Over at the Anime Limited blog, Paul Jacques reviews my Brief History of the Martial Arts: “A Brief History of the Martial Arts walks a path between academic facts and a cracking good yarn; both enlightening and entertaining whilst trying to separate the fact from the fiction. Openly fictional accounts also contribute to the narrative, such as the legends of The Water Margin and Journey to the West… those of a scholarly persuasion will find a gold mine in its exhaustive links to further reading. But just about anyone who is interested in the martial arts, real or fictional, will find page after page of fascinating histories and stories.”
Soon after the Brexit vote, I was knee-deep in a pit of Chinese corpses. That’s not because of Brexit, you understand; that’s my job, making a documentary about human sacrifice in the Shang dynasty. But the cameraman’s phone kept going off with sales offers from British companies, spamming the techies of the film world with their chance to snap up cameras and lenses, RAM cards and drones while the pound was weak.
I cling to the belief that common sense will win out, and that the politicians who lied about the appeal of Brexit are just as liable to lie about their willingness to go through with it. In the meantime, while I’m waiting for all those promised new hospitals to open, and all those immigrants to be kicked out (goodbye doctors, nurses, any chance of a good plumber…), and while I am watching the architects run away from the mess they have created, and Theresa May rising to unelected power like some Cthulhu of Conservatism, I’m wondering about the impact on anime.
Fortunately, as far as most licensing contracts go, the United Kingdom is rarely regarded as “part of Europe”. It is already either treated as a separate entity, or attached like a sixth finger to deals involving the rest of the English-speaking world. For acquisitions agents sitting down at meetings in Cannes, Los Angeles or Tokyo, political divisions are less relevant than DVD and Blu-ray region coding, or online lockout.
Well, in all respects except one – money. Since last month’s issue of NEO, the pound has dropped 10% in value [now 13% –JC], which means all deals currently under discussion are going to cost UK companies a tenth more. Companies are unlikely to pass that cost on to you, so something that costs £18.99 in the high street will still cost £18.99 next month.
But that money has to come from somewhere, and I predict it is going to start to show in the autumn season, not in terms of things you can see, but things you can’t. Companies like Funimation, paying in dollars for world English-language rights, probably won’t even blink. The damage will be felt by those smaller distributors with a UK-only footprint, having to pay extra cash not only for the rights to the anime in the first place, but for the pressing of the discs, currently done in Austria or Poland, and hence payable in euros.
Faced with mounting bills, even without an official date on Brexiting, they will drop whatever tenth title looks the least appealing. They simply won’t pick it up, and you won’t ever find it for sale. They will also think twice about re-pressing any other shows that go out of print. Anything that’s say, six years old, approaching the end of its licence, and unlikely to shift more than a few hundred more copies, will suddenly become entirely unavailable. All of which means, in the short term, buy any old shows you’ve been putting off, before they disappear from the shelves. And in the long-term: you’ll probably need a year’s supply of baked beans and a shotgun.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article originally appeared in NEO #154, 2016.
Information wants to be free. Despite the public failure of Dr Frankenstein’s experiments with reanimated cadavers, his technology spreads like wildfire. When the mathematician Charles Babbage invents “necroware” that can turn a corpse into a servant, the British Empire is transformed through an entire underclass of zombie workers. John Watson, a young doctor, is recruited by “M” from the secret service to track down Frankenstein’s missing papers, in the hope that he can unravel the last mystery – how to bring back a human soul along with a body…
Satoshi Ito was the darling of Japanese science fiction in the early 21st century. Born in 1974, he shot to fame in 2007 with his novel Genocidal Organ, in which terrorists get their hands on nuclear weapons, plunging the free world into a downward spiral of restrictive surveillance. It was voted the book of the decade by Japanese fandom, and swiftly led to Ito’s work-for-hire novelising the video game Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. His next original splash was Harmony, which concentrated on the hunger strikers who protested against a self-proclaimed utopia. But only two years after his debut novel, Ito was already mortally ill, repeatedly hospitalised with cancer. His obsession with medical technology in Harmony hence took on a new, grim relevance, as did the handful of pages from his last idea… left behind after his untimely death, aged just 34, in 2009.
