The Conversation


I’ve never met Mark Kermode, but often used to seen him at press screenings, his fifties-throwback quiff circling the pre-film drinks like a shark’s fin. And I’ve often read or watched him, of course, hectoring his co-host about the awfulness or lack thereof of some film or other, or babbling on immediately leaving a cinema, as a sort of experiment to see how his later, considered opinion measures up to his improvised first impressions. And my mum refers to him as That Lovely Mark Kermode, primarily because of something he once said comparing Casablanca and Silent Running.

Hatchet Job, Kermode’s latest book, is not a book of film reviews, but about film reviewing, charting the many odd situations and pressures on the professional critic. Anime only gets a passing mention, but readers of this blog will nevertheless be fascinated by the many practices of the modern movie world, all of which affect Japanese cartoons just as much as Hollywood blockbusters. What actually happens at a movie screening? Who gets to go, and why? Why do some films not get press-screened at all? What kind of difference do critics make? And in a world where so much is given away free, how much is a film review worth?

The book’s greatest achievement is the way it smuggles in an immense amount of posh, post-modern critical theory, without a single buzz-word, name-drop or citation. Like the best of Empire, Kermode puts a populist, accessible front on concepts that lesser authors turn into psychobabble. He mounts an argument for movie reviewing as a conversation, an ever-changing discourse about the film we’ve seen, wondering if it’s ever possible to even have a concrete opinion on a film when we keep changing as viewers. And so, indeed, does the film – Kermode lifts the lid on the infamous two versions of Fatal Attraction, where Japanese audiences got the original Madama Butterfly-inspired ending, whereas the rest of us had to contend with the KILL THE BITCH version cooked up to appease slack-jawed American test audiences. He recounts horror stories of critics who have had to change their minds, and debates the dubious value of being “first” with a review that one later regrets. In a world that so often focuses on production (making-ofs, staff interviews) or reception (what some people think of a film they have seen), he deftly and wittily discusses the often neglected areas of distribution and exhibition – such as how marketing can affect a movie’s performance, or what differences can accrue in a particular cinema on a particular day.

Hatchet Job is an account of two cultures. One is the movie-nerd discourse of “what we talk about when we talk about films”, in which Kermode covers not only the power of reviewers to bring people into cinemas, but also the silent sector of people who wait until after they have seen a film to read the reviews, in order to enter into a virtual “conversation” with a critic – for this very reason, I have been a subscriber not-reading the most recent Sight & Sound for the last 26 years. The other culture is that of movie-reviewers themselves, offering a rare insight into the traditions and protocols, the rituals and behaviours of breeds such as the lesser-spotted Kim Newman and the now-extinct Roger Ebert. This includes, although Kermode is too cunning to scare people off by using the word, a historiography of film writing, in which he charts the way that critics have redefined and reconceived their own role in the process of bringing a film to a viewer. His willingness to focus on the mechanics behind the scenes of distribution also leads to an intricate critique of the algorithms that decide which Amazon review you will see, and the underhand “vote-washing” undertaken by semi-pro critics who stand to be paid in freebies and sub-cultural capital if their reviews get lots of Likes. This is particularly interesting to Kermode (and to anyone who thinks about film) because of its implications as a “fake” conversation, as robots pretend to like the comments of other robots, while movie adverts quote enthusiastic reviews by sock-puppets.

Ever since Joe Queenan’s unforgettable stunt of Being Mickey Rourke For a Day, in which he only said or did things that he had seen Rourke do in films, modern film critics have often pepped things up with little comedy business, and Kermode is no exception. He includes the full text of his Twitter review of Prometheus, which, in a vain attempt to protect fanboys from spoilers, he wrote entirely in mathematical notation. He speculates about the prospects of hiring Rutger Hauer, in his role as the replicant Roy Batty from Blade Runner, to voice the late-train announcements for the 2:35 from Weymouth. And he offers an account of his short-lived brainwave, inspired by Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to insult everyone whose film he hates, to their faces. He is winningly frank about the things he has learned from his own mistakes – the throwaway dismissal of a film that got him briefly blacklisted and; the absurd spy-movie acrobatics required to see Nixon early, which involves a trip on Eurostar and an argument in Franglais with a Gauloise-chuffing ticket gendarme, all so he can “watch a Welshman pretending to be an American, in English, with French subtitles.”

In addition to smuggling in elucidating jargon-free accounts of memory and commemoration, temporality, discursive genealogy and auteurism, Kermode alludes to the simple pleasure of movie-going, both as an excited participant in packed movie event, and as a lone explorer at a daytime matinee. I, too, have sat in the Odeon Leicester Square with a variety of audiences that have transformed my viewing experience, and not always for the better – the pair of eccentric millionaires (I can only assume they were eccentric millionaires) who paid £20 for a ticket and then talked all the way through Vantage Point. The two Polish prostitutes who decided the best way to get out of the rain was to sit through Apocalypto offering me sinful companionship. And Danny Boyle, director of Trainspotting who was in the same cinema as me watching Inglourious Basterds. I was immensely impressed to see that the would-be-Sir-if-he-hadn’t-said-no national treasure was not above avoiding the freebie screenings that come with BAFTA membership, and instead paying with his own money to see the new Tarantino with the rest of us.

No, I didn’t pester him with an actual conversation, either, but I did eavesdrop on his concise review, imparted to his companion as we left.

“Tee-hee-hee,” he chuckled. “Nazis!”

This review originally appeared on the Manga UK blog in October 2013, and is reshared here after the website was shut down in 2021 by its new owners at Funimation.

Lost Sols?

