Dial M for manga: How mobile phones are changing the way that art is enjoyed and created

Genevieve Roberts
Wednesday 15 April 2009 14:27 BST

If Shakespeare were alive now, he would be a mobile phone novelist," the author Tadashi Izumi asserts. And if Shakespeare lived in contemporary Japan, Izumi may well be right. Five of last year's top ten best-selling novels started life as mobile phone – or keitai – novels.

Izumi, age 37, is part of the keitai novel publishing boom. His debut novel, Cross Road, a tale of romance with a protagonist inspired by Emily Bronte's Heathcliff, was an immediate success. More than two million copies were downloaded in the first week of it being published online before he was approached by a conventional publisher who transformed his work into traditional book form. "It can be an effective way to get publishers interested in you," he says.

Keitai novels are mainly read by teenage girls, with 13- to 18-year-olds accounting for 70 per cent of downloads, and while Izumi gained a doctorate in Victorian literature from Cambridge University, he does not claim to be writing highbrow literature. "There is less scene-setting than in conventional novels, fewer adjectives, and more of a focus on conversation and emotions. The structure of the novels, with very simple sentences, makes them accessible," he says.

Read More: Compare providers and find the best deals with our Mobile Phone Deals page

Ryu, age 24, the author of Tokyo Real, a gritty tale inspired by his friend's addiction to the drug MDMA, agrees that the accessibility of mobile phone novels is crucial. "My novel is very dark. I think readers reacted to it, and I hope that, for a few, it may have helped them to stop taking drugs," he says.

He wrote his book on his mobile phone at night before going to sleep. It was first published online, with download figures so high that Ryu was approached by a conventional publisher within 48 hours.

More than three million people have now read the book on their phone, and last year Real readers organised a march through the Tokyo streets to raise awareness of the dangers of drugs.

Ryu used the profits from the novel to buy a bar, where people not only come for a drink, but also to visit the author to talk about their experiences with drugs or for ad-hoc counselling. "It's only been so effective because people would read it on their mobiles, so it was accessible to people who may be into drugs," he says.

There was a time when mobile phones were used simply to communicate. In high-speed Japan, where more than 100 million people own mobile phones, they are not only a platform for novelists, but for all forms of artistic expression.

Mao Sakaguchi discusses mobile art

Manga – comic art – is a major part of the Japanese publishing industry, representing a 481 billion yen (£3.4bn) market domestically. And it's now migrated to the mobile. Manga fans download stories, which have up to 1,000 scenes and added sound effects, and scroll through them during any idle moments.

Toru Kenjyu, CEO of Takarajima Wondernet, the biggest creator of mobile manga, says that 80 per cent of comic book downloads – for which subscribers pay a £3 monthly charge to keep up with – are by women.

The current best-seller is Catwalk Beat, the story of a boy with a troubled background, but excellent sartorial sense. When he starts a new school, his fashionable threads unite all the pupils. More than seven million people downloaded the mobile manga, and the fashions from Catwalk Beat have been produced for real and are available to buy online. And while this may eventually be published as a traditional comic book, it is more enjoyable on the mobile as the phone vibrates whenever there's a tense moment.

It's not just comic art that is popular on mobile phones in Tokyo; street artists also create designs specifically for mobiles. Mao Sakaguchi, web project leader of the Shibuya HP France Gallery, says he grew frustrated by the limited art market in Japan, so had the idea of using mobiles to introduce art to a wider audience. "I had friends who were street artists, and I used my fashion store as an art gallery, changing the work monthly," he says. "We started by taking pictures of their work that could be downloaded onto mobile phones."

This progressed into art designed specifically for the mobile, using Adobe Flash software. Artists now design menu icons, applications and tools – such as a revolving conveyor belt of sushi that spins across the screen to indicate phone signal strength – as well as wallpaper for mobile phones.

Takeru, age 38, is a motion graphic designer and one of Tokyo's mobile phone artists. "It's a good way to show my work to young people," he says. "They may not be so interested in art, but by seeing it on their mobile phones they are introduced to it. The phone gives you freedom because your work is interactive, animated and changing – which is not possible with still art. We try to make the tools for the phone creative, which is an interesting challenge."

Akhr, 26, an artist, agrees that artwork for mobile phones is beneficial for both artists and phone owners. "It's very different from showing art in galleries because it's so accessible. And it's a good way for young artists to get exposure," he says.

While Japan leads the mobile phone art movement, Britian is following. The mobile network 3 launched the award-winning INQ1 handset last year, which incorporates pre-installed desktop artwork created by members of a community art project. Sarah Pope, head of marketing at 3, says: "Work by artists from the USA, Britain, Japan and Italy has been used and the resulting pieces feature as wallpaper. Any budding artist, photographer or illustrator can send their work to art@inqmobile and they could be featured when we launch the next handset in the range."

The most established mobile phone art form internationally is the pocket film, shot using phone cameras; there are now annual pocket film festivals held in Paris, Toronto, Taiwan, and Yokohama in Japan.

Masuki Fujihata discusses mobile phone films

Mobile phones have proved invaluable for capturing images for immediate news, such as the photos of the Hudson River plane crash landing that were first posted on Twitter. But Masaki Fujihata, Director of Tokyo's first film academy and creator of Japan's Pocket Film Festival, believes that most people are unaware of the camera's capability. "Some filmmakers try to imitate Hollywood on their phones, but actually a phone is an effective device to make an observation on the world. You can capture something intimate," he says.

The majority of pocket films are around five minutes in length, and Fujihata says it's important to bear in mind you are working with a small device with a low resolution. The best films, he says, include filming inventions. For example, one film was shot with a phone concealed in a paper bag, held very low to the ground. The film is shaky rather than slick, which adds to the effective conveyance of a child's personal perception of the world.

He believes that the pocket film offers a new way of communication. "Humans evolve. First we learnt to talk and listen, then how to read and write. Now we are learning filming and editing, and it is a fundamentally new language of communication. Very soon we will see pocket films winning Oscars," he says.

Japan, long renowned for its love of all things technological, feels like a glimpse into the future. And mobile phone companies in Britain are watching very closely. Sarah Pope, head of marketing at 3, says: "art, in the many forms it takes, has greatly benefitted from the internet in terms of reach. At 3 we want to extend this process to the mobile." The company has seen a huge shift in the last five years in how talent rises from grass roots and back streets to the mass market. "Everybody is a publisher and promoter and they are using social networking tools on the internet to get their music, photography, art and films noticed," she says. She has observed many teenagers and people in their twenties sitting in front of a computer, using Facebook, watching YouTube, sending instant messages, emailing and listening to music.

"Give them a mobile phone and what do they do? Text and, less frequently, make a voice call," she says. "Where are all those other communication tools they use on their computers? The INQ1 makes the migration of PC-based habits onto a mobile platform easy and gives everyone the tools to be their own promoter."

The speed of the mobile phone's evolution from its distant cousin, the 1980s house brick, is ever-gathering pace, and it seems that its future is based around this new language of creative communication, rather than straightforward chat.

Videos courtesy of 3Snapshots. For more information visit www.3Snapshots.com.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in