Kenji Hozawa, a former office worker, was fed up with the mundane “rat race” in Japan. His solution was to start Cambodia’s first manga and anime café – a library and cinema of sorts, where fans could rent their favourite comics or watch the likes of Akira on a wide-screen television. Claire Knox spoke to the bouncy Hozawa about girly interest in manga, literacy and Phnom Penh’s notorious Street 51.
What brought you to Cambodia?
I moved here in January, from Fukuoka – apparently it is one of the world’s most liveable cities. I worked for an insurance company and also as an office clerk at a university, just incredibly boring. There’s a recession in Japan, no money, so I wanted out. I have always loved manga. There’s nothing immature about admitting that in Japan; it’s an adult hobby. Manga and anime cafés can be found on every corner. The competition is fierce, and I saw there was a market here. You know, in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, there are already manga cafés. This is the easiest country in Southeast Asia to open a business, and this will be the first! There is not a big Japanese community here, so I hope most of my customers will be local. I have been surprised that some young Cambodians can speak Japanese, and there are a number of Japanese language schools. What is driving me is, I want Cambodian people to know Japanese manga and anime – K-pop is so popular here, so why not? I like comics, graphic novels, la bande dessinée in French, they say. Manga has a very distinct style though.
Can you describe that style?
We have a tradition of drawing, telling stories that way. I think it stems from the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints – so beautiful. More modern manga started after the US occupation in the ’40s and ’50s. Manga was then put in newspapers. It can be highbrow, but there is something for everyone – romance, comedies, realistic, dramas, action, sci-fi.
Do you think the combination of graphics and illustrations with a narrative can help encourage reading among younger Khmers?
Yes, many young Cambodians don’t read. Even some adults. I think they should stock manga for sale at Monument Books, as it makes reading accessible for many. It’s an ideal combination of art and literature. My main goal is to encourage Cambodian manga creators. I think a Cambodian manga would be about fantasy. There is one I already like – Patrick Samnang Mey, who wrote Eugenie, a graphic novel, actually, but still exciting. His style [of drawing] is a bit softer than manga. It was different from Japanese manga – it did not have a happy ending! Right now, I will import mainly English-language manga, I won’t translate into Khmer because copyright is so expensive, but I would love to see Cambodian artists create Khmer-language manga.
The location seems a bit dubious . . . Why did you choose Golden Sorya mall on Street 51, an area renowned for hedonism and sex tourism?
To be honest, because it is very cheap – this costs me only $200 a month! I hope to move somewhere bigger eventually with a huge cinema screen. Right now, it is a small space with 16 seats, bookshelves with Japanese and English manga, and we’ll serve Fanta. Strictly no alcohol.
Sometimes manga is associated with porn, and I can see some irony. Late at night here, there are many drunk Western men around and prostitutes. We will open during the day though; close by 8pm . . . it’s quite peaceful in this area at those times. I think our customers will be university students. A manga café is like a library: you come in and pay $2.50 for one hour of reading, $2 for students, and $3 to watch an anime movie.
And your favourite manga?
It would have to be Division Chief Kosaku Shima, it is about a businessman. He’s the most famous businessman in Japan, you know? He works for an electronics company, like Sony or Panasonic. An executive. People sometimes live their lives through manga . . . I read my first manga, though, as an eight-year-old. Doraemon – the blue robot cat! There are many men in their ’40s and ’50s who love these characters still.
Who has stopped past the shop so far?
There has been so much interest. I made a Facebook page and wow! It seems there are already little manga book clubs, which is great. They’ve asked when we’re opening, and some have even come to pose in front of my shop in cosplay [manga and anime costumes] in front of my manga posters in the window!
Is this a male-dominated sphere – what about females?
Well, in some ways, but I have had females get in touch too about the store. We have romance and teen manga – Fruits Basket is a good one. And Nodame Cantabile, a great tale about a quirky girl who plays the piano so well. Girls love the female anime characters – they like the tough ones.
To be honest, this is a great alternative to the trashy magazines around, all about celebrity and image.