"I have not told the half of what I saw."

Although they may be self-indulgent and self-regarding, I’ve really been enjoying everybody else’s round-ups of the ten years since the numbers rolled over from 19– to 20–. Herewith the last decade as it looks from here.

2000. In the first week of January, I discover that I am not going blind after all. Instead, the screen is dying on the laptop I have used since grad school. The purchase of a new desktop unit brings the internet into my home for the first time, and with it, an avalanche of Amazon parcels. Manga Max magazine is shut down in July, two days before I receive a Japan Festival Award for editing it. I write six episodes of Halcyon Sun, and briefly work on an IMAX movie project that falls at the first hurdle. Then, I’m hired to storyline and then co-script a console game that has been part-funded by a crazy arms manufacturer.

2001. The mad game is cancelled, apparently because of 9/11. By this time I am already working on another console project, writing three new “episodes” for a much-loved sci-fi franchise. It is only after the voices are all recorded, with the original cast, that the manufacturers decide to pull the plug. Something to do with the game being a stupid idea in the first place. All this gaming money gets funnelled into the Anime Encyclopedia, which eventually breaks even for me in 2007. I love working on that book so much that I look forward to getting out of bed every morning (a condition regularly repeated over the following years — I really do love my job). My first trip to America: Atlanta, for the book launch.

2002. Having superb fun working on the Dorama Encyclopedia. I am a presenter on the Sci Fi channel’s bizarre and mercifully forgotten Saiko Exciting, which first involves me reading the anime news, and later speed-translating and performing modern pop classics into Mandarin. I am offered the editorship of Newtype USA seven times, but decline because I have just got my dream job: a publisher has commissioned my obsession of many years, Pirate King. First DVD commentary, for Appleseed; I’ve since done many more for Manga Entertainment, Momentum Pictures, Artsmagic and ADV Films. Consultant on the first season of the TV series Japanorama. Film festivals in Italy and Norway.

2003. Working for a famous toy company on the “story” that will accompany their new line of toys. Fantastic fun, and very educational. Back to Japan for the first time in years, Kyoto and Tokyo; Dallas for another anime convention, and Turku, Finland. Writing the Highwaymen novelisation, and a whole rack of Big Finish scripts, including Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Sympathy for the Devil. Start learning Finnish, because life’s not difficult enough.

2004. Sign a deal to write a book a year about China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. This year, Confucius: A Biography. Back to Atlanta for another anime convention. Buy half a flat in London.

2005. A Brief History of the Vikings presents a fantastic excuse to poke around old sagas for a few months. Present my History of Japanese Animation lecture series at the Worldcon in Scotland, and later sell it as a series of magazine articles. I also write a massive 12-part History of Manga for Neo magazine. Start writing the Manga Snapshot column, which is still running five years later. Publication, somewhat late, of my novel Ruthless.

2006. The First Emperor of China. Off to Xi’an and Beijing. A new edition of the Anime Encyclopedia. Consultant for The South Bank Show on anime, although I am largely ignored. Write the novella Cheating the Reaper.

2007. Got married — honeymoon in Estonia after Mrs Clements vetoed Georgia. Wu. Not a book title that is easy to bring up on search engines, although you can hear me doing a great interview about it here on Radio Four. Before it’s even published, there are excited feelers from a TV company, which hires me to work on the outline of a 16-episode drama series based on the early Tang dynasty. Nothing comes of it, although I do spend the money going to Japan to get materials for another book: Nagasaki and the Amakusa archipelago.

2008. Beijing: The Biography of a City is published. But my next book, Christ’s Samurai, is left in limbo when Sutton Publishing can no longer afford to pay for it. Luckily, Haus Publishing has decided it wants a massive multi-volume history of the Paris Peace Conference, and has me writing the biographies of the Chinese and Japanese representatives. Big Finish scripts for Highlander and Doctor Who. Titan Books ask me to start this blog.

