My Book of the Year

I wrap up this year with another run-down of several of the more obscure books that I had been reading in the gaps between writing my own.

I spend a lot of time travelling. Or rather, my life appears to have geared itself to a condition whereby I can only get much of my reading done while travelling. Facing four months away from home this year, I bit the bullet and bought a Kindle. So wonderful to get on a plane with not one or two, but over a hundred books in my pocket; to finish one book and leap straight onto the next; to be mid-air somewhere over Asia with half a dozen books on the go; to sit in a coffee bar and alternate one chapter of work reading with one chapter of a novel, all day. And, of course, to be able to read the Literary Review five thousand miles from home, and have the month’s recommendations jump instantly into my pocket.

It’s good for authors, too. Schoolgirl Milky Crisis has made immensely more money for me in eBook editions than it has in print, you modern readers, you. My Mannerheim is out on the Kindle, as are Coxinga, my translation of the Art of War, the Dorama and Anime encyclopedias, my novels Ruthless and Swords & Ashes, and in February 2013, you will be able to get yourself the Brief History of the Vikings and Brief History of the Samurai on the Kindle, too.

Since I have carefully-kept accounts of exactly what I read each year, I can also attest that owning a Kindle has not reduced the amount of money I spent on paper books. This year, it has simply caused me to spend £400 extra on eBooks.

I am not a total eBook convert. I much prefer to work with paper, and to have paper on my shelves where I can “access” it by staring dreamily around the room while I think. I am a tad frustrated with a recurring lack of “real” page numbers in Kindle books, which means it is difficult for me to cite them academically without getting hold of a paper copy anyway. But work aside, for someone who had all but forgotten the idea of reading for pleasure, having a Kindle has brought much of the joy back for me.

I have long been interested in the Flying Tigers, but my material on them never grew into a book because Daniel Ford had already written one saying everything I would have said and more. So there’s a whole shelf of Flyingtigerana in my office, awaiting the day when I can use it instead in a novel or a script. But I still keep track of new publications in the field, and enjoyed Ford’s edition of the memoirs of Olga Greenlaw, The Lady and the Tigers. Greenlaw was one of a handful of feisty women who lived among the mercenary airmen in China and Burma, fighting the Japanese before WW2 had been declared. Her memoirs were published soon after the war, but sank without a trace, swamped to some extent by similar books by many of the actual pilots. Ford, however, returns to Greenlaw’s neglected book in a 2012 reissue, pointing out that as the official Flying Tigers diarist, her account of events is often more reliable than the bragging of the men. She is wonderful fun, gleefully racist (she hates Japs, Darkies and Limeys, not necessarily in that order) and seems to spend most of her time shouting at her husband and hectoring the help. She also offers the sort of tantalising details that historical novelists love, such as how Madame Chiang Kai-shek did her make-up. Popular myth among the Flying Tigers claims that Mrs Greenlaw slept around, but editor Ford sweetly points out that her diaries only seem to get excited about pilots when they are dead — i.e., she talks about how much she adores certain men simply because she has had to go to their funeral the day before. These eulogies have been wilfully misinterpreted by a whole bunch of male historians who like to think that she was banging half the air force. Ford also extends the story past Greenlaw’s return to America in 1942, up to her death in 1983 a whole lifetime and two more husbands later.

Someone who was very nearly a footnote to the Flying Tigers story was Ernest Hemingway, who once turned down a large sum of money to write a movie script based on their antics. Ernest Hemingway on the China Front, by Peter Moreira, is an account of the 100 days that the author spent in China in 1941, in the company of the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, the new Mrs Hemingway, who had rashly decided to visit China’s war against Japan in lieu of a honeymoon somewhere a little more placid. Fifty years later, Gellhorn would still be telling journalists of the awful condition of Chinese toilets. Hemingway, meanwhile, wrote remarkably little about China, despite spending more time there than he had on the Italian front in WW1 which famously inspired him to write A Farewell to Arms. Despite the implied bias of the main title, Moreira’s book is as much, if not more Gellhorn’s that Hemingway’s, alternating their separate accounts of their trip, and more often than not leaving him looking like a drunken idiot, and her looking like a smarter, if sometimes deluded traveller. It would surely have pleased Gellhorn, who was soon to become the new ex-Mrs Hemingway, that seventy years later she would still get the last word, as she also does in the very odd Hemingway and Gellhorn, an HBO biopic released this year with Clive Owen (yes, Clive Owen) as Hemingway and Nicole Kidman (yes, Nicole Kidman) as Gellhorn, and a massive spot-the-cameo series of walk-on celebrities, including Lars Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica, playing Communist filmmaker Joris Ivens. Really: why would I make something like that up?

