Money for Nothing

Hayao Miyazaki’s fluffy forest spirit Totoro has been around in China for thirty years, sneaking in through Taiwanese or Hong Kong DVDs, or stowing away in kids’ luggage on return trips from Japan. But his first official cinema outing in the People’s Republic did not come about until December 2018, when he suddenly burst out on 3,000 screens.

Interpreting the numbers, Totoro had a fantastic opening weekend, making $12.9 million and beaten only by Aquaman. But by the end of its second week in Chinese cinemas, its takings had slumped 75%. I’m writing this article on New Year’s Eve 2018, as Totoro’s total Chinese box office takings edge over the $20 million mark.

You might not think that $20 million is a lot of money, especially considering that half of that money stays with the Chinese distributors and exhibitors, and fair old chunk probably went on marketing. But Studio Ghibli certainly hasn’t lost any money by belatedly releasing its much-loved classic in China. In fact, it’s easy to forget that Totoro only made $5 million on its original Japanese release, and that was on a double bill with Grave of the Fireflies. Thirty years on, this is money for nothing. The Chinese box office last month counts for 80% of Totoro’s global lifetime theatrical takings!

But as long-time readers will know, movie accounting is often not about those numbers at all. It’s about a bunch of other issues, including the fact that the Japanese 2012 Blu-ray of Totoro created an all-new, cleaned-up pin-sharp copy of the film, ready for duplicating on 3,000 hard-drives to open on 3,000 Chinese screens. It’s about the fact that, unlike creaky old TV shows or low-budget video fare, movies have a much longer shelf-life, and a period piece like Totoro, with a rural setting and a feel-good tone, seems tailor-made for the Chinese provinces.

Meanwhile, with the suspension of the One-Child Policy, there are suddenly twice as many Chinese children to form a market. Children’s entertainment, along with clothing and toys, is a surging new growth area in modern China. Even considering the vast piracy of Ghibli products over the last few years – and I have never seen a Chinese video pirate who isn’t selling Totoro, usually a knock-off of the Taiwanese dub – there’s a whole new generation of Chinese kids who have never seen it, who now get to see it in cinemas, ahead of a roll-out of other Ghibli products. And is someone eyeing up the blueprints for Japan’s new Ghibli theme park, and wondering if they could transplant something similar to Shanghai Disneyland…?

[Since this article was published, the Chinese box office takings for Totoro climbed to $25.75 million]

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #185, 2019.

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Top Men

At the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones was assured that his priceless, powerful archaeological find was being looked after by ‘Top Men’. But as the credits began to roll, we saw it nailed into a crate, dumped in a giant warehouse full of similar boxes, forgotten and abandoned. The image was Lucas and Spielberg’s homage to Orson Welles, a little piece of Citizen Kane recycled for a modern audience. But in Japan, Hiroshi Takashige asked himself: what was in all those other crates? And more importantly, who were these Top Men?

In collusion with artist Ryoji Minagawa, he decided that they were a secret, self-sustaining unit within the Pentagon, tasked with nabbing any weird and wonderful artefacts that come to light, many of which had been left behind by an ancient, highly-advanced civilisation. They began work on the comic project that would become Spriggan, only to find themselves influenced by real-world events.

They were writing at the time of the First Gulf War; a very difficult prospect for the Japanese. A nation, supposedly sworn to avoid violence and military aggression, was forced to sit on the sidelines and watch while the rest of the world got involved in a conflict about resources in the Middle East, the cradle of civilisation, resources that Japan itself needed as desperately as everyone else. It resulted in such tales as the desert robot combat anime Gasaraki, and in an interest, partly fuelled by The X Files, in presenting the Pentagon as the bad guy.

There is more than one agency searching for these artefacts. The Pentagon competes with the KGB, and both are in opposition to ARCAM, a global corporation that wants the artefacts for itself. Its crack, super-powered agents are spies-cum-archaeologists named after ancient Celtic temple guardians, the Spriggan.