Empire of Corpses was lightning in a bottle – an industrial revolution founded not on slave labour, but on reanimated corpses, pushed every post-colonial button in modern fiction, along with a “Great Game” stand-off between British and Russian agents in the killing grounds of the Middle East. It had everything: espionage, exotic locations, steampunk stylings, and a league of extraordinary gentlemen ripped from the pages of history and adventure – we see the newly minted Dr Watson receive the injuries in Afghanistan that he would later grumble about to a more famous sleuthing companion. And he’s only the first of a whole host of figures who pile into the narrative like a who’s-who of the 19th century, including the Brothers Karamazov (working undercover for the Tsar), Thomas Edison and Ulysses S. Grant.
Ito’s publishers wouldn’t let it die. They commissioned his friend Toh Enjoe, a very different novelist, to finish the work in progress, and the collaboration beyond the grave would go on to win a Seiun Award (Japan’s Hugo) in 2013. All three of Ito’s novel-length works went into production as animated features – partly, one suspects because of his undeniable popularity, although a cynic might suggest that the best possible original creator in the eyes of an anime producer is one who is too dead to answer back. Empire of Corpses was the first of the three to reach cinemas – rumours persist that it was rushed through in order to take a slot vacated by a more troubled production. That, at least would explain some of its problems, since it looks fantastic, sounds like a dream come true, but ultimately shambles like creature born from several great ideas, sewn together but not quite quickened with the spark of life.
It’s difficult to know where the problem lies for Empire of Corpses – right from its publication in novel form, there was always the concern that Toh Enjoe took the narrative far from the original creator’s intentions. It starts so well, but you can almost feel the moment 20 minutes in when the original pages ran out, and Toh started to wing it. His rescue job on Ito’s notes won a Seiun Award in Japan, although we’ll never know how much of that was a sympathy vote for the dead co-author. Three further writers are credited with bringing the film to the screen, and it’s they, we might assume, who sat around brainstorming and decided that what the main female lead Hadaly Lilith needed was a really big pair of boobs. Her pneumatic shuffling through the movie detracts from a storyline that otherwise takes itself very seriously indeed, but which lumbers uneasily from fiercely argued anti-colonialism, to a subtle gay romance, to a somewhat illogical zombie drama (suddenly, biting people makes them undead), to the origin story for an entirely different series, only revealed in a post-credits sting. The final act, in particular, gets bogged down in a Japanese interlude and an explosion-happy finale, a big finish seemingly hobbled by the twin golems of budget and time.
Jonathan Clements asks: is Sibyl faulty?
As part of the research for the PSYCHO-PASS anime film, director Naoyoshi Shiotani trained with Tamura Tactical Gear, a company that offers military re-enactments. “I asked them what was never done in movies,” he recalls, “and they told me that hardly anyone ever shows the wounded getting treated. I thought that was a brilliant idea.” It’s precisely the sort of attention to counter-intuitive detail that has made PSYCHO-PASS one of the anime hits of recent memory.
In the year 2113, Japan is kept safe by the Sibyl system, a super-powerful computer that uses on-the-spot brain scans to determine how likely someone is to even think of committing a crime. Anyone with criminal leanings can be terminated or imprisoned before they do wrong, except for a few “latent” criminals who are employed as enforcers to do the establishment’s dirty work. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out, everything, from deluded criminals whose psychological profile shows up as normal, to innocent people who inadvertently show signs of criminal tendencies. And that’s assuming that the system itself isn’t faulty or open to corruption. What happens when Amazon stops recommending things you might like, and rings the police instead to grass you up for liking too many films about terrorists?
“Intelligent people do not fit in,” warns writer Gen Urobuchi. “Because in that world knowledge is not regarded as something that makes people happy, so those who devote themselves to knowledge are criminals and drop-outs from the career track. The Sibyl society is a utopia where people become happy by putting a lid on knowledge.”
If that all sounds a uncomfortably prophetic about our post-truth, Brexit-obsessed world, PSYCHO-PASS is rooted firmly in the “If this goes on…” school of sci-fi, positing a world where big data is increasingly used to control the citizenry. Far from creating a safe and happy society, the concentration on pre-crime has led to a paranoid and fearful dystopia, where people are tarred with the brush of criminality not because of what they have done, but what a computer thinks they might. The series reflects a healthy scepticism about the reliability of statistical tests – a particular bugbear in Japan, where school examinations are often ridiculed for squeezing out originality of thought in favour of rote learning.
