Fractale Geometries

In January, unnamed members of a production committee demanded that the US distributor Funimation postpone further simulcasts of the Fractale anime until such time as the show was not being pirated on the internet. In other words, as a special reward for paying all that money for the rights to Fractale, Funimation was now lumbered with an open-endedly Sisyphean task akin to ending all crime and bringing peace to the Middle East.

A production committee is a multi-headed hydra of differing interests in a media title, often including a manga author, a comics publisher, the bloke whose factory makes the plushies, someone who supplies the music, and so on. On a good day, a production committee means that everyone spreads the risk and the profits of a film or TV show. On a bad day, it can mean a vast army of cooks fussing over the broth with contradictory directives; witness, for example the forty-six (count ’em!) different names on the production committee for K20: Legend of the Mask. You know how difficult it is to get three friends to agree on where to eat? Now imagine that you have to get consensus from a crowd of several dozen, including eight vegetarians, five people who hate curry, three devout Muslims, Aunt Mabel (who “won’t eat foreign food”) and a Shetland pony called Colin.

Production committees can also mean a number of hangers-on, relatives, spouses, and clueless lawyers representing estates or preoccupied members. I can only assume that the Fractale request came from similar interests – possibly the kind of person who doesn’t know what the internet actually is, and who assumed that all “piracy” could be stopped by sending a SWAT team around to arrest a lone man with an eye-patch who cackles over a computer somewhere in Arizona. We can, at least, thank our lucky stars that someone explained to the offending committee members that simulcasts actually slap piracy down, and in the case of Fractale, gave an illegal version a window for success of less than sixty minutes, before good hearted fans could watch the real thing, legally, for themselves.

Meanwhile, Japanese academic Tatsuo Tanaka has recently published a discussion paper that the Fractale committee would do well to read. In it, he argues the common-sense case that fans benefit from a preview medium, and that it is folly to expect someone to pay £30 to buy a show they have never seen, merely because it has a girl in a miniskirt on the cover with big eyes and spiky hair. Access to legal streaming, clips and trailers helps customers make an informed choice about how to spend their money. They are more likely to spend their money on something they like, and hence come back to buy more if it.

Crucially, however, Tanaka is talking about legal streaming. Companies and creators have the moral right to decide how and when to give away free samples. That decision does not rest with pirates and thieves, no matter what self-righteous defences they might spout. Hence, sadly, the Fractale committee had the moral right to be as counter-productively idiotic with their franchise as they wanted, but thankfully someone talked them round before they could do untold damage to their own show.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #83, 2011.

Pet Hates — Anime Style

A couple of years ago, the British magazine 3D World asked me to list my pet hates in Japanese computer animation. This is what I sent them:

1. Over-long beauty passes. “We’ve rendered that spaceship, let’s watch it trundle past for just a few more seconds…and a few more.” The modern equivalent of the agonisingly long freeze frame.

2. Faceless robot minions. “Design one, design them all.” A common temptation in all cartoons ever since Disney perfected “Xerox animation” for 101 Dalmations. But it just makes everything feel like a video game.

3, Any excuse for hovering off the ground. “That way, we don’t have to touch it.” Many Japanese cartoons make a virtue out of floaty contact, plumping for hovercars, weightlessness and psychic powers to keep from worrying about how feet interact with surfaces, and hands with objects.

4. Flat lifeless humans amid vibrant, dynamic machines. Humans are the tough part, so why not ignore them? It doesn’t help that the Uncanny Valley encourages modern animators to make their human characters less realistic, choosing instead to use “Toon-Shading” styling to make them look like big-eyed, spikey-haired manga moppets.

5. A cavalier disregard for physics. “We’ve got planes that fly backwards!” After all that effort in modelling reality, some bright spark just ignores it anyway for impossible leaps, and incredible feats of strength. As in overblown live action SFX, it just reminds the viewer that none of this is really happening.

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

Osamu Dezaki 1943-2011

I’ve written an obituary of Osamu Dezaki, director of Golgo 13, Aim for the Ace and Black Jack, among many others. It’s up online at the Manga UK blog. Not something I was expecting to have to write this morning, but when is it ever?

Dezaki was one of the few animators working in the Japanese business who had a readily identifiable style. You could always tell you were watching a Dezaki anime, regardless of the subject, thanks to his “Postcard Memory” cutaways.

I always enjoyed his insistence on taking things seriously — even comedy. This attitude even cost him work, such as the time he refused to direct a school drama about boys falling in love with other boys, because the gayness wasn’t real enough, and the realness wasn’t gay enough.

Ad Men

Over on the Manga UK blog today, I’ve written an article about the most widely seen anime of 1958. If you thought it was Legend of the White Snake, then you’re in for a surprise. It’s actually one of the many anime adverts, often overlooked by the anime studies community.

Although nowhere near as outright creepy as this one:

Salon Futura #8

The latest issue of Salon Futura is online today, and includes my article on Yukinobu Hoshino, the manga artist behind 2001 Nights, the Professor Munakata series, and, much, much more. I’ve just written the entry on Hoshino for the forthcoming third edition of the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, which now includes full bibliographies for Japanese subjects, so the article is the result of several days of cataloguing and poking around Hoshino’s publication record. My ongoing work on the encyclopaedia, however, amounts to an entire book-within-a-book about Japanese SF authors and winners of the Sei’un Awards, so you’ll see more in a similar vein someday soon. As for 2001 Nights, UK residents can catch it at the Sci Fi London all-nighter on 30th April.

Meanwhile, last week I dropped in on a London studio in order to see how things were going on the English audio recording of Musashi: Dream of the Last Samurai, which will be out from Manga Entertainment in July. I turned up for an afternoon session to discover that the studio’s previous occupant had left his trousers behind on the sofa. One wonders what kind of impression that must have made in Soho, if he was wandering around attired only from the waist up, like some celebrity version of Donald Duck. Luckily, of course, it was Soho, so I imagine nobody noticed.

Dive! Dive! Dive!

The “location hunt” is the greatest boondoggle in the anime world. These tax-deductible research trips have sent animators all over the world to soak up local colour and amass materials to add a note of realism to their works. For Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steam Boy, photographers clambered over London and Manchester, snapping Victorian-era buildings. For Laputa, Hayao Miyazaki cut a strange dash as the lone Japanese tourist in the Welsh valleys. For Macross Plus, Ichiro Itano and Shoji Kawamori duelled in the air in surplus US military jets. For Gunsmith Cats, the entire crew appears to have gone mad in Chicago at shooting ranges and strip clubs. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

The oddest location hunt known has to have been be the one experienced by Tadahito Mochinaga in 1944, when he was commissioned to make the propaganda cartoon Fuku-chan’s Submarine. His brief was no weirder than that of many modern anime producers: a fun little singsong kids’ film, that also promoted the Japanese Navy. Because the Navy was paying for it, he was sent off to the navy base at Kure to see a real submarine up close.

Unknown to Mochinaga, he’d been booked into the Iwata Inn, a frequent haunt of kamikaze pilots on their last night of freedom. Mochinaga presumably kept quiet about his cartoon mission, but the waitresses misinterpreted this as a sign of shyness or patriotic reticence. That night, the happily married Mochinaga found two of them snuggling under his duvet for a patriotic send-off, and had to shoo them away.

The following day, he and his production crew were taken down to the docks and aboard submarine I-157, where they were plied with whisky in the captain’s cabin, and treated as officers by the trainee crew. They squeezed through the narrow hatches, and experienced the claustrophobic, stuffy longeurs of a dive.

Fuku-chan’s Submarine, like many other wartime anime, mixed cartoonish antics with oddly exacting replications of life in the military. A scene in which the crew snatch up flying fish from the deck and grill them for dinner was based on Mochinaga’s own observations when I-157 surfaced in the Inland Sea. The fish are incorporated into a prolonged kitchen scene, which proved to be the most popular moment of the movie, not for its peppy accompanying tune, but for the simple presence of provisions onscreen. Wartime Japan was already suffering from severe shortages – even as he made Fuku-chan’s Submarine, Mochinaga lost his morning taxi because there was no longer any petrol, and several staff members were conscripted. Food was running low; grocery stores stocked nothing but tea and curry powder, and Mochinaga was subsisting on a single bowl of porridge a day. He poured his personal longing for a sumptuous banquet into the submarine kitchen scene, and his audiences devoured it hungrily.

