated versions of Java and Flash. I experienced the most problems with Opera and the fewest problems with Firefox. (For the record, the JManga site did not work on the Safari browser installed on my iPad at all, and JManga has no app compatible with Apple devices.)

First, let’s look at a preview of Aoi Hana

JManga Preview Page

Well, that’s informative.

I tried to access previews of five other titles but could only find a working preview for one of them.

I suppose I came to the site knowing that I wanted to buy this manga, so I went ahead and bought it.

These are some samples of how the manga appears in full-screen mode on my laptop…

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As you can see from the above images, unless you’re reading the manga on a huge screen, it’s almost impossible to read the text.

The image quality in general isn’t that sharp to begin with. Here’s a sample from Hatarake Kentauros, which is offered by JManga under the title “Working Kentauros”…

Working Kentauros

Even though this manga uses a different font, and even though the panels are larger and the text is less dense, it’s still difficult to read.

It’s possible to zoom in onto the page and drag the image around your screen. If you do this, however, before too long your screen will freeze into something like this…

JManga Frozen Screen

…and you’ll have to restart your browser (and possibly your computer) to get your browser to work again.

If you need a break from reading the tiny, blurry, headache-inducing text on JManga and leave the reader open but untouched for more than sixty seconds, you’re in for a surprise when you come back and try to turn the page…

JManga Loading Screen

…and you’ll have to restart your browser to get JManga to start working again. Since the reader has no bookmarking function, you’ll also need to flip through all of the pages you already read from the beginning to get to where you left off.

Even if you don’t step away from the reader, sometimes you’ll get the loading screen between one chapter and another, or even randomly as you try to turn the page in the middle of a chapter. Even with a lightning fast internet connection and a secure network, making it through even a short book on JManga required me to restart my browser several times.

Reading manga on JManga is not impossible, but it’s not easy, either.

So, is it worth it?

On JManga, manga are purchased with points. As of today (December 3), Aoi Hana cost 499 points. Unfortunately, the minimum amount of points you can purchase is 1000 (which costs $10.00). What this means is that, if you only want to buy one volume of Aoi Hana, it’s going to cost you $10.00. If you do buy this volume and have 501 points left over, you can use your points for another manga, which seems fine until you realize that the next manga you want to read costs either 599 or 899 points.

What this model should be paying for are added incentives. Unfortunately, the JManga site itself is poorly organized, and it’s difficult to find what you’re looking for unless you already know where to find it…

JManga Search Results

The site design is brash and busy and filled with pop-up ads: Read this manga!!! Check out this article!! Have you subscribed to our weekly newsletter?!?!?!

One especially annoying pop-up…

JManga Pop-Up

…persistently urged me to “update your info” so that my account on JManga looks like a profile on Myspace.

In conclusion, browsing JManga and using the site to buy and read manga is a thoroughly annoying and disappointing experience. This makes no sense to me, as many of the titles available on the site can easily be found on scanlation websites (a scanlation of Aoi Hana is the second result of a Google search for the title) that offer high quality images for free without the necessity of restarting your browser every five minutes. The people who buy manga on JManga are thus choosing to spend money to support the site instead of simply finding and reading scanlations for free. I don’t think anyone, no matter how young or internet-saavy, wants to come off as an entitled fan, but the experience of using JManga almost makes it feel as if people who choose to use the site are being punished in some way.

I have no problem with the concept of digital manga. I love reading translated manga on my iPad through the Viz Manga app, the Yen Press app, and the Digital Manga Publishing app. I’ve also had good experiences with the Sublime Manga site, whether reading manga on the site’s browser-based reader or downloading manga as a PDF document. Even the experience of reading manga on a Kindle has improved as titles are reformatted and updated to accommodate larger screens with higher resolutions. I love the Shonen Jump Alpha and Yen Plus magazines, and I loved Viz’s Sig IKKI site back when it was still updating. Digital manga is a wonderful advance in publishing that helps to support the translation and release of manga in America while giving titles such as Aoi Hana a chance in the American market.

