Work continues apace on the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, with my most recent contributions including a place-holder entry on Ken Liu. I say place-holder because I am sure he will be winning a bunch more awards before long. I’ve also written entries on Ryu Murakami and Hiromu Arakawa, but I’m probably proudest of the one I’ve done on Tora Kizu. I like “The Wedding Shrouded in Grey” so much that I’m actually translating it at the moment with Motoko Tamamuro, although I have no idea who would be interested in buying a Japanese steampunk story from 1927.
With the news out that Tom Cruise has optioned the Japanese SF novel Yukikaze for Hollywood, now’s as good a time as any for me to point interested readers at my article about its original author in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
It is a scene straight out of Evangelion. At the offices of a secret government project, a stern-faced leader informs a reluctant young protagonist that the world is about to end. A clock on the wall counts down the seconds until disaster, unless… unless someone climbs into a dangerous, untested prototype machine, and does battle with the fates themselves.
But Japan is not under attack from avenging angels. The countdown clock is financial, ticking away the moments until Japan’s debts spiral completely out of control, and the country comes crashing down – collapsing banks, armies of starving ex-workers, and considerably less anime in the stores.
2007’s big Japanese sci-fi movie was the satirical Bubble Fiction, in which Ryoko Hirosue is catapulted back to the boom year of 1990 in a last-ditch attempt to save the Japanese economy. The effect is not unlike Back to the Future as written by accountants – Japan’s modern woes are tracked back to a tiny loophole in a proclamation by the Finance Ministry, and high jinks inevitably ensue.
Inevitably, there are sly digs at the fashions of yesteryear, and cameos from whichever future stars the producers could persuade to play their younger selves. Most notably, Ai Iijima, the future author of Time Traveller Ai, can be found dancing at a discotheque. Phones are the size of bricks, shoulder pads the size of helipads, tight ruffled dresses on body-conscious Tokyo ladies and men wear suits two sizes too big for them. Written by Bayside Shakedown’s Ryoichi Kimizuka, Bubble Fiction presents a fantasy view of the 1990s, in which people literally give money away in the streets, taxis need to be hailed with a ten thousand yen note, and champagne flows freely among the party set.
But there is also a sense of impending doom. It’s here, as Tokyo land prices soared to silly heights, that the seeds were sown of economic collapse. The Bubble, warned some pundits, was sure to burst, bringing disaster on the hedonistic Japanese.
Creatively, the Bubble years have a lot to answer for. Outside Japan, the economic might of Japan led Hollywood to make Black Rain and Rising Sun. The great growth in wealth among the Japanese turned them into the owners of video players, and hence helped drive the modern anime industry. The idea of a future economic implosion even gave us the name of a famous anime, Bubblegum Crisis. Deep pockets nurtured the garage kit and figurine industries. The largest disposable income of all turned out to be in the hands of the charmingly named “parasite singles”, twenty-something women living rent-free with their parents, hence a similar emphasis on bespoke cute. Hello Kitty might have been around long before the Bubble, but she certainly achieved megastar status with the help of all those yen with nowhere else to go.
But let us also remember the indirect effects of the crash. With profit margins constricting in Japan itself, producers and publishers became more amenable to foreign sales. Anime and manga abroad, particularly in America, are another side-effect of the boom and bust, and a generation on, the fact that the American market plays such a great part in Japanese business decisions is, at least in part, a result of deals done in the Bubble period.
But what if the American economy starts to slump…? Who’s going to pay for anime then? Sub-prime days ahead, my friends?
This article first appeared in Newtype USA in 2007, and was reprinted in the book Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. Bubble Fiction is screening at several UK cinemas as part of the Japan Foundation’s touring film season.
My obituary of Gerry Anderson, focussing on his Japanese contacts (or lack of them), is up now on the Manga UK blog. It’s quite fun, and includes dastardly producers, animated homages, and a scene in which Helen McCarthy is accused of being a terrorist.
When the future Admiral Togo was a young cadet in Britain, he spent several months in the company of a homestay family. His arrival caused great disappointment to the youngest boy in the Capel family, who had assumed that if Togo came from Japan, he must surely be an acrobat? Certainly, he must have been a friend of the most famous Japanese man among British youth, a circus performer known as Little All Right? The stoic Togo, already a veteran of the Japanese civil war, gruffly denied any association with jugglers or plate-spinners, and that was that.
