Midway through Jonathan Clements’ book Anime: A History, he tells a fascinating story that – like most of the stories in this book – you’re not likely to have heard before. In the late 1950s, a celebrated manga artist paid a visit to a Japanese animation studio. There weren’t so many back then. The studio, Otogi Pro, consisted of twenty people who did most of their work on tatami mats in a room in their boss’s house. The boss was Ryuichi Yokoyama, a manga artist himself, who’d dreamed of making it big like Disney, but had been disenchanted by the cartoon business.
The visitor told Yokoyama he was thinking of setting up his own cartoon studio. Bad idea, Yokoyama said. Animation would never make money, and would only mess up his life. According to a witness, Yokoyama told the visitor this again and again, ‘until his mouth was sour.’ Eventually, the visitor went away.
A few years later, the visitor – chap called Osamu Tezuka – produced a TV cartoon; Astro Boy.
This story looks like a hinge of fate. If Tezuka had taken Yokoyama’s advice and stuck with manga, then anime’s history over the next half-century would have been profoundly different. Or… maybe not. Things are always more complicated. Someone else might have done essentially the same thing as Tezuka – used the ‘limited animation’ methods established in American TV toons (The Huckleberry Hound Show), and applied Japanese heroes to them.
Tezuka was hardly the only Japanese artist seeking to advance animation in the 1950s. The Toei studio was churning out massively ambitious feature films, and starting to look at new kinds of cartoon style. Nor was Tezuka the first Japanese animator to mass-produce animation for weekly TV. He’d been beaten to the punch by Tadahito Mochinaga, one of the forgotten greats of Japanese animation. In his long career, Mochinaga had worked on the landmark 1942 war film Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, followed by a remarkable career in postwar China – of all the places for a former Japanese war propagandist!
From 1960, Mochinaga led animation onto the world stage, even if no-one noticed. His star was Astro Boy’s literary cousin, the puppet Pinocchio, animated in stop-motion by the studio MOM Production in 130 episodes of The New Adventures of Pinocchio. They were made for the American studio Rankin/Bass, hidden exports, but exports nonetheless.
It’s not the agenda of Anime: A History to argue what might have happened if, for example, Tezuka had been persuaded not to go into animation. But it’s very much the remit of the book to question the stories we think we know, of anime’s rises and falls, its heroes and breakthroughs. The book is about Japanese animation as a messy, multi-stranded medium, always struggling to adapt to new generations, technologies and business models, transforming so thoroughly that a kid may barely comprehend the cartoons his dad grew up with, let alone his grandfather.
In his introduction, Clements sets out what his book is and isn’t. “This is not a book about, say, gender roles in Star of the Giants or manifest camp in Neon Genesis Evangelion… This is a book concerned with about how Star of the Giants, Evangelion and a number of other anime fit within a continuum of a century’s film-making, how they came to be, who the makers thought were watching, and how they transformed the nature of subsequent productions.”
Clements adds that he is “less concerned with anime texts themselves than in their existence in (or apparent absence from) historical memory, what other researchers might call their significance or their artistic heritage.” Or their business heritage. Clements reminds us that buyers and sellers have a perspective on anime far removed from robots or magic girls. “For a large part of the process that takes it from creator to consumer, intellectual property is less an entertainment event, and more like a magical commodity that, if fed the right conditions, somehow spits out revenue. It is these featureless monetising boxes that are traded at film markets, sold on to third parties, and bundled in group deals to broadcasters and video distributors.”
Clements does not treat anime just from this perspective – on the contrary, he encourages us to think of anime from all perspectives – but his book is unlike many media histories. It’s not structured around a selection of classic or milestone titles, tracing how anime developed to when it could turn out Astro Boy, or Akira, or Death Note. Clements doesn’t sing such titles’ praises, nor give profiles and mini-histories of the people and studios who made them. You will learn a lot about Tezuka and Toei and many lesser-known names, but only when they were central to changing anime from one thing to another – or thought that they were, or were perceived to be.
Moreover – and this will be a shock to some readers – Clements’ book has a much wider scope than fans will expect. In its chronological history, Astro Boy is the halfway point; that is, the whole of the book’s first half is immersed in Japanese animation before 1963. Only the last three chapters of ten concern anime after 1990. Some readers may question if most of the book is about anime at all.