2009. Switzerland for the Locarno Film Festival. Back to Japan for a month getting materials for three new book projects. Then Shanghai, Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York on the way home. Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy is a Christmas bestseller… in Finland, although it goes down a storm at the launch in London’s Finnish Institute. Big Finish scripts for Robin Hood, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who. My collected articles and speeches appear as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I am rendered poor as a church mouse by an exploding boiler.

2010. Next year, I am supposed to be going to Taiwan for the filming of Koxinga: Sailing Through History, a documentary for National Geographic. I have two big publications coming on Admiral Togo and A Brief History of the Samurai — although if it’s got more than 300 pages, can we really call it brief? I’ve got a deadline for another book in January, and after that, who knows…?

I don’t know about you, but that little list sure scares the hell out of me. This, I guess, is the flipside of those cheery little adverts in the broadsheet press, that trill “Why Not Be a Writer?” That’s why not. Because unless you love your job so much that you need to be dragged away from it, you will never put in the required hours. And yet, like Marco Polo, “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Happy New Year.

My Book of the Year

Since I do this for a living and have to keep my receipts, I know exactly how much I spend on books — about two thousand pounds a year. Huge stacks of my most recent acquisitions are still awaiting my attention, although things I have enjoyed this year include The Penguin History of Canada, far too many books about Chinese immigrants abroad (the harvestings of trips to about six different Chinatowns this year), and the cleverest of them all, Holder of the White Lotus, a biography of that immortal sage the Dalai Lama, told through all of his previous incarnations. Wish I had thought of it. Meanwhile, in one of those bizarre moments of alchemy, The Emergence of Japanese Kingship suddenly made sense to me, becoming relevant and gripping after two years gathering dust and ignored on the shelf.

I have also seen the inside of a lot of airports. Few things are more depressing to the professional author than travelling to eight different countries in a row and finding the same old shit on sale in the departure lounge. I understand, believe me, only a handful of people really want to read a biography of Paul Pelliot while wedged in between two Potterheads in coach class, but the economics are dispiriting. The average British book buyer buys one book a year, to read on the plane when they head off on their holidays. It’s usually a giant brick of a book written with someone’s predictive text function. But I have spent a lot of time in airports this year, and have gamely tried to interest myself in the kind of books that everybody else appears to read. Fiction drew a blank; but sometimes in the world of facts there was something that didn’t make me want to hurl. Stars of my airport-bought reading this year include the second volume of diaries by that nice Michael Palin, and Clive James’s surprisingly technical account of his years in television: The Blaze of Obscurity.

But the absolute star of my reading this year, the book that held my rapt attention from beginning to end, which I finished with a distinct desire to go back to the beginning and start all over again, was Invading Australia by Peter Stanley. As the name suggests, it’s a book about the Second World War, and the belief in Australia that the Japanese were poised, ready to come ashore and seize the entire land. But Stanley’s account goes much deeper, surveying the fictional history of the Yellow Peril, and analysing the power of previous works of fiction in which the Japanese invaded Australia. The result is a history book half taken up with a study of science fiction pre-1942, with blatantly racist tales of evil oriental invaders, and armchair generals’ analysis of how Australia might best be defended against a putative attack. Stanley goes on to analyse not only the facts of the Japanese threat, but also the rhetoric employed against it. As entertaining extracts from Stanley’s own hate mail make abundantly clear, this remains an emotive issue among Australians, who were encouraged to swallow a national myth of holding a particular line against an invasion that, argues Stanley, was fated never to come, at least not in the manner that the Australians were led to believe.

Science fiction, alternative histories, stirring tales of Far Eastern derring-do… with my reputation? I was bound to love it. And since it was published by Penguin Australia, I was lucky that I was in Melbourne this year and able to stumble across it, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to see it on sale at Heathrow.

But anyway, in 2010 I have an entire shelf of books on American First Nations to get through, before I start looking for what’s new. The first books of next year are already on the shelves. The Poison King is in shops already, but has a 2010 copyright date at the front, as if we are already shopping in the future. I shall be getting that sooner rather than later, I expect, because it is one of those rarest items, a book I wish I had written myself. This week, I have mainly looking for a good biography of Alexander Nevsky, and I can’t seem to find one. Always more books to read; always more books to write.

