Year Zero

Practical Archaeology.

Against the Clock.

Against the Law.

On Planet Raster, the history books and archives only go back 54 years. There are only a few stars in the sky, and a totalitarian government suppresses knowledge by splitting families, assigning random names, and ruthlessly hunting down evidence of the past. Benny Summerfield is arrested, shovel in hand, as she literally digs for clues.

Government inquisitors have mere hours to decide whether Benny is mad or a dangerous revolutionary. Archaeology is a crime, and the penalty is death. Chained to a desk, locked in a room, Benny must use her forbidden skills to talk her way to safety, before the executioners arrive.

All she wants to do is go home. But until she works out where and when she already is, Benny has no means of pointing herself in the right direction. The answers lay in whatever disaster befell planet Raster before the slate was wiped clean. Benny must delve into the forbidden past, into the events of Year Zero.

The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga

The creator of Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion and… er… Cleopatra: Queen of Sex comes to life in this superb showcase and biography. Helen McCarthy pushes beyond the odious “Walt Disney of anime” label used by lazier writers, boldly stating that if we really must draw condescending cultural comparisons, Osamu Tezuka was also the Stan Lee, Tim Burton and Carl Sagan of his day. Similar challenging argument enlivens her in-depth account of Tezuka’s youth, his fascinating “star system” of recurring characters, and his transformation of the Japanese animation business with Astro Boy.

McCarthy artfully synthesises the work of earlier researchers who lack her populist splash and dash. Natsu Onoda Power might have more scandal, and Ada Palmer might have more rigour, but McCarthy has true passion for her subject, and is backed by a design team working with the full cooperation of the Tezuka estate. The result is a joy to behold – a large format, coffee table book with a glossy cover, a bound-in DVD, and pages that couldn’t be more lovingly engineered if they were pop-up. When discussing a creator whom everybody has heard of, but few really know, such illustration is crucial to appreciating just how important Tezuka was in the history of comics and cartoons. McCarthy keeps it up all the way to her provocative conclusion, in which she acknowledges Tezuka’s place in history, but also that the brightness of his achievement has exiled many other manga artists to the shadows.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade (now also available on Kindle). This review first appeared in SFX Total Anime #3, 2010.

Koo d’Etat

True to their promise to review every volume in the Makers of the Modern World series, the international history journal H-Diplo gets around to my Wellington Koo book here. I’m not entirely sure why they are covering the series at all, as every review thus far seems to discover anew that the books are not intended for an academic audience. But considering the kickings dealt out to some other books in the series, I come away from this one with a sticky star.

The sister volume on Prince Saionji was reviewed a couple of months ago in H-Diplo, here. And you can find me ranting downblog about the film made about Koo’s days at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

Payut Ngaokrachang 1929-2010

Payut Ngaokrachang, who died on 27th May, started off drawing backgrounds for puppet shows touring the countryside in his native Thailand. He drifted into animation with Haed Mahasajan (1955), in which a traffic policeman swayed with the moves of a temple dancer, and eventually causes a pile-up when he is distracted by a passing woman’s loose dress.

Payut’s cartoon came to the attention of the US Information Service, a public relations agency set up by the Eisenhower administration to push the American way of life in opposition to Communism. USIS gave him a 10,000 baht bursary (about $400), and the chance to spend six months studying animation with either Disney in America or the recently established Toei in Japan. Payut chose the latter.

Along with “Mr Keith” from the US embassy, Payut hired Tokyo animators led by Taiji Yabushita to make a 14-minute colour cartoon, The New Adventures of Hanuman (1957). Intended for screening at the US embassy in Bangkok, Hanuman drew on the Indian myths of the titular white-faced Monkey God, but depicted him under attack by red-faced monkey invaders who rush out of the jungle. A metaphor for the red menace of Communism in South-East Asia, the film was unreleased in Japan, but nevertheless brought in funding that bolstered the infant anime industry.

Payut was soon back with more American money, this time from the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation, to fund The Bear and the Children (1960). A much more heavy-handed parable, it featured a hulking Soviet bear chasing a pig-tailed little girl, clearly intended to be Chinese. The evil bear goes on to pursue children wearing the national costumes of Thailand, the Philippines and Burma, who must unite to defeat it.

Yasuo Otsuka, then a rookie animator on the project, but destined one day to be a stalwart of Studio Ghibli, recalled in his autobiography the interminable meetings in a smoke-filled room between the Japanese, Payut and his American associates. A “Mr White” from the Tokyo embassy kept insisting on “reshoots”, seemingly unaware that the animators would have to go back to scratch on every scene he wanted changed.