Another unexpected discovery was Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror, by Milo Thornberry, which one hopes is on the radar of a Ben Affleck type looking for a follow-up to Argo. Thornberry arrives in 1960s Taiwan as a starry-eyed Methodist missionary, who soon stumbles into political activism. Inspired in part by Martin Luther King, who is killed shortly after the author arrives, but also by Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings on the unexpected repercussions of Gandhi’s “non-violent” protests, he determines that there is no such thing as pacifism, and people really ought to get on and do something. The main narrative coalesces around Peter
Peng, an expert in space law who is under virtual house arrest, and who the mad Methodists decide to smuggle out of the country. They do this by disguising him as a Japanese hippy, which is quite difficult, because he only has one arm, and they have to mock up a fake one in a sling in order to get him through immigration. The guileless Methodist is dragged away from teaching New Testament Greek in order to forge a passport, while his colleagues embezzle money from a church fund in order to slip money to the impoverished families of political prisoners.

Meanwhile, Peng’s secret service tails turn out to be so incompetent that they do not even realise that he has left the country. Instead, in a traditional Chinese work-shy manner, it transpires that they have long since given up round-the-clock surveillance, and have instead been filling fake reports for months, claiming to follow him all over Taipei. Unaware that their quarry has already got on a plane with a guitar and a false arm, they continue to tell their bosses that they are following him on a daily basis, even as Peng is stepping off a plane in Stockholm and claiming political asylum.

Things take on a far broader tone as the book embraces the Taiwanese independence movement, discussing the frantic political machinations in the early 1970s as Nixon, bogged down in Vietnam, authorised the use for the first time of the term “People’s Republic of China” in a speech, thereby sending a message to Beijing that he was ready to ditch Taiwan. This immediately sent the government of Taiwan into conniptions, leading not only to the sudden appearance of Chiang Kai-shek’s son in New York to argue his case, but also an attempt on his life by Taiwanese independence agitators, in between the news stories of the My Lai massacre and the Ohio shootings, so swiftly relegated to the back pages of American newspapers. And if that’s not enough for you, the author then gets immensely biblical, and begins discussing the Gospel of Mark as a redacted text, suggesting that the historical Jesus was substantially more politically active, but that the completion of the gospel around the time of the Jewish Revolt led Mark to leave out anything that sounded too anti-Roman and/or outright seditious. Thornberry mentions this in comparison to the way that American newspapers and magazines, particularly Time, refused to say a bad word about Taiwan because the ruling family were nominally Christians, and the only alternative was Commies.

But none of those are my book of the year. That honour goes to a Kindle-only title that sneaked out in the late autumn, detailing the series of connections and synchronicities that started with a bored FBI employee using the company photocopier to make a false treatise on principles of discord, and expands exponentially to include the tour dates of Echo and the Bunnymen, the career paths of actors who have played Doctor Who, and the decision by two Playboy editors in the 1960s that, just for fun, they would consider a world in which every insane conspiracy theory they had ever heard was actually true. The book is called KLF: Chaos, Magic Music, Money, by JMR Higgs, and begins as an account of two wannabe musicians (who, after releasing a novelty single as the Timelords, would eventually become the KLF), but soon takes on new aspects as they are inspired to emulate, imitate and assimilate the ideas to be found in the Illuminatus books by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (Robert Shea, incidentally, whose later Shiké: Time of the Dragons, was the book that first interested me in Japan).

