White Box

shirobako-116501One of the big hits of recent anime seasons has been Shirobako (literally ‘White Box’), a show that shoe-horns an off-the-peg cast of perky graduates like refugees from K-On into the heady world of anime production. Shirobako is a workplace drama, but also a knowing parody of life in the anime industry, often with recognisable caricatures of well-known figures, and depictions, just the right side of actionable, of notorious incidents from business legend.

Shirobako successfully conveys the awful daily grind of working on Japanese animation. Entire scenes crawl past of people in messy, cluttered offices shouting each other about file numbers and storyboard pages, and losing the plot about frame counts. Despite occasional cutaways to the flights of fantasy they are working on, life in the fictional “Musashino Animation” company is largely seen to be a dull and stressful slog, with little obvious reward.

There is much of interest about the division of skills on anime productions. Artists go in at the bottom, but have a chance of getting swiftly promoted. Computer geeks get to faff with CG, but have to fight against unrealistic expectations of their technology. And the wannabe voice-actress is soon waiting tables at a restaurant…

Ironically, in the real world, she’d be the one on the highest wages. A study published by the Japan Animation Creators Association (JaniCA) claimed that the mean entry-level salary for new animators is (and has been since at least 2009) just £6,000 a year, with an average working day of 11 hours. Inbetweeners in Japan are competing directly with Chinese labourers who are submitting comparable work across the internet from a place with lower costs of living. If they don’t prove themselves worthwhile, they remain stuck on paupers’ wages, which have not gone up in five years. Put another way, the people who make your favourite anime can start on salaries as low as 65p an hour.

One wonders how the real-world versions of the breathless, gamine girls in Shirobako would come across if they couldn’t afford soap powder or, well, soap. It’s difficult to imagine these conditions lasting for much longer before there simply aren’t any Japanese animators in Japanese animation. Which means more producers and directors coming in sideways from other professions, not up through the ranks, and commanding a staff in a foreign country through Skype and shouting. Has anime, which always was regarded as a cheap option in the first place, successfully priced itself out of its own market?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History (UK/US). This article first appeared in NEO #138, 2015.

The World of Suzie Wong

cropped-the-world-of-suzie-wongThe World of Suzie Wong by Richard Mason is a glimpse of the world of 1957, when old soldiers could still talk of having had a “good war”, and the British Empire was still teetering on the brink. Kindle makes it possible for me to nab it within moments, although Suzie Wong is one of those subjects that I have heard mentioned all my life, but never actually encountered before – a bit like Fu Manchu and the Black &White Minstrels, it seems to have been airbrushed from history in more enlightened times.

Robert Lomax is filth in all but name (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), a clueless wannabe painter in Hong Kong, who accidentally takes a room in the Nam Kok Hotel, which turns out to be a brothel. Readers of this parish may scoff, but are reminded that the Clements family also somehow managed to end up a few floors up from a knocking shop in Chengdu, so it’s not like it’s impossible.

mysterious_world_01Lomax falls for Suzie, a wilful, proud bar girl with a half-caste baby, and much of the story is taken up with their long, long, looonnng courtship, occasionally interrupted by other suitors and various dramas among the other bar girls. Mason has a matter-of-fact approach to dealings at the brothel, and that, coupled with the coy requirements of 1950s censorship, turn his account into a far less prurient tale than one might at first imagine. He certainly seems to know his way around the etiquette of the red light district, and has interesting observation about the peculiar protocols of the girls, who, for example, deride any sailor who doesn’t pick one girl and stick to her for the duration of his stay in town as a “butterfly”. It encourages comparison with Akasen Chitai (Red Light Zone), Kenji Mizoguchi’s last film, shot in a realist style in Toyko’s brothel district around the same time, just before prostitution was criminalised in Japan.

Curiously, the leading man is presented as somewhat ignorant of the East, which is exactly what I would expect from the average hack cranking out a Hong-Kong-hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold novel. But Mason was an old Asia hand, having fought in Burma in the war, and drafted to learn Japanese as a POW interrogator. It’s thus all the more impressive that he is prepared to present his leading man as a callow, nice-but-dim posh boy, drifting from plantation job to would-be artistry in Hong Kong, and failing to read a single squiggle. I don’t think I would have been able to resist the temptation.

