Back on the Manga-go-round

Over on his website, Paul Gravett writes a cogent, well-reasoned article about what manga is not. Which leaves us with only one workable definition of what a manga actually is.

A manga is a Japanese comic. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

Inconvenient for the artist Joe Bloggs, who wants to sell you his How to Draw Manga book. Inconvenient for Large Corporation, that wants to sell you a book of non-Japanese comics with the word “manga” on the front. But that’s what happens when you try try to sell apples and call them oranges. Gravett admits that you can’t boil down a definition of manga to specific elements of style, or attitude or content. An argument that some of you may find familiar, and may even have expected.

In which case, there is no point in using the word manga at all unless we are talking about Japanese comics. In fact, it’s insulting to the broad church of Japanese comics if one tries to strip down such a rich medium to such simple (and, as six years of my Manga Snapshot column should have demonstrated by now, not necessarily universal) aspects as big eyes or spiky hair.

We got there in the end. Only took, what, five years? Ten? What are the odds that this will put an end to the tedious “debate”* on definitions?

No, the odds are not good, for all the reasons I cited in 2008, and on innumerable occasions preceding.

* (I put it in quotes because it’s hardly a debate if the other side consistently turns up empty-handed and wearing ear plugs)

Made in Wales

Back from Cardiff, where Skillset Screen Academy Wales invited me to teach my infamous workshop on Storylining in a Corporate Environment, pronounced on previous occasions as “life-changing”, “instructive”, “terrifying”, and “better than the guy we had last week.”

The venue was the swish multimedia Atrium building of the University of Glamorgan; the task, distilling a series of contradictory directives into an idea that would displease everybody equally. After initial instruction in the way that Japanese animation is put together, the students, largely postgraduates studying Film or Scriptwriting (but also Animation and Business Management), were forced to come up with their own ideas for a story bible mixing criteria from Japan, America and Europe. And within half an hour, we were arguing the merits of High School Knights versus Hattie Bast, a British schoolgirl who is also a reincarnated Egyptian cat goddess, as well as debates on tokenism, individuation, transforming robots, the merchandising value of magic amulets, and why it’s never a good idea to name your toy line after a natural disaster. There was even time out for a brief lesson in forensic pathology, as we discussed the alleged Death Note Murders. Also, there was free coffee.

My favourite idea of recent classes remains Decontaminators, the series pitch worked up by students at the Irish Film Institute last week, which was concocted as a sci-fi franchise designed to sell soap to anime fans, but there’s no telling where the wild tangents and industry related rants will take any given group of participants. It’s a calculatedly hit-and-miss affair, and we’re obliged to compress debates that take weeks in the professional world into just a single morning.

The recurring theme is “monoculture” – that deadly affliction of cliche to which so many TV serials and toy lines are dragged by the demands of their corporate sponsors and management teams. But surviving such pressures and getting the job done is really what the workshop is all about. I always have a lot of fun doing it and the students seemed to enjoy themselves, too. One of them called it a “wake-up call”… that’s a good thing, right…?

One day, I really must just give them a title like, I don’t know, Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, and see what ideas they come up with to fit it.

A Brief History of the Samurai

My latest book, out now in the UK, and coming in May in the US — everything you always wanted to know about the samurai, but were too afraid of ritual disembowelment to ask.

The samurai were the embodiment of the Japanese martial tradition. From humble beginnings as frontiersmen and border guards, they rose in power to become the true rulers of Japan, with an ideology based on military strategy and chilling battlefield aesthetics.

This new study includes their greatest battles and worst defeats, their wars and weaponry, tradition and etiquette, and their transformation from hired swords to kingmakers, from Buddhist warlords to Christian soldiers.

Jonathan Clements examines samurai facts and fictions, as a warrior society retells great battles, dramatises heroic deeds, and aspires to a code of ethics rooted in tall tales and romanticised conflict. Looking beyond the end of Japan’s civil wars in the 17th century, this Brief History depicts the rise and fall of a samurai society in which the victorious Shogun had nobody left to fight. A closing chapter examines the shadow of the samurai in modern times, as heroes, villains, and mirrors to the Japanese soul.

Sub vs Dublin

Back now from Dublin, where I’ve been at the Irish Film Institute Anime Weekend. Festivities kicked off for me before I was even off the plane, when my neighbour turned out to be a man from Ghana who wanted to know about intellectual property rights. On Saturday morning, I taught a workshop on the way that anime are constructed, with special reference to the Introduction to Anime Screenwriting by Jinzo Toriumi. This is just one of several books by old-school anime writers that are used to teach the next generation in Japan how it all works — they make for very illuminating discussions with an audience of marketers, curators and students curious about what makes anime tick.