But who were the Japanese Imperial Troupe? There was, indeed, such a group, although if either the Shogun or Emperor had ever heard them described as “Imperial”, they would have had conniptions. The Troupe’s impresario, “Professor” Richard Risley Carlisle, was a hard-up strongman who introduced the Japanese to Western circus traditions in 1864. Realising that the newly opened land of Japan had its own performers and trickery, Risley pulled all the strings he could in order to bring a platoon of Japanese entertainers to the West, getting a motley crew of itinerants to sign away their lives for him in a contract that would take them literally around the world. The first-ever civilian passports granted by the Japanese government were given to Risley’s performers, a fractious, occasionally drunken and regularly licentious bunch of rascals who back-flipped, juggled and caroused their way throughout Europe and America.
Frederik L. Schodt’s account of this landmark event, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe, argues for it as the first flowering of japonisme, in which these unlikely blue-collar ambassadors from the mysterious land of Japan brought a highly unrepresentative and oft-misunderstood series of performances to a cluster of industrial towns, from the mills of Wakefield to the mines of Wales. Pursued by creditors, scandal and intrigue, the Imperial Japanese Troupe became many Europeans’ first-ever encounter with things Japanese; they sang old Kyoto songs in the Wild West, and got into bar-room brawls in Piccadilly…. Schodt mines the Troupe’s own diaries, contemporary newspapers, theatre reviews and even court reports in order to unearth a truly globe-trotting adventure, which prods the underbelly of Victorian society, and whispers the first strains of The Mikado, Madame Butterfly and other Western obsessions with the east. He presents the Imperial Japanese Troupe as the first true Japan craze, but does so with an incredible sense of place and time, dragging the reader into a narrative of carnival barkers and gasping crowds, spectacular entertainments and forgotten celebrities. An amazing work of scholarship, and an incredible feat of literary plate-spinning. Roll up, roll up…
Jonathan Clements is the author of Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East.
My article on the Japanese adventures of James Bond is up online now on the Manga UK. Did you know there was a James Bond museum on Naoshima…?
My review of Iwao Takamoto’s posthumously published memoirs is up online now at the Manga Entertainment UK blog; one of several articles recently on the blog that aim to commemorate creatives of Japanese ethnic origin who work in America. Other articles in the same series have included Andrew Osmond on Jimmy Murakami and there are a couple more in the pipeline.
When I was working on my book about Empress Wu, I found myself clambering around the dark, musty interior of a grave close to her tomb. On the wall, a mural depicted ambassadors from afar, come to praise the glory of the Tang dynasty. One of them, famously, is a hirsute, hook-nosed man from Syria. But standing behind him in the queue is an even odder dignitary – an alien, glowering figure with a satanic beard and an odd, horned head-dress. He was a diplomat from the land that the Chinese called Bohai, which still lends its name to the gulf between modern Korea and the Chinese coast, which between 698 and 926 AD, dominated north-east Asia before falling to barbarians… or as the Chinese would have it, other barbarians.
Parhae (or Balhae, or Bohai) was described by Chinese chroniclers as the “Rising Land of the East”, now a forgotten, ruined state in one of the least studied corners of Asia, which once had several “capitals”, fought a war against Tang China, and extant fragments of whose architecture and grave goods indicate was a powerful, civilised culture. And yet, by the middle of the tenth century, it all fell apart. The last king of Parhae, walked weeping from his city gates, leading a flock of sheep in a symbolic gesture of surrender. I have long been fascinated by the story, and forced to rely on Japanese sources, so I am immensely pleased that Global Oriental have broken such new ground with this wonderful book.
A “New” History of Parhae is something of a misnomer – the subject has rarely been even mentioned in English before. Parhae is a political minefield. It covers much of that liminal area better known to regular readers of this blog as Manchuria, which means that at various points in the last hundred years, the Koreans, Japanese and Russians have all tried to lay claim to it. For the Russians, Parhae was the first mainland East Asian state to establish itself independent of China, and hence, by an oddly Soviet process of logic, the defining line of the border between China and Siberia. For the Chinese, Parhae was a vassal state, and hence “proof” of Chinese authority extending far to the north. For the Japanese it was neither Chinese nor Russian, and hence an ideal historical idea to push in order to establish that the area was up for grabs during Japan’s colonial push into Manchuria.
For the Koreans, Parhae could be a “Greater” Korea – a notional, largely theoretical expansion of ethnic identity to the north-west of current borders. It establishes “Korean-ness” as an element to be found far beyond the current peninsula, and hence pushes Korean ethnicity as a far larger contributor to East Asia. As “the lost land” of modern mythology, it even became the subject of a K-pop song, “Dreaming of Parhae”. Discovering this is not unlike discovering that Zou Bisou Bisou contains coded messages to the Vietcong. It certainly adds a degree of historical context to The Legend of the Shadowless Sword, a film about the last prince of Parhae, universally reviewed as if it were a “Korean” subject, whereas as seen above, there is far more to it than that.