Clements acknowledges at the start that there’s no consensus about the proper use of “anime” as a label. The word was coined about the middle of the twentieth century, and plenty of pundits have tried to restrict it. For example, Studio Ghibli and its American distributor Disney have been reluctant to identify Ghibli’s films as anime. Meanwhile, a Japanese historian of anime, Nobuyuki Tsugata, argues that the medium didn’t “begin” until 1970s cartoons like Space Battleship Yamato. (Tsugata allows the 1960s Astro Boy as a “zeroth” stage of anime history, reminiscent of Japan’s penchant for “Episode 0” prequels.)
Clements dismisses such arguments briskly. Even if “real” anime began with Astro Boy or Yamato, he says, “we must first comprehend the end of anime prehistory.” In fact, the book effectively outlines a continuing history of animation through its various mutations. As we noted above, Tadahito Mochinaga worked in World War II animations, but went on to helm New Adventures of Pinocchio. As Japan’s first bulk cartoon export, Pinocchio was a precursor not just to Astro Boy but also the export works of the later Top Craft studio, which made the 1970s Hobbit film and later Nausicaa… and so on. For Clements, the changing industrial situation is what’s interesting, whether the volume of production at the time was high or low.
Another point Clements stresses is that there’s no single anime ‘industry.’ That’s especially true now, when “family feature films can still resemble features of the 1950s, alongside TV shows created along models developed in the 1970s and 1980s, and ‘adult’ shows across multiple formats, aimed at an audience that would be barely recognisable to the pioneers of anime’s early days.” From many (though not all) perspectives, there’s a chasm between, say, the mainstream films of Studio Ghibli and TV anime made for graveyard Japanese TV slots and a 0.4% broadcast share – and often made for us, foreign fans, too.
There are also strands of Japanese animation that are mostly ignored, and Clements is keen to recover these. There are animated TV commercials, for example, and animation made under contract to overseas studios. During wartime, there was animation to instruct soldiers; not cartoon mice and robots, but animated diagrams and step-by-step guides.
Anime also shades off into other media. Today, that includes computer visual novels, which are both the sources for anime adaptations like Steins;Gate, and arguably a kind of anime themselves, with extremely limited animation. Decades ago, though, a close relative of anime were Japanese puppet TV shows a la Gerry Anderson. Clements highlights 1960’s Spaceship Silica, a “forgotten prototype” for the Astro Boy generation.
In its early chapters, Clements’ book could be called Anime: A Secret History. The very first anime are lost, and in some cases it’s uncertain if they even existed, at least as films. Clements has fun debunking the so-called “Matsumoto Fragment” (a bit of antique celluloid widely and groundlessly proclaimed the oldest animation ever), which may be “less a film than a comic drawn on celluloid.”
Moving to the early cartoons which have survived, there’s an especially interesting section on the first wave of sports anime, driven by Japanese contestants participating in the Olympics. “The sports genre involved a new environment,” Clements writes, “a placeless, modernist setting based on the towering foreign stadiums where real-world Japanese athletes were competing against foreign powers.” In 1936’s Mabo’s Great Race, the boy hero is even cheered on by foreigners in the audience – Betty Boop and two Mickey Mice.
These chapters are also an account of early Japanese cinema. We learn about benshi, people hired by cinema in the silent days to provide live commentaries for both cartoons and live-action. “The benshi was the cinema’s barker and town-crier, its warm-up man and the literal interpreter of the film… There are photographs of benshi attired as the movie stars they are voicing, imparting an immediate, third-dimensional impact to the films they presented by dressing up as, say, Charlie Chaplin.” The job of the benshi included warning the audience about “incidents of odd foreign behaviour, such as kissing.”
These MCs would find themselves being outmoded by sound cinema, much like the star hero of The Artist. “Some (benshi) tried to bellow their interpretation live as the soundtrack played, which was both frustrating for the individual benshi but lucrative for the profession as a whole, as it required extra benshi to take up the shortfall caused by lost voices.” Some found other professions, such as dubbing foreign films.
Clements also talks about the Pure Film Movement, Japanese filmmakers in cinema’s early days, who “published polemics and reviews in contemporary journals complaining that film remained beholden to the traditions and tropes of the Japanese theatre.” They disliked benshi but were enthusiastic about animation; “a genre without any local (Japanese) precedents, it could not fail to aspire to an international outlook.”
