When Miyazaki Was There

himarnie

Asthmatic, blue-eyed Japanese girl Anna is sent away by her adoptive family to recuperate in north Hokkaido. She finds herself in an idyllic rural retreat, where the sea has a haunting habit of invading the marshy land; where a dilapidated mansion seems to call out to her, and where she befriends the ethereal, blonde stranger Marnie, who assures her that this is not a dream.

Based on the 1967 novel by Joan G. Robinson, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There is a melancholy, elegiac account of a disappearing countryside and forgotten melodrama, set in Japan’s far north. Although there are twists of a sort in the tale, they are so obvious even in the above synopsis that the film becomes much more invested in the how rather than the what, and in the recreation of stunning vistas of the natural world. Such forests, such mountains, such skies, the animators whisper, are not a dream, either.

Marnie was the last feature-film production from Studio Ghibli, coming at the end of a decade-long series of fixes and bodges designed to keep the studio going after Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement. Producer and all-round svengali Toshio Suzuki tried to hire big-name directors to replace him; then he tried to train up new talents. He lured Miyazaki himself back for two more films, cunningly spacing them wide apart, and obscuring the precise details of who did what with an entirely alphabetical crew listing, so that when other directors took the reins, only the attentive audience members would even notice. Suzuki’s biggest and most controversial coup came with Tales from Earthsea, for which he dragged Miyazaki’s son Goro, a landscape gardener by trade, out from the rose bushes and into the director’s chair.

Goro had spent his whole life playing second fiddle to his parents. Before he even went to school, he and his brother had been the unwitting subjects of a book, Goro & Keisuke: A Mother’s Childhood Picture Diary. Hayao Miyazaki himself has publicly acknowledged that he neglected his own family while entertaining everybody else’s, and Goro rejected animation as a career. He contributed admirably to the Ghibli legacy by helping design its world-class museum, but was deeply reluctant to ride his father’s coat-tails. The critical failure of Tales from Earthsea, which begins with a prince stabbing his kingly father to death, was a foregone conclusion, but Suzuki milked the controversy, daring audiences to come and see the wreckage, and then daring them again to see how the two Miyazakis worked together on From Up On Poppy Hill, with dad writing the script and junior directing once more after a public burying of the hatchet.

Throughout all of this drama, Hiromasa Yonebayashi was the quiet labourer in the shadows. Rising through the ranks from in-betweener to key animator, Yonebayashi was arguably the most successful of Suzuki’s trainees. A cynic might infer that Yonebayashi did all the real work on Tales from Earthsea while Goro was just a figurehead. But Yonebayashi has had little chance to stamp his own imprimatur on his work. He’s spent the last ten years diligently pastiching Miyazaki’s world-beating style, helping to carry Studio Ghibli through a vital transition as its founders retire and its output devolves into “legacy management” – the museum, the gift shop, and the retrospective Blu-rays.

One of Miyazaki’s parting gifts to his studio was a list of 50 recommended “children’s books” – although some of them, like Sherlock Holmes and The Three Musketeers are hardly childish. It’s this list, it seems, that is a working document for the studio’s swansong, with Marnie picked from it in order to regenerate a bit of the old Ghibli magic.

There have been a lot of tears shed over the shuttering of Studio Ghibli’s animation division, but true geeks should celebrate the boldness of the move. Do we really want Totoro II or Spirited Away Again? Instead of devolving into slapdash sequels, with the leading lights retiring, what better way to preserve its legacy by quitting while they’re ahead? But spare a thought for poor Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who was nominated for an Oscar for Marnie, but who is little-known or recognised in the anime world, having worked for a decade to keep someone else’s reputation alive.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #9, 2016.

The King Hippo

Japan’s “forgotten” anime mogul, Hiroshi Okawa

toei logoThe animator Yasuji Mori used to call Hiroshi Okawa (1896-1971) the King Hippo, describing him (albeit not to his face) as a distant, preoccupied man in a suit whose approach would strike fear into the hardest of section chiefs. If Okawa was coming to visit, even the boss would have a mop out.

