Magical Girls

Three years ago, I was interviewed by Lesley Smith for an article about “magical girls” in SFX Total Anime magazine. As per usual, I wrote far too much in my responses and only a tiny fraction turned up in the article. Also as per usual, I did so secure in the knowledge that if I put that kind of time into helping someone, I would be able to re-use the material at a later date, and hence now reprint it here.

Lesley Smith: Why do you think the magical girl genre is so popular (a) in Japan (b) in the UK/US?

Jonathan Clements: (a) “Magical girls” began on 1960s Japanese TV for two reasons: as a female variant on the transforming superhero that was already dominated in “boy’s” TV by Superman, and as entertainment specifically for girls that allowed them to play with the idea of being an adult, or at least a more grown-up version of themselves, even if only for a little while. The perennial appeal of magical girl shows is that there is always another generation of little girls who want to experiment with being grown-ups, or fantasise about having special powers and/or a secret noble destiny.

(b) It’s not. In fact, one well-known US company had an internal memo stressing to its staff that the way to maintain healthy company bank balances was to avoid “anything with the word Princess in the title”. A well-known Japanese company actually begged me to give a bad review to one of its flagship titles, otherwise they feared that upper management would force them to release it in the UK. Upper management forced them to release it in the UK anyway, and it bombed. Magical girls are often sold in the wrong market outside Japan – they belong on TV, for an audience of little girls. It’s very difficul to sell them, for example, on DVD, because the target audience for children’s entertainment doesn’t have direct control over the purchasing of titles. In the children’s DVD market, you don’t “sell” to kids so much as you sell to their parents and relatives.

What, for you, makes a good  magical girl series (the transformation sequences, the fluffy sidekicks, good versus evil etc etc)?

JC: It’s the playing with adulthood. Fairy tales appeal to children because they take real-world problems and approach them in a “fantastic” way — puberty, grief, parental separation, remarriage, siblings. The best magical girl shows are a modern variant on such fairy tales. Sailor Moon, for example, as I see you regard it as an example of the genre, is all about the ugly duckling asserting herself, and realising her potential, and there is this wonderful sense of the person she can become, and indeed of the daughter she can have, all safely tucked away in the future.

As many magical girl anime series have a set episode format (particularly when it comes to monster of the week), do you think they can ever become boring or too predictable or is that part of the fun?

JC: There’s two answers to that question. Continue reading

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Nearly New

A question popped up on my Facebook page last week, regarding the second-hand book market. Many members of the public still assume that authors see no return from library books, although in fact, authors in the UK make a tidy sum from libraries.

I suppose I would prefer it if people bought new copies of my books, as new copies generate more sales for me, and show up as extra sales for the publisher. In the case of the Anime Encyclopedia, anyone buying a second-hand copy is 90% likely to be getting the 2001 edition, and will hence be swindling themselves out of 300 extra pages.

But when you buy one of my books new, you also buy the right to sell it on to someone else if you so desire, and an author would be churlish to complain about that. You can do whatever you want with it. You can write in the margins, you can give it to your mum, and you can sell it to someone else. When someone asks me to sign a book, it is, I suppose, with the presumption all round that a signed copy might be worth more one day when sold second-hand. Fine with me! Thanks for buying it in the first place, and if your grandchildren make £100 off it when we’re both dead, everyone’s a winner. But, equally, if you hate it and give it to Oxfam three days later, and they sell it, everyone is completely within the law; no complaints.

Certainly, it is now theoretically possible for rights-holders to limit second-hand sales of digital material. You can’t sell a second-hand copy of digital material… you just delete it if you’ve had enough. It would be my hope that digital material would be priced more like second-hand material from the outset anyway, as a reflection of this. I have no problem with that either. The second-hand books market has never been demonstrated to me to be a threat to book publishing itself. Physical books decay and fall apart, and there are even some people like my ex-girlfriend who just refuse to buy books that others have owned. One of the problems with digital piracy is that the pirate edition, once created, is potentially immortal, ageless and infinitely reproductive.

But if the tidal wave of digital destroys the second-hand market, what happens in a hundred years’ time? As a feature of my job, I spend a lot of money on books, and some are second-hand and long out-of-print, hunted down in obscure places where they have fallen through the cracks. We *assume* that digital material is permanent, but that assumes we’ll have, you know, electricity in a hundred years’ time.

Then again, if that’s the case, we’ll probably have other things to worry about.

Manga and Philosophy

Out now from Open Court, Manga & Philosophy, which contains my chapter “Living Happily Never After in Women’s Manga,” on the readership and reception of Japanese comic magazines for women aged over twenty. There’s plenty of stuff in there about the varying markets for women’s manga, and some hard data about exactly who reads them. It’s not always who you might think.

Other essays in the volume include studies of religion in the works of Osamu Tezuka, issues of life and death in Full Metal Alchemist and philosophical conundrums in Death Note.

White Lies

She was looking for documentaries about anime. Figuring that it did no harm to pass on the information, I sent her a list (there have been, what, five or six over the years, and I was in most of them) and heard nothing more… until yesterday, when she suddenly emailed me back, very keen on meeting me all of a sudden. Very keen. Can we meet over the weekend? Can we meet next week? Can we meet on Monday?

Er… no, I said, we can’t. Because I’m moving house. And no, you can’t have my phone number because I don’t just hand it out to strangers on the internet. If you have any burning questions, then you can email me.

She was an anthropologist of some repute, who was teaching a course on anime. She had also managed to get some money out of a Japanese funding body to make a documentary about it, but hadn’t got much material assembled yet. So she developed a sudden case of manners because she needed someone else’s footage to pass off as her own in order to keep her funding past the milestone.

