Mills and Boon romances are strong sellers the world over. But in Japan, the publisher has appropriated the manga comic format in order to attract a generation for whom a novel just won't do.
By Charles Bodsworth
Mills and Boon is synonymous with fluffy love stories populated by dashing heroes and swooning heroines. Japanese manga comics, on the other hand, conjure up very different images - of violence, simpering schoolgirls and explicit sexual content.
But Mills and Boon runs a thriving business in Japan, publishing its books in manga format, the novel-length comic books read by children and adults alike. And where this cultural cross-over is concerned, stereotypes are best left behind.
In the manga section of many a bookshop, alongside the comics about gangsters, sci-fi, high school students and indeed the infamous pornographic stories, is the romance section. It's here that Mills and Boon has entered the fray against the Japanese publishing houses.
No so coy
If sex alone were necessary to produce successful manga, then Mills and Boon would already be in a strong position to succeed. The heroines of the publisher's Blaze line do not lie back and think of England. What they do, however, is enjoy a lot of sex.
A detailed look at the romance section of a Japanese manga bookshop can be rather disturbing. Piled high are covers at once familiar and at the same time quite bizarre.
A fine romance
The cover of The Sheikh's Reward, by Lucy Gordon, shows a couple in a loving embrace. So far so familiar, but the psychedelic colour scheme is a far cry from the subdued tones normally associated with romantic love.
And while the hero's chiselled jaw might attract a British romance fan, the heroine presents quite a different prospect. Her enormous eyes, dwarfing a mouth and nose of doll-like proportions, are like two shiny acid-green pools. The effect, to Western eyes, is a little more scary than seductive.
Mills and Boon's diehard Japanese fans cannot get enough. The Tokyo office sponsors annual tours to the UK, US and Australia, on which fans can meet some of their favourite authors.
Visiting the UK on such a tour and asked why she bought every single one of the 40-plus titles published on a monthly basis, one reader is reported to have replied "because that's all you publish".
Author Kate Walker, who has achieved success in Japan, says she finds the experience thrilling, "living as I do in a small UK town, where very little happens".
Can her novels bridge the cultural divide between the two countries? "It just goes to prove that stories about love and feelings and relationships are truly international."
Love in any language
Mills and Boon, under the banner of its Canadian parent company Harlequin, entered Japan 25 years ago as a publisher of novels in text form. Today, these standard versions of their books dominate the Japanese romance market. In 2003, 580 titles were published, with total sales exceeding 18m copies.
But, according to the company's Tokyo editorial director Keiko Yamada, the company has had to face growing unwillingness among the younger generation to tackle novels.
Romance in full colour
As a result, the first comic book versions appeared on the shelves five years ago, produced in collaboration with two manga publishing houses.
Harlequin Mills and Boon is an international giant, shifting more than 200m books a year globally. The company's boast is that six books are sold a second.
Nevertheless in Japan, the company has had to direct its product with careful thought for local preferences.
Whereas for American readers, the untamed appeal of the cowboy reigns supreme, the Japanese - in common with British readers - prefer a sophisticated gent over more rough and ready heroes. And, Ms Yamada says, "in Japan, you might not be surprised to learn, rich heroes are the most popular".
While the company dominates the romance novel market in Japan as it does across most of the globe, its late entry into comics has left it jostling for position with several other publishers.
And when it comes to manga, the romantic tastes of Japanese women cannot be satisfied by Mills and Boon alone. Offerings from other publishers include explicit sex scenes and love stories between men.
These are not produced for gay men, but are aimed specifically at women. While Western romance has made its mark in Japan, it could be that this sub-section of the genre may not be making the return journey quite yet.