“All the Lonely Hearts in London…”

londynczycy3najserialLondynczycy (The Londoners) is a series that I have been aware of for five years, but which I couldn’t properly watch until I obtained the subtitled DVDs. It is a Polish television show about migrant workers in London, filmed by Polish film crew with Polish actors, who slip in and out of English depending on whom they are talking to. It’s fascinating to see England portrayed through foreign eyes, seen from the perspective of builders and nurses, cleaners and entrepreneurs. There’s the country girl who arrives as an unwitting drug mule, and gets dragged into industrial espionage in the finance sector. There’s the earnest young graduate forced to work as a builder, dumped by his girlfriend and hoping to make a go of it as a fast-food vendor. There’s the nurse who has been sending money home to her family while banging one of the doctors at her workplace, and the husband who comes out to see her, unaware of the minefield into which he is stepping. And then there’s the pensioner, neglected by her Anglicised children, who finds herself as the landlady to a coterie of her countrymen…

londynczycy-3The London they live in is geographically dispersed. Most of the Poles in the show live in Ealing, but the nurse works in Tooting and the yuppie works in Canary Wharf. Aesthetic requirements manage to ignore most of that, so that, as one wag noted, half the action seems to take place just outside Tower Bridge. There’s an element of honour winning through, as the eternally pure-hearted Andzrej tries to find a niche to make honest money, and keeps bumping into Asia, the hard-up would-be make-up artist with bee-stung lips, who is clearly destined to be his bride. But also there are elements of luck, as the teacher Marcin finds himself on a downward spiral in his new land, unable to even wash dishes competently, soon ending up in a squat packed with ne’er-do-wells. He turns on his fellow Polacks in a language class, berating them for having nothing to say about their homeland but jokes about vodka and football. He speaks of the glory days of Polish literature and culture, but can only do so in Polish, for which his teacher awards him no marks.

05Londynczycy_033I have spent most of the last six years living in someone else’s country, so perhaps Londynczycy speaks to me in a way it doesn’t for others. My own language is still a secret code I share with myself and occasional single-serving strangers. And London, my home for 15 years, stares out at me now as a fictional construct, in the Docklands glass of Spooks or bleached frames of Ultraviolet. But the Poles’ London is a wonderful sight to behold: a wainscot society of Slavic grafters, gangsters and good-time girls, where a bus will take you to Lodz from the outskirts of Ealing, and where every street has a “wailing wall” of help-wanted ads. Wladek, the doorman at a theatre, seems to be the oldest of all the Poles, with a vintage that suggests he was here with the last great influx in WW2. But his story remains untold, in favour of that of Pawel (“Call me Paul”), the city trader who sacrifices his soul for success, and Ewa, a nurse who is offered the high life, as long as she deserts her family.

b0759e8470317faecf8401d2ff2b9725The English cast are a menagerie of broad caricatures, seemingly instructed to bellow all their lines as CLEARLY AND DISTINCTLY as they can to help struggling Polish viewers keep up. A sizable chunk of them are also of immigrant origin, including an entire clan of scowling Pakistani wide-boys, a perpetually dancing family of samba-obsessed Brazilians, a posh British-Indian doctor and a gaggle of thick-necked Russian drug-dealers. Among the English, randy Isabella is a rich cougar with a thing for builders; shouty James is a city trader from the pointy-finger pointy-pointy school of acting; and chinless Peter is a yuppie who fancies Polish girls, who persuades Darek the builder to pretend to be “Derek from Edinburgh” in order to get off with Mariola, the swivel-eyed model who lurches and slurs through all her scenes as if drunk. Running through the whole thing is a fascinating subtext of form — that so many people in Poland have had this experience, or know someone who has, that it is possible to run an entire show about England on primetime on Poland’s national broadcaster. Meanwhile, modern technology allows for some interesting slants on time-honoured set-ups – it is now possible for example, for the loyal daughter to be talking in real time with her hapless sister in another country, as the former wires money for the other to pick up: a conversation held in two Western Union offices, albeit in two different countries.

The show’s tagline in Polish reads: “Great Britain, Great Expectations,” deliberately invoking a Dickensian sense of London as a city where dreams can be made and dashed, luring hopefuls from everywhere in search of that elusive secret of success.

Jonathan Clements is the co-author of The Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Television Since 1953.

Venture Capital

onegaishimasuHow would you feel if this issue of NEO came with a begging letter? Thanks for the £5, but everyone here is underpaid, so could you see your way to paying our editor’s gas bill, and the designer’s rent this month? Wouldn’t that feel like you were being charged twice? Wouldn’t you start to suspect that NEO was owned by a moustache-twirling dastard in a top hat, laughing over piles of money while his staff laboured like Dickensian urchins?

But that’s precisely the feeling I get when confronted with the start-up Animator Dorm project, recently crowd-funded by a group of industry professionals including Tatami Galaxy’s Naoyuki Asano and Gatchaman Crowds’ Shingo Yamashita.

$10,000 has made it possible for two animators to live in a… dorm? I guess it’s paid their rent for a year, thereby allowing them to work for peanuts at some studio, helping to perpetuate the poor conditions for which the industry is notorious. They pay their donors back with merchandise and artwork, and a vague promise about an artist outreach project.

God bless anime fandom, which depending on who you listen to, is either a braying, multi-headed hydra of self-interest, stealing the very stuff it professes to love, or a community of kind-hearted philanthropists, providing soup and blankets for starving artists. So good for you, if you threw in a few quid so that someone could continue to earn minimum wage and still have a roof over their head. If you were a “Bronze” supporter, you got an art book for $50, which is presumably what makes this more appealing than a similar scheme for, say, Primark employees.

