Thor Blimey

And as I clock off today’s writing on my new book, I discover that my Brief History of the Vikings is being cited in today’s Guardian as part of the debate on Scottish independence, leading to a massive ding-dong over historical genetics in the comments section, with a whole bunch of people who have not read my book criticising things that aren’t actually in it.

“a book which made me look at British history – English, Scots and Irish, less so Welsh – in a very different light… which tells the story of three centuries of land-hungry expansion out of the cold north, which changed the world, especially ours.” — Michael White, Guardian

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French Made

My publishers have alerted me to an even-handed and largely complimentary review of my Admiral Togo book in the May 2011 issue of Choice, a magazine for academic libraries. Masahiro Yamamoto of the University of Wyoming pronounces it “fun reading”, and says: “Clements… recounts the life of a Japanese admiral famous for his victory at the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War. Through his extensive reading of multiple-language sources, Clements points out deficiencies in some of the… sources he quotes, and presents so far little-known episodes like the important roles French advisers played in the Battle of Miyako Bay in 1869 during Japan’s civil war in the early Meiji period.”

Maybe I should write more about those Frenchmen. I have been meaning to translate Eugene Collache’s “Une Aventure au Japon” for some time now. I might do that when I get a moment, as I have been thinking about making it the basis of a book about the Republic of Ezo and the involvement of foreigners in Japan’s civil war. A noren curtain, bearing the image of Goryokaku, the five-pointed star-shaped fortress in Hakodate, serves as a constant reminder to me over my office door. One the many book projects that are simmering while I work on others, but I’ll get there in the end.

Yu-Gi-NO!

Sharp-eyed anime fans may have noticed the shenanigans in America. On 24th March, Nihon Ad Systems and TV Tokyo jointly filed a lawsuit against the distributor 4Kids, citing irregularities in the payment practises regarding the extremely lucrative anime franchise of Yu-gi-Oh.

There are always irregularities in accounting. There are always numbers that are forgotten, costs amortised, losses adjusted in later reports after they were overlooked in previous ones. Moreover, there are always lawsuits in Hollywood. The notoriously litigious people of the West Coast will lawyer up over everything and nothing, not necessarily because of any wrongdoing, but to ensure that there is no mistake that they are serious and expect swift replies. Peter Jackson and the Tolkien estate both took New Line to court over missing earnings on Lord of the Rings, and still ended up working for them on The Hobbit. It doesn’t mean that relationships are unsalvageable. But the Japanese aren’t like that. The Japanese will do everything in their power to avoid lawsuits, because even starting one means trouble. In Japanese terms, a lawsuit means you have already lost face by not being able to sort things out over a beer.

So if the Japanese are sending the lawyers in, it’s because they are deadly serious about getting their money. It means they have already waited long enough.

4Kids tried to buy time by handing over a million dollars. But in fact, almost four million dollars turn out to be at stake, in what the Japanese regard as unreasonably withheld earnings, including for example, a dollar per copy scraped from the profits from Yu-gi-oh on the GameBoy Advance.

4Kids retaliated by filing for Chapter Eleven bankruptcy protection, plainly in the hope that they could ring-fence their intellectual property, and thus prevent the Japanese from bringing the company down, at least in the short term. Meanwhile, investigations continue, over who did what, and who should pay for what, in terms of dubs, spin-offs and merchandise. But, miraculously, the new Yu-gi-oh movie is out in the UK on schedule, and without a whiff of hassle – hiding some sterling double-checking, contract-auditing and arse-covering behind the scenes.

This article first appeared in NEO magazine #85, 2011.

Hidden Fortress

It is a period of civil war. Rebel samurai, striking from a hidden base, have won a terrible victory over the House of Akizuki. The clan elders make their doomed last stand, leaving one bold general (Abe) and the fugitive Princess Yuki (Nagasawa) to flee to safety with the clan’s treasure… their only hope.

Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai epic Hidden Fortress broke with tradition by telling its story not through the eyes of the aristocratic leads, but their bumbling servants. Shinji Higuchi, director of this 2008 remake, is no Kurosawa, but that’s hardly his fault, particularly when working with the low expectations of modern Japanese movies. He gets to work in colour, but seemingly without proper lighting on location, leaving most scenes in washed-out pastel shades. His leading man, the rakish Takezo (Matsumoto) is played by yet another refugee from a forgettable boy-band, glued unconvincingly to a merkin of a beard. His feisty princess is a starlet who thinks acting means scowling. The talented Hiroshi Abe does his best to recall the tough-guy gravity of the original’s Toshiro Mifune, but loses all his deep pauses to camera-shake and fast cutting. It’s only among the baddies that proper actors get to shine, particularly the hypnotic Masahiro Takashima as arrogant border guard Kyunoshin, who loses interest in molesting Princess Yuki when he discovers she is a girl.

