Radio Days

In answer to a special request from Anna over at Chocolate Keyboard, a reprint of an article from PiQ magazine, originally published in July 2008, and subsequently collected in the anthology Schoolgirl Milky Crisis.

——

The girl who met me in reception had a badge that said Emma. She didn’t actually tell me who she was, but sulkily informed me that she was here to take me upstairs. She didn’t show an iota of enthusiasm until the elevator reached the designated floor, at which point she practically pushed me into the green room.

“Someone will be with you,” she mumbled, before disappearing.

Someone soon was. Coincidentally, her name was also Emma. But Emma #2 displayed little interest in me. Instead, she was running through the questions with the people who were just about to go on-air before me. A nervy girl whose dog could play the bongos, or something like that. Emma #2 whispered her way through the questions she was going to get, just to put her at her ease.

That’s nice, I thought. I imagined that for a lot of people, appearing live on the radio was quite nerve-wracking. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve done it, and it’s still pretty nerve-wracking for me. There is always that little devil at your shoulder, whispering that now would be the ideal moment to have a Tourette’s Syndrome outburst. And the thought of it makes you giggle. And then it’s too late.

Except Emma #2 didn’t bother to tell me what questions were coming up. Instead, she pushed me into the studio where Emma #3 lay in wait. Another Emma — what were the odds? I began to suspect that this wasn’t going to quite be the discussion of manga’s broad genres that I had been promised.

With a proud flourish, I pulled a selection of manga from my bag. They’d asked me to grab a few titles from around my office: Ironfist Chinmi, which I translated many years ago, Yoshihisa Tagami’s Wild West manga Pepper, and Shooting Stars in the Twilight by Kenshi Hirokane.

“What’s this?” said Emma #3, wrinkling her nose in scorn.

“Oh, that’s my favorite,” I said. “Shooting Stars… is a series of love stories and thrillers for the elderly.”

“The elderly!?”

“Yes. I did say that manga catered for everyone. This particular series is for people in their sixties.”

She turned through a few of the pages with an unhappy look on her face, and then handed it back to me without a second glance.

“Don’t you have any porn?” she asked.

“Er… no,” I said.

“It’s just, I was hoping to see something shocking.”

“I’m not all that sorry to have disappointed you,” I replied. Then I remembered there was one more manga in another part of my bag. It was a copy of Princess, an anthology magazine for teenage girls.

I stuck Princess on the table, too.

“Is it porn?” said Emma #3.

“No,” I said, beginning to get a faint idea of where this was all going. “It’s for teenage girls!”

“Do they like porn?” she asked.

“You do realize,” I began hesitantly, “and I did tell you on the phone, that manga is not just porn. It is kids’ stories, and adventures, and thrillers, romance and drama, science fiction and detective stories—” But she cut me off with an upraised hand.

“By the way,” she said, just as the light changed from happy green to ON-AIR red, “we’ve had to drop a few of the questions. It was kind of boring. Instead we’re going to talk about changes in Japanese porn legislation.”

And with that, I was in the line of fire, lured on-air to talk about the Japanese comics that I loved, and, once more, forced to become a spokesman for and defender of an entire nation’s erotica.

Not that I mind that so much. There have been some fascinating developments in Japanese legislation recently. The Japanese government has spectacularly bowed to American pressure over obscenity regulation. Japanese law infamously rates obscenity on the basis of harm — in other words, it has long argued that if a sexual act, however unpleasant, is shown in a drawn image, nobody is actually being harmed and so the image should not be kept from consenting adult readers. This position has increasingly come under fire, both from UNICEF and from pressure groups like Cyber Angels, who have argued that manga should be subject to the same restrictions as “real” images, since they could be used to “groom” susceptible children.

Remarkably, the Japanese government has been prepared to listen to this. Instead of telling the Americans to leave them alone, the Japanese Cabinet Office issued a Special Opinion Poll on Harmful Materials. They discovered that a surprising percentage of the Japanese population agreed that “harmful” manga images should be censored. 90.9 percent in fact, said that they thought Internet images should be regulated. 86.5 percent said that they thought child porn in manga should be regulated. Interestingly, however, a massive 72.7 percent admitted that they didn’t actually know enough about the materials under discussion to say for sure whether someone would be harmed, or how they would be harmed, or what was harmful.

This is a fascinating legal area. Obscene materials, like green politics, cross international borders in a wired world. They require international agreements, not local fixes. Despite complaints about the slowness of Japan’s response, its willingness to listen to American arguments on the subject has been unprecedented.

And what does this have to do with manga? Not a whole lot, particularly if it’s the only thing you get to bring up, and your time to talk about it has been slashed to less time than it takes to boil an egg. A runny one.

“Manga cover every conceivable genre,” I pleaded in vain. “So, of course there are erotic manga.” But that doesn’t mean that every discussion of Japanese comics should turn into one about pornography. And it’s ironic that Emma, Emma, and Emma’s desperate desire to be shocked should have caused them to discuss Japanese pornography on national radio, giving it far wider coverage than it ever had in the Adults Only section of a comic store.

But that’s what you get in the mainstream media. A promised fifteen-minute slot dwindles to five because someone has a dog that plays the bongos, and before you know where you are, you might as well not have bothered getting up early. It had cost me ten bucks to get into the studio that day. I was already wondering if I shouldn’t have just stayed in bed and used the money to buy cheese.

