Sakyo Komatsu 1931-2011

Sakyo Komatsu, the science fiction author best known for Japan Sinks, has died aged 80. In lieu of an obituary, I give you the entry from the upcoming third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for which I substantially upgraded Takumi Shibano’s entry on Komatsu from the previous edition. You should be able to access the draft text here.

Japanese Animation: From Painted Scrolls To Pokemon

As the title suggests, Brigitte Koyama-Richard’s book is heavily concerned with “pre-cinema” – the slow growth of anime from two hundred years of sideshows, optical toys and shadow plays. Although anime flourished in the 20th century, Koyama-Richard crams as much of it as she can into as small a space as possible: it takes her 73 pages to get to Oten Shimokawa’s first Japanese cartoon in 1917, and she is in the 1970s only seventeen pages later. This is, however, immensely valuable for its very focus – you can read the story of the twentieth century elsewhere, but Koyama-Richard offers fascinating insights into grotesque Japanese prints and magic lantern shows. The illustrations are rich and informative, although her text is largely unreferenced, and often makes unfounded assumptions, in particular about how “popular” certain shows were – a word that far too many authors, Japanese and otherwise, are happy to sling around with gay abandon. She does, however, have several useful primary-source interviews with figures from many areas of the anime business.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This review first appeared in the SFX Ultimate Guide to Anime, 2011.

Evangelion 2.22 review

A decade into an apocalyptic war against alien invaders called “the Angels”, Shinji Ikari is one of several young pilots co-opted into the last-ditch Evangelion programme – an ethically-unsound bioweapons project to fight the aliens with their own technology, no matter what the human cost. Behind the scenes, there are scandals within scandals about the cores of the “Eva” units, while the pilots bicker and squabble, and fight to keep their sanity in savage, blood-soaked battles against random enemies.

Hasn’t this all happened before? Well, yes it has, in the Evangelion TV series, bestselling Evangelion manga, and several remastered, slightly-tinkered DVD releases. The most recent incarnation was Evangelion 1.0, to which this film is nominally the sequel, although there is a lot more to it than a simple remake.

It’s easy to forget that when Evangelion was originally broadcast, it was something of a mess. Production delays and cashflow problems led to hilariously (and then, frustratingly) long cost-cutting shots with little or no animation. The grand finale was a glorified radio play, and there was undeniable filler peppered throughout the latter half of the season. It’s fair to say that the 13 hours of original Evangelion TV might be reasonably slashed down to the four intended feature-length movies without losing much in the way of quality or plot, and that’s before production studio Gainax start wedging in big new chunks of footage. Watch in particular for a prolonged sequence at a marine preservation park, and a loving CG panorama of early morning bustle in Tokyo-3. This is no mere clip-show, that’s for sure.

This latest incarnation also reaches us an entire generation after the original – it’s been sixteen years since the TV show first appeared on Japanese television. The intervening period has seen great changes in the make-up of fandom, which the film acknowledges with a wry jibe at the expense of internet slash fiction writers, when two male characters almost snog. There are some even odder angles and changes of focus throughout, and part of it is undoubtedly aimed at fans of the original, particularly that sector of thirty-something uber-geeks whose love of figurines and other collectables keeps much of modern anime afloat. It’s salutary to remember that these enthusiasts would have been mere teenagers at the time of the serial’s original debut.

The Gainax studio seems all too aware of this. A couple of years ago at the Locarno Film Festival, their merchandise man with an Eva laptop and an Eva cellphone showed me Evangelion egg-timers, underpants and lucky gonks – part of over 3000 items of spinoffery that keep completists busy and poor. Mari Illustrious Makinami is undoubtedly part of this enterprise – a pretty new face literally parachuted into the plot in order to sell more pin-ups. In an odd piece of anime trivia, she is supposedly intended to “look British”, whatever that means. But she also throws the old character dynamics into turmoil and serves to remind long-time fans that there are many, deeper changes to the story. Many of the “old” characters have also been altered, much more subtly – there are changes to their names, backstories and personalities that completely affect their motivation and behaviour.

There are similar changes elsewhere, not the least in an off-hand reference to a “Vatican Treaty” that playfully backtracks on Gainax’s previous claims that all the story’s apocalyptic religious imagery was purely ornamental. As with many science fiction franchises, it is also strange to find ourselves living in a time after the notional D-day. 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t sound so futuristic any more; Terminator’s Judgement Day has been and gone, and Evangelion itself is now set in the past. Or is it?