The KLF book appeals to me, at least in part, because I felt like I was part of it. It’s less my book of 2012, perhaps, than it is my book of 1989 or 1990, as I remember so many of the events in it taking place in the media around me. I read Illuminatus sometime around 1987, having won it in a haul of second-hand science fiction novels that was first prize in an end-of-term Latin quiz (held by Ted Read, to whom Spartacus: Swords & Ashes is dedicated, by the way). So when the KLF began singing about the Justified Ancients of Mummu on national television, it felt oddly like I was being sent messages through the ether. Fnord. I remember turning on the television one morning and found Tammy Wynette singing about the immortal secret masters of the world, sitting on a throne on top of a giant pyramid and exhorting viewers to “Stand by the J.A.M.s”. On Saturday morning television, watched by twelve-year-old girls and stoned students. That’s the sort of thing that the KLF used to do.

Higgs’s book delves deeply into the Situationist movement, and its wise proclamation that people were transforming from being, to having, to the appearance of having – a concise description of the modern world. It alludes in asides to the squalid poverty under which the artists lived, skulking in squats while they tinkered with their instruments. And it addresses, in ever greater and more grandiose terms, the motivation and consequences of what is perhaps the KLF’s most infamous act – the burning of one million pounds as a work of Situationist art. The book is as mad as a box of frogs, and has Alan Moore, Gary Glitter and Julian Cope in it.

Keiji Nakazawa 1939-2012

With the news that Keiji Nakazawa has passed away, I reprint here an interview I did with him for NEO magazine a few years back.

—–

“I haven’t been successful at all,” says Keiji Nakazawa, with customary Japanese self-deprecation. “Human beings are really stupid.” His complaint is with governments who continue to support war as a means of resolving disputes, be it conventional, biological or nuclear. As a boy who witnessed atomic destruction in person, he’s made it his mission in life to stop it happening again.

“If people understand the dreadful nature of wars and nuclear weapons,” he says, “I am happy as the creator. It’s my sincere wish.”

He was born in 1939, in Hiroshima. He was six years old when the atom bomb was dropped on the city, and somehow survived the appalling conditions of the aftermath. Information on radiation and its effects were classified and denied during the Allied Occupation. Those who had experienced Hiroshima and Nagasaki learned to keep their origins secret, for fear that other Japanese would discriminate against them.

Official recognition did not come until Nakazawa was a teenager. A Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon V, was hit by fall-out from one of the post-war American bomb tests on Bikini Atoll. Initial Japanese anger focussed on the exclusion zone around the test site, widely believed to be an attempt to interfere with Japanese tuna fishing rights. Then, one of the fisherman died as a result of his injuries. In paying compensation to his widow, the American government admitted that there were side-effects from atomic weapons. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not malingerers or ambulance-chasers, as they had previously been painted; many of them were genuinely still suffering the lingering after-effects of radiation, and would continue to do so for the rest of their lives. The idea of a radioactive monster eating at the heart of post-war Japan would inspire an icon of the local film industry – Godzilla. The Japanese government eventually answered the problem in the real world with new legislation, the Atomic Bomb Victim Medical Care Law of 1957, granting free hospital care to the victims – the hibakusha.

But in achieving recognition, the hibakusha, also became subject to discrimination. “The situation hasn’t really changed,” notes Nakazawa on the 60th anniversary of the bombing. “Gradually people have started to understand hibakusha and the way they see them has been altering… a little.”

Trying to put his childhood behind him, Nakazawa moved to Tokyo and became a comics artist, publishing his first work in 1963. His early creations were boys’ adventure stories, including Spark One, about intrigue and sabotage between rival racing teams, and the mind-boggling Space Giraffe. Although he is largely known outside Japan for his Hiroshima stories, back in Japan he has a much more varied output

“I drew manga on many subjects,” he says “baseball, samurai dramas, racers and so on. So I think I always would have found a career as an artist, in the entertainment world.”

Just as in everyday life, he kept talk of Hiroshima out of his manga. That all changed in 1966, when he rushed back home for his mother’s funeral. Although it is usual to find shards of bone in cremated human ashes, Nakazawa saw none at all, and described the discovery as a chilling revelation that “the radiation had even invaded her skeleton.” Clutching her ashes on the train back to Tokyo, he realised he couldn’t keep quiet any longer. Back in the city, he risked a pariah status by openly discussing his experience of the bomb, with the first of his “Black” series, Beneath the Black Rain.

Nakazawa began trying to sell more stories about Hiroshima, but ran into difficulties. It was the height of the Cold War and shortly after student demonstrations over Japan’s Security Treaty with the US. There was revolution in the air, and the same images of riots and street protests would also feature in another well-known manga, Akira, drawn by another arrival in Tokyo, Katsuhiro Otomo.

Large magazines had previously refused to publish Nakazawa’s Hiroshima tales, afraid of finding themselves on a mythical CIA blacklist. Now that Japan was an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for America, Nakazawa feared that it might be subject to a nuclear attack, and resolved to continue retelling his life story, both of the Bomb and, more crucially, the prejudices and hardships of its aftermath.

In 1972, the boys’ magazine Shonen Jump began running stories about the lives and careers of manga artists. Nakazawa used it as an excuse to sneak in I Saw It, an account of Hiroshima, which eventually formed the opening chapters of his ten-volume Barefoot Gen (Hadashi no Gen). Three decades on, he is keen to assign credit where credit is due, to the man who took a chance on him. “It was easily accepted,” he says, “thanks to the fine editor, Mr Tadashi Nagano.”

The resulting family saga was not completed until 1987. Later volumes detail the attempts of the survivors to stay alive in the ruins, surrounded by the mortally injured and the permanently disfigured, as starvation sets in and the war stumbles to a close. Told in a squat, cartoony style popular in comics of the 1970s, the horrors of the war seem all the more shocking when presented in a “children’s” format. Unlike most of the manga that run in Shonen Jump today, Barefoot Gen was genuinely educational, and served to teach an entire generation about the conflict.

“Seventy percent of the story in Barefoot Gen is completely autobiographical,” says Nakazawa. “It is based on my own experiences in Hiroshima.” And in the finale, it comes full circle. “The English translation of the tenth volume will be out in a few years,” he says, proudly. “The translation is underway already. Gen heads off to Tokyo and becomes an artist – that’s how it ends.”

A group of Americans, including Jared Cook and future Manga! Manga! author Frederik L. Schodt, acquired Japanese copies of Barefoot Gen in the 1970s, and began the “Project Gen” charity to translate it for a Western audience. Thanks to their efforts, the comic became the first manga to be published in English, and soon made its way into many other foreign languages.

What distinguishes Barefoot Gen from its many imitators is Nakazawa’s even-handed approach. Unlike many other Japanese writers about the war, he is prepared to deal with Japan’s military role objectively. He is unafraid of mentioning that Japan started the war, or that many of the common people were duped by a military-industrial complex into fighting a war they couldn’t win. The Americans don’t drop the Bomb on Hiroshima until 250 pages into the first volume of Barefoot Gen, giving Nakazawa plenty of time to present the event in its historical context, and to catalogue the motivations of both Japanese war-mongers and pacifists. Nakazawa seems able to do this because he has little interest in assigning blame for the war. He genuinely believes that it is the Bomb itself that is evil, and concentrates his anger on chronicling its terrifying after-effects, which are with the Japanese to this day.

“I think they understand the message,” says Nakazawa. “In the places where US bases exist, such as Okinawa, the feeling against Americans still seems stronger.” But elsewhere, he feels, he gets his ideas across.

The story was also adopted into live-action films (the first of which won Best Screenplay at the Czech Film Festival in 1977) and two animated versions. For a whole generation, Japanese animators had avoided discussion of the war, instead allegorising it in space adventures or alien invasions. Barefoot Gen the anime rode a wave of change inspired by an exhibition in Tokyo about the life and famous diary of Anne Frank. An Anne Frank anime followed in 1979, establishing a new sub-genre within anime: war films about children, in which Japan’s baby-boomers cast themselves as a blameless generation, forced to endure the consequences of their parents’ martial past.