As this column noted in NEO 105, there’s crowd-funding and then there’s funding. Put $10,000 into Production IG’s Kick Heart, and you won’t just get a postcard and a lucky gonk; they’ll fly you to Tokyo and make you a producer. At a certain level, the Anime Dorm project is merely a wired-world variant of a pop star selling you a CD and a T-shirt at his concert. These animators have some bonus art to sell, and spending the money on rent, just like everyone else. But is this unprecedented access to the talent, or is it just another example of the owners of anime passing on their poor business decisions to the consumer?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 127, 2014.

The Prologue…

ae3Just a little taste from the introduction to the new edition of the Anime Encyclopedia, due out in December 2014. The passage excerpted outlines some of the changes and new additions to the book that has been keeping me busy, on and off, for the last two years. We’re currently on the fourth or fifth read-through in search of adjustments and typos, and sneaking in the last few cheeky last-minute entries.

1200 pages. Imagine.

Milky Crisis!

The background to today’s news that the New Zealand company Fonterra is buying stakes in another Chinese dairy. From Modern China: All That Matters, by Jonathan Clements.

milky crisis

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The dairies of Inner Mongolia now form a powerful lobby in Chinese supermarkets. Adverts selling milk products are all over the place, and pushily insist on a number of bespoke varieties – this one for stronger bones, that one for more energy. They are so pro-active because Chinese parents have largely given up feeding Chinese milk to their children, after major scandals in the early 21st century. Chinese milk is probably the safest it has ever been, but public trust is at an all-time low.

In 2004, sixteen Chinese children died of malnutrition after they were fed a ‘milk formula’ that turned out to be nutritionally worthless. This was no manufacturing error, but a deliberate scam that cruelly led several families to literally starve their own children to death, while believing that they were feeding them.

In 2007, a new problem arose, not over what was missing, but what was being added, when pet deaths in America were traced to melamine in the food chain. This had entered into Chinese pet food through contaminated animal feed, although the size of the problem was difficult to judge without a national veterinary database – fourteen confirmed pet deaths, but several thousand reported. It was claimed that mixing melamine into animal feed had been a common practice for years, in the mistaken belief that there were no ill effects. Many animals were butchered before they died of renal failure from melamine poisoning, but this only delayed the discovery until it built up further along the food chain. Extensive testing found melamine in hundreds of food products for both pets and people, leading the FDA and Department of Agriculture to estimate that up to three million Americans might have, for example, eaten chickens that had been reared on contaminated feed. Chinese food exports, also of chicken, powdered egg and wheat gluten, were found to be similarly tainted.

sanluBack in China, the food chain was discovered to be directly contaminated, when the budget dairy Sanlu was accused in November 2008 of selling a milk powder product that had been adulterated with melamine in an attempt to show higher protein levels. This may well have made the milk seem healthier, but it directly affected the health of some 300,000 people, many of them children in low-income families. Six children died of renal failure, while original whistleblower, an employee at Sanlu who had been querying production standards since 2006, was later found stabbed to death in mysterious circumstances. A Chinese investigation later found similar contamination in 22 Chinese companies, causing a massive crisis of confidence, particularly among Chinese mothers. It is now far more likely for Chinese mothers to feed their children exclusively on a diet of foreign milk formula, often sourced from Germany or New Zealand. Ironically, a New Zealand company, Fonterra, had owned a 43% stake in Sanlu, and had called for a recall on suspect products eight months before the scandal broke. The deadly delay was blamed on mismanagement at a local level, as Chinese employees tried to save face by avoiding a public announcement of any danger.

Modern China: All That Matters by Jonathan Clements, is available now in the UK and US.

Art for Art’s Sake

invernessHello, Ian. Hello, Stuart. I’m addressing you by name because you are the only people who have shown up. So my introduction to today’s screening of Patema Inverted doesn’t really require a microphone. I’ve flown up here from London. Andrew Partridge there has driven me for one hour from Glasgow to Perth, and then we sat on the train for two hours to Inverness. So that’s the two of us, and Kevin the projectionist, and the usher lady and She That Sells the Popcorn, all here for your benefit this sunny Sunday.

Since the British Film Institute is forking out a bucket of Lottery money per venue for this tour of the regions, you’re basically each the recipient of a Garden of Sinners DVD’s worth of subsidies. But that’s what Lottery money is for – taking risks with odd and niche-interest films, in search of unexpected spikes of interest and swells in consumer behaviour in a dozen places that would otherwise not see any anime at all. Yesterday we were in Bo’ness, a picturesque Scottish village decorated with ominous signs about how “Summer is Coming” and “Hail to Our Queen,” as if the locals were already erecting a Wicker Man to greet us. But 30 people showed up to see the film, and many were keen to ask questions about the Kickstarter for the DVD or the movies on show at this year’s Scotland Loves Anime.

The definition of success for mini-tours such as this is an order of magnitude away from packed London Film Festival screenings, and buckets of money. If profit were the sole motive, anime would never reach cinemas like this at all. It’s far more arty and bespoke, like M. Night Shyamalan’s plea in Lady in the Water that a work of art only has to have a single person love it for it to become worthwhile. Maybe we turned you into anime fans today. Maybe we turned you into festival-goers or Kickstarter angels, or NEO subscribers. Maybe we just carried on the conversation, putting Patema back into the public eye, and hence promoting it to people who hadn’t heard of it. Whatever the result, we keep doing this, because this is how you grow a market for anime, one person at a time… until they tell their friends.

(Scotland Loves Anime would like to point out that after Jonathan’s introduction in Inverness, the audience in the auditorium quadrupled in size, quadrupled! To nine people, including three Hungarians.)

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 126, 2014.