My obituary of Toren Smith (left), prime mover in the American manga business, is up now on the Manga UK blog.
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.
“I haven’t been successful at all,” says Keiji Nakazawa, with customary Japanese self-deprecation. “Human beings are really stupid.” His complaint is with governments who continue to support war as a means of resolving disputes, be it conventional, biological or nuclear. As a boy who witnessed atomic destruction in person, he’s made it his mission in life to stop it happening again.
“If people understand the dreadful nature of wars and nuclear weapons,” he says, “I am happy as the creator. It’s my sincere wish.”
He was born in 1939, in Hiroshima. He was six years old when the atom bomb was dropped on the city, and somehow survived the appalling conditions of the aftermath. Information on radiation and its effects were classified and denied during the Allied Occupation. Those who had experienced Hiroshima and Nagasaki learned to keep their origins secret, for fear that other Japanese would discriminate against them.
Official recognition did not come until Nakazawa was a teenager. A Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon V, was hit by fall-out from one of the post-war American bomb tests on Bikini Atoll. Initial Japanese anger focussed on the exclusion zone around the test site, widely believed to be an attempt to interfere with Japanese tuna fishing rights. Then, one of the fisherman died as a result of his injuries. In paying compensation to his widow, the American government admitted that there were side-effects from atomic weapons. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not malingerers or ambulance-chasers, as they had previously been painted; many of them were genuinely still suffering the lingering after-effects of radiation, and would continue to do so for the rest of their lives. The idea of a radioactive monster eating at the heart of post-war Japan would inspire an icon of the local film industry – Godzilla. The Japanese government eventually answered the problem in the real world with new legislation, the Atomic Bomb Victim Medical Care Law of 1957, granting free hospital care to the victims – the hibakusha.
But in achieving recognition, the hibakusha, also became subject to discrimination. “The situation hasn’t really changed,” notes Nakazawa on the 60th anniversary of the bombing. “Gradually people have started to understand hibakusha and the way they see them has been altering… a little.”
Trying to put his childhood behind him, Nakazawa moved to Tokyo and became a comics artist, publishing his first work in 1963. His early creations were boys’ adventure stories, including Spark One, about intrigue and sabotage between rival racing teams, and the mind-boggling Space Giraffe. Although he is largely known outside Japan for his Hiroshima stories, back in Japan he has a much more varied output
“I drew manga on many subjects,” he says “baseball, samurai dramas, racers and so on. So I think I always would have found a career as an artist, in the entertainment world.”
Just as in everyday life, he kept talk of Hiroshima out of his manga. That all changed in 1966, when he rushed back home for his mother’s funeral. Although it is usual to find shards of bone in cremated human ashes, Nakazawa saw none at all, and described the discovery as a chilling revelation that “the radiation had even invaded her skeleton.” Clutching her ashes on the train back to Tokyo, he realised he couldn’t keep quiet any longer. Back in the city, he risked a pariah status by openly discussing his experience of the bomb, with the first of his “Black” series, Beneath the Black Rain.
Nakazawa began trying to sell more stories about Hiroshima, but ran into difficulties. It was the height of the Cold War and shortly after student demonstrations over Japan’s Security Treaty with the US. There was revolution in the air, and the same images of riots and street protests would also feature in another well-known manga, Akira, drawn by another arrival in Tokyo, Katsuhiro Otomo.
Large magazines had previously refused to publish Nakazawa’s Hiroshima tales, afraid of finding themselves on a mythical CIA blacklist. Now that Japan was an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for America, Nakazawa feared that it might be subject to a nuclear attack, and resolved to continue retelling his life story, both of the Bomb and, more crucially, the prejudices and hardships of its aftermath.
In 1972, the boys’ magazine Shonen Jump began running stories about the lives and careers of manga artists. Nakazawa used it as an excuse to sneak in I Saw It, an account of Hiroshima, which eventually formed the opening chapters of his ten-volume Barefoot Gen (Hadashi no Gen). Three decades on, he is keen to assign credit where credit is due, to the man who took a chance on him. “It was easily accepted,” he says, “thanks to the fine editor, Mr Tadashi Nagano.”
The resulting family saga was not completed until 1987. Later volumes detail the attempts of the survivors to stay alive in the ruins, surrounded by the mortally injured and the permanently disfigured, as starvation sets in and the war stumbles to a close. Told in a squat, cartoony style popular in comics of the 1970s, the horrors of the war seem all the more shocking when presented in a “children’s” format. Unlike most of the manga that run in Shonen Jump today, Barefoot Gen was genuinely educational, and served to teach an entire generation about the conflict.