2009: The Year in Anime Books

It has been a good year for worthy books on Japanese animation. Apart from my own Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, of course, there have been a couple of books I have yet to read but suspect I will like: Andrew Osmond’s Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist and Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Surely the prize for best anime book of the year must go to Hayao Miyazaki’s Starting Point, lovingly translated by Frederik L. Schodt and Beth Cary, and treating the anime fans of the English-speaking world to an unparalleled glimpse inside the mind of the medium’s most famous director, warts and all. Miyazaki is surrounded at all times by a cloud of idle speculation and spin, and it’s great to see him speaking up in his own words. Not wholly about anime, but deeply illuminating about one of its best-publicised elements, was Lowenthal and Platt’s Voice-Over Voice Actor, also published this year.

Osamu Tezuka has enjoyed a revival, with two excellent English language studies of him arriving in swift succession, first from Natsu Onoda Powers in May, and then Helen McCarthy in October. Meanwhile, in Japanese, the “God of Manga” was the subject of the multi-authored The Osamu Tezuka That Nobody Knew, and Yuka Minakawa’s chunky, gossip-ridden tomes, The Rise and Fall of Japanese Animation: Osamu Tezuka School, 1: The Birth of TV Anime, and 2: Psychologist With an Abacus.

Japanese-language books on anime this year have offered some tantalising glimpses behind the scenes. Just before the end of 2008, the Association of Japanese Animations (sic) and Tokyo Bureau of Industrial and Labour Affairs published a new syllabus for trainee animators and those wishing to enter the business, which seemed to carefully airbrush out much of anime history before the millennium. You might argue that on a need-to-know basis, new animators don’t really need to know… but for those of us with a historical perspective, industry stories are vital for keeping a sense of institutional memory in a notoriously amnesiac business. Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, guiding light of Production IG, published The Animation Business and a Non-Conformist Producer’s On-the-Spot Revolution, and Masanobu Komaki published his memoirs from behind the scenes at magazine in My Time at Animec. Meanwhile, Mana Takemura published Magical Girl Days. And in 2008, although I did not acquire it until this year, Mamoru Oshii (yes, him) published a management guide called (deep breath) : Salvation Through Outside Help: Seven Powers for Work That Does Not Fail, which not only included some wonderful insights to the anime movie-making process, but some mental photographs.

Few of these works seemed to have troubled the reading lists of people who call themselves anime fans, or indeed who call themselves anime scholars. It irritates me that so much anime scholarship seems to revolve around the re-invention of the wheel, as hordes of newcomers blithely ignore what has already been published in the field. Enough respect, then, for Simon Richmond, whose Rough Guide to Anime, also published this year, took the trouble to acknowledge his predecessors. If you just like watching Japanese cartoons for fun, then this shouldn’t bother you in the slightest, but anime seems to be attracting a lot of self-styled experts these days, and it wouldn’t kill some of them to pick up a book every now and then. Starting with the Anime Encyclopedia, which really does have some very interesting essays in it, the contents of which I keep finding other people to have ‘discovered’ independently, which is frankly a waste of their time, and of mine!

Herald Angels

15th February 2010 sees the UK premiere of the Gainax movie Evangelion 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance at the Glasgow Film Theatre. I shall be introducing it, although unlike the time I introduced Death and Rebirth in Oxford, I shall not be performing the finale solo using shadow puppetry and silly voices. There are all sorts of things going on the same day, as well, including a brief talk on anime censorship by a lady from the BBFC, and the UK premiere of the long-awaited Gentleman Broncos. Hopefully, the trains will be working by then.


As if by magic, the First Emperor of China rears his ugly head again only a few days later, with the word from my publishers that he’s finally earned out his advance. This is a cause for great celebration for an author — it means that a book is performing in a manner which the publisher is liable to find satisfactory, and is now, at least in theory, a little income-generating machine that can be left to perpetually whirr away in the corner and occasionally spurt out coins.