Meanwhile, his slice-of-life of 1950s Hong Kong presents tantalising glimpses of a small town overwhelmed by a massive refugee influx from over the border. Suzie herself is from Shanghai, and there are whispers throughout the book that the girls are women fallen on hard times, forced to seek any job they can in order to escape the even greater miseries of (we now know) the Great Leap Forward.

stepsLomax is just as much an outsider among the British expat community, which he regards as stifling and hidebound, not the least for its refusal to accept mixed-race marriages – when he approaches a consul for a wedding certificate for him and Suzie, the consul is actually surprised to learn that he is allowed to marry them. He also has some deeply odd things to say about oriental femininity, such as suggesting that the attitudes of Asian girls are designed to support masculinity, while those of European women are designed to destroy it.

Really. Presumably, by “destroying it” he means the unhelpful willingness of European women to have ideas and opinions of their own, thereby threatening to shatter the fragile worldviews of thin-skinned men.

I’d say that the book could never be written today (except that there’s one about Thai bar girls, called Paradise Lust, which is basically the same story, and many of the same observations, from fifty years later). But certainly modern readers would tut in indignation at the sense of entitlement of Suzie’s suitors, one of whom spanks her for daring to look at another man (like that isn’t her job). Although the book does attempt to present the girls’ case and the girls’ view, it is largely the tale of Chinese women available for rent, to largely uncaring and callous men, often cheating on their wives, who are themselves presented as ghastly termagants.

20081209173338484338368380There have been two unofficial sequels, both of which seek to tell the story of Hong Kong as a whole through Suzie’s eyes. One wonders what a modern author would do with the same material. Guo Xiaolu, for example, author of A Concise Chinese Dictionary for Lovers, might take the title literally, and tell it solely through the eyes and words of Suzie herself, thick with detail about the China left behind and the intricacies of the Nam Kok, but as numb and uncomprehending of Lomax’s world as he is of hers.

Suzie Wong was adapted for the stage within a year of its publication (starring William Shatner in the initial theatrical run, imagine!), and then turned into a film. The book was apparently a best-seller, which perhaps explains why Richard Mason doesn’t appear to have worked all that hard at being a novelist afterwards – he died in 1997, living just long enough to witness the Hong Kong Handover, but despite listing him as a “novelist”, his obituaries only seem to come up with four books to his name, of which Suzie Wong was the fourth. In 1962, at 43 years old (my age), his writing career was apparently over, presumably because he was quids-in for the rest of his life. I might be wrong – other mentions of him online suggest that he had a day-job working for the British Council, so possibly lost interest in writing anything else.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern China: All That Matters.

A Chinese Burn

Terror-in-ResonancePosted on the BBC website on April Fool’s Day, and hence not attracting any attention until it turned out to be serious, was the news that China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television had declared war on “borderline pornographic” Japanese cartoons such as Blood C, Highschool of the Dead, and Terror in Resonance. SAPPRFT promises to draw up a blacklist of proscribed Japanese cartoons, all the more to save Chinese streaming sites the trouble of licensing them.

Even in China, the news was greeted with a degree of hilarity. SAPPRFT, after all, was the same body that tried to ban time travel (fortunately only on TV, my time machine is still legal). But as the Qianzhen news site in south China pointed out, SAPPRFT was making the perennial error that has dogged anime all over the world for the last 30 years, confusing cartoons for adults with cartoons for children, and then making the false assumption that children would be watching them.

It’s Japan that’s really in SAPPRFT’s sights. Anime was dragged off-air in China in 2006, where it was proving far too popular. Anime continued to sneak in on video, since apparently Ghibli films didn’t count as evil cartoons. Then, a survey in 2008 concluded that 75% of Chinese undergraduates were watching anime on their computers. Television might have been stamped out, but anime continued to find an audience in pirate editions and on streaming sites. And consider that percentage for a moment: China generates seven million graduates every year – that’s a big audience.