After the success of Barefoot Gen in 1983, other animated works appeared, many of them similarly autobiographical and child-centred. These ranged from Isao Takahata’s masterpiece about the fire-bombing of Kobe, Grave of the Fireflies (1988), to less polished TV movies such as Toshio Hirata’s Rail of the Star (1993), depicting a Japanese colonial family’s desperate rush to reach American-occupied South Korea. Almost every major city in Japan seemed to gain a personalised film about the horrors of WW2, but many of Barefoot Gen’s imitators used youthful protagonists to present the Japanese as innocent victims. This played well at home, but also into the midst of the ‘textbook controversy’, a long-running debate over the selective information imparted about WW2 to Japanese schoolchildren.

Nakazawa is known as the manga chronicler of Hiroshima, and the large part of his work deals, directly or indirectly, with the Bomb. His lesser known comics include Beneath the Black Rain (animated 1984). The original focussed on a Bomb victim who is tried for murdering an American black marketer. The anime concentrates on the plight of Hiroshima’s women, with one character who avenges herself on Americans by giving them syphilis, another who uses her scarred body as a “living museum” to show the Bomb’s effects, and a third who frets over whether she will have a disabled baby. Other stories help illustrate Nakazawa’s over-arching theme, often overlooked in surveys of his achievement – the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Examples of this aspect of his work includes Fly On Dreamers (animated 1994) about a group of war orphans who get to play against the Hiroshima Carp baseball team, and The Summer with Kuro (animated 1990) in which two Hiroshima children befriend a black cat. His most recent manga work is Okonomi Ha-chan, a tale of a Hiroshima bad boy who tries to reform his ways as a short-order cook, and finds love into the bargain.

When Nakazawa talks about Okonomi Ha-chan, he sounds as if he is trying to lay another element of his past to rest, as if the war has dominated enough of his work, and it is time to move on.

“In Okonomi Ha-chan,” he says “I depicted a person who makes an effort to live through life from different angle to Gen. I wanted it to be a powerful piece that would conquer the influence of the Bomb in Hiroshima.”

It was turned into a live-action film in 1999, with Nakazawa writing and directing, a change in career direction that he seems keen to pursue in his later years.

“I haven’t drawn manga on Hiroshima recently, nor on anything else,” confesses Nakazawa. “These days I am more interested in tackling challenges in film. Next, I would like to direct a film that poses questions to the world.”

For Nakazawa, working in a new medium only requires a small change in his working habits. He has a reputation for telling things as they are. As an artist, as a writer, and as a director, he has a simple rule for getting his message across.

“The road to understanding is not necessarily long,” he says. “When you tell the truth, people always understand you. If you cannot make them understand, you are not telling the truth.”

2012: The Year in Anime Books

Possibly for the last time, we return to my annual round-up of books I have read about the animation industry in Japan. This year I have published several extensive reviews of some of my anime reading, including Marc Steinberg’s Anime’s Media Mix, Nobuyuki Tsugata’s Before the Dawn of TV Anime, Liliane Lurcat’s Alone With Goldorak, and Tobin’s book on the Pokemon phenomenon.

Behind the scenes, I have also been wading away through Japanese-language works on the subject, including two accounts of anime in China, Tomoyuki Aosaka’s Contents Business in China: Fluctuating Markets, Emerging Industry, and Homare Endo’s The New Breed of Chinese ‘Dongman’: Japanese Cartoons and Comics Animate China. Both authors must write in a tense environment, with evidence pointing to a strong potential market for Japanese animation and comics in China, but also to a strong anti-Japanese feeling all over China. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, where there is minimal evidence of anime and manga in Chinese stores, but anecdotal evidence everywhere you look that illegal downloaders and torrenters form a significant silent population. Meanwhile, even though only 35 foreign films are permitted in Chinese cinemas each year, you can guarantee that two of the slots otherwise reserved for Tom Cruise, or James Cameron, or Pixar, or whoever will go to the year’s Conan the Boy Detective film and the year’s One Piece movie. Anime and manga in China are not only on a critical cusp, but have been teetering there for the last decade and could still fall either way.

There was also an account of the life and work of Osamu Dezaki, and another about the achievements of Akiyuki Shinbo, adding welcome detail to the public profiles of two prolific directors. At the edge of the anime field, Yasuo Nagayama published an interesting “occasionalist” history of science fiction in Japan, concentrating not on the texts themselves but on the events that surrounded them. In the wrong hands, this could have all too easily turned into a tedious account of things that happened at conventions, but Nagayama keeps closely to his methodology, discussing not only the fan politics of the Japanese con scene, but also the effects of media fads and scares, and the public performances of popularity every time certain anime break box office records.

A few books disappointed me. A new work that purported to offer an insiders’ view of Sazae-san had nowhere near the detail I was hoping for, and Mitsuhisa Ishikawa’s account of his “revolution” at Production IG lacked the kind of nitty-gritty details that I personally go for. Much more fun was to be had in a series of books about the Japanese animation business, particularly the wonderful Otaku Marketing by the Nomura Research Institute, which offers hard data about the various types of otaku to be found in numerous consumer sectors, and how best to sell them stuff. Another book on the industry, This is the Anime Business, by Makoto Tada offered a run-down of the ten secret “Rules of the Devil” recited at the Dentsu corporation by its loyal minions. They are, apparently, a secret handbook to understanding the way the best animation studios work, too:

Rule 1: Work is something you should create not something that should be given.

Rule 2: Work is something where you take initiative and not something you do passively.

Rule 3: Tackle an important job. A small job will make you small.

Rule 4: Target a difficult job. You can progress by accomplishing it.

Rule 5: Once you tackle, don’t let it go. Hold on like grim death, until you achieve the target.

Rule 6: Drag the people around you. It will be worlds apart between the one who drags and who is dragged in a long term.

Rule 7: Plan. If you have a long-term plan, patience, devices, correct effort and hope will be born.

Rule 8: Have confidence. Without confidence, your work does not have punch or tenacity or even depth.

Rule 9: Use your brain in full all the time. Be always on the alert. Don’t slip your guard. That is what service is.

Rule 10: Don’t be afraid of friction. Friction is the mother of progress and manure of drive. Otherwise you will be obsequious and irresolute.

If it seems like I am reading less anime books than usual this year, it’s because this year saw me come to the end of the long writing process on my doctorate. I handed it in back in July, and the prospect of reading it so terrified my superviser that he ran away to China. As a result, it’s still languishing at the faculty waiting for the committee to get its act together; I didn’t help matters by running for China myself for four months this year, making it a little difficult to turn up for my viva; I shall have to sort out all of that in the new year, or else I shall never be Dr Clements. Meanwhile, the book version, some 60,000 words longer (in fact, as one wag commented, a whole other PhD worth of stuff) makes its way through the peer review process at the British Film Institute. I am just about to deliver the second draft of that, and with any luck you should see the published result – ANIME: A History of the Japanese Animation Industry, published in late 2013. As the name implies it is a massive chronicle of animation in Japan since the year 1909 (yes, 1909, you will have to read it to find out why), based almost entirely on the Japanese-language testimonials of the actual creators, rather than the speculations of foreign pundits. If you are the kind of person who has read this far on this blog, then I think you will like it very much.

Mannerheim Kindle

At long last, my biography of Mannerheim is out on the Kindle. Leading a charge on horseback against Japanese cannons in Manchuria? Two years undercover, spying on the Chinese, while disguised as a Swedish anthropologist? Standing up to a gang of Bolsheviks clad in nothing but a pink bathrobe and a pair of cavalry boots? Accidentally becoming the president of Finland? You wouldn’t believe it… but every word is true.