Big Ideas

Sadly, it wasn’t the first time I had been called in to translate from English to English. The Japanese producer had once spent three years at University College London and was fully fluent, but he wasn’t quite getting through to the American producer. By the time I arrived they were talking at insanely cross-purposes.

The American thought he had the greatest idea ever: a samurai drama about a girl in Japan’s medieval wars – a woman warrior in the midst of all the conflict, kicking arse and taking names, all done in that wonderful anime style we hear so much about. All he needed was a co-producer. So he’d gone to a big Japanese studio and offered them the Chance of a Lifetime to invest in his brilliant idea. The Japanese had told him to get stuffed, but had done it so politely that he hadn’t realised.

The big issue, as far as the Japanese were concerned, was that the American was offering them nothing. Worse than that, he was pitching them something that they already had, and then adding a pointless extra to justify his name on the credits. It was like me offering to tell the true story of Prince Charles and Lady Di, but from the perspective of their previously unmentioned cousin, Hagbard the Barbarian. Why were the Americans inventing a samurai heroine when there already was one in the historical record? Her name was Tomoe Gozen, and if the Japanese decided to make an anime about her life, they wouldn’t really need any help from abroad.

In fact, the Japanese were rather affronted that the Americans had suggested it at all. Their own company had made a very similar show, which we shall call Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, only two years earlier, and the breathless excitement of the foreign offer seemed to come from a producer who had no knowledge of what the Japanese had already made and recently sold. It would be like me calling up Zack Snyder and saying: “I know, why don’t you do a film of Watchmen!”

“It’ll make a great manga!” suggested the American, hopefully.

The Japanese honestly didn’t know where to begin, and left it to me. I tried to point out that there were already a lot of manga in Japan. The Japanese are up to their eyeballs in Japanese comics. They don’t really need anyone else’s help coming up with new ones. They’ve got that pretty much covered.

Instead, they offered the American an olive branch. If you think this is such a good idea, they said, go away and publish that comic. If it’s so good, it’ll be a bestseller, and then you’ll have people beating down your door to film it.

The American was baffled.

“But it’s a good idea!” he protested. The Japanese sucked air in through their teeth and began to bow their way out of the room.

“What did I do wrong?” the American asked me accusingly. “All I wanted was a coproduction deal. I bring the world-beating idea, and the Japanese bring the… well, the money. And do all the work. And then I tell them if they’re getting anything wrong.”

Yes, I said. I can’t imagine what put them off.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #58, 2009.

4 thoughts on “Big Ideas

  1. I remember your original explanation to me that makes up the large part of this article, from back in the heady Crown days. The Snyder reference threw me until I saw the date of the article. Good point for all those out there who think they have the best idea since sliced bread for a manga/anime/film/etc.

  2. I think another appropriate expressions is “like trying to sell ice to Eskimos.”
    While the American probably did have a good idea in his head he is selling it to the wrong crowd. Sometimes a retread of something existing can be fruitful, ‘The Sixth sense’ was heavily inspired by an episode of a ‘Are you afraid of the dark’ in which a boy finds a ring in a school locker. When he places the ring on his hand it gets stuck, suddenly he’s going out in the middle of the night to a 50’s cafe and meeting a girl who seems to know him. Its later revealed to be his high school sweetheart who died with him on a rail road collision, however his corporeal form walked away from the incident with amnesia and met a girl who could see him, who had him believe she was his sister. Another example is when Hiro in Heroes, travels back in time to Feudal Japan at the end of season 1, this may have been ‘borrowed’ from Sam Raimi’s ‘Army of Darkness’ or ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3’ but I’d rather not discuss that.

  3. Very funny. This happens so often too. When I worked for Tsuburaya Productions In Japan I used to get all kinds of emails and letters from “writers” who wanted me to pitch their ideas to our company and for us to make the shows. I’d have to explain to them that I was not going to translate their story into Japanese and pitch it. I’d often offer to pass it on to the correct people if they submitted it in Japanese. I could do this without fear because I knew they’d never take that step. Admittedly these were mostly amateur fanboys and fangirls who can be forgiven for not knowing better.

    But when I would come across people who wanted to present themselves as professionals in “the business” who were just as ignorant I was always baffled.

    Thanks for writing this! Maybe some of those guys will read it.


  4. I bet said American had just been watching Mulan and thought, I know, if Disney can…

    Anyone want to invest in a production about an American women in the 1800’s who could shoot pistol and ride a horse as well as any man? I think it might even make a good musical- where’s Andrew LW number, he’s got a few bob…

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