Before the Dawn

Nobuyuki Tsugata has already published books on the careers of Osamu Tezuka and the pioneering animation of Seitaro Kitayama, as well as broader studies of anime history as a whole. Last year he co-edited Anime-gaku, the first truly successful attempt to discursively construct ‘anime studies’ as an object of knowledge, delineating Japanese animation as a field of academic enquiry in and of itself, rather than as a subset of film, business, culture, media or any other discipline. And while far too many of his international colleagues continue to fritter away their lives in endless studies of What Some Fans I Met Think of Some Anime They’ve Seen, Tsugata continues to soldier on in the dusty archives of anime history and biography, rescuing forgotten sectors of the business, and mounting persuasive arguments that expand the nature of anime as we know it.

As so often happens in the media, artistic heritage is often left in the hands of the people who made it in the first place – usually because nobody else really cares until it’s too late. Japanese animation history is dominated by the twin big-bangs of Toei Animation and Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Pro, in part because they resulted in works and workflows that can still be found today. What about all those other studios that fell by the wayside or didn’t have a publicity-hungry manager at the helm? What about all those studios that churned out work that never got collated on DVD or shown at film festivals?

As Tsugata notes in the introduction to his latest Japanese-language book, Before the Dawn of Television Anime, it’s like some areas on the map of anime history are still marked terra incognita. Many people have at least heard of TCJ (Television Corporation of Japan), mainly because this commercial animation company, since renamed Eiken, is still at work today, most famously as the production house that makes the TV series Sazae-san. But TCJ’s advertising past, usually dismissed in a single line before discussion of its TV programming output, was truly massive, amounting to more than 1400 cartoon adverts between 1954 and 1960 (and more than 2200 if you include those live ads for which TCJ provided animated diagrams or titles).

Tsugata’s focus is not merely on forgotten byways of anime history, but also on forgotten geography. Although it is widely known that the Japanese animation industry, along with many other forms of production, relocated to the Kansai region after the devastating Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, Tsugata argues that Kansai remained the centre of Japanese animation for the next three decades, only ceding primacy to Tokyo with the establishment of Toei Animation in 1956. His narrative picks delicately at the Tokyo-centred bias of other Japanese books, pointing out that many landmark events in Japanese media, including, for example, the irresistible rise of Osamu Tezuka, actually ‘happened’ in Kansai. He also notes that Toei’s own press and self-commemoration has largely overshadowed the achievements of Saga Studio, a Kansai start-up, also established in 1956, which played a highly influential role in the first decade of Japanese animated commercials.

Tsugata diligently chronicles the perils of anime historiography. The men and women who churned out thousands of cartoon commercials in Kansai were not part of the academic conversation about what anime was. Hardly anyone has bothered to remember their work, because their work was usually the bit that happened in between the TV shows, and before the main features that anime historians actually bother to write about. This is despite the fact that the Kansai area studios turned an impressive buck, undeniably formed a part of the 1950s zeitgeist, and displayed a mastery and economy of line that must have made animation in the 1950s look considerably less ‘Japanese’ than it did after 1963. Tsugata’s cover includes one such image from several dotted throughout his book: a charming, dynamic layout of a pilot scattering leaflets from his plane, drawn as part of an Osaka Eiga commercial for a local prefectural election.

Tsugata has never been afraid of doing the legwork, scraping information from wherever he can. In his biography of Seitaro Kitayama, he famously reconstructed part of Kitayama’s 1920s studio output in true Blade Runner style, by enlarging a staff photograph to read the schedule stuck to the wall in the background. For Before the Dawn of Television Anime, he diligently tracks down the surviving industry veterans, now with an average age of seventy, and gathers testimonials that restore much of the Kansai story to narratives of anime history.

These teams, often working out of pokey six-mat rooms and identifiable only by the occasional initials in the corners of their sketches, were responsible for the animation in some of the iconic Japanese adverts of the 20th century, including commercials for Nisshin Cup Noodles, Vick’s Cough Drops and Matsushita Electrics. Some of their works were 90-second narratives, others merely ten instructional seconds inside a commercial filed as “live action”, but with a little animated section explaining how cockroach spray works, or how menthol clears out your tubes. They were also responsible for the creation of iconic characters such as Yanbo and Mabo, the twin tykes who shilled for Yanma Diesel, ubiquitous in the 1960s but forgotten now because they didn’t appear in the kind of anime that gets archived or remembered.

Tsugata’s narrative also fills in a gap in accounts of “art” animation, revealing how art-house animators like the award-winning Renzo Kinoshita actually paid the bills while tinkering with their high-brow creations. Far too many researchers seem to assume that art-house animators spend all day sitting in garrets playing with sandtables, supported by some magical and secret government super-subsidy, whereas many of them, including the Oscar-winning Kunio Kato, have day-jobs that often get left off the resumés that are sent to film festivals. I wish such information was made available more frequently, as it might smack a degree of realism into the aspirations of some arts students. Tsugata does not shy away from it, and reveals that far from working in an adman vacuum, the animators of the Kansai set had strong and often reciprocal connections with big-name animators like Noburo Ofuji and Hakusan Kimura (himself the founder of Osaka Eiga in 1960).

Tsugata finishes with an outline of the vestiges of the old Kansai anime tradition, as kept alive by such companies as today’s Kyoto Animation. He also returns to a subject familiar from some of his earlier books: the little-discussed admission that even the big names in Tokyo were keen on ad revenue to pay the bills. Tsugata has argued before that Toei Animation itself was set up partly in anticipation of the money that could be made from the expansion of commercial Japanese television in the 1950s, and staff from Mushi Pro have admitted that they used to get paid a lot better making adverts with Astro Boy in them, than they did making Astro Boy itself.