On my way out of the studio, Emma #1 realized I might be angry about my treatment. She finally tried to make conversation.

“Does my name mean anything in Japanese?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re the ruler of Hell.”

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters

It has come to my attention* that someone on You Tube has uploaded the BBC documentary Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1998) in four parts. This is an excellent piece of work from producer Nick Freand Jones — not that you’d know that, because the You Tube version cavalierly disregards the ending credits. So you don’t get to see my name there as the staff translator, either, despite my four manic days spent with 24 tapes of interview footage, a laptop and a well-thumbed Nelson kanji dictionary. Well, 21 tapes — as it turned out, no subtitles were required on Alex Cox and Tony Luke. With motorcycle couriers periodically waiting outside, motors running, I waded through hour after hour of cinematographer technicalities and thespian reminiscences. And I was pretty pleased with the result.

When the documentary was in the can, Nick gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted with the translated interview material, used and unused, which is why several bits of it turn up later in some of the articles reprinted in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis.

*Thanks to Andrew Osmond

Pure of Heart

Sachiko (Ryoko Shinohara) has a problem child. Her son Hikaru (Ryusei Saito) never seems to pay attention. Whereas his kindergarten classmates can’t stop talking, he sits in silence. He develops strange obsessions with drawers and closets, and delights in creating a mess. If she tries to stop him, he throws a tantrum, and when she scolds him, he stares idly into the distance, not even acknowledging her presence. Sachiko simply doesn’t know where to turn…

NTV’s Wednesday-night drama In the Light: Living with Autism might have seemed to be an unlikely choice for the 2004 schedules. It lacked both the tacky high-concept of TV Tokyo’s Vampire Gigolo, or indeed the slavish fad-following of the spring season’s two (count ’em!) unrelated fire-fighter dramas. But it was also the latest in a long line that stretched back almost 20 years to a distant Hollywood ancestor.

Barry Levinson’s 1988 road movie Rain Man featured Tom Cruise as a car-trader who discovers that he has a long-lost relative, and Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Cruise’s autistic brother. Rain Man’s plaudits helped usher in a new age of worthy disability-centred dramas in Japan, starting with a wheelchair-bound cast member in Under One Roof. Before long, the “rain man” element had been taken perhaps a little too literally, with the release of From the Heart, the tale of an autistic weather girl. From there it was a short while until 2000’s Pure, the show by which all other subsequent disability dramas are judged. The tale of down-at-heel photographer who falls for an autistic artist, Pure was such a success, that it even lent its name to the genre. When producers say their next show is going to be “Pure”, they mean that it will hinge on a handicap – blindness, deafness, personality disorder, you name it, it’s been the subject of a drama series.

Considering the number of disability dramas on Japanese TV, In the Light requires considerable suspension of disbelief – has Sachiko really never heard of autism before? Unfamiliar with the term, Sachiko first assumes it is some form of disease from which her son can eventually be cured. When she is told this is not possible, she enters a state of desperate denial, trying to convince herself and others that Hikaru’s behavior is completely normal. Her family are little help. True to Japanese TV tradition, her mother-in-law is a heartless harridan who blames Sachiko for Hikaru’s condition. She turns to her husband for comfort, but eventually he admits that he, too, regards Hikaru’s handicap as her fault. It’s only when she meets a kindly therapist that she finds some solace… and hope.

Sachiko’s ignorance, however, is a benign trait. It was designed from the very beginning to create a character who would ask questions on behalf of an audience, because In the Light began life as an educational manga.

Creator Keiko Tobe graduated in economics, and first found herself a job in public relations. She moved to Tokyo when she got married, and discovered that the capital city offered her opportunities to turn her manga hobby into a job. In 1985, after working as an art assistant in girls’ comics, she enrolled on Princess magazine’s annual Manga School program. . A year later, Princess Gold published the result, the marathon-runner story Aki’s Goal. Tobe stayed in girls’ comics through the late 1980s, following a contemporary fad by writing a story set in the world of women’s wrestling. The same era that saw the Dirty Pair parodying lady wrestlers also saw Tobe’s Dream Warrior Shadow appear in several instalments in Princess Special.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Tobe began writing titles such as Glass Staircase and Mystery Theater, and her most prominent early work Bakumatsu Sorcery. Set at the end of the samurai era, it told the story of a surgeon trained in ‘Dutch’ (i.e. Western) medicine, who becomes involved in lifting curses from unlucky people. But she followed it with a very different form of affliction – she turned from girls’ comics to women’s comics, and picked a new way of haunting her lead character.

In the Light began running in For Mrs magazine, a title aimed at young mothers. The manga aimed to educate its readers with steely fervor, regularly running additional features on real-life mothers whose children suffer from autism, tracking their progress from birth, through school, and into the workplace. In Japan, of course, getting a day-job is a happy ending. The TV version, however, sticks resolutely to Hikaru’s early years, as Sachiko fights to put her son into a normal school, deals with the prejudices of the people around her, and observes his separation from the everyday world. It doesn’t take long before her son goes missing, and she is forced to deal with the worry of how a boy who can barely talk can somehow navigate his way back home. In regularly returning to the concerns of every parent, Tobe’s story skillfully reminds viewers that Hikaru is not all that different from other children after all. It’s an unusual addition to the world of Living Manga, but its motives are pure of heart.

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA magazine, August 2004, and was subsequently reprinted in the collection Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. Keiko Tobe died last Thursday, aged 52).