Minagawa and Takashige initially wanted to feature an adult agent, but ended up selling their concept to an anthology magazine aimed at boys. Consequently, they moved their original lead into the background, and concentrated on his teenage nephew, Yu Ominae.

Rights for a movie adaptation were soon sold, and Spriggan went into production as an anime. The film-makers plumped for a script that emphasised the Indiana Jones parallels, chasing after a different Ark (Noah’s, in this case) at Mount Ararat, with cyborg Pentagon agents roughing it up with the ARCAM Spriggans in an action-packed thriller.

As Ominae, producers cast Shotaro Morikubo, better known in Japan as the movie-dub voice of Johnny Depp. Originally intended to go straight to video, the budget received a massive injection of cash, sufficient for a movie, when Katsuhiro Otomo announced he would be ‘involved.’ Akira creator Otomo was supposed to be working on his own project, the long-delayed Steam Boy, but fancied Spriggan as a kind of busman’s holiday. In fact, he is rumoured to have been the director in all but name; his fingerprints are all over Spriggan, in the design of the space-faring Noah’s Ark that the agents unearth, in the blue-skinned Pentagon child-telepath General MacDougall, and in the large amount of night-time shooting – an expensive luxury in animation that relies so heavily on light coming through the cels, but one that Otomo often enjoyed for the artistic hell of it. The credited director, Hirotsugu Kawasaki, has not had another movie to his name since, only emphasising the impression that Otomo’s more nebulous title of ‘General Superviser’ may have been adopted for contractual reasons. But for those in the know, there was no mistaking who the Top Man on the Spriggan production really was.

This article first appeared in the Judge Dredd Megazine #236, 2005, and was subsequently reprinted in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. A new adaptation of Spriggan has just been announced, forthcoming from Netflix.

Law & Justice

In case you missed it up on the All the Anime blog, my review of the academic collection Law and Justice in Japanese Popular Culture: From Crime-Fighting Robots to Duelling Pocket Monsters.

Law and Justice in Japanese Popular Culture is packed with interesting concepts and articles. It will prove particularly useful as a wildcard for the savvy college tutor – something to throw into the reading list in order to engage with young students about the implications of Pokémon fights or the way that the best sci-fi anime can suggest new and prickly areas of legal dispute. It also offers valuable details on some of the peculiarities of the real-world Japanese legal system, as seen through the way they influence the plots of thrillers, and even the assumptions that fictional characters make about the nature of right and wrong.”

Gods of Egypt

There were times, at Akhnaten, when I wondered what everybody else in the audience made of a man in fake boobs and jodhpurs, repeatedly shouting “Haaaaa!” while a dozen jugglers threw balls around him, but hopefully they already knew enough of the story to follow what was going on. That strangest of incidents in the mists of history, an Egyptian pharoah suddenly proclaiming there was only one God, smashing the old order and writing a hymn to the Sun.

There were wonderful moments — the priests clad like doctors, huddled in the shadows around the mummified Amenhotep III as they prepare him for his funeral, lights shining from their heads; Queen Tye in permanent shock, her hands red with blood from holding Amenhotep’s heart, staring in mute horror at the sky as if hoping to catch a glimpse at his departing soul; the constant presence of the Scribe, creator and curator of what little we know, his body often held in a rictus of despair. And a libretto drawn, like Steve Reich’s Different Trains, from fragments of found material — the Hymn to the Aten and a letter from a troubled general, asking for military assistance, from which an entire reign has somehow been extrapolated.

My mind wandered, as I suspect it was supposed to, to other things. As I watched Akhnaten’s six daughters, their matted hair entangled like rat-tails, dragged away in slow motion, I wondered if Philip Glass would ever consider a sequel about Ankhesanamun, Akhnaten’s daughter, wife and daughter-in-law, married to the boy pharoah Tutankhamun, and author of the melancholy letter sent to the Hittites: “My husband is dead and I have no son…. I am afraid.” As Akhnaten and Nefertiti advance slowly across the stage towards each other to share a kiss, their long crimson silk trains entwine, recalling Chie Shinohara’s Red River, a story which does indeed include the story of Ankhesanamun’s letter arriving in Anatolia, and the failed mission to send her a prince as a husband.

