Christ’s Samurai

IMG_5222In 1638, the ruler of Japan ordered a crusade against his own subjects, a holocaust upon the men, women and children of a doomsday cult.

The sect was said to harbour dark designs to overthrow the government. Its teachers used a dead language that was impenetrable to all but the innermost circle. Its priests preached love and kindness, but helped local warlords acquire firearms. They encouraged believers to cast aside their earthly allegiances and swear loyalty to a foreign god-emperor, before seeking paradise in terrible martyrdoms.

The cult was in open revolt, led, it was said, by a boy sorcerer. Farmers claiming to have the blessing of an alien god had bested trained samurai in combat and proclaimed that fires in the sky would soon bring about the end of the world. The Shogun called old soldiers out of retirement for one last battle before peace could be declared in Japan. For there to be an end to war, he said, the Christians would have to die.

This is a true story.

amakusa--article_imageI only handed the manuscript in yesterday, but there is already a pre-orders page on Amazon for my new book, Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion, due to be published in spring 2016 (and here in the US).

We Are Woman

bata00_p_01_04The first of two Chinese translations of my Empress Wu biography is now being advertised, with the title Zhennai Nuren  — “I am Woman” declined with an imperial first-person pronoun, like the Royal We. This Taiwanese edition translated by Lai Yeqian, is released this month by Taiwan Banners Press. There’s another translation coming in the People’s Republic sometime in the autumn.

From my introduction to the Taiwan edition:

“Even as I delivered the original manuscript of this book in 2007, I was fielding phone calls from a TV production company interested in adapting the story of Empress Wu into a drama series. Nothing came of that, but I have twice sold the rights to this book to producers hoping to reimagine it as a saga of intrigue to rival Game of Thrones. Perhaps I shall be lucky the third time.

“What is it about Empress Wu that excites such interest? For foreign producers, it’s the dual appeal of manly adventure and feminine wiles, but also the chance to present medieval China, a country often regarded as monolithic and homogenous, as cosmopolitan and multiracial. At the height of the Tang dynasty, there were ‘blue-eyed girls in the taverns of Chang’an,’ ambassadors from Bohai and Syria, and handsome refugees from Persia. There were Christian priests and Muslim traders, offering tantalising potential for any director wanting to present a diverse and vibrant society.

“Wu remains a lively topic, even today. Since this book was first published, Tsui Hark has brought the pomp and ceremony of Wu’s reign to the screen with Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010, 狄仁傑之通天帝國) and its prequel. Archaeologists have found the grave of Shangguan Wan’er, and Chinese television has become embroiled in a new scandal fitting for its most infamous female sovereign. Low-cut dresses and flashes of cleavage in Fan Bingbing’s lavish Empress of China (2014-15, 武媚娘传奇) had made the PRC censor worried about a possible corrupting influence. Such stories are wonderful news to any historian – if anything lures in new readers of non-fiction, it’s the discovery that the Tang dynasty is ‘too hot for TV’ even in modern times.”

If you can read Chinese, there are several extracts available online, here, here, here, and here.

Cult TV Times

Lillith_Rei_Ayanami_Eva_Unit_01_Third_Impact_Chabalistic_spiral_mystic_symbol_Neon_Genesis_Evangelion_End_of+EvangelionMay’s entertainment was provided by David Clarke, an author who used the Freedom of Information Act to wrest a report from the Metropolitan Police with the title of UFO New Religious Movements and the Millennium. In it, anti-terrorism officers were cautioned about the rise of conspiracy theories and wacky cults, centred around dangerous foreign imports like Star Trek and The X-Files: “it is not being suggested that the production companies are intentionally attempting to ferment trouble,” said the report, in annoyingly reasonable language. “However [they] know what psychological buttons to press to excite interest in their products. Obviously this is not sinister in itself. What is of concern is the devotion certain groups and individuals ascribe to the contents of these programmes….”

Clarke knows what buttons to press, too (he has a book on the way), since fandom’s dudgeon was most certainly raised. I, for one, am flattered that a bunch of nerds in Spock-ears presented an equivalent danger to, say, the fanatical suicide-bombers who blew themselves up on the London Tube. Imagine the unspeakable carnage if they got all Prime Directive on people… but there is method in the apparent madness.

It’s not clear exactly when the dossier was prepared, but Clarke suggests it was around 1997, after the suicide of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate religious cult in San Diego. Heaven’s Gate’s use of terminology from Star Trek is widely reported; less well-known is the presence of stacks of anime VHS tapes at the site of their “Away Team” deaths.

845396061326116755Heaven’s Gate were convinced that the world was shortly about to be “cleansed”, and humanity was going to be wiped away by the impact of some dreadful angelic apocalypse. Shortly before they drank a fatal mix of phenobarbitol and vodka, 39 people had been watching Neon Genesis Evangelion. I know this because the FBI wasted no time in tracking down the pedlars of such apocalyptic propaganda, and demanding they explain the plot to them. And, Evangelion being a tough one to describe at the best of times, ADV Films volunteered the services of the only person they thought could do the job. That would be me, at five in the morning in London, woken up by what at first I took to be a prank call.

Evangelion is “apocalyptic” because it draws upon Christian eschatology. It did not inspire Heaven’s Gate so much as offer them comforting reflections of their own delusions. The FBI worked that out soon enough, and went away happy that anime fans weren’t about to go on the rampage, but it wouldn’t surprise me, when the full text of the dossier is made available, to discover those pesky Japanese cartoons are also listed as potential threats to civil society. Again. Thank God they didn’t know about Queen’s Blade

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History (UK/US). This article first appeared in NEO 139, 2015.

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.