“He was a pompous king,” wrote Mori in his memoirs, “and rarely spoke to us commoners. I did meet with him once when we’d finished work on Hakujaden. Me and [Akira] Daikuhara, who did the key art, were invited to his office, and he just said ‘thank you for your work’ in this high-pitched voice, like when a tape is played on fast-forward. And in the autumn of the year that Toei Animation was founded, there was a sports day for all the Toei employees and their families, and the animator team won first prize in the fancy dress. I went to collect the prize money, and he said to me ‘that was really funny’ in a way that showed he really didn’t think it was funny at all.”

07186_1Nobuyuki Tsugata’s new Japanese-language book, The Man Who Aimed For Disney – Hiroshi Okawa: The Forgotten Entrepreneur, labours under the weight of its two subtitles, both of them seemingly concocted less for the benefit of readers than to ensure that the right tags are in place for search engines. Tsugata regards such phrases as points to be considered rather than statements of fact, as well he might. I bristle, for example, at the suggestion that Okawa truly is “a forgotten entrepreneur.” Obscure he may be, but of the two English-language books that cover his era, Hu Tze-yue has five references to him in her index to Frames of Anime, and my own Anime: A History has eight. Moreover, Tsugata’s own publication record has made him the institutional memory of the anime industry – he’s pretty much the guy who decides who is forgotten and who is not, and if he’s written a book about you, it’s fair to say everyone in the field will know who you are.

Okawa certainly aimed to be the “Japanese Disney”, and it’s this element of his career that has proved the most problematic in historical memory. That’s because, of course, the Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka also wanted to be known as the Japanese Disney, and the Tezuka estate has been far better at pushing its case. We might scoff today at such fervent auto-orientalism, but as Tsugata has argued in earlier books, while Tezuka did a marvellous job with public relations, Okawa has a valid claim to the crown from a business point of view.

After many years chronicling the world of animators and artists, Tsugata drags himself far from his comfort zone to talk about the life and times of an avowed Suit. He has no qualms, for example, about describing Okawa as “a film studio boss who knew nothing about films.” Okawa arrived at Toei Animation by the oddest of routes, starting his career as an accountant at the Ministry of Railways (“There was no man better with an abacus”), before being head-hunted to work for the Tokyo Rapid Electric Railway (Tokyu) corporation in 1942. He entered the post-war period as a middle-ranking executive at a company that was swiftly diversifying, pouring infrastructure profits into developing the first of those fantastic shopping malls that can be found at Japanese train stations. Don’t just get on the train home, stay and have dinner in a nice restaurant; do your shopping in our department store; catch a movie!

In 1946, Okawa found himself shunted over to a new role as the manager of a baseball team that Tokyu had somehow acquired. This moved him inexorably into the world of commodified entertainment, as he worked to turn baseball into more than just a run around the local park, but a media event that demanded merchandise, fixed sites, novelty food, and season tickets… Okawa became instrumental in the funding of the Pacific League, in which his team competed against a bunch of others, dragging fans around the country (by train, of course) to witness more matches.

Groomed as a likely president, Okawa was shunted sideways yet again, put in charge of turning around a trio of media companies, merged as Tokyo-Yokohama Films, Oizumi Films, and their parent Tokyo Film Distribution. This unwieldy mess, described by Okawa himself as a lame three-legged racer, hobbled by its own ties and deep in hock to loan sharks, is known today by a contraction of the words for Tokyo and Film, as “Toei”. Among its holdings was a modest collection of 36 cinema theatres. In an epitome of integration, Okawa helped to make the films that were shown in the cinemas and watched by the passengers who had eaten at the restaurants… funnelling money back into Tokyu at every stage.