His conclusion recalled a passage I had read elsewhere, in the posthumously published memoirs of the animator Soji Ushio, who had once decided to visit the famous canal-side studio building where the renowned Iwao Ashida had made many of the big animated splashes of the 1950s. Instead, when he arrived at the address, the canal had been filled in, the studio itself had been turned into a tatami shop, and there was no sign of the man whose company Ashida Manga Eiga had once been the biggest name in the Japanese animation medium. How soon they forget.

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

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The Demonisation of Empress Wu

A lovely article has just been posted on the Smithsonian blog, outlining the odd life and hateful rumours about Empress Wu. There are a couple of quotes in there about shagging slave girls and barbecuing sheep, lifted from that book about her by one Jonathan Clements.

I think the article gives a remarkably good account of why she is such a fascinating subject, even so many centuries after her death.

Black Mannerheim

God bless YLE, Finland’s public service broadcaster, for its ever-innovative ways of spending the TV licence fee. A malicious puppet show about national icon Carl Gustaf Mannerheim was apparently not enough. Now YLE is shelling out for an arty Swahili film, The Marshal of Finland, about Mannerheim’s love life, in which all the parts are played by Africans.

The Finnish right wing is having conniptions. I’m rather looking forward to it. How much of Mannerheim’s incredible life and bizarre adventures would translate to Kenyan locations? How might a black actor capture the character and hauteur of one of the whitest men in history? As far as post-modern drama goes, this is surely a world-class bonkers idea. It might even work. And if it doesn’t, it’s going to be the biggest car crash in the history of television.

Someone had a meeting about this. A group of earnest Finns sat around an Ikea table and picked at biscuits from a MariMekko tray, while a crazy-haired producer said: “Also, there’s a bunch of Kenyans who want to shoot a movie in five days about Mannerheim’s life story. In Swahili. Sounds great, right?” Nor is this likely to have been some manifestation of the deluded hyper-inclusionism of the BBC, which recently decided The Hollow Crown needed to have a black Duke of York. No. Someone at YLE thought this would be a really great idea, and they will either be running the channel soon, or looking for a new job.

The Finns are so animated about Mannerheim that nothing really surprises me any more. When I wrote my book about him, concentrating on his relationship with China and Japan, the Finnish translation was actually published a week ahead of the British “original”. Mrs Clements and I often play Mannerheim Bingo in Finnish bookshops, trying to guess what odd spin on his life will be the next to get published. There has been a comic about his tiger hunting days. There has been a (rather good) Mannerheim cookbook. And the aforementioned puppet show, which claimed he had a Kirghiz catamite, and showed him partying with the Grim Reaper during the battle of Tampere. But that’s a problem with being a national icon; you need to be robust.

I will definitely be tuning in for Black Mannerheim, but that’s because I am a Mannerheim fanboy, on the record as saying that he is one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. But one can’t help but wonder what the real agenda is behind this. Is someone at YLE making a post-modern point about icons and heroes, or is this that other recurring element of Mannerheim’s legacy — the substantial number of Finns whose ancestors were defeated Reds, and who can’t resist the chance to carnivalise his memory in ever odder combinations. If so, Mannerheim is sure to survive this latest assault on his dignity. Mannerheim’s enemies had a field day with the animated Butterfly of the Urals, because its vague and unsupported insinuation about his sexuality became a swift-travelling meme among young idiots who never saw the programme, but liked being able to repeat the new “rumour”. But there is no such message here — instead, its artistic heritage is far more likerely to be a restatement of a truth that many Finns already acknowledge, that Mannerheim’s story is so amazing, and so eternal, that even actors in distant Kenya are inspired by it.

 

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy.

Akira Daikuhara 1917-2012

For those that didn’t see it, my obituary of the animator Akira Daikuhara went up online at the Manga UK blog the day after the Japanese animators’ union announced his death. I’d been interested in him for a while, mainly because he was as “old as anime itself”, but also because I realised that he had been edged out of many histories because nobody knew how to pronounce his name. Honestly, I am still not sure myself.

Podcast #5

Comic Con chats and ninja nonsense, in the Manga UK podcast

manga_uk_podcast_logo.jpgThe Manga UK podcast is back for its fifth outing, in which Jerome Mazandarani demonstrates his mastery of languages by speaking Australian, Jonathan Clements promises not to talk about ninja but then does anyway, Andrew Hewson offers a new and original interpretation of the voice of Bane, and Jeremy Graves silently weeps.

00:00:00-00:40:00 : Discussion on San Diego Comic Con, Japan Expo, MCM Manchester Expo, new acquisitions by Manga UK and more. Jonathan reveals that his Animefest speech is now available to view online.

00:40:00-00:55:45  : The upcoming Ninja Scroll Steelbook release, and history (or lack of it) of ninja. An unexpected digression into English chroniclers of the Dark Ages, while discussing men in black chucking knives at each other.

00:55:45-1:04:15  : Discussion on the Fullmetal Achemist Sacred Star Of Milos premiere in London. Hotel woes, and grateful acknowledgement of the little clicky box on a Radisson booking page, which allows to avoid the embarrassment of making your guests pay for their own room.

1:04:15- 1:50:04 [end] : Ask Manga UK featuring questions on licensing, how Dragonball Z Season One has done since its release, life changing anime, old 90’s videodubs, Madoka Magica and much more.

Available to download now, or find it and an archive of previous shows at the iTunes page.