The animal-headed gods on the rooftop transform into a class of idle students, misbehaving while a tweeded academic bumbles his way through a tourist guide to a desert ruin where there is almost nothing to see, and offers handy tips for the ferry. One student tries, and fails to juggle with balls of paper, a faint mockery of the constant juggling throughout that has been symbolic of the rise and fall of the sun disc. Akhnaten himself is redressed, as if for his coronation, but now he is a figure in a museum… and then he comes to life once more, wordlessly comiserating with the ghosts of Nefertiti and Tye at the ruin of their world, as a river of time washes past them.

Akhnaten is playing at the Coliseum in London until 7th March.

Disappearing Anime…

December’s issue of Wired magazine included an article that stumbled across something that NEO readers have known for years – that online repositories for your favourite movies cannot be trusted. Brian Raftery’s article “Streaming isn’t Everything and Blu-rays are Here to Prove it” informs Wired’s hipster readership that the really cool kids are hunting down bespoke DVDs of their favourite films, because there really is no guarantee that some whim of international licensing will suddenly cause titles in online libraries to wink out of existence.

If, like me, you are lucky enough to live in a town with a well-curated second-hand video store, you may still be able to snatch up one of the obscurities. Good curation, however, also comes at a price. The nearest store to me is scrambling desperately to offload its DVDs so it can concentrate solely on Blu-rays.

There are all sorts of reasons why a film is no longer available. Often it is a trivial matter like music rights, when it is too expensive to remove a song, but also simply not worth the distributors’ while to pay for the rights to use it. The number of likely sales is outweighed by the cost of ticking all the right legal boxes, and this is a particular danger to anime, when many titles struggle to sell more than a couple of thousand copies.

Films fall in and out of libraries. Their ownership is tangled by changes in committee compositions, or corporate take-overs. It’s important to remember that just because you own a DVD, you don’t actually “own” the film on it, only the right to play it in your recorder. If your DVD stops working after a thousand plays, you are not entitled to a replacement; you’ll have to buy it again.

I find it ironic that even as the likes of Netflix throw buckets of money at new anime shows and fund remakes of Death Note and Cowboy Bebop, their very ubiquity and disruptive influences are making other shows harder to find. But on balance, we still have an easier time of it in the modern world. Streaming sites still offer immediate access to hundreds of anime, and may well introduce you to something you would never find in the video shop. And if you really must look for a solid, online stores can tell you in moments whether that’s actually possible…. And if not, cheekily offer you a Dutch or Polish version that’s almost as good and will probably play in your player. Some anime might fall between the cracks in the pavement, but at least online searching saves you wasting shoe leather tramping around the shops.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #184, 2019.

The Unruly Generation (1937)

After years buried among his books and papers, the leading mathematician Reinhold Varavaara (Uuno Laakso) pronounces his academic work complete, only to discover that the world has moved on. His wife is a stranger to him, his three children are carefree teenage tearaways, and his family has got so used to his absence, that all they care about is the prospect of the money he might earn by getting an award. The only person who seems to “get” him is Marja (Ansa Ikonen), his son’s girlfriend, in whom Varavaara increasingly seeks counsel and solace.

Ironically for a story that supposedly huffs and puffs about “kids today”, The Unruly Generation (Kuriton sukupolvi) is a rather timeless situation, Mika Waltari’s 1936 play made it swiftly to the screen, but it would be reprised twenty years later with a different leading man, fulminating about different youth habits and popular music, beatniks and atom bombs. Finnish critics are divided about the extent to which the story is autobiographical, with some pointing out that the professor’s name seems to be a hybrid of several tutors that the young Waltari had at the University of Helsinki. Others go further, suggesting that Waltari, then only 28 but already a husband and father, saw himself in the character of the daffy Professor Varavaara, emerging from his study after a marathon writing session, to discover that the world has changed around him. Life was certainly imitating art – the story goes that the workaholic Waltari wrote the play after his wife taunted him that he was incapable of writing a comedy. On the basis of this talky, drawn-out dirge, Mrs Waltari might have had a point, at least this time.

