The Imperfect Storm

There was a time when the $17,000 budget for an episode of Getbackers was considered obscenely low. Now industry figures claim that allocations of anime budgets have sunk to a shocking $14,000. That’s less than ten thousand pounds, divided among every sketch artist, colourist, animator and designer on an episode of TV anime. It means that there are some anime that cost less to make than this issue of NEO! Terrifyingly, it suggests that it can now cost more to dub certain anime into English than it does to make them in the first place. Unsurprisingly, some insiders are already questioning the figures, and asking if this is not perhaps an attempt by anime’s notoriously cunning accountants to squeeze taxpayers’ money to pay for the likes of Naruto, which, let’s face it, is hardly begging on the street corner with a tin cup and an eyepatch.

Meanwhile, of course, self-styled otaku prime minister Taro Aso (you’ll miss him when he’s gone!) wants a National Media Arts Centre in Tokyo Bay, a $120 million boondoggle where people can go and… well, nobody really knows yet. Watch anime. Read books. Look at someone’s colouring-in.

“If there really is money for this Centre,” notes Junichi Takagi, the producer of Red Garden, “I’d rather see it going to renewing the Japanese animation business and hence our national industry.” The pundits agree. Nobuyuki Tsugata, a noted historian of Japanese animation at Kyoto Seika University, is precisely the sort of person to benefit from a big boondoggle like the Centre, as it would sure to require talking heads, sign-writers, catalogue writers and speakers. But Tsugata isn’t in it for the money, he’s in it for anime, and he can see what’s happening.

“It is vital,” he told the Mainichi, “that we help medium- and small-scale anime productions.” Otherwise, there won’t be anything to look at, and after that I guess it’ll be nothing but cosplayers looking at each other.

Anime has been heading this way for 20 years. The demographic decline in juvenile audiences (who are, whatever way you cut it, still a big part of the revenue stream), and the aging otaku sector have created an industry that is increasingly self-referential. Aso’s white elephant isn’t even the first of its type; it is merely the largest. There is already an “Anime Centre” in Tokyo that offers visitors the chance to watch certain aspects of the production process. Anime’s publicity relies on the hoary cliché that it is taking the world by storm… and yet what kind of storm is it if it has to go cap in hand to the government? What kind of storm is it if the average monthly salary is $700? The public already subsidise anime by buying it in the first place, now we must pay to watch it getting made, merely so that it is made at all!?

Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, famous anime hyphenate, is having none of it. “Anime has the vitality of a weed. I want it to be left alone,” he told the Mainichi. “And with government support, I worry about potential restrictions being placed on freedom of expression.” Because nobody has yet asked if the Centre will be showing the Right Sort of anime. Or will Urotsukidoji be getting a subsidy, too…?

(This article first appeared in NEO Magazine #63, 2009)

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The Embers of Black Flame

News arrives via David Bishop’s blog that a number of novels in the old 2000ad line, including my own Strontium Dog: Ruthless, have suddenly appeared in Kindle editions.

Ruthless had a bizarre gestation. I’d written two Strontium Dog audio plays for Big Finish Productions. Featuring Simon Pegg (now better known as Scottie in Star Trek) as Johnny Alpha, they were critically acclaimed, albeit not stellar sellers, and eventually sold to the BBC Cult website, which offered them in the user-unfriendly streaming format.

The first of my Strontium Dog scripts, Down to Earth, featured a car chase in the dark, the execution of which impressed someone at Black Flame enough for him to ask me if I would consider writing the novelisation of the movie Highwaymen, which was frankly one long car chase in need of fleshing out. While that was limping through the production process (and, curiously, never actually going on sale, despite the claim of some second-hand booksellers to have copies available), I was then put forward to write the first of the Strontium Dog novels for Black Flame’s new line.

Soon after, my original contact was kicked upstairs in a well-deserved promotion, leaving me to the less able ministrations of his minions. The original commissioning editor had been great to work with, but faded into the background to be replaced with someone who kept sending me other people’s emails, a sub-editor with a chip on her shoulder, and a man who once accused me of breaking the terms of a contract that he hadn’t actually read, only to slink back and acknowledge that I had done exactly what I was asked to do. Black Flame began pushing my Strontium Dog novel to the trade, and took a couple of thousand advance orders. They did, however, forget one crucial point. At the time, they hadn’t actually contracted me to write it.

So it was that I had a panicked message from a new editor with a week to go before a deadline that only existed in his head, asking me if there was any chance I could knock out the book by the day before yesterday. Er… no, I said.

Black Flame scrabbled around and found another book to plug the gap, with the ironic title of Strontium Dog: Bad Timing. My own novel, Ruthless, eventually limped out as the third in the series, complete with an opening chapter designed to introduce new readers to the franchise, even though they would now have been reading two other books first.