Streaming sites didn’t count as television, so now they are on the hit list, not the least because of the titles listed in the SAPPRFT press release, only Terror in Resonance appears to have any legal presence in the People’s Republic – it’s got bombs going off in Tokyo, sure to entertain the kids. As for Blood C and Highschool of the Dead, both were released in Hong Kong and Taiwan – in other words, they are sneaking in across the border, unhelpfully subtitled in Chinese by the running dogs of capitalism. Long-term readers may remember a similarly absurd situation a few years ago, when Death Note was “banned” in northeast China, despite not actually being legally available there in the first place.

What’s going to happen? Nothing. Servers at Chinese universities will continue to host terabytes of torrented foreign media. Chinese fans will continue to watch anime on their computers, just now without paying a penny to Japan. And distributors everywhere are doing cartwheels at the thought of being able to say that their anime titles are now “banned in China.” Nothing will bump up audiences more than the idea that the cartoon they’re watching can excite such ire.

One wonders, however, if SAPPRFT has bothered to check the credits on Highschool of the Dead and Blood C, which feature listings for companies such as Xuyang and Xing Yue Animation, both based in Jiangsu province. That’s right: the horrible foreign cartoons that SAPPRFT is targeting were partly made in China.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History (UK/US). This article first appeared in NEO #137, 2015.

[Time travel footnote: and here’s me in the LA Times, explaining why Attack on Titan qualifies as “pornographic”]

The Troubled Empire

61YMFqnan3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have long been a fan of the Harvard History of Imperial China collection, but series editor Timothy Brook has presented a star turn in awarding himself the Yuan and Ming dynasties. With deliberate and playful provocation, he lumps these two later periods together, instead of following in the footsteps of most other researchers, who usually cover the Mongol century of the Yuan as an addendum to the fore-running Song dynasty.

His reason for this is climatic – Brook identifies nine distinct periods of drought, flood, pestilence and famine, each of which constitutes a “slough” in fortune that sorely tests the imperial regime’s ability to manage its state. In fact, he collates the Yuan and Ming because, between them, they span the period that we now know to have constituted the Little Ice Age.

But Brook also displays winning originality in his choice of sources. He begins and ends with gripping accounts of sightings of “dragons”, triangulating this catch-all term for water-spouts, comets, tornadoes and earthquakes with his new-found data on climate change and natural disaster. He also maintains this thread throughout the book, returning to insightful new views of big data, such as the fluctuating number of Ming-era paintings that depicted snowy scenes.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the Yuan and Ming dynasties had been well and truly picked over. With strong grounding in untranslated sources, and intriguing new uses for old materials (do you know the 16th-century Chinese word for a sailor’s gay husband? “Rice-paddy” over “woman” if you ever need it.), Brook excellently demonstrates that history remains an ongoing and evolving practice, and that there is always something new to say.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, and biographies of Marco Polo and Khubilai Khan.

A Brief History of Khubilai Khan

kkNow finally available on the Kindle (US/UK):

His grandfather was the bloodthirsty Mongol leader Genghis Khan, his mother a Christian princess. Groomed from childhood for a position of authority, Khubilai snatched the position of Great Khan, becoming the overlord of a Mongol federation that stretched from the Balkans to the Korean coastline. His armies conquered the Asian kingdom of Dali and brought down the last defenders of imperial China.

Khubilai Khan presided over an Asian renaissance, attracting emissaries from all across the continent, and opening his civil service to administrators from the far west. His life and times encompassed the legends of Prester John, the pinnacle of the samurai (and, indeed, the Mongols), and the travels of Marco Polo.

Jonathan Clements examines the life and times of this semi-legendary ruler, detailing the religious scandals and cultural clashes within his supposedly inclusive realm, and the long-running resistance to his reign in Japan and Vietnam. His short-lived “Yuan” dynasty barely lasted a century, but transformed China and the world for ever more.