Tokyo (AFP)

Selling foreign comics in Japan, a manga country, is almost making Eskimos buy ice cream, but it works, with societal graphic novels or series that embrace all the manga codes.

"A priori, for the Japanese readership, foreign comics are not interesting," says Takanori Uno, a Japanese specialist in Franco-Belgian comics.

But to say that is just to show the height of the challenge, not to admit defeat.

"It's been more than 10 years now that several titles of foreign comics have been released every month in Japan, proof of the existence of a Japanese readership," explains Frédéric Toutlemonde, founder and director of the Euromanga editions, which promotes foreign comics in Japan. .

Las, he laments, "this presence is unfortunately minimal, niche", while France is the second largest manga market after Japan.

According to him, about 10% of Japanese bookshops offer foreign comics.

This may seem trivial but the size of comic books remains a major hurdle: "They are too big for manga-sized shelves in bookstores, and the price of a comic is higher than that of a manga "explains Mr. Toutlemonde.

The works that manage to enter the shelves then have trouble staying there if they do not find their audience quickly: "The competition is fierce," says the one who also organized in Tokyo comic salons of various origins.

- Ray "society" -

"The works of major cartoonists such as Moebius, Enki Bilal or Nicolas de Crecy have already been published in Japan, we must now find something other than big names, we must perhaps focus more on the themes of comics", According to him, Mr. Uno, translator of "The Arab of the Future" of Riad Sattouf, whose first volume was released in July in the archipelago.

The Japanese publisher Yuki Yamaguchi, whose publishing house Kadensha publishes since 2017 European graphic novels, shares this opinion and selects his comics according to their subject.

In its catalog, there are, in Japanese versions, "The invisible difference", Julie Dachez (about the Asperger syndrome), "The lightness", Catherine Meurisse (who narrowly escaped the attack Charlie Hebdo where she worked), "Call me Nathan", Quentin Zuttion & Catherine Castro (on transidentity) or "The Arab of the future" (on issues of nationality and immigration).

These titles, needless to look for them among the mangas.

"We asked the booksellers to put them with the essays addressing the problems of society," she said in an interview with AFP in her office in Tokyo.

"The author's visit to Japan for meetings with readers and debates is also important to attract readership," says Yamaguchi.

- The UFO "Radiant" -

In this very particular landscape, however, there are sometimes successes that give hope: this is the case of "Radiant", Tony Valente, a manga created by a foreigner and recognized in Japan as a work of quality, to the point where it is adapted in animation series by the Japanese public channel NHK.

"For the moment, it's a UFO in terms of success." An "animated +" adaptation is very good news, that's for sure, but it's not the alpha and the omega of success. " says Mr. Toutlemonde.

For him, it is by the great mastery of Japanese manga codes that the French author Tony Valente arrived with "Radiant" to seduce the Japanese readership despite difficult topics such as racism, immigration and exclusion.

Mr. Toutlemonde dreams that this first success is not an exception, and he is not the only one.

The French Institute of Japan is also trying to make French comics known in the archipelago, through an annual literary festival involving designers (this year Riad Sattouf). The Kujoyama villa in Kyoto (a kind of equivalent of the Villa Medicis in Rome) is also home to designers. Catherine Meurisse was there last year.

Finally, after 2020 devoted "Year of the comic strip" in France, the Season of France in Japan (from April to October 2021) should put a particular emphasis on comics.

© 2019 AFP