Despite all this, I had a fantastic time. There is nothing, I repeat, nothing as much fun as writing a novel. I spent a lazy summer in a shed by a lake in Finland, writing my required number of words per day, and loving every minute of it. I veered off into tangents about alien biology, blocked out fight scenes on hijacked space liners, and speculated on the future of Martian journalism. After so many years squeezing my ideas into haiku, song lyrics and short stories, suddenly I had the freedom offered by 70,000 words. It was never going to set the literary world alight (as one Finnish newspaper article unkindly suggested), but I loved it anyway.

Now I hear that Black Flame is no more, which shows you how much attention I’ve been paying. I stopped pitching ideas to them in 2005 or thereabouts, having long since tired of broken promises and petty cock-ups, souring what had begun as a very cordial relationship. I’m pretty sure, too, that they remembered me ever after as the guy who refused to bail them out when they accidentally sold a book that hadn’t been written yet.

Now, apparently, the time elapsed since the demise of Black Flame means that the rights have reverted to Rebellion, the owners of Strontium Dog, which allows Rebellion’s Abaddon imprint to re-release the book in Kindle format. Like the other authors in the line, there’s nothing in it for me personally – we were working with other people’s characters, and signed away our rights to future royalties, but that’s not the point. It’s just nice to see that it’s still out there.

China Crisis?

To Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, where prime minister Wen Jiabao had some words of complaint for animation students.

Your work is meaningful. You should play a leading role in bringing Chinese culture to the world,” he told students at Jiangtong Animation. “Let Chinese children watch more of their own history and own country’s animation.” But this was meant less in praise than in criticism. After spending time with a grandson we shall call Wen Junior, the prime minister was shocked to discover that the boy preferred Japanese imports to China’s homegrown animation.

“He always watches Ultraman,” complained Wen. “He should watch more Chinese cartoons.”

Wen says this like it’s the animators’ fault. I fully believe the Culture Ministry’s statement that there are 200,000 animators at work in China today. It’s just that a big chunk of them are working on The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or take your pick. And while that’s great for Chinese industry and keeps people in employment, it doesn’t automatically translate to a rich local creative culture.

The Chinese animation industry, according to its Deputy Culture Minister, produces 41 hours of content a week, a number that appears to even top the output of Japan, which was 35 hours per week at its 2006 height, and is probably more like 20 hours a week today. But statistics are never the whole story. In many cases, those cartoons are being counted twice. When the Japanese broadcast a cartoon (let’s call it Schoolgirl Milky Crisis) on TV Tokyo, that’s 25 minutes of animation claimed on the Japanese figures. But if the same show is a Chinese co-production, and broadcast in China as Exemplary Scholar Heroines of Dairy Production Problem-Solving, then those same minutes will also go on the Chinese slate. Meanwhile, Chinese in-betweeners and colourists doing the dogwork on a bunch of Japanese or American serials, will be surely registering that as even more “Chinese” hours. None of that is going to help them make the Greatest Chinese Cartoon of All Time, although one day it might help pay for it.

Moreover, discussion of media in China often suffers from significant vagueness in definitions. There is often an infuriating unwillingness to distinguish between movies and TV shows, or pirates and legal imports, which in turn leads to woolly thinking and bizarre non-facts. Shows are “banned” that are not actually available. Fan-bases develop for titles that haven’t been sold. We can see this at work here, as well. Wen Jiabao’s thoughts are certainly relevant, but Ultraman isn’t a cartoon at all. There was, true enough, an Ultraman anime, but it’s difficult to imagine that Wen Junior is watching a cartoon that’s older than he is. Although if he is, and he still prefers it to homegrown product, then Chinese animation is in even bigger trouble than Wen Jiabao thinks. But if, as I suspect, his complaint was correctly translated but perhaps misinterpreted, and Junior really was watching a recent live-action Ultraman TV show, then Wen is being awfully unfair on China’s creatives by comparing apples and oranges. The cost of live-action TV is an order of magnitude above the cost of animation. He’s asking them to make an impossible leap.

(This article first appeared in NEO 64, 2009)

The Usual Suspects

(This article first appeared in NEO #33, 2007, and was subsequently reprinted in the book Schoolgirl Milky Crisis)

An attractive English teacher, apparently strangled by a student stalker, Lindsay Hawker was front-page news. As I write, Hawker’s murderer is still at large, and her grief-stricken father proclaimed that the death had “shamed” Japan. Hawker’s murder is heartbreaking and horrifying, but if Japan should feel ashamed, it is at the fact that a fugitive, barefoot homicide suspect can elude trained police. Somebody knows where he is, and I don’t know how they sleep at night.

The Hawker case has other elements to occupy pundits. She worked at a language school that discourages its teachers from ‘fraternizing’ with students after hours — a controversial policy that led a disgruntled employee to seek legal action in 2005, but which could have saved her life. The school’s motives revolved around its simple desire to control the purse-strings for the lessons and to avoid classroom romances that might turn sour through misunderstandings, but such things are easy to say on paper. When I lived in the Far East, I often went to teach at strangers’ houses — back then it seemed innocent and everyday, now it seems silly and sinister. I was just as trusting as Lindsay Hawker, but not so unlucky.