Opinions are divided about advances. One acquaintance of mine is always despondent when a book of his earns back its advance. He regards it as a sign that he wasn’t paid enough in the first place, and that he should have held out for more money. For my part, I regard an advance as a two-way contract, in which a publisher’s faith in a book’s potential is borne out by a sum paid over before the book has even started to earn any money… i.e. “an advance”. The clues are all there in the name… If it does well, everybody wins. If it doesn’t, well, someone overestimated the book’s (or the author’s) likely appeal.

The first edition of the Anime Encyclopedia, if I remember rightly, earned back its advance in a terrifyingly swift six weeks. For books that don’t quite fly off the shelves so fast, three or four years seems to be a reasonable time. My First Emperor book was published in 2006, so it’s done very nicely: with a hardback, a paperback, a dozen foreign editions, and as a cherry on the cake, an edition published in Chinese. My publishers, my agent, and I are entirely baffled why the Chinese would actually want to read what I have to say about him, but their money’s as good as anyone else’s.

The Terracotta Army exhibition helped, as did the opera in New York and the attention I got a year later from the Empress Wu, with some territories buying Wu and coming back for the First Emperor later on. But now, since the advance is all paid off, if there are any future sales of foreign editions (COME ON, NORWAY! WHAT’S KEEPING YOU?), then it’s all gravy. Now all I need is a hundred people to buy a copy, every day, for the rest of my life, and I can retire….

I said it was an income-generating machine; I didn’t say it was a *big* income.

Better Days

Beijing’s policy towards Google is nothing new. The First Emperor of China‘s advisers rounded up all ‘unapproved’ books. Single copies were retained in the emperor’s own library, and all duplicates were destroyed. It was a criminal offence to possess a banned volume. When the Qin dynasty fell a few years later, the library of censured books was destroyed, along with uncountable, irretrievable works of classical Chinese.

The First Emperor’s censorship scheme removed books considered superstitious or useless, but also any account of history that differed from the one approved by the government.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the First Emperor’s policies should sound familiar. His advisers were the first real career politicians, and one of his greatest admirers was Chairman Mao.

Other chilling features of the First Emperor’s time include:

  • a society under constant surveillance, in which people were encouraged to report on the activities of their neighbours.
  • a criminal justice system in which the interrogator delivered a verdict before questioning.
  • legalised bribery, in which the rich could buy off legal penalties, or send proxies to serve jail sentences in their place.

And some are simply impossible to imagine:

  • a campaign to make immigrants the scapegoats for all social ills.
  • an identity card system.
  • a military expedition launched against a rival nation, to retrieve magical artifacts that were later found not to exist.

So I hope you feel fortunate that you live in such enlightened times.

Pretty Boy

It was one of the earliest anime ever made, a ten-minute short from 1939 in which a handsome young boy faced a giant robber with a pole-axe on Kyoto’s Gojo bridge. Much to the giant’s surprise, the boy defeats him, snatching his naginata from him and threatening him with it himself. The giant pleads for his life, and swears to serve the boy until his dying day.

Kenzo Masaoka’s early anime talkie, featuring Masaoka himself as the oppressive giant Benkei, was based on the legend of Yoshitsune (1159-1189), a figure fated to come back into fashion in 2005. Already, there is a Story of Hero Yoshitsune game on the PS2, and the fateful fight scene was recently re-animated by Tezuka Productions for screening at Kyoto’s ultra-modern train station, a few minutes’ walk where it is supposed to have really taken place.

