Exquisite Bastards

I couldn’t go to San Francisco without dropping in on Toren Smith, founder of Studio Proteus and major mover of the manga scene in America. Despite only getting in on a plane from Canada that afternoon, he made sure he and his lovely wife Tomoko were available to help Mrs Clements and me chomp through a curry fit for six.

There is a universal language within the anime and manga business. I haven’t mentioned my trip to see Madman Entertainment in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago, because I am sure that it probably merits an appearance first in Neo magazine. But for the record, I did drop in on Madman, and we did spend a merry lunch comparing horror stories from the anime industry. This is because no matter what country we are in, no matter what titles we are selling, no matter what job we have within the medium, we all have the same experiences. Madman’s designer had licensing terror-tales that matched exactly those I’d heard from his opposite number at ADV in the US, and MVM in the UK. French translators have the same woes as their compatriots in German or English. When anime and manga are the things that put food on the table, we all have a lot more that unites us than divides us.

Toren has been in manga for more than twenty years, with a long-term durability that’s hard to beat. He knows I’m not just saying this because it cropped up several times in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, when discussing issues in translation, print quality and the economies of manga publishing. His specialist area, it often seems, is speaking unwelcome truths. Perhaps you can see how we might get along quite well.

In particular, I owed him a Guinness or three in thanks for taking the time to write his glowing review of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. When we were soliciting cover quotes for the book, I deliberately left him out of the loop because he was mentioned several times in it. Hence, his recent praise for SMC is not that of a paid shill, but of an independently minded Amazon punter who paid for the book with his own money. I particularly liked the bit where he said he went off and bought five copies to give away… if only every reader did that!

While our wives nattered about dogs and headlocks, we chortled and guffawed about the state of the manga market like two grumpy old men. I gave him a sneak preview of some of the material that might just lose its legal toxicity in time for publication in a putative Schoolgirl Milky Crisis 2, and he called me an “exquisite bastard.” High praise indeed, Toren: you’re an exquisite bastard, too.

Mostly Harmless?

Just stopped off for a week in Hawaii finalising materials for my forthcoming book on Admiral Togo, who spent a tense time there during the Hawaiian Revolution, and accidentally inherited an escaped murderer who claimed asylum aboard his battleship. I am sure I will write more about it here next spring.

In the meantime, on to San Francisco, spiritual home of anime and manga in the United States, where I have been staying with Frederik L. Schodt and poking around the alleyways of Chinatown. Friday was the official release date of the Astro Boy movie, so we were unable to resist the temptation to grab tickets and sneak unnoticed among the evening punters.

The audience in downtown San Francisco seemed split evenly between anime fans and families. Many of the children did not seem to have the faintest clue who Astro Boy was, which is the ideal way to approach this modern upgrade. The kids seemed to like it, apart from one little girl who started yelling “MOMMY I’M SCARED!” when Donald Sutherland started acting crazy… this is not an unknown reaction, even among adults.

There were a few tips of the hats to fans — a cameo for Tezuka himself, and occasional walk-ons for some of his other cast members — but the Astro Boy movie was largely and resolutely a reboot, toning down the death of Professor Tenma’s son Toby, but otherwise staying remarkably true to the spirit of the original. It was, in short, exactly what I would have expected a Hollywoodised Astro Boy remake to be, redolent in many places of Wall-E, although considering Tezuka’s influence on the world of cartooning, that might well be a case of putting the cart before the horse.

I sat there counting the number of Japanese names in the crew, and didn’t have to stretch my fingers too far. Astro Boy’s real influence, and its real future success, will not rest on the contribution of Hollywood — the likes of writer/director David Bowers and composer John Ottman already have resumes they can call on. It rests on Hong Kong, and on the many hundreds of Cantonese names that dominate the crew. Astro Boy might have a Japanese origin and an American sheen, but perhaps this film is better regarded as a work of Chinese animation. In American terms, it appears mostly harmless — a kiddie friendly, Saturday afternoon cartoon that is unlikely to make Pixar worry. But in Chinese terms, it could be seen to represent an incredible leap in talent and technique, lifting the capabilities of Chinese animators so high that they could now be positioned to give American cartoons, and indeed anime itself, a serious run for their money. And if money is the key, then this release is sure to be regarded in China as a “local” production, evading import quotas and heading out into the world’s largest market.