Okawa dragged Toei out of the hands of its gangster creditors and into the arms of legitimate banks. He scooped up new film talent among refugees from Man-Ei Studio, newly returned from Japan’s lost puppet state of Manchuria. He ducked and dived in the movie market in search of new niches, heading downmarket but with a promise of more bangs for the buck by offering double bills on the same ticket at Toei cinemas. He scored his first big hit mere months after the end of the US Occupation with The Tower of Himeyuri (1953), a weepy about a unit of nurses killed at the Battle of Okinawa. In pursuit of the children’s audience, and in anticipation of the rise of television, he also acquired the struggling animation studio Nichido, renaming it Toei Animation in 1956.

white-serpent

Nichido’s animators were punch-drunk after a decade of living hand-to-mouth, and reported that Okawa was “more enthusiastic than us” about the prospects for animation. And this is where Tsugata’s book comes into its own, as he investigates the degree to which the success of Toei Animation in the 20th century can be credited to the talents of its many famous animators, or to the stern money-man who pushed them on to greater things.

In animation terms in the 1950s, making a full-length feature film was an enterprise akin to breaking the sound barrier. It was not merely a  case of building up the talents, training and materials necessary to get a workflow going on a 70-minute movie, it was the pay-offs in exhibition when that movie could sell its own ticket. Until Japan could produce its own feature-length cartoon, its animation output was doomed to remain as filler. Okawa, however, conceived a plan to churn out animators in an on-site training exercise, until he had so many that he could make a film. He got his wish in 1958 with the release of Hakujaden, Legend of the White Snake, a film that conveniently filled the gap left in Japanese cinema bookings by the petering out of Disney movies postponed since the war. He also pinned his hopes on export, hoping to ship the Chinese-themed film out to other Asian markets, effectively playing the race card against Disney, and banking on “Asian” trumping “Japanese” in the eyes of foreign buyers.

A rift grew ever wider between Okawa and Tokyu after the death of the company founder, Keita Goto in 1959. Okawa, it was said, had once been told the corporation would one day be his, and was understandably at odds with Goto’s heir. Tokyu effectively cut Toei free in 1964, right in the middle of its labour struggles with disenchanted animators, and just as a TV boom led to start-ups poaching its staff. There is surprisingly little about this in Tsugata’s book, but if we’re prepared to assign credit to Okawa for some of Toei’s achievements, then surely we should also consider the degree to which he may have been responsible for the agitation, strikes, disputes and lock-ins that characterised the studio’s troubled years. Certainly, there were grumbles at Toei Animation about a brand of cronyism that favoured employees parachuted in from railway affiliates and sister companies, rather than the artists who did the actual work. One of the most infamous of the angry voices was one Hayao Miyazaki, a shop steward who pushed for workers to be paid for what they did, rather than which branch of the company they hailed from.

Okawa’s training scheme led to Toei’s nickname as “Toei University”, but by the late 1960s, his business model was hopelessly outmoded. He had funded the training of the bulk of the anime industry, including Miyazaki himself, but in doing so, he had paid for the mentoring of countless rivals. He remained adamant that television was not the enemy – it might have seemed like cinema was suffering at the hands of home viewing, but Toei Animation turned a pretty profit making hundreds of animated adverts. Shortly after Okawa’s death in 1971, Toei pivoted to a leaner model, becoming the centre of a diverse web of companies formed by its former employees, outsourcing many jobs and letting the subcontractors take the risks.

Tsugata finishes his book with a prolonged meditation on Okawa’s legacy, both visibly in terms of the modern output of the Toei studio, and invisibly, in terms of its competitors, many of whom owe their founders’ education to Okawa’s schemes. After all, Nerima ward in Tokyo is known today as the anime district because it is the location not only of Toei, but of Toei’s many satellites.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

The End of Cool Japan…?

41OlrO2WKWL._SX331_BO1204203200_Over at the All the Anime blog, I review the new collection of academic essays The End of Cool Japan: Ethical, legal and cultural challenges to Japanese popular culture.