“Seventy percent of the story in Barefoot Gen is completely autobiographical,” says Nakazawa. “It is based on my own experiences in Hiroshima.” And in the finale, it comes full circle. “The English translation of the tenth volume will be out in a few years,” he says, proudly. “The translation is underway already. Gen heads off to Tokyo and becomes an artist – that’s how it ends.”
A group of Americans, including Jared Cook and future Manga! Manga! author Frederik L. Schodt, acquired Japanese copies of Barefoot Gen in the 1970s, and began the “Project Gen” charity to translate it for a Western audience. Thanks to their efforts, the comic became the first manga to be published in English, and soon made its way into many other foreign languages.
What distinguishes Barefoot Gen from its many imitators is Nakazawa’s even-handed approach. Unlike many other Japanese writers about the war, he is prepared to deal with Japan’s military role objectively. He is unafraid of mentioning that Japan started the war, or that many of the common people were duped by a military-industrial complex into fighting a war they couldn’t win. The Americans don’t drop the Bomb on Hiroshima until 250 pages into the first volume of Barefoot Gen, giving Nakazawa plenty of time to present the event in its historical context, and to catalogue the motivations of both Japanese war-mongers and pacifists. Nakazawa seems able to do this because he has little interest in assigning blame for the war. He genuinely believes that it is the Bomb itself that is evil, and concentrates his anger on chronicling its terrifying after-effects, which are with the Japanese to this day.
“I think they understand the message,” says Nakazawa. “In the places where US bases exist, such as Okinawa, the feeling against Americans still seems stronger.” But elsewhere, he feels, he gets his ideas across.
The story was also adopted into live-action films (the first of which won Best Screenplay at the Czech Film Festival in 1977) and two animated versions. For a whole generation, Japanese animators had avoided discussion of the war, instead allegorising it in space adventures or alien invasions. Barefoot Gen the anime rode a wave of change inspired by an exhibition in Tokyo about the life and famous diary of Anne Frank. An Anne Frank anime followed in 1979, establishing a new sub-genre within anime: war films about children, in which Japan’s baby-boomers cast themselves as a blameless generation, forced to endure the consequences of their parents’ martial past.
After the success of Barefoot Gen in 1983, other animated works appeared, many of them similarly autobiographical and child-centred. These ranged from Isao Takahata’s masterpiece about the fire-bombing of Kobe, Grave of the Fireflies (1988), to less polished TV movies such as Toshio Hirata’s Rail of the Star (1993), depicting a Japanese colonial family’s desperate rush to reach American-occupied South Korea. Almost every major city in Japan seemed to gain a personalised film about the horrors of WW2, but many of Barefoot Gen’s imitators used youthful protagonists to present the Japanese as innocent victims. This played well at home, but also into the midst of the ‘textbook controversy’, a long-running debate over the selective information imparted about WW2 to Japanese schoolchildren.
Nakazawa is known as the manga chronicler of Hiroshima, and the large part of his work deals, directly or indirectly, with the Bomb. His lesser known comics include Beneath the Black Rain (animated 1984). The original focussed on a Bomb victim who is tried for murdering an American black marketer. The anime concentrates on the plight of Hiroshima’s women, with one character who avenges herself on Americans by giving them syphilis, another who uses her scarred body as a “living museum” to show the Bomb’s effects, and a third who frets over whether she will have a disabled baby. Other stories help illustrate Nakazawa’s over-arching theme, often overlooked in surveys of his achievement – the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Examples of this aspect of his work includes Fly On Dreamers (animated 1994) about a group of war orphans who get to play against the Hiroshima Carp baseball team, and The Summer with Kuro (animated 1990) in which two Hiroshima children befriend a black cat. His most recent manga work is Okonomi Ha-chan, a tale of a Hiroshima bad boy who tries to reform his ways as a short-order cook, and finds love into the bargain.
When Nakazawa talks about Okonomi Ha-chan, he sounds as if he is trying to lay another element of his past to rest, as if the war has dominated enough of his work, and it is time to move on.
“In Okonomi Ha-chan,” he says “I depicted a person who makes an effort to live through life from different angle to Gen. I wanted it to be a powerful piece that would conquer the influence of the Bomb in Hiroshima.”