Astro Boy famously speaks more than 60 languages, but the only one he may really need is Mandarin.

Cattle Call

yuri-lowenthal-tara-platt-voice-actors-588x600“Actors,” said Alfred Hitchcock, “are cattle.” You control them with a pointy stick. You tell them where to stand. You leave them in a field all day, chewing regurgitated grass. You pull on their teats when you need a drink. No, I am not entirely sure where he was going with that. But actors should definitely do what they’re told, otherwise how will the director’s vision make it to the audience? Actors are the vital conduit between text and audience. And they make empty, melancholy mooing noises with bovine regularity.

I have had to sit, powerless in a studio, while actors droned on about how I had made factual mistakes in my script for their bewilderingly popular, 30-year-old franchise. In the recording booth, I reminded the director that we had copies of the DVD on site that would prove the actors wrong. He shrugged and said it was too much trouble. It was then I started wishing for a cattle prod. Continue reading

Titipu

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The inside of the Sydney Opera House is controversially unfinished; the original architect stormed off in a huff during construction, leaving the building looking nice on the outside but a sub-Barbican mess of concrete and tubes within. He supposedly came back to consult on the finish, but the toilets still seem like an afterthought.
Jacqueline in the bar was an accomplished saleswoman: “I would like to point out that we are 100% full, so it’s a good idea to order your drinks for the interval so you don’t have to elbow your way through people who can’t make up their minds. You can have them in the North Foyer, with a lovely view of the harbour. So lovely, in fact, that that’s where we put all our ugly bar staff. Or you can have them here in the South Foyer, where the view is not so nice, but the staff are prettier.”

It often felt just like the Barbican. A trillion miles away from London, there were the same cardigans and snorting fat girls; the same impossibly long walks to a dead end; the same scrubbed children politely trying not to admit they are bored out of their minds; the same smattering of youthful, preppy drama students who have to be there for their homework, and the same herd of doddering tosswits who seem to be confused by the sight of a staircase, but give it a go anyway with ponderous, meandering slowness while a crowd backs up behind them.

The Mikado was exactly what I was expecting from Gilbert and Sullivan – a twee pantomime. As with their previous Pirates of Penzance, the Australians did everything they could to liven it up with comedy business and pratfalls, and put a charismatic local in the role of the Lord High Executioner: Anthony Warlow, former Pirate King and Phantom of the Opera, who stopped the show in act one to impersonate Michael Crawford. In keeping with local ideas of what an ex-convict would sound like, he kept an Australian accent and made occasional sarcastic asides about how ludicrous everything was. The “Little List” song of things that piss him off was altered to include a bunch of Australian malaises, achieving the writer’s desire of ensuring that there were belly laughs in the first half, although to be honest, they were the only ones.

The wet romance of dull Nanki-Pu and self-absorbed Yum-Yum did not interest me in the slightest, but the costumes were nice, and the audience was, I am mortified to report, better behaved than the English equivalent. There was a rustle of excitement among the Australians when the Lord High Executioner began singing “Tit Willow”, as this appears to be a song known to them out of context, and many had no idea that it was from the Mikado. I certainly first heard it on the Muppet Show sung by Sam the American Eagle, so there perhaps some Australian vaudeville artist has crooned it out for no apparent reason as well.

I was far more interested in the aims of the original Mikado, written in 1885 at the height of Japanesquerie, when the impoverished samurai class of Japan, left behind by the onrush of modernity after the Meiji Restoration, sold off so much of their family treasures, dumping them on the European art market where they were snapped up by the likes of Arthur Liberty. The opening chorus speaks of being the men of Japan, familiar from “many a vase and fan”, and alludes to the mystery and awe felt towards the Japanese, so recently forced to open their doors to the world after 200 years of isolation, revealing an entirely alien country stuck in an oriental time warp.

1877 saw the revolt of Saigo Takamori, a doomed war in the south led by the fabled “last samurai”, a man who refused to kow-tow to the new order and paid for it with his life. It was the events of this uprising that inspired Madama Butterfly a generation later, with its talk of a teenage girl whose family must sell her because of their own poverty, itself caused by her father’s hapless participation in an unspecified samurai revolt. In 1884, when Gilbert and Sullivan were working on their operetta, Japan was briefly plunged into another conflict, when peasants in the famous silk-weaving region of Chichibu rose up in themselves. In the days before Hepburn romanisation, this would have been written Titipu, and no doubt the English found it dreadfully amusing.

