Remembering one of the prime movers of modern manga
It 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.
Hogan 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 store, 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.
For 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 translation. 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.
He 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.”