Computer Says No

Jonathan Clements asks: is Sibyl faulty?

psychopass-coverAs 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.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #11, 2016.

Sacred Sailors

momotaro_still_page3_4-850x620Over 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.”

Armchair Beijing

41A5LcKbTvL._SX268_BO1,204,203,200_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

All My Sons Remembered

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It was a running joke that when Japanese interviewers would ask Akira Kurosawa what his favourite film was, he would always reply: “The next one!” His answer changed in the 1980s, when instead he would say simply: “Ran.” Released in 1985, this epic, lavish samurai drama was intended by Kurosawa as his final word. Although he would in fact go on to make three other movies, he genuinely thought that this time he was going out with a bang.

Kurosawa saw himself in the character of Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), an aging lord who, King Lear-style, tries to partition his realm between his three sons. The youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), scoffs at his naive idealism, and is banished. But Saburo is right. Hidetora soon runs into old enmities long thought forgotten. His rise to the top was ruthless and blood-stained, and now we see his karma coming back to haunt him. His daughter-in-law Kaede (the fantastically swivel-eyed Mieko Harada), wants revenge for the deaths of her own family, and turns his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao) against him. Before long, Hidetora is on the run from his own children, as they annihilate each other and the realm he helped to build. It is chaos, turmoil, tumult – in Japanese: Ran.

But not long before this triumphant return to form, despite being garlanded with accolades all around the world, Akira Kurosawa couldn’t get arrested in his home country. He had only made three other films since Red Beard (1965), the troubled production that cost him his friendship with his muse and leading-man of choice, Toshiro Mifune. His directing contract with Toho Studios had ended, throwing him at the mercy of the free market. After the box office failure of Dodesukaden (1970), he had even tried to kill himself.

Help arrived from unexpected quarters. In 1975 he directed the acclaimed Dersu Uzala, in Russian, in Russia. There was surely a bitter taste in its Best Foreign Feature Oscar for a Japanese director who had literally been sent to Siberia. But just as the noise over Dersu Uzala was dying down, George Lucas scored an international hit with Star Wars, proclaiming in interviews that one of his inspirations had been Kurosawa’s 1958 adventure movie The Hidden Fortress. Lucas and his similarly wealthy colleague Francis Ford Coppola came knocking, offering to bankroll the foreign release of Kurosawa’s next film, and thereby stumping up enough cash for even the timid Toho to take a punt. It was the ultimate in geekery – rescuing one’s student idol from the bargain bin of history. The resulting film, Kagemusha (“The Shadow Warrior”) was one of the top Japanese films of 1980. It actually made money, which took Kurosawa back from zero to hero. He was back in business!

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Eventually. It took another five years for Ran to get off the ground, in which time the septuagenarian director had ample time to storyboard every inch of every frame. With a $11 million budget (and this was when $11 million was a lot of money), he threw out every compromise in search of the biggest of impressions. He built an entire castle on the slopes of Mount Fuji, just so he could burn it down. He painted an entire field of flowers gold, to create a spectacularly surreal night scene, only to cut it in post-production (this scene can be seen in AK, the documentary included in the Blu-ray extras). He had literal armies of extras streaming along the hilltops and into massive battles, all shot from a numbing, alienating distance, with violence and terror reduces to swirling patterns of banners and firework displays of musketry.

From the film’s opening moment, at a fork in the road prefiguring the three-way conflict about to be unleashed, Ran is a triumph of symbolism. The characters are only depicted once sitting in a circle – whole and equal. Every other composition is broken and asymmetrical, daring the viewer to see further portents in the theatrical staging. And when it comes to home video, I would say its time has come. If you can’t catch it in a cinema, then at least most tellies are now big enough to catch all the expansive action, and modern media can capture every pixel. Go on, treat yourself.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #8, 2016.

Skiptrace

960Over on the Funimation blog, I tackle the entertaining but also thought-provoking Skiptrace, Jacke Chan’s latest movie outing.

“Finnish director Renny Harlin has managed a remarkable evocation of the mood of Chan’s Cantonese movies of the early-1990s, such as Cityhunter and Police Story 3, when he was working with Wong Jing and Stanley Tong. Harlin’s film (or more aptly, its script) also inherits many of the flaws of that era – underwritten female characters, plotting that takes itself about as seriously as the clowning action sequences, and a condescending attitude towards anyone who isn’t ethnic-majority Han Chinese.”

Under the Hammer

Tezuka_Sothebys1To Paris in June, where the local branch of the auction house Sotheby’s held a sale of 260 pieces of comics artwork, including samples from the likes of Jim Lee, Hugo Pratt and Uderzo, with a total sale value of €1.3 million.

The manga component was only a small fraction – largely from Osamu Tezuka. Notably, the Tezuka pieces sold at the low end of their expected price, suggesting that Sotheby’s assessors, whoever they were, had rightly predicted their likely value. Your mileage may vary – none of them looked particularly interesting to me. Astro Boy et Autres Personnages, for example, which went for a posh-sounding €3,625, was a scrappy little pen-and-ink study of five unrelated Tezuka characters. What you were paying for was largely its provenance, which is to say that value of knowing that these images were drawn by Tezuka himself, who is too dead to draw any more.

toriyama.jpgMost surprising was a single head-shot of Dragon Ball’s Son Goku, drawn by Akira Toriyama, which went for €15,000, five times the estimated price. Toriyama is still happily alive, and is presumably cackling to himself in his studio as he knocks out another hundred such sketches to put on eBay. One suspects that Chinese capital is at work here, bidding up the value among people who have read the manga in Mandarin.

In the meantime, here are my top tips for anyone seeking manga artwork as an investment.

Make sure it’s signed clearly, and preferably not to you. Future buyers will want the artist’s signature, not the fact that it includes the message “GEMMA YOU ARE TOPS!” Not unless their name is Gemma – a limited crowd.

Try to get a single study (a bust, full-length shot or face), not a random collection of heads; it’s worth more if it’s hangable as a portrait.

Beware of gimmicks – Motoko Kusanagi depicted as your girlfriend might feel like a giggle today, but only if you become as famous as she is.

Do think, too, about the capital you are already investing. If you’re spending £10 for the sketch, and giving up two hours in a line, and a weekend at the convention, and the train that got you there, the incidentals do mount up. Has it really cost you £10, or has it already left you £200 out of pocket? Because not every queue is going to be worth standing in.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #153, 2016.