Meanwhile, a bunch of Japanese set down in Knightsbridge and constructed what was referred to at the time as a “Japanese village” – some sort of ghetto and/or theme park where the English went to gawp at performers and buy tat. I am fascinated by this event – who were the Japanese who turned up in Knightsbridge, and how long did they stay? Knightsbridge is still crawling with Japanese to this day, as it’s where the Japanese embassy staff all seem to live. Were the people in Knightsbridge really representatives of central Japan, or were they early emigrants from Satsuma and Choshu, those two fractious southern domains who were instrumental in the Meiji Restoration, and who sent so many early students abroad to study foreign ways – including the future Admiral Togo, in England from 1871-8. I do find it spooky that amid all the cod-oriental, willow-pattern nonsense and whimsy, a fragment of real Japanese music should suddenly burst out of the performance, as the Mikado himself arrives and the chorus briefly sings a recognisable shard of the Satsuma battle hymn: “Miyasama, Miyasama…”, the Japanese broken and garbled, but still recognisable, the tune exactly reconstructed. Someone, it seems, has heard real Japanese people singing a real Japanese song, and has attempted to faithfully transcribe the lyrics, managing to salvage about six short lines.

Prince, 0 Prince!
What is it
Fluttering there
In front of your horse?

The next verse, which they didn´t include, should go:

Don’t you know that that
Is a royal brocade flag
Signifying our resolve
To defeat our enemies?

The royal brocade flag, of course, was knocked up by the Meiji Restorationists to shame their opponents into surrender, when the only other option is to charge against the imperial banner. There is something thrilling about hearing pieces of real history poking through a throwaway English operetta, thousands of miles from home, and thousands of miles even further away from the battlefields where it was first sung.

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

All Night Long

Just a housekeeping note for British readers — there’s only a week to go until the notorious Sci Fi London Anime All-Nighter, running at *two* screens in the middle of town. Your chance to see what, as far as I can tell, amounts to two UK premieres (or near as dammit) and a taster of next year’s big anime movie titles, while downing Red Bull and ice cream until past dawn.

24th October at the Apollo Piccadilly Circus.
THE SKY CRAWLERS
KING OF THORN
TIME OF EVE
EVANGELION 1.0
EUREKA 7 the movie

Tickets are £30 – including goody bag, or roughly a third of the price of a London hotel. I’m just saying, for all you people going to the London Expo that weekend…

Finder's Keepers

To Germany, where Ayano Yamane’s manga series Finder has been been rated as “harmful to young persons.” From the shocked reaction on some message boards, you’d be forgiven to think that the Germans were dragging up every copy of Finder that they could… er… find, and burning them in the streets. In fact, the story has been simply “indexed” by an organisation with the Teutonically exacting title of Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons. The name pretty much does what it says on the tin – they look for harmful stuff, and then make sure people know about it.

We can learn a lot from the German censorship system. Dodgy anime, unpleasant porn, morally suspect manga, all these things are freely available in Germany. You can buy anything you want, but you won’t find it in the high street or the shopping mall. If you want to find something that is unsuitable for children, you have to go to a place where only adults are welcome to buy it. Hence, in Germany, there is none of the tiresome brinkmanship and false “surprise” that hounds the anime and manga business elsewhere in the world. You won’t find German parents accidentally picking up a Toshio Maeda anime in the video store, and assuming that it will make a nice gift for their kids (this has happened in the US). You won’t find German journalists combing eagerly through the comics section of a sci-fi store, doggedly, desperately hoping to find something to which they can react with feigned indignation (this has happened in the UK). You won’t find German customs officers probing your luggage in case you are carrying one of those awful manga books that so notoriously corrupt the young (this has happened in Canada).

You won’t find any of these things, because fine, upstanding, conservative citizens, by definition, would never go to a sex shop or the adults-only section of a comics store, and hence cannot possibly be taken by surprise by what they see there. Nor, of course, will you find anyone underage in such places. Ten years ago, in the afterword to the Erotic Anime Movie Guide, I made a modest proposal, that other countries might examine the German model as a means of keeping everyone happy.