I say that Mochinaga had the weirdest trip, although I only know about it because he wrote about it in his memoirs. But his colleague Mitsuyo Seo, who would make the legendary Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors the following year, seemed to have an awfully good understanding of what was involved in jumping out of a plane. Did Seo actually grab some sky with Japanese paratroopers in 1945, all for the sake of his art…? Sadly, Seo never wrote an autobiography, so perhaps we’ll never know.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #82, 2011.

Aspects of the Governing of the Finns

Aspects of the Governing of the Finns is far more vibrant and colourful than its stuffy title suggests; it challenges the reader to actively wrestle with it in search of elusive truths. Dr George Maude, a Knight of the Order of the Lion of Finland and the author of the Historical Dictionary of Finland (2006), begins as he means to go on, provocatively suggesting that the “dominant role” of German soldiers in the 1918 liberation of Helsinki may have prevented a massacre of the city’s Reds. He soon points out that Mannerheim the “youthful” Finnish general was actually a Swedish-speaker in his fifties who had loyally served the Russian Tsar for three decades, and who would soon skip town. But his words are chosen with the greatest of care; for the next 300 pages, Maude argues that Finland’s political history is littered with misleadingly archetypal public personae, unlikely alliances, and discarded alternatives.

Conservative Finns might chafe at Maude’s cynicism towards the sacred cows of the 20th century; more open-minded readers will appreciate his empathy for the enemies of yesteryear and his ceaseless questioning of what conservatives think they are conserving. Maude’s sources are wide-ranging, from PhD theses to newspaper archives, although some assertions rely on the less rigorous focus of recent TV documentaries. Meanwhile, he encourages a healthy mistrust of documents not only from WW2 and the Cold War, but also from the national birth trauma that he dutifully identifies with its twin titles: the Finnish Civil War/Revolution. If there is any problem with his scholarship, it is merely that he (or his publisher) has failed to codify it with an index – a regrettable omission in an academic work that will surely make it harder for other researchers to use.

Like most foreign authors on Finland (Screen, Upton, Clements…), Maude has married into his subject, in his case into a family with ties to the hotly contested city of Viipuri. Hence, his account often seems considered from the vantage point of a counterfactual Finland that might have been. This is a valuable approach to history, educating the reader in the “what-if” scenarios that had to be rejected before real history could happen. What if, as Britain once unhelpfully suggested, post-revolutionary Finland were re-incorporated into Sweden? What if, as Germany once urged, Finland embraced a notion of Finnlands lebensraum and seized the Kola Peninsula? What if, as Russia once hoped, Kuusinen’s Terijoki puppet regime had taken hold, and turned the country into a Soviet republic? Maude seems determined to ignite rewarding arguments everywhere that Finns talk about Finland – except, oddly, Lapland, with issues of Saami integration or autonomy unmentioned.

Maude dares us to consider paths not taken, even into his final 50 pages, where he assesses the years since 1981 in terms of “disequilibrium economics” – Finland’s dual position at the periphery of both the rising European Union and the collapsing Soviet Russia. He is particularly persuasive on the terrifying compromises and daunting realpolitik forced on Finnish governments during the Cold War, and demonstrates very well for foreign readers why figures such as Kekkonen are still revered at home. His book does not conclude so much as stop mid-flow, as if boisterous students have dragged him from his podium. In a hurried coda about the current economic crisis, he compares modern Finnish defences against Russia to those of the Afghan Taliban, ending as he began, with a mischievous reinterpretation of acknowledged facts; should the Russians ever invade Finland, they would indeed face decades of rural resistance from a fanatic populace with an already legendary reputation for defiance and sisu. It is a fittingly cheeky finale to an inspiring, exhilarating book that makes Finnish politics come alive, scattered with intriguing asides and wry observations.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy. This article comprises the original English text from a review published in Finnish in the latest edition of Ulkopolitiikka, the Finnish Journal of Foreign Affairs.