You see, she’d been “very busy” for the last eight months and hadn’t got round to doing much work, but if she could just have some unused footage from other people that wasn’t “too well-known” she could pull the wool over the eyes over the people who funded her in the first place. Of course, once they coughed up, she promised to finish the documentary properly and normality would be restored. And why am I going to believe this…?

This is not the first time this has happened to me. I get bizarre academia-related requests every month. Very few of them say: “Hi, JC, would you like to come to our conference and talk about anime. We’ll pay you and stuff.” Normally, they say: “Hi Insertnamehere, we’re paying ourselves to do something, could you come and do it for us for free so that we can take the credit? Your tax dollars have been redirected to us so that we can claim to be experts.”

One guy got paid to go to Japan and read out a speech I had written. Another tried to talk his way into a job with an animation company by claiming to be working for me (They called and checked. That was fun). Another claimed to be working for me, and wanted free copies of a company’s entire anime collection (they emailed me to check, he is still apologising for the “misunderstanding”). So I wasn’t new to this.

Anyway…

No, I said. I can’t put you in touch with people who are clued up enough to make a documentary about anime, but not clued up enough to actually finish it, just so that you can hang onto a grant you plainly don’t deserve. And the implication that I might be so fortunate as to appear in said documentary myself hardly fills me with glee when it takes you eight tossing months to respond to an email. Good luck with your “teaching” post at some dumb college.

“I realise” she said, “that this might all sound a bit cheeky.”

(This article first appeared in NEO #73, 2010)

The Society of the Mysterious West

I was a teenager when I first met her, an old lady with too many bags of shopping, who I helped up the stairs at the faculty of oriental studies at Cambridge.

“What are you doing here?” she asked when we got to the top. I had hair down to my waist and pixie boots on my feet, so I probably didn’t look like I should have been there.

“I’m looking for Carmen Blacker,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said. “That would be me. You’re not Jonathan Clements, are you…? You can’t be…” I had been expected a raven-haired thirty-something Nigella Lawson-type, and she had been expecting a preppy boy in a blazer, so I think we were both a bit surprised.

It was only later that I discovered she was formerly a WW2 code breaker, and was, to my knowledge, the only professor of Japanese who was certified to walk barefoot and unharmed over hot coals — just one of many transferable skills she picked up during her fieldwork in shamanism.

She died a year ago this week.

I’m just back from Norwich, after a long trip to see the inaugural Carmen Blacker Memorial Lecture,  remembering her as an inspirational researcher in the history of Japanese religions, and an instrumental doyenne of the Japan Society. I have always been a fan of hers, ever since that day in 1989 when she and I had a bizarre conversation about Dungeons and Dragons, and she snickered at the extreme unlikelihood of a Cambridge college ever wanting to take someone dressed like me. She then shoved me into a room where I was quizzed by Michael Loewe about 6th century Greece — an odd situation since he was the professor of Chinese, and, as I only discovered last year, also her husband.

I didn’t meet her again until 2000, when both of us were picking up Japan Festival Awards on the same night — her for lifetime achievement, me for Manga Max. She didn’t remember me, of course, but I’d never forgotten how hard she tried to get me into a Cambridge college, any college (a remarkable gesture of her faith in my ardour), and she was immensely pleased to discover that, in some sense, she had been right to mark my card. And so we talked about anime — I wish now I had asked her about the coal-walking thing… or possibly what she got up to at Bletchley Park.

But last night was a twofer for me, as I am also a fan of the speaker in Norwich, Donald Keene, who has done so much for Japanese literature in the 20th century, and who wrote his PhD thesis on that obscure and little known figure in Asian history, the pirate king Coxinga. He and I have both been interviewed for the forthcoming National Geographic documentary  — I’ve seen his footage and he said something utterly outrageous that is sure to put the cat among the pigeons. But on matters Blacker-related last night, he revealed that she was the first woman he ever saw in a bikini, and that she was an avid practitioner of judo in her university days in Tokyo.

He noted, as perhaps the attentive reader may have already seen in this entry, Professor Blacker’s unerring ability to draw out whatever it was that someone had in their heart that was interesting enough to them to be interesting to other people. Keene also reminisced about Blacker’s adoration of Arthur Waley (who really ought to need no introduction), and revealed that when she was breaking Japanese codes at Bletchley, Waley was a few doors down under a pile of annotated Chinese newspaper clippings. What a place it must have been. Can you imagine the fights in the canteen?

He also remembered Blacker’s intense frustration at orientalist faffery and smokescreens, and chuckled at her suggestion, only half in jest, that she should found a Society of the Mysterious West, devoted to confusing the Japanese with tales of the inscrutable occident. One day, I shall write a book with that title. And it will be dedicated to her.

Donald Keene will be repeating the inaugural Carmen Blacker Memorial Lecture in London at the British Museum on 22nd July.

Foundation and Empire

Lovely evening yesterday at the Japan Foundation for the book launch of Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, where I discussed Togo’s odd relationship with the British, from his teen years when he stood in samurai armour, wielding a sword and facing up to a warship, through his student days in Kent aboard the training ship Worcester, up to his run-ins with British vessels on the China Seas. Most notoriously, his sinking of the British registered transport Kowshing in 1894, which was captained by a fellow graduate of the Worcester and was hotly debated in the letters page of the Times for many months.

Everybody had a good time and there were lots of laughs at the expense of British MPs, confusions in signal flags, and the misfortunes of the Russian Baltic Fleet. It’s been 99 years since Togo was feted by the British on his triumphant world tour of 1911, and it was nice that he got to be celebrated again.

Thanks to everyone who came along.