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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 March, 2004, 01:36 GMT
Manga's world of make-believe
By Jonathan Head
BBC Tokyo correspondent

Manga comic strip magazines, with their wild fantasies, provide welcome relief from the stresses of modern Japanese life.

Around a billion of them are sold every year, more than a third of all publications in Japan. Cheap, readable, disposable - manga comic strip magazines are as much a part of Japanese life as sumo or sushi.

Perfectly designed to distract from the discomfort of a long commute on a cramped train, they contain the wildest imaginable fantasies from violent pornography to science fiction.

People browsing at Mandarake stall in Tokyo
Mandarake has customers all over the world
Their simple, dramatic drawings and outlandish characters have had a major influence outside Japan, notably on Hollywood productions like The Matrix and Kill Bill.

True manga fanatics make their way to a dilapidated shopping centre in the west Tokyo suburb of Nakano.

There they can browse for hours in a jumble of poky shops selling every imaginable manga publication or product, from manga dolls to antique magazines.

This is Mandarake, a manga business started by Masuzo Furukawa, which now has customers all over the world.

There is violence and sex in manga, because it helps people release the stress and pressure of everyday life
Masuzo Furukawa
Mandarake founder
One Mandarake speciality is doujin, manga drawn by fans using their favourite cartoon characters, but spinning around them fantastic plots which can be shockingly pornographic. Masuzo Furukawa makes no apology for this.

"There is violence and sex in manga," he says, "because it helps people release the stress and pressure of everyday life. Japan has great freedom of expression, which is why our manga is so varied. Manga artists in other countries cannot draw in the same way."

Historical saga

One section at Mandarake features tales of homosexual passion between men - but the customers are exclusively women. This is Yaoi, another manga niche market.

People at cosplay party
At cosplay people emulate their favourite manga characters
Yaoi specialist Megumi Miyahara explains: "Yaoi is all about two men, in love, having sex, and a lot of girls are desperately wanting a love relationship. But those two men are not attracted because they are gay - that's the key point. They are attracted because they are in love with each other. I think a lot of women who read Yaoi Doujinshi, are interested in sex, but also they are rejecting their sexuality as well."

Manga addresses weightier subjects too. In the basement of his Tokyo home the renowned manga artist Kaiji Kawaguchi supervises a team of draftsmen and women applying the finishing touches to his long-running historical saga Zipang.

In it, a modern day warship from Japan's Self Defence Force (SDF) finds itself transported back through time to World War II, testing the pacifist principles of its crew members.

"I was fascinated by Japan's experiences in World War II, but I knew it would be hard for the younger generation to imagine what it was really like back then," he said.

"So I thought if I put members of today's SDF in the middle of that conflict, my readers could identify with their experience more easily."

Stress relief

For the ultimate homage to manga, some fans go to the cosplay parties which take place every week in Tokyo.

Here they dress up to emulate their favourite manga or computer game characters, right down to the last stitch and smudge of make-up.

When you have to relax you do it in a very extreme way
Malcolm Reid
British manga fan
It is taken very seriously by the fans, who can spend hundreds of dollars on costumes.

One 19-year-old using the manga name Mitsuki Nakaaki, said: "I love coming here to meet other manga fans, and exchange gossip about our manga characters. It really helps to relieve the stress of my everyday life."

Malcolm Reid, a British manga fan, sees nothing odd in donning a blue wig, short dress and handbag to show his devotion to the genre.

"I don't think it's uniquely Japanese I think it's something you get when you're in a very small country, and you're under a very heavy work pressure. It's something that comes when you're under a lot of stress and you have to relax, so when you have to relax you do it in a very extreme way."

And relax they do, dancing to the themes from their favourite animated cartoons, a riot of brightly-coloured wigs, garish make-up and crazy costumes, living for a few hours in a world of manga make-believe.

In a country ruled by almost obsessive politeness and formality, manga offers unlimited possibilities for escape.

The BBC's Jonathan Head
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