My Book of the Year

My reading this year has been all over the place, from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet to a new book on Mannerheim, to a literary biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, and oodles of Japanese-language books about the animation business.

In the meantime, among the dozens of books I read this year, there have been a few stand-out successes. I began the year nose-deep in Massimo Soumaré’s Japan in Five Ancient Chinese Chronicles, a superb survey of the occurences of the term “Land of the Rising Sun” (and indeed “Hairy Dwarves of Wa”) in mainland dynastic chronicles. Jamie Bisher’s White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian, is a gripping documentary history of the last survivors of Tsarist Russia as they fought a losing battle across Asia, along the length of a railway line that terminated in Vladivostok. It may form part of a book I am supposed to be writing next year, so it was a wonderful resource. I can’t get enough of the White Russians, which added bonus excitement to my reading of Martin Booth’s Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood. I stumbled across Booth while Googling him as the original author of the George Clooney vehicle The American. But I stayed for Gweilo, in particular for its reminiscences of the “Queen of Kowloon”, a senile, opium-addled vagrant in 1950s Hong Kong, who seemed to have once been a beautiful Tsarist duchess. Meanwhile, an interest in blockade runners (don’t ask) led me to Eric Graham’s Clyde Built: Blockade Runners, Cruisers and Armored Rams of the American Civil War, which retells the North-South conflict from the point of view of the Scottish shipbuilders and profiteers whose tricked-out steamers were smuggling supplies into the South from Bermuda.

But my 2010 Book of the Year was another part of my Scottish haul from ten days at the Scotland Loves Anime film festival. It’s Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented a Nation by Stuart Kelly, a biography and “thanatography” of Sir Walter Scott. There are other books about Scott, but they all too often skirt around the issue that his books are unreadable. Kelly is a happily hostile witness to his subject, intrigued by the career and output of an author who was a global celebrity during his own lifetime, to the extent that his Edinburgh monument is still the largest memorial to an author anywhere in the world. And yet Scott today is largely unread, confined to the bargain bin of literary history, his works written off as risible whimsy, his style dismissed as florid and twee. That’s where the thanatography comes in, with Kelly charting the fame and fortune of Scott after his death, with his works forming fundamental building blocks of the Scottish national identity, and indeed that of America – did you know that “Hail to the Chief” began as a song from an unauthorised musical, based on a Scott book about Highland bandits?

Kelly’s book opens a fascinating window on the bestsellers of yesteryear, treating Scott as the tin-eared, ham-fisted, yet inexplicably popular Dan Brown of his day, as well as a cunning literary wheeler-dealer, whose ownership of his publisher’s printing company allowed him to double-dip from his books’ profits. Literary biography is fast becoming my favourite genre, as I unwind from writing my own books by reading about other people writing theirs. On which note, thanks to one publication being six months late, another being six months early, and a third being bang on time, I ended up publishing three books in the calendar year 2010: A Brief History of the Samurai, Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, and A Brief History of Khubilai Khan. You’ll have to keep busy with those, because for the first time in a decade, I won’t be publishing a single book next calendar year. But there’s already something on the slate for 2012, and for 2013, too, which seems far off in the future, even though I am already working on it. Other projects may slot in in the interim. In fact, one of the things that kept me busy in 2010 was the writing of large-scale proposals for big book projects for publication in 2014. See, planning ahead: no news on those yet, but why should there be when publishers wouldn’t need delivery for another two years? If I were really smart, I would buy up 50% of a printing company, like Walter Scott.

Then again, Scott ended up losing his shirt. Maybe I should invest in print-on-demand instead…

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2010: The Year in Anime Books

After so many positive responses to the round-up of anime reading last year, I thought I would continue with a brief precis of some of the anime books I have encountered in the ensuing twelve months.

Largely overlooked in Anglophone anime studies was Hu Tze-yue’s Frames of Anime: Culture and Image-Building from Hong Kong University Press. For those who have read Hu’s essay on Hakujaden in the journal Animation, this is more of the same, extending her conclusions out of the Toei era and into the careers of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Meanwhile, Toshie Takahashi made a valuable contribution to studies of TV in general with Audience Studies: A Japanese Perspective, which has given me some great ideas about the history of early anime on television. Andrew Osmond placed anime in an international context with his 100 Animated Feature Films for the British Film Insititute. Phaidon’s Manga Impact was actually a book about anime, which says it all.

There were two excellent articles on Grave of the Fireflies and Space Cruiser Yamato, to be found in Stahl and Williams’ Imag(in)ing the War in Japan: Representing and Responding to Trauma in Postwar Literature and Film. This year I also caught up with Ian Condry’s 2009 essay ‘Anime Creativity: Characters and Premises in the Quest for Cool Japan’ in Theory, Culture & Society, worth noting here because it seems to be a fragment of a book-length work in progress. The same issue included Marc Steinberg’s ‘Anytime, Anywhere: Tetsuwan Atomu Stickers and the Emergence of Character Merchandizing,’ continuing to ensure that the Astro Boy era is one of the best documented in anime studies. Mechademia put out another strong volume. Oh, and Schoolgirl Milky Crisis came out on the Kindle.