The rest of the weekend was taken up with screenings, including the European premiere of Gundam Unicorn, and the Irish premieres of Summer Wars and Evangelion 2.0. I found myself on panels talking about, among other things, the career of Yusaku Matsuda, the uses of a naginata, the corporate structure of the Yomiuri Group, and the history of “breast dynamics” at Studio Gainax. And I found myself signing copies of the Anime Encyclopedia, Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, and even Beijing: The Biography of a City. In a very 21st century touch, I also got to sit in the bar and watch the Manga UK Twitter feed as Jerome Mazandarani explored Tokyo for the first time. Me in an Irish bar, reading live about the adventures of an Australian man on a Japanese toilet.

Meanwhile, Dublin was full of people who had come to watch rugby, which is apparently one of those mainstream situations where cosplay is considered acceptable, so although a number of anime fans had dressed up as cartoon characters, if I walked out of the cinema, I would find a street full of men in kilts and/or painted blue, to the extent that Temple Bar often looked like a low-budget sequel to Avatar.


While statistics show that the size of the manga market has steadily decreased in Japan over the last decade, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Japanese are reading less manga. The figures only refer to new manga – serialised in magazines and bought in shops as graphic novel compilations. In the past, the vast size of the Japanese publishing industry was often over-estimated by pundits who counted the same title twice, once on its magazine publication, and once when it was reprinted in book-form. This only matters if you are an accountant, not a fan.

But it’s these book forms that are weighing heavily on the industry now. Anthology magazines the size of phone directories have built-in obsolescence. The ink comes off in your hands, the paper is often coloured to hide the fact it has been recycled several times already. You’re supposed to read it on a train and then dump it at the next station, thereby allowing creators to sell the same thing back to you later on in book form.

But books are much more enduring. In Japan, you can shell out for new editions of the complete works of Masamune Shirow or Osamu Tezuka, or you can just pick them up second-hand for a fraction of the price. Ex-bachelor fanboys are forced to sell off their collections by irate spouses. Old-time fans die off, leaving their collections to go back on the market. Second-hand manga are great news for impecunious fans, but they can cause the entire market to depreciate in value. It’s going to be an interesting question, over the next few years, if UK manga sales also develop a second-hand afterlife. Then again, there are some companies whose products are so shoddily assembled that they won’t last long enough to make it to the second-hand stores. Poor print quality, weak glue… was this a cunning plan to build in obsolescence, or just low quality from the start?

(This article first appeared in NEO magazine #24, 2006, and was reprinted in the collection Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I choose to reprint it today because of the recent news that the manga market dropped 6.6% last year, something of a collapse after the steady 2%/year decline since 1995).

The Song the Goddess Sings

Time for another visit to the translation archives. I’ve decided to put up more of my pre-Schoolgirl Milky Crisis works up online. Back in 1997, Pioneer hired me to translate the lyrics of some of the CDs they were selling in the UK market. The company already had a reputation for bilingual releases, although often English and Japanese versions of the same song were quite different in meaning. They asked me if I could come up with English versions of songs for the CD liner notes, so that fans could sing along if they wanted.

The ones I was proudest of were songs with lyrics by Natsuko Karedo, including Tenchi Muyo spin-offs like “Ueno Love Story” and “Discovery Blues”. But I can’t find versions of them on You Tube, and without the sound of the song to hang the translation off, it loses a lot of its effect. However, I did stumble across  “Megami wa Utau” from one of the Oh! My Goddess albums. I’ll put the Japanese into the comments if any linguists want to scrutinise it for themselves. I wrestled for a while over the term “nice”, which is horribly twee, but then again, some might say…


My umbrella has shut out the rain

Now the town is bright and clean again

When I shake the drops away

Like sparkling gems they fly

Park bench still wet from the passing storm

Near the children’s house, so nice and warm

From their window they can see

A rainbow in the sky

Everybody wants to be free, it’s plain to see

Open your windows to the sun

There’s a dream of love, in the sky above

Just listen carefully

And you can hear the song it sings to you

Kindness in all things, loving feelings

Are all you need to be true

And that’s the song the Goddess sings

Heaven’s shining smile is rolling down

Down the hill and straight towards the town

Waves of happiness arrive

They’re reaching out to you

In the flowers, in the birds and sky

In the voices as the kids pass by

The dream transforms all that it sees

And fills them all with love

Everybody can be happy, it’s plain to see

Open your heart and let in love

To your love be true, all you have to do

Is say it from the heart

And then the day of love can really start

I will be happy

You will be happy, and all people

Goddess is always with you

There’s a dream of love, in the sky above

So come along with me

And we can sing our song so tenderly

Sparkle in the sun, love to everyone

It’s all you need to be true

And that’s the song the Goddess sings

Japan Sinks

(This is my review of Sakyo Komatsu’s original SF novel, from Anime FX way back in 1995 when it was released in paperback suspiciously swiftly after the Kobe Earthquake. The latest movie remake, oddly retitled Sinking of Japan, is out this week in the UK from MVM).