Yoshitsune is the subject of this year’s taiga, the year-long Sunday night historical blockbuster on national Japanese network NHK, designed in equal parts for all the family, so that Dad can watch some swashbuckling samurai action, Mom can see some courtly romance and the kids can learn a little Japanese history. But Yoshitsune stands a good chance with the younger audience who normally regard taiga-watching as a chore rather than a treat. The hero was still a baby when his father was executed for opposing the ruling faction at court. His youth is shrouded in mystery, but he is believed to have been raised by fighting monks in a temple north of Kyoto. As a child (played in the NHK series by Ryunosuke Kamiki), he took the name Ushiwaka, and supposedly sneaked out of the temple grounds to learn martial arts from tengu crow demons in the forests.

NHK’s greatest coup comes in the man they have cast to play the adult Yoshitsune, heart-throb actor Hideaki Takizawa. A former pop idol with the boy-band Johnny’s Juniors, Takizawa graduated to TV stardom with a series of high profile appearances in primetime drama serials. Takizawa is a bishonen made flesh. His androgynous good looks gained him an enthusiastic female following in Strawberry on the Shortcake, in which he played a withdrawn schoolboy who falls for his stepsister, and the manga adaptation Antique, as a retired boxer who goes to work in a cake shop. He played a put-upon student in the Maison Ikkoku-inspired And I Love Her, and managed to tick almost everyone’s wish fulfilment boxes when he got to play a schoolboy who has an affair with his teacher (the gorgeous Nanako Matsushima) in Forbidden Love.

Over the next year, Takizawa will have to prove himself as a serious actor, alongside Yoshitsune’s giant bodyguard Benkei (Ken Matsudaira) and the first genuine samurai warrior-woman, Tomoe Gozen (Eiko Koike). He has the required pretty-boy looks to play Yoshitsune (who died in his thirties and remains an eternally youthful icon to the Japanese), but his role will also demand extensive battle scenes, and the charisma of a natural leader. Can Takizawa (Takky, to his fans) lead cavalry charges down perilous hillsides, and act his way out of the intrigue, as Yoshitsune’s brother becomes Shogun and orders the capture and execution of his popular sibling? The Yoshitsune legend is one of the best to grace taiga drama, but it will be a test of fire for its leading man.

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA, January 2005)

Catnip for Industry Wonks

Chad Kime, formerly of Geneon, is the special guest at Anime News Network’s podcast this week. It doesn’t take hosts Zac Bertschy and Justin Sevakis all that long to coaxe him into tell-all confessions of inventory, minimum guarantees, sales figures, returns, and honest-to-God numbers. Seriously, if you have any interest in the way the anime business actually works, if you really want to get a handle on the upheavals of the last five years, then put this week’s episode on your MP3 player and listen in wonder. Kime is this blog’s Man of the Year, for essentially delivering an annotated edition of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, but with all the real names.

People are going to write dissertations about this one-hour interview. Kime makes a humble show like Heat Guy J the epicentre and looking-glass of the entire industry in the 2000s, talking the listener through the many recurring issues and problems that have hampered anime for as long as I have been observing it. He does so with humour, grace, and most importantly, real-world numbers about the years he spent “riding a glowing star, that transformed into a giant black hole.” Listen if you dare, and then go back and read Schoolgirl Milky Crisis again with a whole new perspective!

Now, none of the shows he cites are the *actual* shows mentioned in my book… but that’s even better. It just goes to show that the experiences I was chronicling were recurring all over the anime world.

Project Mayhem

Detective Yosuke Kobayashi is losing his mind. A malicious killer has been mailing him dismembered parts of his murdered girlfriend. The shock drives Yosuke over the edge – he tracks the criminal down and slays him himself. On trial for the revenge killing, his personality cracks up and he claims to be a psychological profiler called Kazuhiko Amamiya. Released after years in prison, the disgraced and still troubled man finds a job doing the only work he knows: as a freelance private eye where his conflicting identities can at least do what they do best. That’s right, he teams up with himself. Until one fateful day, when Yosuke begins to suspect the unthinkable, that there is yet another personality in his shattered psyche, a brash, violent identity that calls itself Shinji Nishizono, and which may be responsible for the very murder case that the other identities are trying to solve.