Finder is not “banned” in Germany. It’s simply been rated as unsuitable for children, along with Legend of the Overfiend and a host of other titles, such as the computer games Duke Nukem 3D, Command & Conquer: Generals, and Mortal Kombat II. If you want it, you have to go to a place that sells that sort of material. If you are a child, you are not supposed to encounter it. You can’t point at it at the shelves and pester your parents for it, because you won’t see those shelves. What criticism there is about the German model revolves around two other issues. One is the question of who gets to decide what is “harmful”. The other is how far this indexing goes. It remains unclear, legally speaking, whether the indexing of a title makes it illegal to even talk about it. Advertising an indexed title is a problematic area, although of course, merely turning up on the index adds an element of notoriety and publicity. I’ve never been moved to mention Finder before in this column, but now, because of this… here we are.

(This article first appeared in Neo 62, 2009)

About the Author

This is probably not going to be approved as the author photograph for my biography of Admiral Togo, even if it does combine many crucial elements. That vessel in the background is his flagship, the Mikasa, which trounced the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. The statue is Togo himself. The beer is Amiraali, an obscure Finnish brand from the 1970s that once featured a bunch of famous Admirals on the label. The fact that Togo was on it charmed the Japanese, who now appear to brew it under licence just so they can sell it in Mikasa Park. And then there’s me, stuck in Yokosuka with an accidentally-opened bottle of Togo beer, in front of Togo’s statue. With my reputation…

Getting material from Japan is significantly easier these days. Otaku.com or Amazon Japan will deliver to your door. It’s true, I may have accidentally just spent £200 in a Japanese bookshop, but that was a moment of weakness. Writers still have to do the legwork. If someone can find out 95% of the necessary information just by sitting at their computer with a credit card, it behoves the professional author to go that extra mile. In the case of Togo, I was clambering over his battleship photographing the makers’ stamps on steel girders, measuring the thickness of the armour plating around the helm, and getting a picture of his famous “Z” signal, which still flies from the Mikasa’s mast every day.

This trip to Japan has incorporated several projects. I have been acquiring photographs to adorn two books that are already complete and scheduled for publication in 2010, Admiral Togo and A Brief History of the Samurai. I am also amassing research for three other books that I hope to write one day, as soon as someone is prepared to pay me for them. And of course, I have picked up enough manga to keep my Manga Snapshot column for another year, along with a stack of books on anime history.

That personal touch is still necessary. Not only for getting the photographs of particular sites, but for pacing over the ground where history happened. Last month, I went to the site of the Battle of Yashima, and came back with no photographs, no souvenirs and no books. But I did come back with a sentence to add to my forthcoming samurai book that would never have occurred to an author who had not been there himself to observe the local geography,

In recent years, I have become addicted to small museums. If I am in a new place, the first place I run to is the little showcase of local history, because that’s where I am going to find the books without ISBNs that Amazon doesn’t carry. That’s where I’ll find the privately printed pamphlet by the local retired schoolmaster, detailing folklore or local legend that hasn’t made it into the history books. Japanese museums often have giveaway newsletters publishing new theories or research on an irregular schedule. When I was in the tiny town of Hondo, on the Amakusa archipelago, the local museum chief Kenji Kameshi gave me a huge stack of them, representing several years of data and research on the Shimabara Rebellion, too new for the history books.

This all places interesting demands on my itinerary. Taxi drivers are baffled to discover that I am prepared to travel three hours to an obscure hill in the middle of nowhere, and rarely understand that a single photograph of the right hill will pay for the entire trip. There’s no point in me going to a major museum if it won’t allow photography, but an out-of-the-way venue with a single interesting piece is worth my trouble if it’s a relevant object.

Nine times out of ten, when I tell people I am a writer, they don’t believe me. I have lost count of the number of times that I have to explain, no, that I am not a teacher, no, not a student, no, not a journalist. I am a person who writes books. Not a person who thinks he does, or who would like to one day, but someone who genuinely gets paid to sit down and tell stories about long-dead pirates, empresses and admirals. With pictures. Where possible.