The 2006 Clements and McCarthy Anime Encyclopedia remains the largest and most comprehensive book in English about Japanese animation. However, if you can read Japanese, there is now an even bigger tome to bend your shelves, the 1000-page Stingray/Nichigai Associates Dictionary of Animation Works: the biggest book ever written on the subject. It’s an odd work with rather short entries, omitting running times, for example, and concentrating instead on the origins of the anime discussed. This makes it an indispensable resource for anyone documenting the source material from which anime is made, as it lists the Japanese editions of Moomin books, the Bible and obscure children’s classics. It also covers non-Japanese animation, with a total of over 6000 little entries. But I can’t help wishing that it spent more time discussing the anime themselves, rather than vast bibliographies of the books related to them — a massive multi-volume list, for example, of Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights translation, in order to point to the origins of Tezuka’s 1001 Nights. Still, very handy, even at the astronomical cover price of $175.

In Japan, this year has been quiet in terms of big new books on the anime industry, although Toshio Okada got in just under the wire with his new warts-and-all memoir, Testament. This year, I have instead been reading many older books on anime history, including memoirs by Shinichi Suzuki, Yasuo Otsuka, Ryuichi Yokoyama, Tadahito Mochinaga, and Yoshiyuki Tomino. Meatiest among them was Eiichi Yamamoto’s tell-all confessional, The Rise and Fall of Mushi Pro (1989). Written as Tezuka lay dying, it is a detailed analysis of the period from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, from the beginning of production on Tales from a Street Corner, up to the collapse of the studio in the wake of Tragedy of Belladonna. One wonders, perhaps, if now that Yoshinobu Nishizaki is dead, Yamamoto will write a sequel about the troubled 1970s in the anime world, during which he worked for Nishizaki on the Yamato series.

I also found much of interest in Nobuyuki Tsugata’s 2007 study Japan’s First Animation Creator: Kitayama Seitar?, a book which pieces together vital pieces of the anime puzzle from the 1920s and 1930s. Tsugata is the best author in the world on anime history matters, and this book is an amazing detective story. So little early animation survives that Tsugata has to piece together Kitayama’s career from old magazine articles, wall charts enhanced and enlarged from the background of staff photographs, and odd sources such as the proceedings of the Federation of Japanese Dentists.

In the interests of leaving better testimonials for the Tsugatas of the future, the Madhouse studio continues to preserve production details and interviews of its newest films in its own rather pricey series. The Plus Madhouse series of creator-specific books have proved to be a mixed bag. Some, such as the volume on Rintaro (Shigeyuki Hayashi), fill in vital historical and personal gaps in our knowledge of the industry. Others… don’t, and risk diluting the brand by becoming little more than puff pieces for someone’s latest film.

Thinking Like an Anime Writer

Attendees at the Glasgow Youth Film Festival in February 2011 can expect to be harangued, tormented and cajoled at a morning workshop on the way that Japanese animation scripts are put together, and how Western cartoon companies try to copy them.

Why do they all have such big eyes? What’s with the hot spring episode… and could you do better..? Yes, it’s the return of the notorious Jonathan Clements storylining lab, as seen at Screen Academy Wales, the Irish Film Institute and various other dumbstruck venues.

If you are a teenager with nothing better to do in Glasgow on a Sunday, now’s your chance to sign up for the industry experience that has been likened to a rollercoaster ride through shattered dreams and management madness, variously described as “illuminating”, “life-changing” and “better than the guy we had last week.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. Now also available on the Kindle.

Salon Futura #4

The new issue of Salon Futura is up online, and features a chunky interview with Leiji Matsumoto, the creator of Captain Harlock, Queen Emeraldas and Space Battleship Yamato.

Also in this issue: an interview with Alistair Reynolds, stuff on fantasy and steampunk, and a review of Johanna Sinisalo’s Birdbrain.

Source Material

Bit of housekeeping in this month’s Pulse column: I’d like to take the chance to knock another misconception on the head before a whole new generation start using it as gospel truth. Somewhere back in the mists of time, probably in a press release from the early 1990s, someone made the inadvisable claim that anime were all based on manga. I guess it was an attempt to inextricably link two buzz-words in a breathless twofer. Even though anyone with half a brain must surely realise that it can’t be true, I still regularly have to deal with journalists who think it is a fact. Sadly, this assumption has wormed its way into several academic publications as well. Of course, anime and manga will always enjoy a strong affinity, but the idea manga forms the foundation of the anime business has not been supported by the facts since the late 1960s.