In the late 1990s, as The X-Files made spooky forensic procedurals the new TV cool, and David Fincher’s Se7en did likewise in the cinemas, Japanese writers responded with their own variants. 1997’s Gift starred Takuya Kimura as an amnesiac courier. 1998’s Sleeping Forest starred Miho Nakayama as a girl whose true self has been buried beneath a false personality since a childhood trauma. 1999’s Unsolved Cases featured Mulder-and-Scully lookalikes trailing the perpetrators of gory crimes. And then, in 2000, the WOWOW channel screened MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) Psycho.

The story had been around for a while, first premiering in manga form some three years earlier in Shonen Ace magazine. MPD Psycho the manga was written by Eiji Otsuka, but drawn by Sho-u Tajima, an artist best known for the anime and manga Madara, and for the distinctive character designs in Production IG’s Kai Doh Maru. The manga didn’t pull any of its punches, with infamously graphic depictions of violence and torture. It was hardly the kind of thing likely to be picked up for Japanese terrestrial TV. However, the more forgiving satellite networks found a home for it.

In a tip of the hat to Fight Club, Takashi Miike’s TV version begins inside its protagonist’s brain, riding along his sparking synapses as he duels with his mental problems. Credited with adapting Otsuka’s treatment himself, Miike rearranges some elements of the original story. The above synopsis is taken from the manga, whereas the TV variant keeps the girlfriend around for a while after Yosuke’s personality starts to fall apart.

Despite this major change, many of Otsuka’s grotesque crimes remain: a massacre at a Catholic girls’ school, a woman who kidnaps foetuses from their doomed mothers, and a victim found with a missing brain replaced by flowers. Needless to say, such twists forever confine MPD Psycho to the late-night slot, where its six episodes played to an audience of shocked channel-surfers.

Fresh from directing the infamous movie Audition, Miike continues to play with the notion that everything might be a surreal hallucination, shooting one scene in MPD Psycho on a beach littered with half-buried iMac computers, and deliberately lighting his actors to suffuse them with bright, unreal colors.

In the leading role of Yosuke (and Kazuhiko, and Shinji), Miike cast Naoki Hosaka, an actor who was no stranger to living manga. Other comic adaptations in which Hosaka has starred include the sorcerous Master of Yin and Yang, and four seasons of Miike’s long-running Salaryman Kintaro series. But playing Yosuke and his other identities creates triple the demand for an actor – what’s the betting that Hosaka was still only paid for one role…?

The sleuthing finally pays off when Yosuke, his other personality, and his fellow investigators find a university under siege. The students give the Nazi salute to their principal, and spend their lunch breaks marching in the school yard – someone has been tampering with their brains, and it turns out to be the same individual who is behind other incidents in Tokyo. It’s only with the case of the students that Yosuke realises greater forces are at work. What first appeared to be isolated incidents are all part of a larger plan, steered by Lucy Monostone (Tetsuo’s Tomorowo Taniguchi), a religious cult leader who recruits killers from his followers, replacing one eye in each recruit with nifty a barcode crystal that allows him to control them remotely.

MPD Psycho’s run on TV was surprisingly short, and the story continued in print form, albeit no longer as a manga, and in a different publication to the one that birthed it. In later years, after the TV version brought in an audience with weaker stomachs, the series continued in serial novel form in the Japanese edition of Newtype. Creator Otsuka worked on the principle that pictures really weren’t necessary, not when the readers could use their imaginations to produce images scarier than anything an artist could imagine. Or at least, that’s what Eiji Otsuka claimed. Some say he was in two minds about it.

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA, September 2004)

Married to the Mob

They’ll eat her alive! New math teacher Kumiko (Yukie Nakama) has been assigned to class 3-D, the most notorious group of troublemakers in Shirokin Academy. They stare her down, they throw anything that comes to hand and they just plain ignore her. But Kumiko is tougher than she looks, and she isn’t taking any crap from a gang of teenagers. She’s used to dealing with gangs, after all – she’s the heir to one of the biggest crime syndicates in Japan. This is no normal classroom drama, this is Gokusen.