Although the hardback version was first published a generation ago, Japan Sinks remains one of the few works of Japanese textual SF available in English. Now re-released this month by Kodansha, the book and translation make for intriguing reading. When first published it was ahead of its time; last year it might have been regarded as a little dated, but this year it has acquired new significance.

Sakyo Komatsu is, according to Brian Aldiss, one of the most-read SF authors in the world. He remains virtually unknown in the English market, but gained many readers worldwide when Japan Sinks was made into a film (known here as Tidal Wave). But Japan Sinks is not the most representative Komatsu story; like his compatriot Shinichi Hoshi, much of his real skill lies in the punchy twists of SF short-shorts. Many of his stories are also parables, making warnings of the if this goes on… variety. In The Quiet Corridor, for example, the narrator realises too late that his own sterility is not unique, and that the ‘quiet corridor’ of the maternity unit and the dying vegetation outside his window are but two indicators of imminent environmental collapse. More warnings are contained in At the End of the Endless Stream, which shows humanity fleeing a dying planet by travelling into the past. Komatsu’s novel Resurrection Day depicts the hellish results of a bacteriological weapon, which leaves only a small pocket of humanity left alive in the Antarctic. In each case we see the human reaction to a global problem, and this form of writing is repeated in Japan Sinks. The title should be enough of a hint. Scientists discover that the Japanese archipelago is just about to give way; the government tries to cover it up, but then all hell breaks loose as the inhabitants flee their drowning country. But what will happen to the global economy? Where will those millions of people go? If they leave Japan, will they still be Japanese?

Japan has always been a danger area, at risk from earthquakes, tsunami and volcanoes. Critics of anime violence who see an easy explanation in the influence of the Bomb, might already have discovered their mistake in the wake of the Kobe earthquake. Natural disasters have played an important role in the development of the Japanese psyche, and this book throws much light upon it. Komatsu’s Japanese are adaptable, brave people, whose characters have been shaped by their environment. Japan Sinks posits the ultimate disaster, and shows us how Komatsu thinks his countrymen would deal with it.

On occasion, his observations speak volumes about Japanese attitudes. In extreme situations, Komatsu’s characters revert to (stereo)type, as an insular, nationalistic and determined herd. By extrapolating ‘disaster’ to such extremes, Komatsu is able to amplify subtle influences to such an extent that many stereotypical views of Japan become much more understandable. However, post-Kobe, some of Komatsu’s scenes are tragic in their inaccuracy. How could he have guessed that when the next big earthquake came in 1995, the rescue operation would be anything less than efficient? Komatsu expects a stiff-upper-lip heroism from his nation, and in one scene describes the arrival of humanitarian aid. It is not unlike the post-Kobe operation, although Komatsu’s characters do not charge money for drinking water. Neither would they have bulldozed ruins scant days later, even though survivors were being pulled from the Mexico City site three weeks after zero-hour. While Komatsu makes many interesting points about ‘the Japanese’, he also makes many assumptions that have proved to be too optimistic.

This may be a symptom of the book’s age. It was written in 1973 and translated in 1977, two factors which have considerably influenced the style of the English version. The 70s edition was abridged from the original by an experienced literary translator, Michael Gallagher. Gallagher is better known for his ‘mainstream’ works, and his versions of Mishima’s Spring Snow and Runaway Horses are excellent. He did a pretty good job on Japan Sinks, too, but there are features of his text that both date the work and demonstrate areas where a background in ‘high’ culture can work to a translator’s detriment. ‘Software’ for example, is spelled ‘softwear’; a reasonable mistake in the computer-illiterate 70s, but not one that would escape the attentions of a contemporary editor. Similarly, there are a few places where Gallagher’s translation seems to be pitched at the wrong market. There are words and references which would require no explanation to an audience of Japanese-language students, but which a mass-market readership would find confusing. In one scene, characters make ironic reference to the sinking of the Tei-en. Although readers would be aware that it is a line from an old war song (it says as much in the text), few would know that the Tei-en, or, to give it its real name, the Dingyuan, was a Chinese flagship in the Sino-Japanese war, or that the lines of the song are the last words of a dying sailor, asking if his comrades have succeeded where he has failed. The pathos of the scene is thus lost on much of the readership. (Although if you really want to know about the Dingyuan, its story is told in my biography of Admiral Togo – JC, 2010).