Payut returned to Thailand, where he would make the first Thai cartoon feature, The Adventure of Sudsakorn (1979), made on a gruelling schedule that almost blinded him. In later life, he trained Thai animators subcontracting for foreign studios, and bewailed the rising domestic popularity of Japanese cartoons, lamenting that even his own granddaughter preferred them. In a strange turn of karma, he received money from the Japan Information Centre, yet another “cultural outreach” office, to make My Way (1992). This was a different kind of propaganda, posing as an anti-AIDS cartoon educating the youth of South-East Asia, but presumably attracting Japanese funding because of the consequences to Japanese sex-tourists if the disease continued to spread in the region.

Payut will be remembered as a giant of Thai cartooning, but his involvement behind the scenes of Japanese animation is a little-known element in his long and fruitful career.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in SFX Total Anime #3, 2010.

Entering the Itano Circus

I’m pretty sure Ichiro Itano is going to punch me in the face.

It’s hard to tell, because I have a pair of opera glasses strapped to my head, the wrong way round, so that everything looks as if I am staring at it down the wrong end of a telescope. But in the round window of my vision, I very clearly see the director of Gantz, his hair tied back in a ponytail, his wiry muscles rippling under a khaki vest, hauling back his arm and then lurching right at me.

His fist speeds into view, looming huge in the frame. His arm seems to trail behind it for an impossible distance, while his hand blocks the entirety of my view. I stumble backwards, expecting a blow at any moment, but Itano has deliberately fallen a couple of inches short.

“Ha!” he says. “See? That’s what the world looks like if you’re the pilot of a giant robot! You’re looking through a viewscreen, you see. You’re not using your real eyes, you’re using a camera! And so, when we show a pilot’s-eye view in an anime show, we shoot it the way that a camera would see it!”

I lift the opera glasses gingerly and peer at him with my real eyes.

“That’s what an action director does!” he continues, enthusiastically. “He puts you inside the action. Inside it! Not observing, but participating. That’s why an anime director must always think outside the box. He must think himself into the places where no camera has been before.”

Yes, I say timidly. Which brings me back to my original question. Why exactly did you strap fifty fireworks to your motorbike?

Itano looks at me askance, as if wondering if I am dim.

“Well,” he says, “that was as many as I could fit. You know, some on the mud guards, some on the cowling, some on the –”

Yes, I say. I see that. But perhaps we are talking at cross-purposes about the meaning of “why”. Why did you do it?

“Oh,” he replies. “We’d been told that it was dangerous. So obviously, we decided to try it. I had my bike on the beach. And my friend had his, and we rode out a ways to give ourselves plenty of run-up, and then we charged each other. On the motorbikes.”

And then, I ventured meekly, you lit the fireworks?

“That’s right. They were all linked together with fuse cord, but I still had to light them. Did you know that a Zippo lighter is still windproof at eighty miles an hour? That’s really impressive, isn’t it?

“So anyway, I lit the fireworks, but they all kind of went off at once. There was this sudden, explosive cloud of smoke, and then there were rockets and firecrackers in my face, looping past me, around me… and it was really weird, sometimes they seemed to hang in space for a moment, as if they weren’t going anywhere. It was because I was still moving, along with them. Relative velocities, you see! Some were moving faster, others slower. And the smoke trails behind them billowed out in yet another direction, carried off by the wind, which was blowing in its own direction, nothing to do with the direction my bike was going. Or not going. Because I fell off. And I think my clothes were on fire by this point.

“So, you know… that’s a daft thing to do. Even if you’re twenty years old and drunk, it’s not recommended. The biking around on the beach is actually more fun than the actual fireworks… But I’m an artist. I put that experience to use. There was a storyboard on an anime show that had a pilot’s eye view of missiles coming towards him. And I said, you know what, that’s not what it looks like. It’s not so linear. I’ve been in the middle of a bunch of rockets going off, and they snake all around you. They don’t always go in the same direction! There are duds, and ones with unexpectedly high charges, and always smoke going in a direction you don’t expect. So I put all that in, and in the show we got this massive explosion of rockets and contrails. And it was pretty good!

“Not long after, Kazutaka Miyatake gives an interview to My Anime magazine, and he mentions this kind of shot, and says that it’s turning up all over anime. It’s turning up in Macross, of course. This kind of three-dimensional positioning within a salvo of rockets, and he calls it an ‘Itano Circus.’ Named after me, you see! How about that?

“Now, for my next trick, I shall re-enact the opening of Star Wars with nothing but a mobile phone…”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in SFX Total Anime #3, 2010.

Yoshinobu Nishizaki 1934-2010

Yoshinobu Nishizaki, who died today, was a colourful and controversial character in the anime world. Born as Hirofumi Nishizaki in the old samurai town of Aizu-Wakamatsu, he rebelled against his traditionalist family by founding a jazz club. By his late twenties, he had moved into music production, but suddenly switched careers to become an office manager for the “god of manga,” Osamu Tezuka.