So, for the record. In the early days of anime, many cartoons were indeed based on local comics. In 1963, the year of the broadcast of Astro Boy, 100% of anime were based on manga. But even by the year I was born, 1971, I estimate that only half of all the anime on TV were based on Japanese comics. The rest were ideas concocted in a hurry at boozy lunches, or ripped off from pre-existing works, such as the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Ten years later, amid a bunch of toy tie-ins and adaptations of famous children’s stories, the number had dropped still further, to something like a third.

These days, manga have enjoyed something of a resurgence. Last year, 46% of anime were based on manga. That’s by far the largest sector, against 19% based on novels, 17% based on computer games, and 15% created entirely out of nothing. That just leaves 3% of “other”, which could be anything. If Hollywood can base Pirates of the Caribbean on a theme park ride, then anime can be inspired by mascots, chocolate bars and political satire if it so desires.

Just because you know that there is a manga with the same title as your favourite anime, it doesn’t follow that the anime was based on it. Many manga are merely created to advertise a particular show, and to encourage younger readers to seek it out in the first place. Similarly, ever since the 1990s, many manga have been conceived purely as marketing tools, part of a “multi-media” spread designed to sell the comic. Yes, technically, Sailor Moon was “based on” a manga, but the Sailor Moon manga was steered and influenced heavily by shadowy figures preparing the franchise for broadcast, not for publication.

Needless to say, that still leaves lots of areas open to misunderstandings. One wonders, for example, how many of the “novels” that inspire anime productions are actually “light novels”, in other words, individually published novellas, often insanely dialogue heavy and seemingly intended less for textual printing than for reading on a mobile phone. (Many of them, in fact, appear to have been written on one, too).

You may be wondering what difference it all makes. I, for one, think it’s healthy to remember that Japanese animation has just as rich a field of inspiration as any culture’s cartoons. If the general public think that anime can only stem from comics, they will have greater trouble understanding its fancier inspirations: the works of Alexandre Dumas, for example, or the novels of Yasutaka Tsutsui, or, well… the Bible.

This article first appeared in NEO #78, 2010.

Kihachiro Kawamoto 1925-2010

Kihachiro Kawamoto, who died on 23rd August, was a world away from what most fans consider to be “anime”, and had conspicuously little to do with the cel-based industry that dominated Japanese animation in the twentieth century. Kawamoto made his living on what he called “horrible” jobs in advertising, while scraping together a little money so that he could make art films in his spare time. While Osamu Tezuka was charming the media and dominating the airwaves, Kawamoto was renting out town halls so he could show his short films to passers-by. But when Tezuka died in 1989, it was Kawamoto who took over his chairmanship of the Japan Animation Association – a position he held for the next 21 years. His tenure served as a reminder of how truly broad the animation medium can be. In Kawamoto’s case, it embraced claymation, paper collages, stop-motion, and stop-motion’s distaff cousin: old-fashioned puppetry.

Dolls were Kawamoto’s first love. He wrote a magazine column about them during the US Occupation period, when young Japanese girls were forced to make do and mend with their worn-out toys. In the 1950s, he fell in with the maverick animator Tadahito Mochinaga, newly returned from China, where film had been in such short supply that he had taken to shooting puppet shows one frame at a time so as not to waste footage. This method, of course, turned Kawamoto’s dolls into stars, as part of the multiple award-winning Beer Through the Ages (1956) a 12-minute compilation of adverts celebrating the half centenary of the Asahi Brewery.

“Dolls are children’s toys, or things you dress up and display,” he told Jasper Sharp at Midnight Eye. “Puppets, or marionettes, are things that act. This is a crucial difference. There’s no such thing as doll animation.”

Kawamoto learned how to make such “dolls that act”, journeying to Czechoslovakia in the 1960s to study under the international master of puppets, Jiri Trnka. This was not as easy as it sounded – travel restrictions on the Japanese had only just been lifted in time for the Tokyo Olympics, and Kawamoto had to bend the truth by claiming to be coming to interview Trnka for a Japanese newspaper.

Under Trnka, Kawamoto began making his own short, stop-motion films, often influenced by Japanese mythology and theatre. He became renowned for his ability to use motion and posture to imply emotion in puppets whose expressions were otherwise unchanging. He remained resolutely small-scale, making films that scooped festival awards, but rarely travelled beyond the tiny circuit of festival aficionados. It is only in the last few years, with the release of a number of his shorts on the DVD Kihachiro Kawamoto Film Works, that a wider audience has stood the remotest chance of seeing his idiosyncratic, meticulous works of art.

In Japan in the 1980s, he became known as a puppeteer once more, producing two long-running adaptations of classics: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Tale of the Heike. While foreign audiences were lapping up Akira and Legend of the Overfiend, Kawamoto’s puppet shows were all over Japanese telly. In 1990 he returned to Czechoslovakia to make Briar Rose, a darkly shaded reimagining of Sleeping Beauty. The culmination of his work came in the form of the feature-length stop-motion film, The Book of the Dead (2005), which finally brought him a degree of international recognition, scant years before his death.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #77, 2010.