Grand Theft Anime

When we meet, it’s at a place of his choosing, one of those odious, pokey little Roppongi bars where women pretend to like you for a fee. Saotome smirks in the corner by a bottle of whisky that literally has his name on it – they keep it behind the counter for him – and with a girl in a slinky red dress who oohs and aahs at his every word.

The Japanese like to present themselves as benevolent creatives who sit around all day thinking of cool stuff. They love fans, of course, although not for the reasons you would think. The love fans because they’ll buy any old crap.

“I bet you think I was part of the Cel Cemetery Scandal?” he says, an eyebrow raised in suspicion.

I confess that, yes, I’d figured that one had his fingerprints all over it. It’s a story that everyone in the anime business tries to forget. Back in the 1990s, when anime were still assembled on acetate cels, new environmental laws forced Tokyo studios to pay extra money for ecologically sound disposal. Old cels had a high chemical content; they needed special treatment, and that meant paying extra fees to the garbage men.

One well-known studio decided to save some money, even at the expense of not saving the world. They waited until nobody was looking, dug a pit in their backyard, and buried all the cels. Piles after pile of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis images, shovelled underground and forgotten.

“Now,” says Saotome. “You tell me. How do you know that wasn’t me?”

I gingerly admit I still thought it was him.

“That case only came to light for one reason,” he says. “It was the damn fans. Police caught fans breaking into the studio and digging up the back yard so they could steal the cels! They were collectors! They could wipe the dirt off and sell them for a few bucks. If I’d been in charge, I’d have been sending the interns down to conventions with truckloads of the damn things. I wouldn’t hide them! I’d sell them!”

“And then,” he admits after a sip of his whisky. “The ones I couldn’t sell, maybe I’d throw those in a landfill somewhere.”

Saotome is always working the angles. He’s an asshole, but he is still an anime classic. He’s a legend.

“Saotome’s my friend,” one producer told me. “He’s always been there for me when I needed him. But when you shake his hand in business, count your fingers afterwards.”

Saotome came into the anime world through contracts and legal – he was renowned for knowing his way around corporate law. Most infamous was the way he handled himself at the collapse of a well-known studio. Just a few signatures, your name here, and here, and… here, and he’d managed to get a famous creator to sign over the copyright in three of his latest ideas.

When Saotome saw the writing was on the wall, he sent in his minions to grab anything that wasn’t nailed down. Before the bailiffs could arrive to shut down the studio, Saotome was backing up a truck. He took the filing cabinets, he took the post-its, he took anything that wasn’t nailed down. And two streets over, he opened up a new studio. His studio.

He’d already set up a new company under a different name, and planned on selling cartoons based on the intellectual property he’d just stolen. Nor did things stop at the titles themselves. Those shows were drawn with pencils, inked with acrylics, and shot on a rostrum camera stolen from Saotome’s former workplace.

“Don’t look at me like that,” smirks Saotome over his whisky. “You kids who play everything by the book, you know what would have happened?”

I shrug.

“Nothing!” he shouts, banging his hand on the table and attracting scowls from fellow drinkers. “The law suit over that dead studio lasted for twelve years. Anything that wasn’t stolen was locked up till then while the lawyers argued. You think a marker pen’s good after 12 years? You think the paints were still useable? We liberated that stuff, my friend. We liberated it.”

Saotome doesn’t see himself as a burglar. He sees himself as the man who got three shows made that might never have happened. In his own little world, he’s a hero, and perhaps he’s right. He’s made a lot of blunders in his life, but he’s always been ready to get to his feet and try again.

Look on the credit lists of some of the most famous shows, and you’ll see Saotome’s name. He was there in the sci-fi boom, when Star Wars made space popular again. The same company, its name changed, was at the forefront of the tits-and-tentacles fad. In the 1990s, he’d been going through the old paperwork when he realised that the wording in an old contract implied he had part ownership of a famous sci-fi franchise. He didn’t hang around – he commissioned a remake and dared the real creator to sue.

To some people, Saotome is a role model, even – there are half a dozen producers who are reading this now and wondering if it is about them. There are animators who owe their livelihoods to him. Saotome sees himself as an optimist. That’s what management does, it optimises. It thinks of what’s possible and goes for it. But Saotome has a respect for the Law. It’s what he trained in.

“I’ve never committed a crime,” he says. “People call me a criminal, but all I did was look for loopholes in things that were already there.”

His pretty companion whispers something in his ear.

“Oh, right,” he says. “I didn’t commit any crimes in the animation world. Obviously, that thing with the guns and the cannabis, that was different.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in PiQ magazine #2, May 2008.

Fallen Angels and Chronokids

And that’s me back from what used to be known as Screen Academy Wales, but is now called Media Academy Wales — am I the only person who thinks that sounds considerably less cool? This was probably my last storylining workshop of 2011, for BA and MA students in film, video, and games from several Welsh colleges.

As ever, I began by ranting at them about odd ideas, rules and techniques in the animation business. As ever, the students didn’t disappoint, pitching two series ideas that they were forced to wrench into existence in less than two hours.

In Chronokids, modern day children develop the ability to travel in time, and an awareness that thieves are looting Earth from the future. Meanwhile, for Fallen Angel, another group pitched a class-aware eco-drama set in a drowned New York, where a poor little rich girl falls from one of skyscrapers that still stick out of the sea, and is adopted by kindly mutant fish-folk engaged in a war against toxic dumping.