It was turned into a live-action film in 1999, with Nakazawa writing and directing, a change in career direction that he seems keen to pursue in his later years.
“I haven’t drawn manga on Hiroshima recently, nor on anything else,” confesses Nakazawa. “These days I am more interested in tackling challenges in film. Next, I would like to direct a film that poses questions to the world.”
For Nakazawa, working in a new medium only requires a small change in his working habits. He has a reputation for telling things as they are. As an artist, as a writer, and as a director, he has a simple rule for getting his message across.
“The road to understanding is not necessarily long,” he says. “When you tell the truth, people always understand you. If you cannot make them understand, you are not telling the truth.”
For those that didn’t see it, my obituary of the animator Akira Daikuhara went up online at the Manga UK blog the day after the Japanese animators’ union announced his death. I’d been interested in him for a while, mainly because he was as “old as anime itself”, but also because I realised that he had been edged out of many histories because nobody knew how to pronounce his name. Honestly, I am still not sure myself.
My obituary of the anime director Noboru Ishiguro is up online now at the Manga UK blog. Never met him myself, but he was one of the most prominent Japanese figures in American fandom – having become a oft-seen and affable attendee at many conventions. I had an odd sense that he would be the next of the big names to go, although according to colleagues who tipped me off as to his condition, when the end came, it was sudden, and belied by his good humour the day before. The story about his name-tag was supplied by Takayuki Karahashi, who was one of the last visitors to see him alive.
My obituary for Shingo Araki is now up online at the Manga UK blog. Unlike viewers in France, Spain, Latin America or China, I really don’t know him for his work on Star of the Giants, “Goldorak” or Saint Seiya. For me, he was always the lead animator on Ulysses 31 — many happy memories.
Her eyes were green. Her hair was silver, and she freckled. The rest was subject to change without notice.
To a jaded cynic, the work of Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011) was little more than a science fictional repackaging of well-worn tropes from the world of fiction for adolescent girls. She had an entire stable of protagonists modelled on Cinderella or Lisa the Lonely Ballerina, and a whole paddock of tales about ponies and horses, which she rewrote as dragons. I was a ten-year-old boy in 1981; I didn’t know that. If I had, I might have turned away with a sneer and bought something about space marines.
Instead, I discovered that Pern was a place where elegant, terrible, wonderful creatures sought out the purest of heart. Passions and yearnings could wake worlds, knowledge was passed on through songs… imperfectly, poetically… warning that something called Thread would fall from the sky. Old songs, forgotten songs, whispering of apocalypse, ignored, belittled, dismissed. Until the day the songs came true.
The series, as it existed when I first came to it, comprised twin trilogies, one for adults, and one for younger readers, often offering different perspectives on the same scenes and events. And it all came to an end with this:
The dragons on the fire-heights rose to their haunches, bugling their jubilation on this happy day while fire-lizards executed dizzy patterns in the Thread-free sky!
What a sentence. As a teenage would-be author, I fixated on that last phrase. This day, the sky was free of Thread, the awful alien spores that brought ecological disaster. And already, the Dragonriders had found a way to neutralise Thread on contact with the ground. The Dragonriders had rendered themselves obsolete. Their whole world was about to fall apart, and nothing would be the same again. F’lar and Lessa, the reluctant first couple of Pern, walked out of the narrative with smiles on their faces, but they stood at a momentous moment in history, thick with melancholy and pregnant with loss.
Opening my battered, much-read, much-loved copy of the The White Dragon this morning, I turned once more to the sentence I thought I knew so well. Just try reading it out aloud. It is breathless and giddy, arguably missing a comma and ending in a grandstanding exclamation point. You would need to be an opera singer to belt that sentence out and get it in all its passionate, gabbled glory. Anne McCaffrey, who once was an opera singer, and often wrote as if translating music into prose, ended her masterpiece on a crescendo and a descant.
Sadly, perhaps, it wasn’t the end. I would read the first six Pern novels on an almost annual basis, but I had little time for the diminishing returns of the later bolt-ons. I liked Dragonsdawn, with its revelation that McCaffrey’s world was a sci-fi acronym: Parallel Earth Resources Negligible. I was intrigued by Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, and not only for its glimpse of a legend only whispered in the main saga, but also for its engagement with something only obliquely referenced in earlier books – the fact that a number of the dragonriders were gay. But I had no time for the rest of it: the Celtic whimsy and the pointless dolphins, the previously unmentioned gipsies and the inevitable aging and changing of the characters I loved.