Nishizaki claimed that he had fallen in love with Tezuka’s comics, particularly the future trilogy of Lost World, Next World, and Metropolis. Joining Tezuka’s studio, Mushi Production, Nishizaki threw himself into legal and operational work, and scored what he hoped would be a landmark success when he sold the rights of Tezuka’s Marvellous Melmo to a TV channel. However, ratings were a disaster for the series, which attempted to turn sex education into a kids’ comedy, and Nishizaki found himself taking the blame instead of the credit.

As Mushi Production drifted towards bankruptcy, Nishizaki came to resemble the first mate on a sinking ship. Industry gossip associated him not only with the departure of many animators, but with the disappearance of company property. When Mushi’s doors were shut for good, Nishizaki somehow sprang back into business as the owner of Anime Staff Room, a company that appeared to use talent and materials liberated from the beleaguered Mushi Production. Nishizaki even managed to walk away from Mushi with intellectual property. One of Nishizaki’s jobs at Mushi had been to register copyrights, and it appeared that although both Wansa-kun and Triton of the Sea bore Tezuka’s name as creator, their ownership had somehow been assigned to Nishizaki. Depending on who you talked to, Nishizaki was either a canny accomplice who dutifully kept Tezuka’s people working through a legal loophole, or a traitor who broke Tezuka’s heart.

The anime business suffered its worst crisis since WW2 at the turn of the 1970s, with multiple studio collapses, a change in the value of the yen, and a recession brought on by the rise in Middle Eastern oil prices. Nishizaki likened the period to “a winter struggling towards spring,” particularly after neither of his liberated properties recouped their production costs on broadcast. Tezuka, perhaps, had had the last laugh by not telling him a vital truth – that even Astro Boy had been produced at a loss, in the hope that merchandise and foreign sales would make up the shortfall. With no foreign sales forthcoming and reduced public interest in merchandise, Nishizaki was dead in the water.

But Nishizaki fought on. His most famous creation came in 1973, when he and two other Mushi refugees dreamt up a sci-fi quest narrative, Asteroid Ship Icarus, in which a crew of teenagers crewed a space vessel built within a hollowed-out asteroid. After the manga artist Leiji Matsumoto was brought in to refine the idea, this gradually transformed into Space Cruiser Yamato, in which a group of Japanese heroes embarked on a desperate mission across the cosmos, in a ship built from the hulk of a WW2 battleship. Eventually broadcast abroad as Star Blazers, the serial became a long-running franchise, and would eventually become the subject of a bitter court battle between Nishizaki and Matsumoto, as each claimed to be the true creator.

In the 1980s, Nishizaki changed his company name from Office Academy to Westcape Corporation (Japanese: “Nishi-zaki”), under which he became the executive producer of The Legend of the Overfiend, the first and most notorious of the “tits and tentacles” genre that repurposed animation for erotic horror. Despite soaring success in multiple foreign markets, not even the Overfiend could rescue Nishizaki’s fortunes, and he would file for bankruptcy in 1997.

Shortly afterwards, he was incarcerated for a potent cocktail of cumulative offences: he had been smuggling illegal firearms into Japan while already on bail for possession of narcotics. He consequently spent much of the first decade of the 21st century in prison, and only recently returned to form with a new animated Space Cruiser Yamato movie, Yamato Resurrection. Ever one to look for a gimmick, he infamously focus-tested the ending with an audience of fans.

When I wrote the biographical entry on Nishizaki for the Anime Encyclopedia, I commented that he could sometimes seem to be a one-hit wonder, constantly returning to the Yamato as his only trusted source of revenue, and becoming increasingly spiteful in his claim to own the idea. But I also suggested that Nishizaki’s greatest, as-yet untold story was his own autobiography: surely a tale fraught with enough scandal, drama and adventure for any TV series?

Nishizaki died as he lived, in a manner that was both odd and suspicious. The 75-year-old producer reportedly fell from a boat, itself called the Yamato, not far from the harbour of Chichijima in the Bonin Islands, about 150 miles north of Iwo Jima. It is difficult to imagine that he is really gone. There are sure to be several figures in the anime industry who surely wonder if this is not yet another larger-than-life chapter in his life, and if Nishizaki might not suddenly reappear next week leading a band of pirates, or having discovered the fountain of youth. Some might even suspect it is a last-ditch moneymaking scheme: an attempt to encourage old-time enemies to speak out against him, all the better to return from the grave armed with libel suits.

Still, as the news spreads through the Internet and it appears not to be a cruel hoax, we are left with the news that 2010, anime’s annus horribilis, has claimed yet another high profile figure. It is all the more ironic that Nishizaki should die at sea, even as the publicity machine gears up for the film that will now be surely seen as his final epitaph: the live-action Space Battleship Yamato movie that will have its official premiere on 12th December.

Unlike many anime figures, Nishizaki never published his autobiography. He did, however, write a brief memoir for the inaugural issue of My Anime magazine in 1981, in which he acknowledged that he was a volatile figure in the industry, but that his intentions had always been honourable.

“I have made many mistakes,” he admitted. “But I have no regrets.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade.