Chinese Science Fiction

In October, after many months of work, the “China” entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was updated for the third edition. This reflects the fact that almost all the cross-references within the entry are now live, pointing readers in turn at my newly written entries about authors such as Chi Shuchang, Gu Junzheng, Wang Jinkang and Ye Yonglie. It all amounts to a book-length work inside the Encyclopedia, dedicated to an entire culture of often-overlooked authors, not only in the People’s Republic, but also on Taiwan, in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the Chinese diaspora.

It’s been fascinating reading through a century of Chinese stories and biographies, and I’ve uncovered some really interesting creators and works. Moving on now to the “Japan” entries, which I also have to knock into shape. You can see how far I’ve come, and how far there is to go, by looking at the Seiun Awards entry.

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Japan Crazy

When the future Admiral Togo was a young cadet in Britain, he spent several months in the company of a homestay family. His arrival caused great disappointment to the youngest boy in the Capel family, who had assumed that if Togo came from Japan, he must surely be an acrobat? Certainly, he must have been a friend of the most famous Japanese man among British youth, a circus performer known as Little All Right? The stoic Togo, already a veteran of the Japanese civil war, gruffly denied any association with jugglers or plate-spinners, and that was that.

But who were the Japanese Imperial Troupe? There was, indeed, such a group, although if either the Shogun or Emperor had ever heard them described as “Imperial”, they would have had conniptions. The Troupe’s impresario, “Professor” Richard Risley Carlisle, was a hard-up strongman who introduced the Japanese to Western circus traditions in 1864. Realising that the newly opened land of Japan had its own performers and trickery, Risley pulled all the strings he could in order to bring a platoon of Japanese entertainers to the West, getting a motley crew of itinerants to sign away their lives for him in a contract that would take them literally around the world. The first-ever civilian passports granted by the Japanese government were given to Risley’s performers, a fractious, occasionally drunken and regularly licentious bunch of rascals who back-flipped, juggled and caroused their way throughout Europe and America.

Frederik L. Schodt’s account of this landmark event, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe, argues for it as the first flowering of japonisme, in which these unlikely blue-collar ambassadors from the mysterious land of Japan brought a highly unrepresentative and oft-misunderstood series of performances to a cluster of industrial towns, from the mills of Wakefield to the mines of Wales. Pursued by creditors, scandal and intrigue, the Imperial Japanese Troupe became many Europeans’ first-ever encounter with things Japanese; they sang old Kyoto songs in the Wild West, and got into bar-room brawls in Piccadilly…. Schodt mines the Troupe’s own diaries, contemporary newspapers, theatre reviews and even court reports in order to unearth a truly globe-trotting adventure, which prods the underbelly of Victorian society, and whispers the first strains of The Mikado, Madame Butterfly and other Western obsessions with the east. He presents the Imperial Japanese Troupe as the first true Japan craze, but does so with an incredible sense of place and time, dragging the reader into a narrative of carnival barkers and gasping crowds, spectacular entertainments and forgotten celebrities. An amazing work of scholarship, and an incredible feat of literary plate-spinning. Roll up, roll up…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East.

Steampunk

Out today, Brian Robb’s new book Steampunk: Victorian Visionaries, Scientific Romances and Fantastic Fictions, notable among a slew of lesser works on the sub-genre by devoting a whole chapter to its Japanese manifestations, which include Japan-only spin-offs from the John Carter series, Rhett Butler running guns to the Shogun, Emily Bronte in a time machine, and a novel called simply Steampunk! which has trains in it. And dinosaurs. Another possibility for your Christmas stocking, perhaps…?

Quoth the blurb: “Simultaneously a literary movement, ultra-hip subculture and burgeoning cottage industry, Steampunk is the most influential and arresting new genre to emerge from the late twentieth century. Spinning tales populated with clockwork Leviathans, cannon-shots to the moon and coal-fired robots, it charts alternative histories in which the British Empire never fell or where the atom remained unsplit. A term first coined in 1987 by science fiction author K.W.Jeter, Steampunk was born of myriad influences: the classic scientific romances of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley, a growing nostalgia for Victoriana and an ironic reaction to the dystopian futurescapes of Cyberpunk. Today it has grown to become a global aesthetic, making its mark on art, architecture, fashion and even music. This wide-ranging, beautifully-illustrated and much needed history explores the genre’s many intricate expressions, tracing its development in fiction, cinema, television, comics, videogames and beyond. From the futuristic visions of Fritz Lang and the otherworldly imaginings of Alan Moore and Hayao Miyazaki, to Doctor Who’s adventures in time and space and the dark fantasies of China Miéville, Brian J. Robb sets the key works of Steampunk squarely under the lens of his brass monocle, examining their ideas and themes in forensic detail.”

Bait & Switch

This month’s fun anime news – the removal of the Japanese language track from the American release of Persona 4. The reason can be found by anyone if they start poking around the sales figures for Japanese animation in its home market. The first episode of Persona 4 sold over 40,000 copies in Japan, but after that, sales settled down. Reading between the statistics, Persona 4 has about 6,000 Japanese fans who bought the whole set on DVD, and another 10,000 fans who bought it on Blu-ray. But owning the complete Japanese set of the first season would set you back £420 in Japan. That makes the English-language release about 80% cheaper, and puts the producers in deep fear of reverse-importing.

So far, there has been no indicator that the British release of Persona 4 will be similarly affected. Territorial lockout, once a bugbear for British fans, might turn out to be a saviour on this occasion, as UK Blu-rays are no longer in the same region as Japanese ones. However, if this becomes a general trend, the Japanese animation business risks shooting itself repeatedly in the foot.

There are several possible answers to this problem, none of which you are going to like. One would be to make everybody pay Japanese prices, which would kill off the UK Blu-ray business. Another would be to bring Japanese prices down to foreign levels, which would kill off many niche-interest anime serials. Leaving the Japanese language track off the foreign release, however, is not a solution, either. A sizeable chunk of foreign fandom likes anime because it is Japanese. For ten years, the dual audio tracks of DVDs have largely obscured this subset of fandom, but I, for one, have never bought a dubbed anime, except when the dub comes attached to a DVD I’m buying anyway.

Removing the Japanese-ness from a foreign anime release will scare off many buyers, but surely the Japanese already know this? Which leads me to suspect that foreign rights, in general, for some companies have become little more than a bait-and-switch con, designed not to sell the product, but to keep a studio’s “foreign rights” department looking busy. Japanese producers: say it isn’t so!

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #103, 2012.