What does this have to do with manga? If you’re lucky, nothing at all. But there are already whispers that Hawker’s alleged killer fancied himself as something of an artist. Supposedly, he had a collection of ‘manga’, although reporting has been so vague and full of insinuation that it has been unclear so far if journalists are referring to hentai games or pornography or, you know, comics.

None of which automatically turns anyone into a killer. The usual tabloid suspects have been quick to dust off their anti-manga tirades, going so far as to suggest that the killer may have been inspired by a comic, without a shred of evidence.

By the time you read these words, maybe he’ll be in custody. If he says “manga made me do it”, get ready for the backlash. If they haven’t caught him, yes, shame on Japan.

(Tatsuya Ichihashi was apprehended by the Japanese police in November 2009. Press coverage immediately began circling his apparently dangerous love of One Piece and Bleach, which is sure to turn anyone into a killer).

Bad Luck

In New York for a meeting with Ari Messer, publicity guy for Stone Bridge Press. At least, that’s the official excuse. Unofficially, I am here to drop in on the New York Met, whose exhibition on the Art of the Samurai features a whole bunch of old friends.

Well, I am not sure we would have been friends in real life, but after spending many months writing the Brief History of the Samurai, I feel I already know them. A suit of bright crimson armour with golden horns dominates the entranceway, and belongs to the Ii clan, whose legendarily “accidental” charge against orders kicked off the regime-changing Battle of Sekigahara. There are sword-guards and daggers, signalling-fans and arrows, but amidst it all is Exhibit 96.

Exhibit 96 is a sword. Others on show are deemed more expensive. There are older and newer blades, many with airtight provenances that they were held by this general or that general, conferred as gifts by the great movers and shakers of history. But this one has mottled blotches of dark mist on the blade, as if the metal is alive but somehow rotting, clouds boiling on the steel as if it is not a sword but a silver abyss. Etched into the tang with characteristically choppy handwriting are two simple characters: Mura Masa.

It isn’t the first time I have seen a Muramasa. I do have a habit of hunting them down whenever I get a chance. As a child, I found one in London, sitting on a rack at the Toshiba Gallery at the V&A. In 2003, I found another, in pride of place in a Tokyo Museum. This one at the Met comes with a sign that readily acknowledged the badly-kept secrets of the Muramasa blades: that in the 18th and 19th century they were believed to carry a curse against the family of the Shogun.

Muramasa swords, it was said, were cursed. In 18th century kabuki theatre, acquisition of a Muramasa did the same for one’s well-being as building a hotel on an Indian burial ground. The swords were indubitable works of art, but brought such awful woes upon their owners that people did everything they could to get rid of them. Many were destroyed.

In the late 19th century, as the tide turned against the Shogun, Muramasa swords acquired an unexpected, rebellious frisson. Suddenly, they were the thing that all the coolest samurai wanted to carry, and as a result, there were many fakes. Exhibit 96, however, is the genuine article.

Pimpage

“Jonathan Clements is one of the rare commentators who writes for the English speaking anime enthusiast without resorting to supposition. .. Clements’ work stands as an effective testament to the value of print commentary in anime. Personally, I couldn’t be more pleased to have more of this work captured in a shelf-suitable bound edition.” (Ain’t It Cool News)

Tomorrow, this blog is a year old. It’s been twelve whole months since the Big Giant Heads showed me the negatives, and assured me that they would release them to the press unless I updated this blog twice a week with titbits from a writer’s life, rants at the injustices of the world, and pictures of cats. Although I talked them round about the cats.

In the process, I’ve uploaded a whole bunch of things that didn’t quite fit in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, as well as many more articles that might well turn up in a sequel, should I ever be able to talk the Big Giant Heads into printing it. With that in mind, nothing sways a publisher like a massive spike in December sales, so do please consider Schoolgirl Milky Crisis as a Christmas gift for an anime fan in your life. Or an eccentric uncle. Or anyone on an award committee who complains that there are too many books on the market about women who “find” themselves or men who like blowing stuff up. Every little helps.

Huomenta Suomi

Jet lag be damned, I shall be up before I go to sleep on Monday morning, to appear on Finnish breakfast television. For the thousands of Finnish readers of this blog, that’s MTV3, Huomenta Suomi at 0805 Finnish time. I shall be talking about my new book, Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy, the Finnish rights for which were sold before the English edition was even fully delivered.

It’s the true story of an officer in the service of the Tsar’s cavalry in the late-19th/early-20th century, who fought in the Russo-Japanese War before volunteering for a daring undercover mission to spy on the Chinese while crossing Asia on horseback, disguised as a Swedish anthropologist. Later on, he became the president of Finland, and then the subject of a malicious puppet show, but that’s another story.

Just a note for US readers, particularly if you are one of the 500,000 Americans of Finnish ancestry (yes, I was a bit surprised by how many there were, too), or one of the two million American-Swedes. The Mannerheim book won’t be in American shops until the New Year, but if you can’t wait, or want to impress Grandpa Jussi this Christmas, you can order it direct from Amazon UK right now.