0 Items | £0.00

VIEW BASKET

Toren Smith 1960-2013

Thursday 7th March 2013

Remembering one of the prime movers of modern manga

Toren SmithIt was a 7-11 like any other, one of thousands of corner stores in Japan. The manager looked up with his half-hearted “Irasshaimase…” but his voice tailed away as a hulking foreigner strode purposefully into the store. Oh shit, a gaijin. Whatever they do, it’s going to be unpredictable, and probably messy. The manager swallowed nervously as the silent brute advanced straight for the counter, not picking up any items for sale, but instead marching straight towards him. The man was a giant, as so many gaijin were, but also B-I-G, portly and bearded, with intense eyes peering out from behind his gold-rimmed spectacles.

The foreigner reached the counter and reached into his jacket. The manager’s hand snaked carefully towards the panic button under the cash register, but the foreigner pulled out nothing more dangerous than a wallet.

“My name is Toren Smith,” he said slowly, in Japanese that still bore a heavy north American accent. “I used to live in this neighbourhood many years ago, when I was a kid with nothing to my name. One day, I was so hungry that, I am sorry to say, I came to this store, and I stole a packet of noodles. Now I am a rich man, I want to pay you back.” And with that, he pulled out enough money to buy a whole crate of ramen.

That was the Toren Smith I remember. A man with a crazy, hectic past that he was always trying to fix.

Toren started early, as a child prodigy, winning a writing award from the local newspaper in his native Calgary. Embracing the outdoor life, he was a hiker, kayaker and soon became Canada’s youngest licensed hang-glider pilot. Full of piss and vinegar, the over-achieving (and probably callow) teen spurned university and bounced around a bunch of highly-paid and risky jobs, including a period as a roughneck in Canada’s wilderness oilfields.

In the 1980s, comics fandom netted him his first wife, the artist Lela Dowling (about whom he always refused to speak, at least with me) and a move to California, where he soon became part of the arts scene. At the time, San Francisco was the only place in America with anything approaching anime and manga fandom, and Toren became one its prime movers. He ran video rooms, he enthused about comics that nobody could really read, and he befriended the SF author James P. Hogan (1941-2010), who would change his life.

HoganHogan had a boost in Japanese sales of his novels, in part, I always suspected because his novel Giants' Star was translated with a title that implied to passers-by that it was related to Star of the Giants, the famous baseball anime. Whatever the reason, it got shelved a little more often than other books; it got bought and read a little more often, and Hogan became one of those odd cases of an author who was substantially bigger in Japan than he was in his home country. As a result, he was invited as a guest at the Daicon V convention in 1986, and he asked Toren to accompany him. And so, Toren was there at Daicon when a comic called Appleseed won an award for its small Kansai-based publisher and its unknown artist, a man called Masamune Shirow.

Toren’s enthusiasm for Japanese comics had brought him to the attention of the early staff of Viz Communications, but his relationship with many of them was confrontational and often irascible. Told by one manager to “go and do it himself” if he thought he knew the market better than them, Toren took it not as an oriental brush-off, but as a career move. He stayed in Japan for nine months, selling all his possessions and throwing himself into what he regarded as a real industry with potential growth: translating manga. Crippled financially by the fall in the value of the dollar, he lived a precarious existence nickel-and-diming, working as a janitor in exchange for no questions about his tardy rent in the apartment building, and freezing through a Japanese winter. He was reduced to stealing noodles from a convenience Appleseedstore, but he was also making the right deals, and on the way, acquiring wife number two, the lovely Tomoko Saito. He arrived back in America with a set of Japanese comics entirely packaged, photographed, flipped, retouched, and translated, the rights already agreed. In part thanks to Tomoko as an artist, interpreter and feather-unruffler among the Japanese, Toren’s company, Studio Proteus, was able to completely demystify dealing with the Japanese, offering instead a bunch of incredible, previously unseen comics for the American market: including Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed and Orion.

He was soon back in Japan, living in an infamously trash-strewn, messy house with several members of the studio that would become known as Gainax. While he was there, they struck it big with their anime classic Gunbuster: Aim for the Top, in which Toren had an uncredited Japanese-speaking line as a panicking deck officer. But his involvement with Gainax was much more apparent in their appropriation of his name, which was given to the dashing American space pilot Smith Toren, whose fiery death traumatises the story’s heroine.

Toren SmithFor years, Toren would shuttle back and forth between America and Japan, often saving money by working as a courier. This gave him a suspiciously large number of visa stamps and once led to him being pulled out of the Immigration line in Tokyo and asked to explain his visits. He found a copy of the Legend of Kamui in his bag, and discovered he was talking to a manga fan. In collaboration with his friends at Gainax, he helped organise an event in San Jose for which fans could get together to talk about Japanese cartoons. The name, in 1991, was AnimeCon. They didn’t need to call it anything else; there weren’t any others.