Yes, it’s all very political, and the weapons are largely academic. A New History of Parhae began life as a publication by the Northeast Asian History Foundation, an academic body deliberately set up by the Koreans to counter the influence of a similar institution cobbled together by the Chinese. Translator John Duncan acknowledges all of the above in introducing a superb collection of fifteen essays that piece together the foundation, flourishing and decline of historical Parhae, using archaeological evidence and extant documents. Parhae never got a dynastic history like other Asian states, so we have to construct details of its existence from asides in the records of the Tang dynasty or Japanese annals. Chapters include tantalising glimpse of later attempts to resurrect the lost kingdom, as well as a study of Parhae’s forgotten maritime power. Closing essays offer literature reviews of work in other languages.
John Duncan’s translation is seamless and invisible, devoid of the pomposities or solecisms so often found when Asian academia is rendered into English. He also negotiates the choppy waters of conflicting romanisations, and produces a fantastic book. So it’s a shame that he has been let down by the illustrations, which are amateurish and often pointless, and presumably repeated from the original. There are seemingly random photographs of non-descript hills, repeated images of vaguely-related forts, and unexplained overhead shots of somewhere presumed relevant. Worst of all, two of the maps are printed in Korean (if I could read Korean, I wouldn’t have had to wait seven years to buy this in translation) and two others in which all the text was duplicated as random ASCII characters (let’s all go to the town of “%&^”%$&$). I don’t know about you, but if I spend £69 on a book, I rather hope that it’s got decent maps. Reading between the lines of the captions, the publishers knew all this before they went to print, but did so anyway with a shrug and crossed fingers.
I do feel for them. On several occasions, books of my own have escaped similar unpleasantness only by dint of sheer luck or editorial brinkmanship. I would have very happily paid for A New History of Parhae if it didn’t have any pictures in it at all, but the ones included seem strangely contemptuous, as if the publishers want to be able to trill on their press releases that it is “illustrated”, but don’t much care what the aforesaid illustrations actually show. There is similar derisory graphical treatment elsewhere in the book, such as where the “Lineage Chart of Parhae Kings” turns out to be just a list of names and dates. So, not a chart at all, then. As the price suggests, this is a book for a community of high-level academics and experienced historians. Do the publishers really expect none of them to notice?
Then again, beggars can’t be choosers. I have been dreaming of Parhae for many years, and this book only makes the dreams more real.
A New History of Parhae is out now from Global Oriental.
I’ve got an article up on the Manga UK blog today about the Japanese prequels, sequels and pastiches to John Carter of Mars. This draws, of course, on the work I’ve been doing for the Science Fiction Encyclopedia to chronicle Japanese authors like Hitoshi Yoshioka. There’s also a little bit about Japanese steampunk that doesn’t get any attention abroad.
And so, as the nights grow longer and the need for air conditioning reduces, the Japanese government has finally relaxed its emergency power-saving measures. Put in place after the March quake/tsunami and Fukushima shut-down severely compromised the power grid for Tokyo and all points north, these directives urged factories to reduce their electricity usage by 15%.
Some people are still wondering how the loss of a single power station can cause such upheaval. It’s not just about the accident at Fukushima, it’s about the fact that the super-modern nation of Japan has two different power grids, running on different frequencies. Back in the days of Japan’s rapid modernisation, a French company installed the grid in one part of the country, and an American company installed the rest, one on 50Hz, and the other on 60Hz. As a result, diverting power from the south to the north is not so simple.
Although the directives only applied to big corporations, the rest of the Japanese soon rolled up their sleeves and muscled in. Aircon thermostats were cranked up so that they only cut in when the heat was truly unbearable. Office dress codes were relaxed to allow men to take off those jackets and ties. Meanwhile, all over Japan, a grass-roots economy drive began to tweet ideas for saving energy.
Meetings were held outdoors, if a park was nearby. Someone reminded people that it was hot enough to dry clothes on lines instead of in tumble dryers. And so on. And if you’re wondering what this has to do with Japanese cartoons, it is another example of the far-reaching power of the anime image. The hash-tag for all these suggestions, presumably kicked off by an anime fan with a sense of humour, was #yashimasakusen, a reference to episode six of Neon Genesis Evangelion. The titular Operation Yashima, for those that haven’t remembered their Gainax lore, is a military action in which the entire electricity grid of Japan is diverted to power up a massive sniper rifle. This wasn’t played up all too much in the recent Rebuild movie, so whoever came up with it was an old-school fan of the original TV series. And their little joke was the best bit of PR Gainax have had in a decade.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #91, 2011.