TOKYOPOP was originally founded in 1997 by Stuart J. Levy. In the late 1990s, the company's headquarters were located in Los Angeles.
While the company was known as Mixx Entertainment, it sold MixxZine, a manga magazine where popular serials like Sailor Moon were published weekly. Mixxzine later became Tokyopop before it was discontinued. Capitalizing on the popularity of Sailor Moon, Mixx also created the magazine, Smile, a magazine that was half girls’ magazine, and half shōjo manga anthology, and also continued the Sailor Moon story after being discontinued in Mixxzine.
Cultural anthropologist Matt Thorn praised Stu Levy for opening up an untapped market for cartoons with the publication of Sailor Moon. Before Sailor Moon, the belief among entertainment executives was that "girls don't watch cartoons." Due to Sailor Moon’s immense popularity, Tokyopop discontinued the serial from its magazines, and released it separately as its first manga graphic novel. They engineered prominent book distribution via retail stores, standardized book trim size, created a basic industry-wide rating system, and developed the first-ever retail manga displays and introduced the world of graphic novels to an audience of teenage girls. Also, together with Diamond, TOKYOPOP offered retailers free spinner rack displays for TOKYOPOP manga, thereby increasing the visibility of the medium in bookstores.
TOKYOPOP also licensed and distributed Japanese anime. In 1996, Mixx Entertainment acquired the rights to the anime biopic of Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa, and Stu Levy produced and directed the English version of the anime film, entitled “Spring and Chaos.” The film was directed and scripted by Shoji Kawamori, who created Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and The Vision of Escaflowne. Taste of Cinema ranked “Spring and Chaos” thirteenth in its list of Top “25 Weird Animated Movies That Are Worth Your Time.” From 2000 to 2004, TOKYOPOP released multiple film and television projects such as Street Fury, which Stu Levy created, GTO (English version for Showtime TV), Rave Master (English version for Cartoon Network's Toonami), and Reign: The Conqueror (English version for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.) TOKYOPOP also released English version DVDs for: Initial D, Marmalade Boy, Saint Tail, Samurai Girl: Real Bout High School, Vampire Princess Miyu, Brigadoon, FMW, High School Ghostbusters
In 2002, TOKYOPOP launched its line of 100% Authentic Manga, which was printed in the original Japanese right-to-left format and included the original Japanese printed sound effects.
In Japan, all published manga is written to read from right to left, but when an English translation was published in the U.S., however, the common practice was to use computer-reversed or mirror images that allowed the books to read from left to right. Unfortunately, this often compromised the integrity of the title's original artwork.
TOKYOPOP’s decision to release 100% authentic right-to-left manga not only maintained the integrity of the original artwork, but it also enabled TOKYOPOP to release most graphic novel series on a frequency three-to-six times faster than the then current industry standard. TOKYOPOP volumes hit the shelves monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly versus the six months or longer typical of competitors. It also allowed TOKYOPOP to sell books for an industry-leading price point of $9.99 per book, at a time when most competitors charged $12.99 to $16.99 per book.
TOKYOPOP was the first U.S. publisher to adopt such a sweeping policy. While some Japanese manga artists had required that the English versions of their manga be published from right to left, TOKYOPOP was the first American publisher to unilaterally announce that it would maintain the original format for all of its future manga titles.
An "authentic manga" how-to guide was included in each graphic novel to keep readers from accidentally reading the final page first, and the authentic manga also featured special packaging.
Rise of TOKYOPOP
TOKYOPOP became one of the biggest manga publishers outside Japan, and as such, was attributed with popularizing manga in the United States. By 2004, it boasted the largest market share of manga sales in the U.S., reaching as high as 50% of manga exports to the United States, according to Nissei Weekly.
TOKYOPOP were also instrumental in the introduction of manhwa to western audiences. Brad Brooks and Tim Pilcher, authors of The Essential Guide to World Comics. London, said that TOKYOPOP "published many Korean artists' work, possibly without Western fans even realizing the strips don't come from Japan. Series like King of Hell by Kim Jae-hwan and Ra In-soo, and the Gothic vampire tale Model by Lee So-young are both Korean, but could easily be mistaken for manga." In 2005, TOKYOPOP began a new, free publication called Manga (originally Takuhai) to feature their latest releases.
In March 2006, TOKYOPOP and HarperCollins Publishers announced a co-publishing agreement in which the sale and distribution rights of some TOKYOPOP manga and books, under this co-publishing license, would be transferred to HarperCollins in mid-June 2006. The agreement enabled TOKYOPOP to produce original English-language (OEL) manga adaptations of HarperCollins' books. Meg Cabot's books were the first to be adapted into the manga format, along with the Warriors series by Erin Hunter. The first line of TOKYOPOP-HarperCollins OEL manga was released in 2007 with the goal of publishing up to 24 titles each year.
TOKYOPOP has released several series based on American games, films, and characters, such as Warcraft, the Kingdom Hearts video game series, and Jim Henson films. They released the first volume of a series based on the Hellgate: London video game in April 2008.
TOKYOPOP also helped to pioneer the Cine-Manga format, a blend of cinematic properties and sequential art that uses imagery from movies and television series. Levy secured licenses to publish Cine-Manga with major entertainment brands including Disney, Nickelodeon, DreamWorks, Paramount, Universal, and the NBA.
In June 2008, Tokyopop announced that it was being restructured, with its name being changed to TOKYOPOP Group, a holding group for several new subsidiaries. The TOKYOPOP operations in the United States were split into two subsidiaries: TOKYOPOP, Inc., and TOKYOPOP Media. TOKYOPOP, Inc. consisted of the company's existing publications business, while TOKYOPOP Media focused on the company's digital and comics-to-film works. TOKYOPOP Media managed the TOKYOPOP website, which continued to promote its publications. According to representative Mike Kiley, the divisions would allow the company to "set things up in ways that would very clearly and definitively allow those businesses to focus on what they need to do to succeed. The goals in each company are different and the achievement of those goals is more realistic, more possible if everyone working in each of those companies is very clearly focused."
During the restructure, TOKYOPOP laid off 39 positions, equating to 35%–40% of its American workforce. Most of the positions cut were those involved in the direct publication of its books which resulted in a scale back of publication output from Tokyopop, Inc. Tokyopop reported that it would be cutting the volumes released per year by approximately 50%, to an average of 20–22 volumes per month.
TOKYOPOP's Japan division was also to be split, with one unit operating under TOKYOPOP Media and the other becoming a subsidiary under the overall TOKYOPOP Group. In response to TOKYOPOP's restructuring, declining sales, and losing 20% of its manga market share, TOKYOPOP UK cut its publication release schedule from approximately 25 volumes a month to 20.
In December 2008, citing "dramatically low sales" in the publishing industry as a whole, TOKYOPOP, Inc., laid off eight more employees, including three editors, and noted that the company would have to rearrange some of its upcoming publication schedules.