Yamaguchi Kumiko (the pun only works if you say it in the Japanese name order), is actually a Yamaguchi-gumi Ko, the grandchild of a gang-boss in the yakuza. Her parents tried to go straight, but ended up dead anyway. She was reared by her grandfather and groomed for gangland succession, but the sweet-natured girl prefers to live a normal life. However, when she gets angry, she stops talking like Miss Math, and instead adopts the guttural slang and rolled R’s of a yakuza tough guy.

She wants to teach children, and she wants to fall in love. She even thinks she’s found her man – that sweet Mr Shinohara (Ikki Sawamura) who gets the same bus as her. Except Mr Shinohara is actually Detective Shinohara… can you sense trouble ahead?

Gokusen started life as a manga by artist Kozueko Morimoto, whose early work focussed on the interaction between women and children. Her first big title came in 1990, with the publication of I’m a Mother! by You Comics. No gangsters here; instead Morimoto’s seven-volume classic compiled a series of humorous essays about child-rearing, taking female readers through the post-natal process from birth to a child’s first day at school, and beyond. She followed it up with Medical Intern Nanako in in 1994, a comedy about a student doctor who finds a place in a university teaching hospital after graduation. The 1990s also saw a couple of mini-stories This is Lady Mama and Mystery Mama.

As the 1990s drew to a close, Morimoto gave up on the whole motherhood thing. She’d found something else to interest her. In 1998, heart-throb Takashi Sorimachi shot to unprecedented heights of stardom as the hero of the tough-guy teacher series GTO. Meanwhile, Japanese satellite channel WOWOW began airing an American series whose translated title meant Sorrowful Mafia – you may know it better as The Sopranos. Gangsters out of their natural habitat were cool, they were in fashion, and Morimoto’s Gokusen was born.

For the live-action version on the NTV channel, actress Yukie Nakama had to ditch her previous M.O. as someone who chased crooks. Best known as the crime-fighting circus conjuror of Trick, she also played the photofit artist and sometime sleuth of Face. But Nakama is no stranger to playing roles with something to hide; her finest moments include her turn as a woman whose husband has accidentally married someone else in False Love, and the mind-boggling entanglements of a girl with a yakuza boyfriend whose sister is dating a Russian assassin in Love 2000. Her most prominent co-star in the series is Jun Matsumoto, who plays the unofficial leader of 3-D. A pop-star in the Arashi boy-band, Matsumoto is no stranger to manga adaptations, having starred in the live-action versions of both You Are My Pet and Young Kindaichi Files.

The Gokusen series isn’t afraid to throw in a number of storylines that have nothing to do with gangsters. She may be able to have people taken away and killed, but Kumiko prefers to fret over her pupils’ education like any number of TV teachers. When 3D are forbidden from participating in the school volleyball tournament, she enlists them as male cheerleaders (but only by promising them the chance to meet the more common female variety). She defends her school’s shoddy reputation, even if it means dumping a potential suitor from a snooty prep school. And all the while, she tries to hang onto her place in the everyday world, desperate for her criminal origins to remain in the shadows.

Of course, it’s a rare Japanese TV classroom that doesn’t have a dark secret lurking in it somewhere these days. The medium is also no stranger to gangsters trying to go straight; Kumiko’s TV ancestors include 1991’s Downtown Detectives, in which two yakuza make a buck as private investigators. Then there’s The Quiet Don, about a salaryman with a “Family” business on the side, which was made into both anime and live-action versions.

Gokusen has followed suit. After the success of the live-action TV version in 2002, it’s back as an anime on NTV, further strengthening the connections between the worlds of animation and Living Manga. The role of Kumiko is taken in the anime version by Risa Hayamizu, who has previously appeared in anime such as Kaleidostar and Kiddy Grade. She also had a cameo in a series that sounds just like something a gangland teacher might say to her quivering pupils – Read or Die!

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA magazine, June 2004)