House of Cards

And we’re back in court, as a Nevada judge awards $3.95 million to the Japanese studio Aniplex, after a three-year battle against the American CCG company Upper Deck. The reason? A shedload of money owed for the anime series Kiba, made as part of the promotion for the card game of the same name. The beef? That Upper Deck hadn’t paid what was owed to Aniplex, because Upper Deck didn’t like what Aniplex had done.

Kiba went into production in 2006, at the historical height not only of anime output, but also of Japanese producers’ love affair with foreign money. Flushed with the ‘taking-the-world-by-storm’ hype that ballooned after Miyazaki’s Oscar, the world and his dog decided that anime was the future. Why, with just a few ticks in the right boxes, any idiot could invent the next Pokémon by just getting a bunch of Japanese blokes with pencils to knock out a cartoon. Right?

In 2006, Japanese companies were surrounded by so much foreign money that some were refusing to go into production unless a foreign company would stump up half the costs. And there were plenty of foreign companies willing to do so, because rights competition in the West was so fierce that the likes of ADV Films had begun to invest in new shows so that they didn’t need to fight over the foreign rights.

And then, BAM! It all fell apart. A couple of months ahead of the sub-prime crisis that affected everyone, banks started calling in their loans. ADV stumbled and went under, Geneon pulled out of the US market, a couple of distributors shut their doors and suddenly anime was in free-fall.

Which left Upper Deck and Aniplex fighting over who owed who what. Kiba ran for 51 episodes, usually a sign of great success… well, that or great investment. When Upper Deck wouldn’t pay for it, the fight started, with vague accusations that Aniplex hadn’t delivered what Upper Deck wanted. Reading between the lines, one suspects that Upper Deck were just looking for someone to blame who was still solvent. But you can’t guarantee megabucks success, and it’s facetious to imply that the whole thing rested on a frankly generic fighting anime.

The trouble’s hopefully over, at the cost of yet another reason for the Japanese to avoid foreign co-productions.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #94, 2012.

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Eurotrash Ultraman

In 1996, I was young, thin, and apparently a “journalist” — actually, I was already a full-time translator of anime and manga. And I appeared on Eurotrash for about three seconds, wittering about Japanese superheroes. I said something very funny about lycra factories, although it seems to have been cut from this clip, which ex-Tsuburaya employee Brad Warner stumbled across on the interwebs.

Public Lending Right

My results are in for the last year’s library loans, and as predicted last year, the Brief History of the Samurai has raced up the chart. The top ten JC British library loans are:

  1. A Brief History of the Samurai
  2. Confucius: A Biography (hardback and paperback combined)
  3. A Brief History of the Vikings
  4. Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God
  5. Beijing: Biography of a City
  6. The First Emperor of China (hardback and paperback combined)
  7. Chinese Life
  8. Marco Polo
  9. A Brief History of Khubilai Khan
  10. Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East

This year, for the first time in living memory, I made no money at all from my 1996 translation of Streetfighter II: the Manga, although Ironfist Chinmi is still bringing in enough revenue after 17 years to buy me a Chinese takeaway.

Curse of the Blue Duck

Last month I met an animation director from a well-known company, who let me in on a little trick of the trade. He had grown tired of endless meetings with licensors and advertisers, wherein stuffed shirts would look up from their Blackberries for just long enough to say something, anything, that made it look like they were paying attention.

There are politics at such companies. People want the boss to remember that they were in a meeting and that they made a contribution, and that invariably means pointing at something in the rushes or the storyboards, and saying that they don’t like it. Job done!

Except if someone is picking holes in your cartoon just to impress the boss, you don’t want to get it absolutely right first try. Instead, you want to come up with something that really, obviously, needs fixing, so the drones can point it out, and you can get on with your job without having to change the scenery, replace your lead, or anything similarly pointless.

And so, in new work for corporate clients, the animation company now includes an incongruous blue duck in every piece of work. Doesn’t matter if it’s an advert for funeral homes or a party political broadcast by the Independence Party, they’ll shove a blue duck in it. It’ll be there, waving nerdily at the camera, or tripping on a banana skin in the background. And it’ll look calculatedly stupid.

“I love the storyboards,” the suits will say. “But can we lose the blue duck?”

That, at least is the plan.

But looking at certain anime works, one wonders if the joke hasn’t backfired awfully. How many anime mascot characters started out as a blue duck gambit, only to unexpectedly meet with management approval. Did anyone seriously ask for Ulysses 31 to have an irritating robot in it? Does Tekken: Blood Vengeance really need a comic-relief panda?

But maybe a few films could be improved by a blue duck. A little quack levity in Legend of the Overfiend, perhaps. Or a bit of comedy business in Grave of the Fireflies? It might work…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO 93, 2011.