Hui Seung (far left), the executive director, and Khieu Sothina, (far right), the art director, with Pteah Manga artists.
Hui Seung (far left), the executive director, and Khieu Sothina, (far right), the art director, with Pteah Manga artists. Heng Chivoan

The Khmer otaku sketching manga

Out of an apartment on the fourth floor of a high rise on Street 271, Khieu Sothina is putting the final touches with his stylus pen on the new chapter of The Present of the Past Girl, an online Khmer-language manga, a style of graphic novels and comic books originating in Japan.

Sothina is surrounded by hundreds of action figures and posters of famous comic book characters, as well as bookshelves stocked with manga. Once the chapter is finished, it will immediately go online to their Facebook page, to be read for free.

“We are not making any profit from it but we just want to share it with everyone,” says the 28-year-old Battambang native who graduated from Phare Ponleu Selpak’s visual and applied arts school.

The Present of the Past Girl tells the story of a time-travelling teenage girl struggling to adapt to modern Cambodia, as well as her romantic relationship with a teenage boy from “the present”, with different customs from her own. The series has been an overnight success, receiving thousands of views and reactions from Cambodian social media users.

About three years ago, Sothina and four other friends, who call themselves otaku, a Japanese term for fans of manga and anime, formed a group with the hopes of expressing and sharing their passion with Cambodians, most of whom are not familiar with this kind of art.

A page from The Present of the Past Girl. Photo supplied
A page from The Present of the Past Girl. Photo supplied

They also set out to create their own work combining Japanese style with Cambodian culture.

When they first started, says Executive Director Hui Seung, 24, the pressure was immense, especially from their parents.

“Our parents thought we were doing something useless instead of studying,” Seung says. “We knew we needed to focus on our studies, but our passion is also important, so we decided to do our best on both.”

Although all of them have an academic background in visual arts and graphic design, none were trained in the art of manga, nor have they even been to Japan. Their only mentor is the internet and the examples set by famous manga like Bleach and One Piece, written by Japanese artists Tite Kubo and Eiichiro Oda, respectively.

Their first work, Famous 3, was a one-part manga about football, which didn’t receive a positive response from Cambodian audience. A little demoralised, the team tried to learn from the public feedback to improve their work, in the form of the ongoing The Present of the Past Girl.

Ith Channareth, the artist responsible for drawing manga in the studio with the help of two assistants, says the Japanese style has many differences from Western comics, which were introduced to the country by the French in the 1950s, especially in terms of narrative arc and the characters’ appearances.

While the focus of Western comics tends to be entirely focused on a linear plot, manga often veers into different directions, going into great detail on a variety of subjects, Ith says.

“In addition, manga characters have some unique physical features such as spiky hair and extreme ‘V’ chins. For us, that’s a unique beauty and attraction,” he says.

On top of manga, the studio has also been dabbling in anime and has produced short music and educational videos. According to Seung, the executive director, Pteah Manga will soon release My Brother, an anime series aimed to raise environmental awareness.

With popularity has come a shift in the direction of commercial viability. This year, the group of young artists turned the non-profit project into a registered company, producing commissioned educational or promotional comics and cartoons for companies and organisations. Nonetheless,they and are still making manga and anime for public consumption.

Their ultimate goal, according to Seung, is to export manga and anime from Cambodia to the international market, as has been done by otaku in other Asean countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

“They have done it and experienced success, so why can’t we do it?” Seung asks. “It is obvious that we get the idea from Japan, but the information we use to build our own work is based almost entirely on our country and people, plus proper moral values.”

An estimated $4 billion industry as of last year in Japan alone, the opportunities and demand are immense – with a worldwide market for translated manga.

The biggest obstacle for Pteah Manga at the moment is criticism from some locals. Many people, especially the elderly, have chastised the group for bringing “foreign influence” into the country – a criticism he counters by pointing out that in fact Cambodians are absorbing this influence on a daily basis as the country modernises.

“Cambodians accepted Western style, and have already been making their own comic books for a long time,” he says.“The key to true happiness is not pride but passion, and when you do the work you are passionate about, it is no longer work. It is fun.”