A minor film in the Kurosawa canon, the original Hidden Fortress is mainly remembered today for the inspiration it lent to Star Wars. Director Higuchi, also the director of the controversial Lorelei and the overblown Sinking of Japan, is one of the founders of the same Gainax anime studio that brought us Evangelion, and a proud member of that generation of fanboys drawn to Hidden Fortress solely on the recommendation of George Lucas. Consequently, he approaches his remake as if playing a Star Wars drinking game… which, to be fair, is what everybody else has done since 1977.

Frame-wipe editing throughout recalls that to be found in both movies. A drop-shaft mine escape is shot from above, slyly recalling the canyon assault on the Death Star. In the hands of sometime anime writer Kazuki Nakashima, we get a hokey subplot about poisonous mine gas, and a timid refusal to grapple with the implications of class (happy stupid peasants, troubled smart samurai, and never the twain shall meet) but also a plot-driven series of action encounters, as our heroes duck imperial entanglements, drop in on an Ewokesque forest festival, and ultimately descend into the titular base to rescue the princess. The appearance of the dastardly Lord Takayama (Shina), a black-clad samurai who hides his scarred face with a mask, lingers tauntingly on a tableau that echoes Darth Vader’s first entrance aboard the rebel blockade runner. Meanwhile, a leitmotif born from John Williams’ “Force” theme runs throughout Naoki Sato’s score. The result is a curious contradiction – a throwaway samurai B-movie that proves oddly compelling to the Star Wars fan.


This article first appeared in the SFX Total Anime Special #3, 2010.

A New Type of Bomb

Born in 1954 in Miyagi Prefecture, Katsuhiro Otomo grew up on American counter-culture movies such as Easy Rider, Bonnie & Clyde and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. The young Otomo eventually skipped town, and headed for the big city of Tokyo.

He arrived during turbulent times. Intent on keeping bases in Japan to supply forces in Vietnam, the United States had just signed a controversial treaty with the Japanese government. Students were rioting in the streets, colleges were deserted, and the streets of Tokyo were dark with riot gas and smoke bombs. When the unrest died down, a group of die-hards formed the terrorist Red Army group, which was eventually wiped out in a violent gun battle with police at the Karuizawa holiday resort in 1972.

While the older generation shook their heads and lamented the motorcycle-riding, pill-popping youth of the day, others talked of the shinjinrui, a putative “new breed” who were taller, smarter, and tougher than their forebears. Science fiction writers were already toying with the idea that Japan’s post-war youth weren’t just attitudinally distinct, but had different minds.

In search of a way to make ends meet in Tokyo, Otomo began working in comics, drawing humour, fantasy and modern drama, but steering clear of science fiction. His comics debut was “Gun Report” (1973) in Manga Action magazine, based on Mateo Falcone by Prosper Mérimée. For the next ten years, Otomo juggled manga short stories in several genres, including Bible pastiches and mundane drama, as a weekly contributor to Manga Action throughout the 1970s, and then increasingly for its rival Young Magazine in the 1980s.

Otomo only moved into SF at the urging of his editor at Young Magazine, when he wrote the 1979 epic Fireball. Depicting a conflict between scientists and terrorists over the mastery of a supreme energy source, Fireball was left unfinished – had Otomo completed it, he might never have returned to similar material in Akira. It also featured a supercomputer named Atom, in homage to Osamu Tezuka’s Mighty Atom, better known in the West as Astro Boy.

Many of Otomo’s works are cunningly recursive science fiction, refashioning the plots of cartoon shows and comics from his childhood with an adult sensibility. In particular, he favoured protagonists drawn from the underclass, in reaction to the clean-cut heroes of the golden age of SF. His breakout work was Domu: A Child’s Dream, depicting the duelling psychic powers of an old man and a young girl in a run-down Tokyo apartment complex. Despite its grungy, modern trappings, it had its distant origins in Otomo’s desire to retell the plot of Sarutobi Etchan, an obscure 1971 girls’ cartoon show based on a manga by Shotaro Ishinomori.