As I protested to my fannish friends, all largely aghast at my passion for a girl’s book, it’s all there in the last sentence of The White Dragon. They’re dancing in the Thread-free sky. Game over. Do we really want to see them building factories and laying roads? Must we watch them bickering, growing old, dying? The tale is told.
When All the Weyrs of Pern was published in 1991, I was living in Taiwan, and had no hope of finding a copy. In early 1992, I met an American girl in Japan who had the audio book. After resisting for weeks, I put the tape in my Walkman, and lay there in the dark, listening to the big finish. It was read by McCaffrey herself.
She stumbled over the voices of minor characters. She blundered around in a forest of adverbs. I seethed, throughout, at the clear proof of my Thread-free Sky thesis. Like all fans, I wanted more, more, more, even though I knew that more was not necessarily for the best. And then she got to a moment when a major character, a unifying figure in the saga as a whole, a mentor to many and father-figure to a few, died. McCaffrey was having trouble reading her own book, her breathing came in weird places, and I realised that she was trying not to cry. When death finally came, she stopped reading and wept.
I love Anne McCaffrey, for loving her own story so much that it moved her to tears. I will always be grateful to her because I went into the Boxall’s newsagent next to Prittlewell railway station, on my way home from school in 1981 and came out with a book about men riding on dragons, instead of the previously desired bar of chocolate. I love her because I adored Dragonflight so much that I dragged my stepmother into That Fancy London to buy the rest of the books at the hallowed Forbidden Planet – a store I had never been to before.
I learned from Pern that it was okay to take what you wanted from an author and leave the rest. I learned the joys of hunting for the next book in a series and staying up late to find out what happens to imaginary people you’ve come to care for. I learned to describe a particular colour as Harper Blue. That it was okay to grow up and move on, and look fondly on books you treasured as a child. When The Skies of Pern came out, I decided I was not going to read it. I had my Pern, and I kept it. I read the first six books again, because they had a real something, and that something ended with the Thread-free sky.
Ron Moore saw it. In Pern he saw a metaphor for a nation under siege, a hopeless, doomed conflict against an implacable enemy, a mid-holocaust tale of humanity on the brink of extinction. When his Pern TV series was announced sometime around the turn of the century, I was a twenty-something editor at Titan, a company bidding for the rights to do the tie-in magazine. David Bailey had already decided that he was going to be the editor. I immediately volunteered to be his deputy. We began addressing each other as D’vid and J’nathan, using McCaffrey’s honorific median apostrophes, much derided among serious SF fans, and to the great irritation of our colleagues. But the TV series never happened. In conflict with his bosses, Moore walked off it with the sets already built, proclaiming that he would do it right or not at all. Instead, he made Battlestar Galactica.
James Cameron may have seen it, too. Even if he didn’t, I did. Now a professional author of ten years’ standing myself, I sat through Avatar with a giant, stupid grin on my face, not seeing the film that he had made, but the film that was to come. This is it, I thought as men on flying lizards fought in the air. We can finally do it. We can do Pern.
You can keep your sparkly vampires and your boy wizards. One day, Pern is going to wipe the floor with them. But today there is an eerie, hair-raising, barely audible, high keening note, that signifies the passing of one of our kind.
Sakyo Komatsu, the science fiction author best known for Japan Sinks, has died aged 80. In lieu of an obituary, I give you the entry from the upcoming third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for which I substantially upgraded Takumi Shibano’s entry on Komatsu from the previous edition. You should be able to access the draft text here.
My obituary of Toyo’o Ashida, a crusader for animators’ rights and the legendary show-runner on the old Fist of the North Star TV series, is now up on the Manga UK blog.
I’ve written an obituary of Osamu Dezaki, director of Golgo 13, Aim for the Ace and Black Jack, among many others. It’s up online at the Manga UK blog. Not something I was expecting to have to write this morning, but when is it ever?
Dezaki was one of the few animators working in the Japanese business who had a readily identifiable style. You could always tell you were watching a Dezaki anime, regardless of the subject, thanks to his “Postcard Memory” cutaways.
I always enjoyed his insistence on taking things seriously — even comedy. This attitude even cost him work, such as the time he refused to direct a school drama about boys falling in love with other boys, because the gayness wasn’t real enough, and the realness wasn’t gay enough.