JManga has updated its site and user policies according to reader feedback in the past, and I hope it will continue to evolve and improve in the future. Although the site doesn’t currently meet the standards set by other digital publishing platforms, it features some great titles. Still, I think both these manga and their readers deserve better treatment.

Japanese Literature for the Kindle

I am both a reader and a traveler. I read at least a dozen books every month, and I find myself on a plane at least once every two months. I love physical books, I really do; but, because I am a reader and a traveler, the physicality of books has started to become a burden, literally. I hate walking through airports with a bag full of books strapped to my back, and I am running out of shelf space in my apartment. So I finally bit the bullet and bought myself a Kindle. Having now spent the weekend playing with my new toy, I thought perhaps I should share what I have learned concerning the availability of Japanese literature on the Kindle.

To my complete and utter lack of surprise, everything Murakami Haruki has ever had published by Vintage is on the Kindle. The other Murakami, Murakami Ryū, has three short novels (Piercing, Audition, and Popular Hits of the Shōwa Era) available. The psychological crime fiction of Kirino Natsuo is also up and ready for download. All of this is as it should be, since Kirino and the two Murakamis are extraordinarily fun, engaging, and popular writers.

Some of the more classic authors of Japanese fiction, such as Ōe Kenzaburō, Kawabata Yasunari, and Tanizaki Junichirō, have only one digital book apiece (The Changeling, The Old Capital, and Seven Japanese Tales, respectively). The real winner of the e-book contest for canonized classics seems to be Natsume Sōseki, who has everything from Kokoro to Kusamakura to Ten Nights of Dream available, thanks to Penguin.

Newer, less canonized fiction has not fared quite as well, however. Some of my favorite contemporary authors, like Nonami Asa, Kanehara Hitomi, and Sakurai Ami, have absolutely nothing on the Kindle store. Vertical has none of its catalog listed, either (at least not to my knowledge). If you’re into science fiction, though, you’re in luck – Haikasoru has digital editions of a handful of its titles, such as Slum Online and The Lords of the Sands of Time, up on the Kindle store. Perhaps the best deal out of Haikasoru’s digital selection is Miyabe Miyuki’s Brave Story, which is a massive physical book being offered at a nice discount in its digital edition.

If you’re the sort of person who reads academic nonfiction as a hobby, there are much better places to go to obtain digital texts, but the Kindle store does have a few good titles available, like Christine Marran’s Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture (the list price for which is about $15). Routledge also offers a few tomes on Japanese literature for upwards of $85. One assumes they are doing this just to be funny, especially since they’ve posted their Companion to Critical Theory and Companion to Postmodernism for less than $20.

Finally, unless I am missing something very important, I don’t think there is a great deal of manga worth mentioning available on the Kindle. Again, this is probably as it should be. Although the text on the device is crisp and clear and beautiful, I don’t think the screen is big enough or has a high enough resolution to handle the sort of compact image formatting involved in most manga. If you want to read manga on your e-reader, it’s probably better to invest in a Nook, which is partnered with Digital Manga, or an iPad, which has apps for Yen Press, Viz Media, and other publishers. If you’re into scanlations (shame on you) and aren’t too picky about image quality, however, there is a lot of neat software floating around that will help you make the most of the Kindle. [EDIT: Digital Manga now has several titles available for the Kindle. One of my favorites is Kunieda Saika's two-volume boys' love title Future Lovers.]

The one thing I’m still not too terribly clear on is the relationship between the Kindle and Amazon.co.jp. Although the new Kindle 3G model can read and display Japanese, there don’t seem to be any digital texts available on the Japanese Amazon website. I know that Kodansha had entered into negotiation with Amazon half a year ago, but I’m not sure how that panned out. So far, it seems that it hasn’t. On the front of Japanese-language literature, then, it seems that perhaps the iPad is the place to be. The Japanese publishing market is a bit insular, to say the least, and I’m not sure how friendly said market is to digitization. Perhaps the iPad, which is neither an e-reader nor a computer but an entirely different beast altogether, is the most conducive platform for international digital textual exchange. If only it weren’t woefully beyond my budget, alas.