Read Different. Read Vertical.
Move over Kawabata and Tanizaki. Move over Oe and even Mishima. Here comes Vertical, Inc. with its translated texts for the everyman – or woman. While Japanese pop culture – think anime and video games – has become ubiquitous in the western entertainment industry, the Japanese book market in translation has been dominated for the most part by so-called literary classics. No more. Vertical, Inc. is changing all that.
From bestsellers to quirky beach reads, Vertical’s titles don’t require a literature degree, or a complicated cultural exchange. As proof, Vertical debuted last spring with four fabulously diverse titles. The Guin Saga by Kaoru Kurimoto, is the first of a multi-part bestselling fantasy saga (up to 89 installments in Japan!). Ring by Koji Suzuki, is a hair-raising horror story about a mysterious video tape that kills, which spawned both the Japanese film Ringu and its Hollywood remake The Ring. Twinkle Twinkle by Kaori Ekuni is a love-story of sorts about a troubled young woman who marries a young gay doctor and creates her own version of a family. Ashes by Kenzo Kitakata traces the story of a middle-aged yakuza who probably should have been The Boss but has stalled somewhere close to the top.
Like its titles, the company, too, is full of hip and happening – and young – characters. With the median age somewhere in the early 30s, Vertical is made up of just six determined New Yorkers (and one Japan-based representative) sharing a Park Avenue address.
It all began in 1999 when Hiroki Sakai, en ex-book editor at Nikkei, the Japanese Wall Street Journal, arrived on U.S. shores determined to be a literary agent for children’s and business titles. He called his company Magic Works International, but the magic was initially missing until he met Ioannis Mentzas (Yani to those who know him), a half-Japanese, half-Greek, Princeton and Columbia-trained literary type who agreed to be Sakai’s editorial director.
Together, they nixed the kiddie agency idea and decided on publishing adult trade fiction. They got funding from Sakai’s former employer Nikkei and the giant Japanese conglomerate Itochu and set out to find a marketing person: Enter Micah Burch, a Japanese-speaking Princeton-educated Harvard lawyer looking for a career change. “I do the company’s marketing, but I can serve as the in-house counsel, as well,” he laughs affably.
By summer of 2001, the core three musketeers were in place and Magic Works morphed into Vertical, Inc. Two years of incubation later, a few more employees, four titles out and four more titles coming this fall, Vertical is on the cusp of changing how the Western world reads: “Read different. Think Vertical,” they say.
“We want to bring books that Americans want to read, rather than publishing translations of prestigious titles in order to flatter their authors,” says Mentzas. “We’re not trying to educate people about Japan – that’s already been done and done well by others. The Japanese-ness of our books stops at the author’s name. We just offer good books with universal themes that just happen to be Japanese,” adds Burch.
And already Vertical titles are selling briskly – some, like Ring, have gone into multiple printings. “Our readers are white, Asian American, from the east coast and the west coast, male, female, young and old and everyone else in between,” says Mentzas. The company is already getting fan emails – from as far away as Europe and the Philippines. They’ve even got an admirer who writes from a Pennsylvania jail – about the yakuza tale, naturally. “I’ve never worked anywhere before that gets fan mail,” laughs Burch.
For now, the company is preparing for the release of its fall titles, four “new and strange and cool books,” says Mentzas. There’s two more installments of the fantasy Guin Saga and the first two volumes of comics of Buddha by the legendary Osamu Tezuka. Then there’s Outlet by Randy Taguchi, a kind-of whodunit about a writer in search of answers to her brother’s suicide, and Strangers by Taichi Yamada, a ghost story about a lonely man who may or may not have met his long-dead parents.
“Our titles are good fiction works that tread a fine line between entertainment fiction and literary fiction,” says Mentzas. “They’re not mindless, but they’re okay to read after a hard day’s work.”
Profile: The Bloomsbury Review, September/October 2003. A longer version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2003 issue of AsianWeek. Click here to view.