Anime Sols, established with the cooperation of a whole gaggle of anime studios, exploits all the best benefits of living in a digital age. A limited number of episodes of each anime show get streamed, for free, online with English subtitles. If you like what you see, you get to bid for a series of crowd-funding packages. Fully aware that these anime shows are of limited interest to a worldwide audience, Anime Sols sets its bar for success healthily low, with each serial’s block of episodes going to DVD as soon as they have a mere 1000 orders – this, in turn, exploits mastering houses’ new willingness to turn around small print-runs cheaply.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, as regular readers of this column will already know, it’s not necessarily that easy to get 1000 anime fans to put their money where their mouth is. As head honcho Sam Pinansky reported last month, Yatterman not only failed to get 1000 backers before its deadline on Anime Sols, but proved to be so unappealing that barely 40 people even watched it past the fourth episode!

Fandom was awash with recriminations – if only they’d picked a different show; if only fans could have bid from certain foreign territories (the UK, for example was excluded). But maybe people just weren’t that into Yatterman. Case closed. The project was cancelled, and the rights holders of Yatterman got a tiny reward – the chance to re-use those subtitles on a future Japan-only DVD release.

But Anime Sols is run by smart people, who were plainly disappointed but not undaunted. And I’d like to encourage everyone to regard Yatterman not as a failure, but as valuable data about anime’s appeal, or lack of it. It’s good, for the industry in general, for the Japanese to be confronted with how few people actually give a toss about some of their more obscure shows. And it’s good for fandom to be confronted with a put-up-or-shut-up ultimatum about making stuff happen. A few weeks later, Anime Sols offered Creamy Mami in the same way, and achieved its funding target with four days to spare.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #115, 2013.

Anime: A History

41bkTuP9TdL._SY445_Amazon is now listing my new book, Anime: A History, for sale in a few weeks in the US and in the UK. The contents and blurb are as follows:

Introduction: What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Anime?
1. Kid Deko’s New Picture Book: Early Cartoons in Japan 1912-21
2. The Film Factories: Animation Technique and Technology 1921-37
3. The Shadow Staff: Japanese Animation at War 1931-48
4. The Seeds of Anime: Japanese Animation Industries 1946-62
5. Dreams of Export: Toei Doga and MOM Production 1953-67
6. Warrior Business: Tezuka’s Anime Revolution in Context 1961-67
7. The Brown Screen: Trended Change in Japanese Animation 1966-83
8. The Third Medium: The Transformation of Ownership and Access 1977-96
9. The Pokemon Shock: Anime Goes Global 1984-97, 1997-2006
10. The Digital Engine: New Technologies and Animation 1983-2012
Epilogue: The End of Anime’s First Century

“Japanese animation is at the nexus of an international multimedia industry worth over $6.5 billion a year, linked to everything from manga to computer games, Pokémon and plushies. In this comprehensive guide, Jonathan Clements chronicles the production and reception history of the entire medium, from a handful of hobbyists in the 1910s to the Oscar-winning Spirited Away and beyond.

“Exploring the cultural and technological developments of the past century, Clements addresses issues of historiography within Japanese academic discourse and covers previously neglected topics such as wartime instructional animation and work-for-hire for American clients. Founded on the testimonies of industry professionals, and drawing on a myriad of Japanese-language documents, memoirs and books, Anime: A History illuminates the anime business from the inside – investigating its innovators, its unsung heroes and its controversies.”

I should also probably warn you that the BFI are only printing 1200 copies, so if you want to be sure to get hold of it, I advise you to pre-order. If it sells out on the day of release, it might be months before a second printing.

Gongqi Jun

1380521017497Out today and purchased this very morning by your correspondent from a petrified newsagent on Chang’an Avenue in Xi’an, the 7th October coverdated issue of China’s Lifeweek magazine, which features an incredible sixty-page article on Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli and the greats of anime and manga. Yes, that’s Miyazaki on the cover, gritting his teeth through the pain of wearing a ridiculous hat that bears the Studio Ghibli fashion logo, referred throughout the massive article as shenjiang (“divine/inspired craftsman”).

It doesn’t surprise me that the Chinese would run features on the man whose name they pronounce as Gongqi Jun. After all, his films have entered the country legitimately through their Disney associations, and are as beloved among Chinese viewers as they are anywhere else in the world. Nor, I suppose, does it much surprise me that Miyazaki’s much-publicised retirement should be an excuse for a retrospective that encompasses his collaborators Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata. What boggles me is quite so much space not only on them, but on their controversial latest film, the philosophy of their company, the rapid globalisation of their brand (with special reference to the influence of Pixar) and the other titles that form part of Japanese animation and manga exports – particularly Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Dragon Ball

Lifeweek is a large-circulation periodical in the People’s Republic, available on every street corner, and in times when the media seem obsessed with sabre-rattling over the Senkaku Islands, devotes a quarter of this latest issue to the celebration of Japanese soft power. It outs Doraemon, known to many Chinese as “Ding Dang the time-travelling cat”, as a Japanese product, and runs potted pieces on other anime creators of note – Osamu Tezuka, Leiji Matsumoto, Katsuhiro Otomo, Mamoru Oshii and Makoto Shinkai. And then there’s the traditional stuff about anime taking the world by storm, illustrated as usual by pictures of teenage girls dressed as elves, standing in a car park.

It’s a fantastic splash for anime in the Chinese media, and presumably meets with the full approval of the government censor. Now is a perfectly reasonable time to celebrate anime, but one can’t help but wonder if the enthusiasm masks something else – a sense that Miyazaki’s retirement leaves a vacuum that a canny Chinese entrepreneur might hope to fill. Lifeweek offers a 60-page blueprint for taking one nation’s cartoons to the world, but you can’t plan for genius and you can never guarantee success.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, available to pre-order now from the British Film Institute.