Studio Proteus became a name that could be trusted, on both sides of the Pacific. When it turned out that there was no comic tie-in to the Dirty Pair franchise, creator Haruka Takachicho let Toren buy the right to do his own, with artist Adam Warren. When the rights for Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind were sold to Viz, Hayao Miyazaki insisted that Toren Smith be involved with the Oh My Goddesstranslation. When Eclipse Comics went under in America, Toren was sure to pay off the debts owed to the Japanese using his own money. He was always prepared to put his money where his mouth was, promising, for example, to indemnify Dark Horse against losses if an unknown title called Oh! My Goddess failed to make a profit. He once hired me to translate several chapters of Masahiko Kikuni’s Moonlight Whispers, determined to produce finished work in order to persuade American publishers that it was going to be a winner. By then, however, there were no takers.

By the early 21st century, Toren was apt to describe himself as a dinosaur. It’s not that he wasn’t successful – his comics continued to go into multiple editions, and are still on sale today – but his vision for the manga business was no longer in fashion. Although he could be an excellent showman, delivering excoriating but funny onstage rants about the business, he was at heart a pathologically shy man who shunned the outside world. We once drove together to a supermarket to buy Guinness, and I saw his hands shaking on the steering wheel. He much preferred to dwell in his fortress of solitude atop one of the roller-coaster hills of San Francisco, where he would sit in nerdy splendour amid monolithic Bose speakers blasting Rush from all directions.

He had achieved his goals, and created the manga business he wanted, but now faced unexpected complications. Competitors scoffed that his manga were over-engineered – you didn’t need professional translators; you didn’t need painstaking retouch; you didn’t even need to flip the artwork. He protested that his products were long-term, blue-chip bestsellers, and that too many of the fly-by-night operations were making false economies. He protested that if they followed their short-term, low-rent models, the manga business would collapse under its own weight before the decade was out, as indeed it did.

Although the manga market abroad was something that he had helped create, he stopped liking what it had become. TokyoPop, he once wailed, was now producing more pages every month that he had produced in his entire career. He saw himself swamped by mediocrity, a quality artisan buried beneath an onslaught of pile-em-high, sell-em-cheap books, sloppily retouched, unflipped, badly glued and ham-fistedly translated. He used to dwell far too long on the most hateful emails from fans, protesting that he was too expensive, or too slow, or had failed somehow because he was trying to do one title well instead of ten titles badly.

Despite a narrative that might make him sound like an innocent in a shark-eat-shark world, Toren was a shrewd businessman. He invested heavily in the dotcom boom, cashing out just before the crash. He came to Europe to re-invest the money, and told me that he had just bought “half of Ireland.” Even as he told me this in a smoky pub, he slipped a pound coin under the ashtray, as a tip for the cleaner to find.

Toren SmithHe was true to his own heart regarding the manga business. Seeing an unsustainable, crash-prone behemoth, he cashed out of that, too, selling on his licences to his partners at Dark Horse in 2004, and sitting back in quiet semi-retirement. The last time I saw him at his San Francisco home, we chomped through the world’s largest curry like two happy, fat Pacmen. My book, Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, had recently been released and he was fulsome in praise, claiming to have bought five copies in order to give it to people who didn’t understand what he did for a living. I countered that he should write his own memoir, outlining the incredible boom and bust of the manga business, and his part in it. But his perfectionism held him back. “An article is ten times harder than a blog,” he said. “A book is ten times harder than an article. I’d want to do it right. I’d want to do it well. Or it’s not worth doing at all.”

Jonathan Clements

Toren Smith 1960-2013

MANGA UK GOSSIP

Bleach Series 14 Part 2 (episodes 304-316)

£22.49
sale_tag
was £29.99
Ichigo vs Aizen: let the showdown for the sake of the two worlds begin!

Humans and Soul Reapers realize their powerlessness against the astonishing might Aizen obtained through the Hogyoku.

They once again owe their salvation to Ichigo, back from his training between worlds. More mature and more power ful, has the young man really reached a new stage of his evolution? Will he finally match for the relentless Captain Aizen?

FEATURED RELEASE

RELATED BLOG ARTICLES

Bleach music: Aqua Timez

Tom Smith on Aqua Timez, the band from the Bleach 6.2 soundtrack.
Many of the artists who perform the many themes of Bleach can attribute their entry to mainstream success to the famous anime series. And if not to Bleach, then to anime in general. That was until the five-strong pop squad Aqua Timez entered the scene.