Waltari is one of the most fascinating creatives in Finnish culture, a ridiculously prolific author who seems to be a little overlooked today because many of his most famous works were international in outlook, rather than focussed on the Matter of Finland. He wrote The Unruly Generation fresh after finishing his play Akhnaton, Born of the Sun, which would transform some years later into the work that made his name internationally, Sinuhe, The Egyptian – later adapted into a Hollywood movie starring Yul Brynner. But Waltari did write many works focussed on Finland, several of which would be adapted by Suomen Filmiteollisuus, not merely A Stranger Came to the Farm (Vieras mies tuli taloon, 1938), but also the better known Inspector Palmu series

The Unruly Generation presents a chaste and romanticised notion of a happily married man, tempted by but ultimately resisting a giddy infatuation. Adapting his own script, Waltari delights in the opportunity to shoot on location – the film begins with a prank in which the professor’s son is caught herding cattle at the Helsinki parliament building. He throws away numerous scenes to make space for such larks (jettisoning the play’s reconciliation between husband and wife that leaves the film version a little more ambiguous), but crams so much in that his screenplay originally topped out at 259 pages. Even with cuts, it drags on seemingly forever, with little to offer the contemporary viewer except a glimpse of 1930s Finnish youth culture: singalongs in a cloud of cigarette smoke, energetic ballroom dancing, and a hard-drinking generation fervently embracing the lifting of Prohibition since 1932.

By this point, Suomen Filmiteollisuus was ramping up its production schedules, because there are a bunch of new faces both in front of the camera and behind it. Wilho Ilmari directs for the first time for the company, and although there are some familiar faces in the cast (blink and you’ll miss sometime leading man Jorma Nortimo as a waiter, and cinematographer Eino Kari as a gambler), the cast is largely drawn from the players of the original stage version. One notable exception is the actress Rauni Luoma (last seen here in The House at Roinila), the smouldering beauty upon whom Waltari supposedly developed a crush not unlike that of his fictional Professor Varavaara on the vivacious Marja.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland

Elegantly Wasted

Had he been born in our era, Li Bai (701–762) would have surely been a rock star, wrecking hotel rooms and bedding groupies he met on a drug-fuelled stage-dive. In Tang dynasty China, he still enjoyed a reputation as a wild-child poet, lionised for his quick couplets and witty juxtapositions, summoned even to the Xuanzong Emperor’s entourage.

That was when he blew it. After dithering for days among a crowd of hangers-on, he got his moment to shine, called in as a script doctor on a court performance that needed punching up. Instead, he drunkenly tried flattering a prickly consort. With all the self-destructive tendencies of a heavy-metal frontman, Li Bai dissed the chief eunuch and back-handedly complimented the famously plump Yang Guifei for being as gracile as a legendary stick-thin kingdom-wrecker. It took a while for courtiers to unpick his cheeky insults, but his career at court was essentially over before it had begun.

In his new book, The Banished Immortal, poet and novelist Ha Jin offers a slick and readable biography of China’s most famous poet – his wives and concubines, his dissolute life, and his flirtations with power and politics. It’s a warts-and-all portrayal that both evokes Li Bai’s talent and his ghastly, narcissistic disregard for others. “So long as the host can get me drunk,” he slurs in one epigram, “I’ll have no idea where my hometown is.” We’ve all got a friend like Li Bai… we just wish he’d warn us before he rings the doorbell and asks if we’ve got any booze.

Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away – one gets a strong sense with Jin’s text of the sheer, daunting size of China. A man of privilege who never seems to have to really work, Li Bai’s travels separate him from his wife for years on end, and he only writes to her on a couple of occasions. Her own letters never find him, defeated by the sheer length of lines of communication. In one amusing incident fit to fill an entire episode of Star Trek, a communiqué arrives from a people so remote that nobody at court understands it. Only Li Bai, who grew up in western China and may even have been born in what is now Kyrgyzstan, can decipher it, and reveals that it is a declaration of war.

Jin is at his best when dealing with Li Bai as a fellow creative – he makes no boast to be his equal, but has an informed insider’s grasp of the perils of poetry. He is not afraid to point out those places where his subject is just phoning it in, and is ready to suggest when certain “off-the-cuff” couplets have been composed in advance. This poet’s-eye view of another poet is Jin’s greatest contribution, cutting through the hagiographies and unmitigated praise of other authors to the heart of Li Bai’s true talent. The author, an exile who has spent much of his adult life in America, clearly identifies with the peripatetic Li Bai, excluded from high office and ever unsure of his situation, “a fish trapped in a roadside puddle, dreaming of returning to the ocean.”

Jin makes a strong case for Li Bai as a man of letters ousted from what might have been a more productive calling, an alcoholic genius who inevitably puts a foot wrong in the Tang court, and a late-life careerist who disastrously backs the wrong horse. We share in Li Bai’s elation when he hears that the new emperor, Suzong, has pardoned him, and in his disappointment when he tardily realises this was not a recognition of his eloquence, but a blanket amnesty. Jin digs down into the hidden messages of love poems, and the subtle asides contained in what first appear to be fawning songs of praise.

There are, nevertheless, some odd missteps in the prose. Jin writes at one point of the “Nan dynasty”, which never existed – any Chinese speaker can see that he is referring to the “Southern Dynasties”, but this error has been allowed to stand. The Xianbei tribe is archaically referred to as the Sien-pi. Jin bafflingly recounts the death of the concubine Yang Guifei as suicide, when most accounts agree that she was strangled. In what I can only assume is a sop to the American market, Jin praises the work of Ezra Pound, who spoke no Chinese and left scraps of Japanese gibberish in his “translations” from where he copied out a crib sheet. He guardedly acknowledges the earlier work of Arthur Waley, conceding that while dated, it still has weight – I would suggest that many of Waley’s translations retain a majesty and harmony that is often lacking here. But this is not Ha Jin’s fault – all but truly bilingual translators usually work into their native language, not out of it.

For the reader unfamiliar with Chinese, Jin’s explanations can open whole new worlds between the lines, although sometimes only patchily. He notes, for example, the allusion in the last line of the poem “Zhan Chengnan” to an epigram from the Dao De Jing, but omits to mention that the opening lines are obviously a nod to “We Fought South of the City Wall”, a famous protest song from the Han dynasty. When examining “A Lament of the Leaving Woman,” Jin interprets it as a poem that reaches out to Li Bai’s disenchanted live-in lover. But considering the hostility with which other poems rail against “that stupid woman,” it is surely more likely that this poem is a toxic masterpiece of passive-aggression, taunting her for losing her looks and having nowhere else to go, a “cheap concubine.” Jin flinches at pointing out just how good his subject was at being bad.

However, these are discussions to be had, rather than outright statements of incontrovertible fact. Jin has consulted a number of Chinese-language books on Li Bai, and his text valuably distils much of their arguments for an Anglophone audience. While he often quotes trenchant third-party observations, beyond his intuitions as a jobbing poet, he rarely gives evidence of a source-critical reading of these other authors – he is insightful on Li Bai’s poetry, but hands-off regarding his historicity. Repeatedly, he refers to these other works as if they are a unanimous chorus of approval, whereas a more historically minded author might have tried a little forensics to make sure these other sources weren’t largely citing each other.

Regardless, the field of popular biographies of medieval Chinese figures is shockingly small. Li Bai’s life spanned a rich, transformative period in the 8th century, the height of the Silk Road and the brief florescence of a truly diverse China. Ha Jin’s biography will introduce this poet to a whole new generation, suffused with examples of his philosophy and verse.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China.