Similarly, Otomo drew on plot elements and character names from Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Tetsujin 28 (a.k.a. Gigantor) for his long-running Akira (1983-1990 Young Magazine). Tetsujin 28 was the tale of a WW2 robot-warrior project, resurrected in the 1960s by a master-criminal. The only thing that can stop it is the son of the original inventor, who has an even more powerful weapon at his disposal. Little of Tetsujin 28 remains in the final story of Akira, though sharp-eyed viewers might notice a weapon that survives the Third World War, that the Colonel is the son of one of the original Akira Project scientists, that Akira’s code number is “28”, and that the protagonist’s full name, like that of the boy-hero of Tetsujin 28, is Shotaro Kaneda.

Inevitably, Otomo was drawn into the anime world. His distinctive anime look first appeared in a 1983 commercial on Japanese television for the Canon T70 camera; in just a few cels, we see the first stirrings of his Akira bikers. He was strongly dissatisfied with working conditions as an animator on an adaptation of Kazumasa Hirai’s Harmagedon (1983), but contributed strong work to two anime anthologies, Robot Carnival and Neo-Tokyo (both 1987). It was these apprentice pieces, delivered at the height of his accolades and acclaim, which led to him to be commissioned to make an animated adaptation of his then-unfinished comic, Akira.

Otomo filled 2000 pages of notebooks with ideas and designs for the movie, though he was eventually persuaded to reduce his vision to a mere 738 pages of storyboards. An artist and writer given full control of a story he had created himself, Otomo pushed his production team to the limit. Over 170,000 separate animation cels were created for the production, pushing the budget far above that of the average Japanese animated movie. Otomo also broke several cardinal rules of cel animation, particularly the maxim that night-scenes should be avoided wherever possible – not a problem today with computer animation, but a huge issue when working with cels. Despite this, large parts of Akira occur after the hours of darkness, causing immense difficulty for the crew in lighting, halation effects, shadow and simple colouring. Instead of the bright, primary hues found in children’s cartoons, the quest for adult, photographic realism in Akira led to the use of 327 different colours, causing further production nightmares in tracking which paint was supposed to go where.

Although it ran far over budget, Akira eventually recouped its costs in foreign editions, inadvertently igniting a boom in Japanese animation abroad, and dominating popular perceptions of the medium until the translation of Studio Ghibli’s films in the late 1990s. Akira’s cyberpunk sensibilities made it as definitive of the 1980s genre in Japan as were Blade Runner and Neuromancer in the Anglophone world; it was even lovingly pastiched by Production IG in a commercial for Murphy’s Irish Stout, directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo.

Its later manga volumes depict yet another disaster, followed by a prolonged exercise in survivalist fiction in which the inhabitants of a ruined Tokyo stand up to an invasion by American “peacekeepers”. However, Otomo never hid his recursive inspirations, and pointedly ended the Akira comic with a dedication to Osamu Tezuka, darker elements of whose Astro Boy can also be seen beneath the glossy surface. Most notable among these is the opening sequence – both Astro Boy and Akira begin with a tragic road accident, leading to the resurrection of a tearaway child with new and awesome powers.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. Akira is released on UK Blu-ray and DVD by Manga Entertainment on 27th June 2011.

Mark Blumenfeld 1971-2011

Mark Blumenfeld, who apparently died in May, led a troubled life. He had over a thousand friends on Facebook, although it speaks volumes that few commented when his cousin announced his death. For my part, I waited several days to write this obituary, unsure of whether this was yet another stunt, or “regeneration”, from someone who regularly purged his Friends list and changed his identity. The facts I repeat here are true to the best of my knowledge, although I never had much confirmation of any of them.

I met him at university in Osaka, where he was known to his fellow students as the Prince of Darkness. He coveted the image of a comic-book villain, lurking at the sidelines in a black raincoat, surveying the crowd with the glowering air of a Jewish Terminator. He had few friends, and had the unerring habit of losing those that he made. When reminiscing with him about our classmates, I found myself faced with a long list of slights real and imagined, people who had wronged him, and fellow students who seemed to have insulted him unawares. He alluded in conversations to childhood illnesses and teenage ostracism, setting up a script for his life of exclusion embraced, and a simmering resentment directed towards in-crowds that he would never have really wanted to join.