If Japan Sinks were a modern translation, things might have been very different. It is possible that Gallagher might not have been hired at all; not because he is bad (he isn’t), but because there is now a significant number of skilled translators who specialise in popular texts, just as Gallagher specialises in literary works. One wonders what ALfred Birnbaum, Dana Lewis or Frederik L. Schodt would have made of the same material; they too would have cut it drastically, but they might have also written for an SF audience. Readers used to ‘real’ SF might find Japan Sinks a little turgid in places, while readers of ‘literature’ might find the characterisation too sketchy. Using a literary translator on a popular work is a little like using a spanner to drive in a nail. It might work well enough, but a hammer would have done a better job.

(Ah the naivety of youth. There was me in 1995 assuming that popular translation would bring its own rewards, and cause people to specialise in it. In your dreams, today, in your dreams would you get people of the calibre of Michael Gallagher translating modern Japanese science fiction novels. But I have ranted about this before – JC, 2010)

All For One…

The New Three Musketeers, a Japanese TV show based on the book by Alexandre Dumas, with a script by Welcome Back Mr McDonald‘s Koki Mitani. 40 x 20 minutes, running daily on NHK. What’s not to like…?  Someone, surely, from the world of television must think this is worth a punt? Well, NHK does for a start, as they are apparently already running it in English on their international channel.

The Japanese have always done well with the source material. Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds is still a childhood favourite with many of my generation. There was also an anime Three Musketeers in the 1980s, in which Aramis turned out to be a woman in disguise. But the sequence above is only the opening credits, with music from Spanish Connection (the whole thing seems oddly Spanish — perhaps a leftover from Dogtanian, or even Alatriste). The show itself is the latest in NHK’s long-running cycle of puppet shows, which has previously included such gems as Aerial City 008, Madcap Island and New Hakkenden.

Here are the puppets themselves in action:

You can find out more about the history of Japanese puppetry in the entries on individual shows for the Dorama Encyclopedia and the larger survey included in the Anime Encyclopedia. But I’m still finding stuff out, like this, and like the stories in Yasuo Otsuka’s The Prospect of Little Nemo, in which he recounts the impact in Tokyo of an “epoch-making” 1961 puppet performance of Macbeth, and how the staff behind it soon found themselves working in TV, and then on anime.

Mad Dogs and Engrishmen

Back in the days of Anime UK we used to call it Japlish, but far leveller heads have prevailed in the mainstream, and today it is usually known as Engrish. It is an awful, fractured mangling of English, usually found in Japanese instruction leaflets and T-shirts, where someone has had a really good stab at English, but ended up saying something mildly rude or downright ludicrous.

But while we point and laugh at little old ladies with obscene phrases on their T-shirts, we should perhaps wonder what happens when the reverse happens. Believe me when I say it is no urban myth that some oriental tattooists have wreaked a terrible revenge on drunken chavs in their care. I once saw a woman in a Stratford supermarket with Stupid White Bitch written in perfect, permanent Chinese across her shoulders, although she was convinced that it some kind of romantic haiku. What can you say in a situation like that? It’s not like the truth is going to help anyone…

Which brings me to this month’s story – a little glimpse of the world of T-shirt manufacture and Japanese slogans, not in Japan, but right here in the UK. A designer had knocked up a very nice picture of Wolverine fighting the Incredible Hulk, and had decided to throw in their names in Japanese to be cool. To do this, he switched his font to Japanese and simply typed them in. I mean, that was how translation happened, right?

Luckily someone smelled a rat, and decided to run everything past an expert. When they couldn’t find an expert, they came to me, and I snickeringly informed them that the Japanese words on the picture were deliciously random. In fact, according to the legend, they had found a metal-clawed member of the X-Men whose name was apparently Dellabe Pissbarmy, and he was fighting a muscly, green-skinned man called Gaggy Bammy Sauce Swishy Bag-o-bay.

A few emails with the aid of a Japanese word processor, and I had saved everyone’s blushes, although almost immediately I started to feel pangs of Evil Translator Guilt. In order to bring a little joy to the world, surely I should have looked at their mock-up and said: “Yes, that’s absolutely fine.” Better men than I have clearly once been working at Japanese advertising companies and marketing firms, and managed to say with a straight face that Baseball Throw-Up is an ideal T-shirt slogan, as is Sroog: Your Demonstrator Has a PhD For, which I once actually had on a T-shirt and proudly wore all over London.

Broken Japanese, of course, is the common currency of the otaku, and I have long since stopped trying to correct it when it is flung around me like some sort of linguistic dirty protest. I regularly hear anime fans, for example, adding a superfluous honorific in introductions as if addressing themselves, (e.g.: “Call me Derek-chan”) which as my Japanese teacher once memorably explained: “You would only do if you were a bit simple.” But who am I to stop such faux pas from bringing a little joy into the life of the Japanese? I now realise that I really let the side down by not waving through Dellabe Pissbarmy to give all the Japanese tourists a laugh next time they are in London. Oh well, next time…

(This article first appeared in NEO #68, 2010)