“Thanks in particular to the rise of Fan Studies, it has become all too easy for the Western pundit to lock themselves in a convention-centred hugbox in which ‘everybody they know’ thinks that anime and manga are the bee’s knees. Then, someone ruins their day by giving them the actual sales figures. Not that sales figures should be the sole determinant for avenues of academic enquiry, but if someone is setting themselves up as an expert in what is ‘popular’, they’d better have some idea what that actually means.”

Red Women and Red Beards

Girls with Guns and Chinese Mercenaries… in Finland

ForRedPetrograd,ForRedFinland-LIn May 2008, at the 90th anniversary celebration of the end of Finland’s Civil War, organisers were surprised that the Finnish President Tarja Halonen didn’t show up. Instead, the social democrat stateswoman was at a different ceremony at Tammisaari, commemorating the losing side. Her point, subtly and quietly made, was that she was not skipping the commemoration at all, but merely a commemoration, of a history that had many perspectives and narratives, victors and victims.

The Finnish Civil War of 1918 caused 38,000 deaths in a few short months, only a third of whom fell on the battlefield. Another third were executed or murdered by kangaroo courts; the rest died in prison camps after the war was over – of disease, hunger or violence. Halonen’s attendance at a ceremony for dead POWs restated the case for the Civil War as a national tragedy, the narrative of which has been dominated for decades by the victorious Whites.

History, after all, is written by the winning side, and those Reds that did not die in the conflict often exiled themselves thereafter from the telling of the tale. Some emigrated to the United States and forgot they were Finns at all. Some flocked to the Soviet Union, where they mostly saw their socialist dreams savagely crushed – not for nothing, the spiteful Finnish joke that Stalin was a great man because he killed a lot of Commies. Others faded into the general population, while the anti-Soviet Whites dominated the government, the army and the history books.

55969In their book, The Finnish Civil War 1918: History, Memory, Legacy, editors Tuomas Tepora and Aapo Roselius chronicle the many faces of Finland’s bloody national birth trauma, in which the new republic briefly became the high tidemark of Soviet revolution in Europe, before Mannerheim and his White Guards (with the oft-redacted assistance of German allies) retook the south. This collection of academic authors regards the war as a terrible national hysteria that divided families, set neighbours at each other’s throats, and offered handy excuses for outlaws and murderers to settle petty scores. There was also, of course, the heartfelt political beliefs of the two sides – the German-supported Whites swelled with a desire for liberation from Russia, and the Reds with their faith in the Soviet dream.

It has always baffled me that modern Finland, which continues to have military conscription for able-bodied youths, does not similarly insist on women soldiers as some sort of feminist statement. I have heard multiple explanations for this from Finns, including simple logistics (lack of toilets, which I find hard to believe), demographics (there aren’t enough places even for the boys), and pedagogy (Finnish national service being seen as a last-ditch effort to smack some sense into modern milksops, and hence not necessary for supposedly no-nonsense Finnish women). But this book offers a new line of explanation, citing the arch-conservative Mannerheim on his distaste for women fighting on the front line:

“I expect help from the Finnish women for the various dreadful needs of the army like nursing, making clothes, taking care of the home and comforting those who have lost their loved ones. Whereas armed fighting at the front I regard as an exclusive privilege and duty of a man.”

Girls with guns, it transpired, were largely a Red Thing, most memorably the 15-year-old amazon Laura Alanen who favoured men’s clothes and long, flowing locks, and who was apparently a sight to behold at the head of a column of armed cavalry. In the trials and putsches that followed the White victory, Red women in trousers were treated as combatants; Red women in skirts were regarded merely as collaborators.

The book also features a fascinating chapter on the irredentist battles of the late 1910s and early 1920s, in which Finnish nationals participated in wars elsewhere. Most notable among these is the Estonian War of Independence, in which Finns fought on both sides, including a detachment of Red Finns fighting alongside Chinese soldiers at the Battle of Paju – some Chinese labourers in Tsarist Russia, shipped into Finland to fortify Helsinki at the outbreak of WW1, became mercenaries after the Russian Revolution. There are reports of some Chinese fighting in the ranks of both the Whites and the Reds in the Finnish Civil War, apparently chiefly honghuzi (“red beard”) bandits from Manchuria, that same breed of irregulars who formerly rode alongside a young Mannerheim during the Russo-Japanese War.