He finished his education with an LPT1, a powerful qualification in the world of Japanese, where a bachelor’s degree is rated as a mere LPT2 and a high school diploma as LPT3. Getting an LPT1 is not impossible, but it is the mark of a superior intellect: an ability to grapple with one of the world’s most difficult languages, at a level reasonably describable as fluent. It was, to some extent, the only proof that Mark ever had that he really was as smart as he thought he was. Coupled with computing experience that favoured his obsessive, focussed nature, he seemed to have had a brief and successful career in information technology, although by the time we met again, he claimed to be making a living from online poker, which he fit in around caring for his elderly parents.

After 15 years, Facebook brought us back in touch in 2009, coincidentally when I was heading for New York on samurai business. We met up in Chinatown, where I found him lurking outside my hotel, tormenting passers-by with a toy sonic screwdriver. Both of us were fatter than in our salad days, but he was twice his previous weight, supposedly due to the medication he was on. He swayed as if already drunk (he wasn’t), and only seemed to listen to half the things I said. “It’s my happy pills!” he trilled. “So much better than when I haven’t got any!”

He was ebullient and oddly charming. A passer-by asked us for directions and he invited her to dine with us, kissing her hand as she scurried away… though I was sure he’d almost won her over. We sank a crate of Tsingtao Beer at the Grand Sichuan restaurant near Manhattan Bridge, and he told my wife that it was the first time he had left his apartment in months. He addressed the waiters in slurred and gabbled Japanese, seemingly unaware that this was sure to leave them unimpressed.

In the restaurant, he presented me with a signed Haruki Murakami book, which, he claimed, he had been saving for me for the last decade. I had, apparently, brought Murakami to his attention by enthusing about Hear the Wind Sing in 1992. I had no memory of this, nor much appreciation of the passion that would acquire it, stand in line to get it signed, and then sit on it for ten years pending a possible meeting with a chance acquaintance.

He found an outlet for his frustrations in the world of Doctor Who fandom. He loved the Doctor’s Edwardian eccentricity and off-world Britishness, but also saw in the Master, the Doctor’s dark half, some symbolic re-enactment of his own inner turmoil. He agonised for days over whether to leave his apartment to attend a New York fan gathering, worried that they would think him “weird”.

“Trust me,” I said. “It’s a Doctor Who event. There is no way you will be the weirdest person there.” Continue reading

A Hero’s Legacy

We’ve just had an impromptu private screening of Koxinga: A Hero’s Legacy, the National Geographic documentary that’s been part of my life, on and off, for the last two years. It’s already been twelve months since I was flown to Taiwan, where I had a fantastic time poking around historical sites with the camera crew, wittering into the lens about pirates, revolutionaries and my enduring obsession with the greatest Ming loyalist, Zheng Chenggong, a.k.a. Coxinga, a.k.a., for the purposes of this documentary, Koxinga.

The programme charts the construction of a replica of a Chinese war junk, and bravely includes the fantastic cat-fights that broke out over design, materials and additions, as tourist officers clashed with historical recreationists and seasoned boat-builders over where they should stick their screws, what 17th century pirates would have made of Swedish motors, and the likelihood that a tourist attraction would be “real” enough to fall apart after three years. I wade through the middle of it all, waving around things I’ve stolen from the shipyard, and getting so badly sunburned on the launch day that the HD camera had to move ten feet back to stop me looking like a leper in all later footage.

In what is likely to be an unrepeatable highlight of my career, I was also forced to address a conference of marine historians in Mandarin, hacked my way through a bamboo forest near a funeral home, filmed at an illegal shrine built on a sandbar, and had a blissful two hours shopping for old Chinese music CDs in Tainan. I must have cut a strange dash, caked in Cover Girl for the camera, and with my radio mic still sticking out of my back pocket, snatching 1940s propaganda songs from the bargain bins. I had also been wearing the same shirt for five days for the sake of continuity, so the Chinese gave me a wide berth.

Koxinga: A Hero’s Legacy will be broadcast first on Taiwanese TV this coming August, and should be on other countries’ National Geographic channels in the months after that. I have had an absolutely wonderful time working on it, and I can only hope that National Geographic wake up to the documentary potential of Admiral Togo or Mannerheim some time soon…

In the process of making the documentary, the director Sigal Bujman also stumbled upon a Chinese Coxinga cartoon series currently in production, so who knows, maybe this will cross back over into my other specialty soon enough.