YUI does Bleach for Rollingstar

Tom Smith reports on YUI, the all-caps rock chick.
It’s been suggested that Japan’s singer, song-writing guitar chick YUI is her country’s answer to Avril Lavigne. Amid an industry manufactured and micro-managed to levels that make England’s best pop efforts seem amateur in comparison, she stands out as beacon of musical delight. For teenage girls, she’s proof that you don’t need to buy into the squeaky clean, plastic smiles of sickeningly sweet J-pop to be a successful female musician; for guys she’s the girl next door, and for anime fans she’s composed and performed themes in some of the most prominent series of recent years, including Bleach and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Bleach music: SID

Tom Smith on the band behind Bleach’s 14th Opening Theme
"The song is based on the singer’s own experiences of forming a band and the hardships endured while keeping the faith for a brighter future, with lyrics just vague enough that they could easily represent the struggles of Ichigo and pals, too."

Bleach and Japanese cleaning products

Matt Kamen strangles a puppy… for science
It’s gratifying to see a generation of people so interested in hygiene – that must be why you’re lining up to buy a series called ‘Bleach’, right? If some orange haired janitor with a fancy mop (mop, magical talking death sword – whatever) excites you, hold on for these other heroes of the Japanese cupboard space!

Bleach music: Kenichi Asai

Tom Smith on ‘Mad Surfer’ Kenichi Asai
“Try ‘n boogie, guns n’ tattoo” – there’s no greater embodiment of Kenichi Asai’s work than that opening line. As the words are dragged across the bluesy, rock n’ roll riff of Mad Surfer – the Japanese rebel’s song used as the 20th closing of Bleach – it’s difficult not to imagine smoke filled bars, motorcycles or leather jacketed misfits sporting hairdos your mother wouldn’t approve of.

Bleach music: SunSet Swish

Tom Smith on the band behind Bleach’s 21st Ending Theme
SunSet Swish held their first-ever live performance on Valentine’s Day 2004, at a small venue in Osaka Prefecture’s Hirakata city. A fitting introduction to the music world for a band whose claim to fame is having quite possibly the soppiest theme in Bleach history: ‘Sakurabito’.

RECENT FEATURED POSTS

The Princess and the Pilot

It's chocks away for anime's aerial Ruritania
Anime returns to the heavens in The Princess and the Pilot, a lush romantic aerial adventure from the Madhouse studio.

Ocean Waves

Andrew Osmond on a Studio Ghibli “obscurity”
Ocean Waves is the only feature anime by the world-famous Studio Ghibli which might be called obscure. It wasn’t made for cinemas but television, broadcast on Japan’s NTV network in 1993. And now it's playing as part of the BFI's Ghibli season...

Dragon Radar GT 1

It’s going to be a tough journey – but who’s along for the ride?
Dragon Ball GT presents an all new adventure for Goku and his allies, sending them on an interplanetary quest to find the mysterious Black Star Dragon Balls and save the Earth! It’s going to be a tough journey – but who’s along for the ride?

The Ninja Museum

Stephen Turnbull risks nine deaths in the eye of the ninja storm... or does he?
There is more to the ninja myth than meets the eye. By 1638 all wars had ceased under the police state of the Tokugawa family, yet within twenty years armchair generals were busily writing manuals of military theory, including speculations about sneak attacks, night-fighting and backstabbing.

Harlock Space Pirate

The life and legend of Leiji Matsumoto's anti-hero
The new Harlock's ship is positively monstrous, a skull-faced battering ram that smashes other spacecraft to flinders. The press notes suggest the darkening of Harlock is a reflection of the times, and of modern Japan.

Cosplay: One Piece

Paul Jacques rounds up the best dressed fans
With a tip of the hat to the best-selling One Piece, Fayyaz Dawda cosplays as the bendy-limbed hero Luffy.

Tales of Vesperia Cosplay: Estelle & Rita

Paul Jacques finds a princess and a... erm... scholar
Cosplaying away at Birmingham's Comic Con, Meg Atwill dresses up as Estellise Sidos Heurrasein (or Estelle for short), accompanied by Aimee Tacchi as the whip-wielding scholar Rita Mordio, both from Tales of Vesperia.

Eureka Seven Ao

Kicking it old-school, with giant robots
Pacific Rim opened a new gateway to ’bot sagas for youngsters, and for oldsters too. They’ll see del Toro’s film, learn how much he was inspired by Japanese cartoons, and then check out the originals. If they choose Eureka Seven Ao, they’ll find elements also seen in Pacific Rim, embedded in a very different show.

High School DxD

Hugh, phew, barneys and boobs, cutthroats, demons and blood...
If this show dropped all the extreme fan-service it would still be an exciting action-horror adventure, not far removed from an extended arc of Supernatural or the like. As it is, you get that and a show that would have broken the jiggle counter if anime DVDs still had them. After decades of evolution, even harem comedies can produce a show with some substance.
Contact Us   |   Refund Policy   |   Delivery Times   |   Privacy statement   |   Terms & Conditions
Please note your card statement will show billing by MVM. Toren Smith 1960-2013 from the UK's best Anime Blog.