These pitches join other great ideas like Choc Shock, Hattie Bast: Mummy’s Girl, Decontaminators and Waxing Moon, all of which have been whipped up out of nothing by students on previous workshops. I’m not saying it’s easy, but sometimes the students seem surprised by how their own brainstorming can create something that can give real TV shows a run for their money. And that’s the idea of the storylining workshop: simply to give people the confidence to know that they should never be afraid of a blank piece of paper, or indeed of saying a dumb idea. As ever, the “dumb” ideas turned out to be the ones that made it to centre stage.

What was different about this session was that some of the students suggested that they might even take one of the ideas and develop it further as part of their course work. Well, why the hell not? If something comes of it somewhere down the line, that would be a Saturday morning in Cardiff well-spent.

Salon Futura #6

The latest issue of Salon Futura is now up online, with a special Valentine’s Day theme in which I contribute the article “1778 Ways to Say I Love You”, about the Japanese science fiction author Taku Mayumura.

Meanwhile, I staggered back into London at dawn this morning on the sleeper from Glasgow, where yesterday’s storylining workshop produced the utterly bonkers Waxing Moon – the tale of a family of werewolves (plus one hapless were-iguana), whose tanning and waxing salon is under threat from business rivals at a vampire hat shop. The end result was a sort of supernatural pastiche of the Brady Bunch, with a werewolf and a vampire girl falling in love while rehearsing the school play Romeo & Juliet in which the Romeo and the Juliet genuinely do come from two contending aristocratic houses. It is a shame that we shall never see a real-life TV show in which orange-skinned vampires dominate at the high-school fencing club, or where the super-cool, super-vain vampire elder brother is a boy called Gary, who glitters. With a music teacher called Shump Jarking.

As with earlier incarnations at the Irish Film Institute and Screen Academy Wales, it’s always fascinating to see the shows that people come up with when they are given the rules that professional writers have to follow. Waxing Moon joins Decontaminators, Hattie Bast: Mummy’s Girl and Choc Shock among the alternate-world TV show ideas that have come up in a couple of years of the storylining workshop. What made Waxing Moon different and rather precious is that the storyliners were all teenagers themselves.

The Disappearance of Jonathan Clements

Off to get the train to Scotland for tomorrow’s Anime Day at the Glasgow Film Theatre, which includes King of Thorn, Eureka Seven: The Movie, and The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. I shall be introducing all three films, and talking onstage to Kaze Animation’s Andrew Partridge about surfing, Trainspotting, and issues in modern anime. I expect it will turn into Ten Things That Are Funny About Shintaro Ishihara and the Fractale Production Committee, but we’ll see how it goes.

Anime Syndrome

The big names of the anime world might be old duffers today, but they all started frightfully young. Osamu Tezuka told everyone he was 36 when Astro Boy was released, but he was lying. In fact, he was only 34 – the result of teen years spent lying about his age so that people would take him seriously. The anime business needs its workers to be young and energetic, otherwise they can’t keep up with the pace.

When Astro Boy’s cut-price animation style shook the industry in 1963, the grand old men at Toei Animation went searching for a staffer who could produce TV animation at a similar rate. None of the old-timers thought it was possible; only Sadao Tsukioka, then in his early twenties, was young enough and gullible enough to think it could be done. Which is how he became the director of Ken the Wolf Boy.

Tsukioka’s recruitment was part of a larger, industry-wide grab for staff, which also snapped up Hayao Miyazaki, Gisaburo Sugii, Rintaro, Yoshiyuki Tomino, and many other future anime directors. Studio shills lurked outside Toei Animation trying to lure staff to work for other studios. And at Tezuka’s company, Mushi Production, the animators in one office were all caught with freelance Toei work hidden under their desks.

One of the reasons we saw a huge rise in industry deaths in 2010 is that the anime business itself quadrupled in size fifty years ago. If you were a young kid of 23 in the year that Astro Boy came out, you’re going to be 70 now, which is why so many seem to be dying off at once. However, that doesn’t explain everything, because some of this year’s deaths have been significantly younger. Directors Satoshi Kon and Umanosuke Iida, both of whom passed away this year, were only in their forties. What’s going on?

Animation is an unforgiving lifestyle. Crunch times demand 20-hour days under harsh conditions. Nobody animates at the full 24 frames per second, so everything is already compromised and can benefit from a bit of extra tinkering. There is always something that could be improved just a little bit, which means it is never possible to just stop and proclaim that something is as good as it will ever be. There is literally no hope that your work will be perfect, and meanwhile you are working odd hours, living off instant noodles, and not getting any exercise. Nor is this anything new. During production on Kimba the White Lion, the animator Yoshinori Rachi dropped dead of a duodenal ulcer, aged 24. “Without a doubt,” wrote the director Eiichi Yamamoto, “he was killed by work on television animation.”

It was Yasuji Mori who first gave a name to compromised immune systems born of chainsmoking, lack of sleep and bodyclocks thrown off-kilter. He called it Anime Syndrome, and he saw it all over the 1960s business. Peer back into the war years and there are still more tales of nervous exhaustion, and long convalescences that treat a production completion party like a remission from some terrible affliction. Anime has always been a tough master, as has peer pressure. That little cough, that little twinge, are all things that the animators put off dealing with. You can see the doctor tomorrow…. Next week… When this episode is done…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #80, 2010.