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Media & Entertainment

NFTs turn Japan's manga and anime into genuine art

Original illustrations from 'One Piece' reborn as high-end collectors' items

"One Piece" publisher Shueisha is selling prints from the manga series for around 500,000 yen. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi) ONE PIECE (c) 2021, Eiichiro Oda/Shueisha Inc. All rights reserved.

TOKYO -- Blockchain technology is lending new commercial value to Japanese manga and anime culture, turning illustrations into genuine artworks, raising money for artists and fostering the growth of the market and related businesses.

The recent rise of NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, is helping to verify the provenance and authenticity of digital art, something that was previously difficult because digital works are easily copied. New companies are springing up to build platforms and assure buyers that the pieces they buy are genuine and can be tracked securely.

"One Piece," a megahit manga series of pirate tales that has appeared in a weekly magazine since 1997, published its 100th volume in September. In all, the series has sold more than 490 million copies, which has previously set a record for the most printed comic series by a single author. To mark these achievements, publisher Shueisha has selected 10 classic scenes from the series to turn into luxury prints. They are priced at nearly 500,000 yen ($4,500) each.

A lottery was held for the right to purchase one of up to 20 limited-edition prints of each illustration. The lottery, which began on Sept. 25 and runs through Sunday, attracted well over 3,000 entries in the first two days. Not only are the pieces printed by a skilled artisan on 100% cotton paper, their authenticity is guaranteed with a blockchain transaction history. Each print comes with a paper certificate with an IC tag that allows the owner to see when the artwork has changed hands by reading the tag with a smartphone.

"Blockchain is often associated with digital art pieces to ensure their value, but we would like to work on the technology with physical art pieces," said Masashi Okamoto, who has led a project called Shueisha Manga-Art Heritage since March. He believes that registering information on the artworks' owners will "help original manga illustrations raise their artistic reputation, even abroad," as many entries for the "One Piece" illustration lottery have come from Asia, Europe and Oceania, Okamoto said.

Shueisha is selling original manga illustrations as high-end prints. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi) BIORG TRiNitY (c) 2021, Oh! great & Otaro Maijo/Shueisha Inc. All rights reserved.

As manga artists often illustrate for weekly publications, little effort has been made to preserve their original drawings. There are even artists who refuse to decline to take their original illustrations back from publishers, others are gathering dust in storerooms.

"Preserving these mangas for the next generation is necessary," Okamoto said, adding that he started the project as a way to make use of a digital manga archive that he launched in 2007. He estimates the domestic market for digital comics at around 350 billion yen, which puts it on par with the broader art market. "Manga can create a new form of art, instead of being categorized under an existing art framework," Okamoto added.

The blockchain technology used for the Shueisha Manga-Art Heritage project is provided by Startbahn, a startup founded in 2014 by contemporary artist Taihei Shii. Startbahn issues the certificate -- which also contains information on when and where the artwork was exhibited, preserved and restored, as well as which auction house it was traded through.

Companies, including an auction organizer and an art e-commerce service, use Startbahn's database, employing the blockchain to confirm the authenticity of artworks.

Shii, alarmed at seeing young artists being forced to sell their works cheaply and unable to make a living, came up with the idea of creating a platform that would allow artists to recoup some of the value of their artworks after they are resold by collectors who purchase them from galleries.

"It is the same logic as registering real estate ... The property you buy is not fake and belongs to you, but it isn't quite like that in the art market," said Shii. "And this uncertainty of authenticity has made the art market unstable."

Startbahn uses blockchain technology to verify the authenticity and provenance of artworks. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

One critical area of concern for art buyers is whether a piece is genuine. Except in cases where a collector buys a work directly from a gallery, there has been no way, until recently, for a buyer to verify the authenticity of a piece once it is resold. Paper records can easily be altered or forged. Shii believed a reliable mechanism to authenticate pieces was needed to expand the market -- and to broaden the definition of art itself.

Startbahn, together with Japanese advertising agency Dentsu, in July began offering a consulting service to companies looking to do business in NFTs. NFTs are digital assets used to track data on everything from items in online games to trading cards. The uniqueness of these items is verified using blockchain technology.

The tokens, which can be bought, sold and traded in the same way as physical assets, created a buzz in March when digital artist Beeple sold an NFT piece at Christie's for $69 million, making it the third-most valuable artwork sold at auction by a living artist.

A new wave has developed around generative NFT art, which randomly creates pieces using an algorithm. Art Blocks, a platform dedicated to generative NFT art, racked up sales of more than $95 million over one week in late September, according to nonfungible.com, a website that tracks NFTs. Sales were three times higher last month.

Shroom Chan is setting up a platform that lets artist create characters easily and also facilitates buying and selling of their work. (Images courtesy of Team Shroom Chan)

"Generative NFTs help to exponentially multiply the amount of art that you can create as an artist," said "Fungi," a New York-based artist, explaining the popularity of a new type of art in which neither the collectors nor even the artists themselves know what works will result.

"As an artist today, you have to be prolific to be at the forefront of art because you have to be turning out products all the time," using platforms from TikTok to Instagram, she said. "That can be exhausting for artists. ... But generative art allows you to create [a piece] using just a few traits."

Fungi is also co-founder of Shroom Chan, a generative NFT art project led by women that aims to help anime creators in Japan and elsewhere in Asia. It is setting up a platform in October that will not only allow creators to make anime characters with just a few clicks, but also let them buy and sell images to make money.

Japanese-style anime shows are drawing the attention of media giants such as Netflix, which said in March that it plans to launch 40 new anime titles this year. But in Japan and elsewhere, anime creators are struggling to make a living despite long hours of work.

"I think it's just really ridiculous that from this industry, which nowadays is valued at $25 billion, people are making a lot of money. But is the money going to the actual creators? I'd say it's not really happening," said Kinoko, another co-founder of Shroom Chan. "We want to flip that equation and help these underpaid Asian creatives," he added.

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