FinnishCivilWarMapMiddle.svgAs Tarja Halonen’s controversial no-show attests, the story of the Finnish Civil War continues to echo and ripple today. Tepora and Roselius’s book is particularly good on the historiography of the conflict, and the fluctuating fortunes of the combatants in national memory. I have already written much about the White story of Finland’s formation. Writing the Red version is substantially harder, not for lack of sources, but because the likely readership is supposedly dead or underground, or now carries a foreign passport and has largely forgotten its Finnish roots. Essays in this collection explain why, noting the way that the White story has not only slapped down many alternate views, but also reached into the past to retcon it. It was the post-war White Guards, for example, who changed the name of their society magazine to Hakkapeliitta, associating themselves with warriors of the 17th century and thereby implying that they were not only inheritors of Finnish tradition, but its founders. It is not until after WW2, which itself augmented the Civil War story by proclaiming both sides to be reconciled against a common enemy, that the Reds start to get their due in fiction, with works such as The Unknown Soldier and Under the North Star presenting them as humans, and more importantly, as Finns.

As for the facts, there are heartbreaking stories like that of Algot Untola, the dedicated editor of the Red newspaper Työmies (“The Worker”) who stayed in Helsinki to single-handedly edit the last edition for a readership that was already dead or fled. Captured by the Whites, he leapt from the deck of a ferry heading for Suomenlinna prison, and was shot as he tried to swim away. But there are also witty tales of daring, like the massive stone memorial to the Reds which suddenly materialised in a Turku graveyard in the 1920s. It had been dragged there overnight by cheeky stone masons, who sneaked it in by knocking down the wall and then rebuilding it before anyone noticed.

The most telling memorial of all is a lonely statue of Mannerheim, sitting in a forest. Commissioned in Whiter times, it was delivered to a newly Red-leaning council in post-war Tampere, which refused to put it in the centre of the town he had once bombarded. Instead, they dumped it quite literally in the middle of nowhere, where it stares grimly today at an audience of squirrels and sparrows.

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

Chinese Stop-Motion Animation

$_1Cao Di’s Mandarin-language book Chinese Stop-Motion Animation chronicles the rise of animated films using the media of pieces of paper, marionettes and claymation. She does so in an impressively all-encompassing 336 pages, according a weighty, persuasive presence on the bookshelf to a medium that is often otherwise confined to the footnotes.

Cao does not shy away from the fact that some of the leading lights of early Chinese animation were Japanese, such as the early pioneer Tadahito Mochinaga, a Japanese animator fleeing the last days of WW2, who adopted the Chinese name Fang Ming, worked in China for the early 1950s, and returned periodically over the next two or three decades clasping new contracts and technology. However, considering his Manchurian childhood, which made him a fluent speaker of Mandarin by adulthood, Mochinaga is arguably a liminal figure that all but went native. Cao does, however, whisk away Mochinaga’s crown, suggesting that he was pipped to the post to make the first Chinese stop-motion film by the obscure On the Front Line, produced in Chongqing in 1939.

Stop-motion films largely remain short works, with concentrated bursts of artistry like the iconic Princess Peacock (1963) and the charming propaganda film Red Army Bridge (1964). China’s political upheavals made remarkably little impact on the output of stop-motion films, with only a three-year gap in releases at the height of the Cultural Revolution. In recent times, stop-motion leaps out of the arthouse into TV commercials and pop videos, where its short running times and quirky look can grab it more hits on the internet.

Cao’s book is packed with usable data – not only its narrative account of the industry, but a thorough chronology, a filmography of the works mentioned, and even an account of spin-off media – even Mao-era China had books-of-the-films. It is a valuable account of this over-looked subset of the animation medium, and a fitting companion to the same serial’s The Stories of Animation Outsourcing in China (1989-2009).

