They're mad about manga

Popular Japanese comic book characters lure lots of passionate and obsessive fans in the UAE.

DUBAI - AUGUST 7,2010 - A service crew dress in Manga  attracts customer at Manga Sushi restaurant in Jumeirah Beach road in Dubai. ( Paulo Vecina/The National )
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DUBAI // Haitham al Najjar has hardly slept all summer. "I stay up all night, every night - like a vampire," said the 17-year-old Emirati. The reason for his insomnia? A bunch of wide-eyed Japanese cartoon characters chasing adventure in comic books known as manga. One of many fans of the genre, Mr al Najjar follows multiple manga series - including every book of a popular pirate story called One Piece that began publishing more than a decade ago. While waiting for new chapters to come out he occupies himself with other series.

As the popularity of the Japanese comic books has grown in the UAE, so too has the passion of its followers - whether they are drawn in by the hyper-cute heroes, the twists and turns of their endless escapades or cultural lessons embedded in the plots. Bookstores can hardly keep up. The country's biggest manga supplier, the Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya in Dubai Mall, has nearly doubled its stock to 120 shelves in less than two years. One in 25 books in the vast store features the Japanese characters, said the merchandising manager, Michael Seet.

"It is extremely popular," he said. "We are very happy." When Borders opened a store in March in Mirdif City Centre, it too stocked manga books. They sold so well that other stores also have expanded their selection, said Arwind Dubey, who oversees the chain's merchandising in the Gulf. To expand their personal libraries the 35 members of the Japan Club at Zayed University organise gatherings to swap materials. For their fifth anniversary two years ago, they dressed up as manga characters.

"It was really cool," said the club president, Sara Waleed al Sayed, 20. Another devotee, Qais Sedki, a 34-year-old Emirati, last summer published the first Arab-language manga book, Gold Ring, featuring a young falconer in the Arabian desert. Now he's working on the second book. Sultan Qassim Sultan, 26 an Emirati, opened his themed restaurant, named, appropriately, Manga Sushi in Jumeirah last year. Several walls feature floor-to-ceiling drawings of characters, while others display action figures, rows of books and TV screens showing manga movies. Waitresses dress like manga characters, with baby-blue pleated skirts and fluorescent streaks in their hair. Dishes are named after popular manga series, such as Dragonball and Crazy Naruto.

Haitham al Najjar is not the only manga lover in his family. Recently, eight relatives - sisters and cousins, all fans - dined at the restaurant. "This place is different from everywhere else," said his 22-year-old sister, Buthaina. Another sister, Joumana, 19, picked up her first book a week ago and has read five every day since. Fans say part of the compulsion to read so much is that the plots continue from book to book, sometimes for years.

Abdulrahman Mohammed bin Hindi, a 23-year-old Emirati, spends Dh850 a week at Kinokuniya to keep up. "Now when my friends and I go to the Dubai Mall, they won't go near the bookstore," he said. "If I go in I'll stay for one hour." When he cannot find the latest chapters there, he reads pirated versions online. When one of his go-to websites shut down recently, he switched to another. For a while he considered moving to Japan but changed his mind because he was getting married.

Instead he has gotten his fiancee hooked, handing over 13 books for her to read before she left on a recent trip. "I am trying to go [to Japan] for my honeymoon," he said. Many fans prefer manga over other comics or graphic novels because their plot lines seem less simplistic. "It breaks the tradition in animation where everything is predictable - rainbow and sunshine," said Mr Sultan, the manga restaurateur. "You see none of that in manga. They know the reader is smarter than that," he said.

Likewise, the characters often seem less like a cartoon. "They seem a lot more real than their North American counterparts, [who] are harder to relate to," said Mr Sedki, the Emirati author. "They have superpowers I don't have." The author sees manga as inspiring, and believes it is a way to promote Emirati culture among youths. His protagonist enjoys a good relationship with his mother and perseveres amid challenges.

A self-proclaimed otaku - someone obsessed with manga - he even organised the First Annual Otaku Summit last November at Manga Sushi. "The word is kind of offensive because it implies the person has no life," he said. "But here we have otaku pride." @Email:chuang@thenational.ae