There are tantalising clues dropped throughout these movies that suggest Gainax are thinking way ahead of the curve. It’s not just minor changes in the plot; it’s tiny references in the background that seem to obliquely refer to previous versions. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that the Moon in these remakes has a smear of blood across it, seemingly referencing a battle in the original series, and a character who arrives in the post-credits teaser openly suggests that all this has happened before. There is a chance, unconfirmed by the filmmakers themselves, that every change, every tweak in this film is entirely deliberate, and intended to tell a story that is not a remake at all, but a sequel, set aeons after the original, when everything has come back full-circle. The prospect remains that Evangelion 2.22 is inspired most of all in that regard by the Ron Moore Battlestar Galactica, or perhaps for anime fans, the similarly cyclical storyline of the 1980s classic Gall Force. Gainax know the score: there are many copies… but they have a plan.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This review first appeared in the SFX Ultimate Guide to Anime, 2011.

Look Back in Manga

Online magazine The Raygun has published a set of reminiscences of twenty years of the company Manga Entertainment. Part one includes former managing director Mike Preece talking about his time running the company, and noting: “We were with it but just far enough removed so as not to become of it and I really believe that’s why it was successful, as up to then the genre had lent itself to those who become so fixated with the product that objectivity for its marketability is blinded by passion for content.” I’m sure such words will chafe with many long-term anime fans, but I also feel that they are a fair assessment of why many of Manga Entertainment’s competitors failed in the same market.

Part two includes the current head of acquisitions, Jerome Mazandarani, as well as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis author Jonathan Clements (that’s me), bringing the rose-tinted memories up to date with some coverage of the late-1990s doldrums and recent changes in the company’s behaviour. Please note, owing to some strange wording on my part, it seems as if at one point I am implying that Naruto is a shojo show. I’m not — I’m merely noting that neither Naruto nor shojo shows were the sort of thing that the company used to make a success of.

“Look Back in Manga” was also the title I used for a monthly piece in Manga Max magazine, detailing the things that were going on in the anime business five years earlier. Tempting to revive it to cover 20-year-old news so that today’s fans can realise that they’ve never had it so good, but then again, I fear that such a series would only appeal to a tiny circle of oldsters like myself. Kids today don’t want to hear about the good/bad old days, which makes the publication of these testimonials, particularly Preece’s, valuable documents for future researchers.

Fiction Express

It’s got weekly updates, digital publication, and a reader-response structure that allows regular readers to vote on what happens next..? Fiction Express is a positively Dickensian return to pulp fiction on a serial basis, and an intriguing mix of interactivity and e-publishing.

I am fascinated by the model, and by the issues addressed in the FAQs. In an age of global publishing, serialised e-Books can afford to have a low price point, but also need to deal with the logistics of readers scattered across several timezones, and the likelihood that the teen target market doesn’t have access to its own credit cards.

I have my reservations about “interactivity” in modern fiction, but this is a very interesting experiment. As, too, is this, the new Unbound Books site, a digital variant of the time-honoured practice of publishing by subscription. They have smartly led with a few authors that pro publishers are likely to want anyway, but there is a possibility there to tap into the long tail. However, I am not sure about the whistles and bells. I am not a first-edition or signed-book freak, nor do I much want a personalised poster, so I would be unlikely to buy any of the higher values. Nor do I much want to peer into the author’s “shed” at their writing process. Take it from me, not all authors’ lives are an endless cavalcade of orgies and espionage. Most of us live insufferably jejune existences, fretting about the laundry and the late cheques. And the last thing I would want the public to see is the stuff I end up throwing away as part of the writing process. But I am sure there are many, writers and readers, who fill find that Unbound ticks all the right boxes with them.

Endless Eight

Love it or hate it, and most people seem to hate it, the Endless Eight sequence in Haruhi Suzumiya will be remembered as one of the most daring narrative decisions in 21st century sci-fi television. Daring not only in terms of storytelling, but also, perhaps, because it tested audience patience to the very limit. But what an idea! I’ve written a (very) brief article about it over at the Manga UK blog, which is largely based on the entry I have already written on the original author Nagaru Tanigawa, to be found in the forthcoming third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.