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Seven Years On

milkycrisis-12It’s been seven years since the publicity junkets for Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, the book that led to this blog being started in the first place. And over on Youtube, Nozomi Entertainment have posted up their podcast interview with me from spring 2009, in which we discuss everything from the demographics of fandom to the problem of getting Chinese waiters to do backing vocals on “Help Me Rhonda”.

The God of Manga

The Osamu Tezuka Story - A Life in Manga and Anime by Toshio Ban and Tezuka Productions Translated by Frederick L. SchodtToshio Ban’s The Osamu Tezuka Story: A Life in Anime and Manga is a ground-breaking manga biography of one of Japan’s best-loved and best-selling creators, the creator of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. At 900 pages, it is a breathtakingly thorough sweep through Tezuka’s post-war struggles to become a comics artist, his misplaced faith in the financial returns of animation, and his pioneering efforts in setting up the studio Mushi Production.

Ban’s approach often has the relentless, linear plod of a TV movie, beginning with his leading man’s infancy, and working all the way through to his death. But in doing so, he draws deeply on Tezuka’s own memoirs, citing childhood incidents as crucial inspirations in his later work, such as the sticky-up hair that inspired the coiffure of his iconic Astro Boy. Most subjects would not warrant this intensive focus, but Tezuka is such a fundamental figure for understanding modern Japanese media that there is sure to be plenty of interest here for fans and scholars.

Ban’s artwork is deceptively simple. At first glance, it looks like the journeyman drafting of an educational comic, but actually goes much further. His depictions of many scenes are photo-real, deriving directly from documents, photographs and location hunts in the places under discussion. When Ban writes about the arrival of a letter from Stanley Kubrick, offering Tezuka the production designer’s job on 2001: A Space Odyssey, he doesn’t just tell you about it. He shows you the envelope it came in, complete with Kubrick’s return address. Translator Frederik L. Schodt almost fell off his chair in surprise when he got to a page recounting a visit by Tezuka to America, realising that the youthful hipster in one panel was himself as Tezuka’s interpreter, faithfully recreated from a forgotten photo.

fred and tez

Here we see the formative years of a young comics artist: the temptations of a career in medicine; the irresistible but risky pull of animation; the struggles of a young studio, and the confusing whirl of international attention. Tezuka is propelled to the height of the manga profession, only to risk it all with a blind-faith bet on animation. Much of the dialogue is taken, word-for-word, from his own books and speeches, including a wistful farewell in which he speculates about how the children of the future might regard the Earth from space. Cue Ban’s artwork running with Tezuka’s ideas to present a slingshot, sci-fi ending, as Tezuka’s work forges on into the future without him.

Ban also injects some subtle artistic elements. As Tezuka’s long-term assistant, he has mastered his boss’s style, drawing much of the manga in a direct pastiche of the original. Clearly channelling the idea of how Tezuka himself might have approached the project if he had been able to draw his life-story from beyond the grave, Ban presents the whole thing as a fantastical documentary, narrated by characters from Tezuka’s own works. The art-style degenerates into more amateurish cartooning when the young Tezuka is telling a story to an indulgent audience of relatives, but blossoms into richly toned artwork when recreating adult memories.

The Osamu Tezuka Story is an unparalleled gateway to Tezuka’s life and work. Many critics, myself included, warn that Tezuka and his estate have been expert curators of his memory, and that Ban’s work typically shines a spotlight so brightly on its subject that many of his contemporaries are confined to the shadows. But that doesn’t stop Ban from noting some of the low points, including Tezuka’s resignation from his own studio and his flirtation with depression. Unless you can read Japanese, this is the closest thing you’ll get to a warts-and-all portrayal, and undoubtedly the most informative, detailed and illuminating work on manga and anime to be published in English this year.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #10, 2016.