The reasoning behind the scenes at animation studio Production I.G is liable to be tied up in both the success and limitations of their former cash cow: the Ghost in the Shell franchise (affectionately known in fandom as GiTS). Ever since the 1995 movie, GiTS has periodically rebooted as a TV series, as spin-off movies and video works, the rights in its ownership becoming increasingly tangled. With the oncoming splash of the live-action Hollywood GiTS movie, starring Scarlett Johansson, the intellectual property is liable to become even more convoluted. Meanwhile, GiTS is based on a manga from the 1980s, arguably a whole generation behind the times. For a long while, Production I.G has injected fresh new sci-fi ideas into the franchise, but someone must have surely asked: why don’t we just invent our own?
The name to watch behind the scenes is supervising director Katsuyuki Motohiro, a man with only an oblique relationship to the anime world. The director of the live-action TV and cinema smash Bayside Shakedown, Motohiro is a master at crafting thoughtful policiers, and brings to the table a healthy disrespect for anime trends. It was him, one suspects, who was largely to be credited with the production’s stated “anti-moe” policy, refusing to fetishise cute female characters as a sop to an imagined audience of emotionally stunted fanboys. The result is leading lady Akane Tsunemori, who believes in the system even though she is confronted with its many flaws.
A PSYCHO-PASS animated feature went into production alongside the second TV season, offering a new plot in which the “successful” Sibyl system is experimentally installed in a South-East Asian country. Writers Gen Urobuchi and Makoto Fukami welcomed the chance to showcase how an idea that almost makes sense in strait-laced, conservative Japan could go right off the rails in an unstable dictatorship where all sides have better access to firearms. They also observed that Motohiro was on hand to push them in unexpected directions, such as forcing the cast to speak English even in the Japanese release, and insisting on a puzzle introduced in the first act. “He said,” remembers Urobuchi, “that if you want the audience to sit there for two hours, you have to offer them a mystery at the start.”
Over at the All the Anime blog, I write an introduction to the wartime propaganda movie Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (i.e. Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors), which is receiving its belated UK premiere at Scotland Loves Anime next month.
“Japan’s first animated feature was a masterpiece of propaganda film-making, uncompromising in the bile it directed at the enemy, romantic in its evocation of home and hearth and of imperial Japan’s Pan-Asian aspirations, and still unsettling today in its depiction of the mindset of the Japanese military. Its survival to reach modern audiences is itself an adventure story in which it somehow evades bombing raids, burial, shredding and bonfires, emerging from hiding after almost 40 years to offer modern audiences a horrifying glimpse of a very different world.”
Advance praise is in for my new Armchair Traveller’s History of Beijing, from impressively heavy hitters.
“‘This book is like having a friendly, knowledgeable companion taking your arm as you wander through the back alleys and boulevards of one of the world’s great cities. Clements wears his learning lightly, and his informed but inclusive tone makes this the perfect book for the visitor to Beijing.” — Rana Mitter, author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction
“‘Beijingers, both Chinese and foreign, mourn the Chinese capital’s rapidly-disappearing traditional alleys but few of us appreciate Beijing as a city that has lasted through 2,500 years of building and destruction. Jonathan Clements’ tour of the city starts with Peking Man and a jovial candy seller, and moves on through the Chinese dynasties with a readable flair. He comes well-stocked with tales that will be new even to long-time residents. It’s a book for a warm teahouse on a cold winter afternoon.” — Lucy Hornby, China correspondent, Financial Times
“It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Jonathan Clements to compile a readable account of Beijing. Authoritative yet deliciously irreverent, his history of the city is an essential companion for the visitor and a treasure trove of vicarious delights for the chair-bound.” — John Keay, author of China: A History
“If New York and London dominated the global imagination in the twentieth century, Beijing is already in the process of usurping them in the twenty first. An extraordinarily exciting city, possessed of enormous optimism and expectation, it has a long, fascinating and complex history. Jonathan Clements unpeels the onion that is Beijing and in a highly readable and informative book gives us a wonderful glimpse of the history of a compelling city.” — Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World
Over at All the Anime, I review George Solt’s book The Untold History of Ramen, which “digs behind invented traditions to tell the story of one of Japan’s most famous dishes, not as a breathless account of urban cuisine, but a hard-nosed anaylsis of demographic changes, supply chains and industrial politics.”