Interestingly, the Pure Film Movement disliked traditional Japaneseness in live-action films but praised it in cartoon form. One pundit declared “Japanese animation should use Japanese subjects.” Fast-forward a century, and this argument’s still going. How much does Japanese animation’s strength as a world brand depend on its immersion in Japan?
Some early Japanese animations were cartoons as we think of them, such as Mabo’s Great Race. From the 1920s, though, much animation was educational, made with government support, such as 1926’s The Spread of Syphilis by Sanae Yamamoto. According to Clements, arguably “the first 30 years of the Japanese animation business was a period in which such ‘invisible’ productions comprised the majority of Japan’s animation output, with occasional narrative stories as exceptions rather than the rule.”
Along with government cartoons, there was a counter-culture. In the early ‘30s, the Proletarian Film League of Japan turned out leftist agitprop films such as 1931’s Slave War, directed by Tetsuo Kitagawa. It protested against the exploitation of China by the British, but implicitly by Japan too. The film was censored into unintelligibility. One wonders if Satoshi Kon heard of it; a key character in his film Millennium Actress is a heroic Japanese dissident who fights for China in the 1930s.
As Japan moved into an era of conflict, first with its neighbours and then with the world, cartoons took on aggressively nationalist overtones. This reviewer confesses that when he first saw The Plane Cabbie’s Lucky Day (1932) directed by Teizo Kato, he saw it as a charming piece of futurist whimsy, in which people ride planes as casually as we drive cars. Clements, though, argues the film is far more sinister. “Its most cunning subtext lies in the off-hand manner in which (the cabby’s) ‘long fare’ both incorporates and localises the South Seas within the compass of Japanese power, presenting unidentified Pacific islands as enduring, albeit distant and backward, additions to the Empire.”
By the end of the 1930s, there was no need for subtext. Mabo – the boy hero who’d been cheered by Hollywood toon stars in 1936’s Mabo’s Great Race – was militarised in films which “carnivalise the danger of conflict, presenting warfare in China as an exciting adventure for Japanese boys and their talking-animal friends. Moreover, the Japanese are depicted as agents of Pan-Asian goodwill, saving grateful girls from Manchurian robbers, ‘exterminating’ bandits who threaten peaceful Chinese farmers, and protecting beleaguered South Sea islanders from attacks by British soldiers.”
At this point, Clements introduces the Shadow Staff, a special film unit of about thirty people formed in 1939 to make films for the Japanese military. It made what may have been the first Japanese animated feature, the enticingly named Principles of the Wireless: Triodes and Diodes, circa 1944, and similarly “humorless, informational” films for soldiers. (A candidate for Britain’s first animated feature was the equally dull Handling Ships, made by the Halas and Batchelor studio in 1945 for the Admiralty.) All the Shadow Staff’s films are lost, destroyed in bombings, by the victorious Allies or even the Japanese themselves.
Elsewhere, young Tadahito Mochinaga was providing backgrounds and effects for the much more exciting Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (1943), a fairy tale rendering of the Pearl Harbor raid. Mochinaga said he heard Japanese kids at play, imitating the film hero’s orders – “Torpedo squadron, bomber squadron, fighter squadron! Take battle positions!” The animator wrote, “I heard that many youths volunteered for the flying corps and that while they were on duty they died on air raids. I wonder whether the film that we made influenced their decision to volunteer… I thought, in the future I only wished to make a film that would benefit the young, difficult though that might be.”
In fact, Mochinaga lost control of his destiny for several years. Towards the war’s end, he moved to Manchuria, then in Japanese hands, and was trapped when the region fell under Soviet control. By fantastic chance, Mochinaga ended up not in a prison camp but working with other Japanese artists for the Chinese authorities. “With outrageous historical irony, the portrait of Chairman Mao that led the Xingshan Communist parade on May Day 1947 was painted by former Japanese propagandists.”
As mentioned above, Mochinaga’s career continued back in Japan, with his work for America on The New Adventures of Pinocchio. Clements presents this series as an example of early commercial Japanese animation that’s usually forgotten in histories of anime. Another is the 1950s boom in animated Japanese advertising. The Beer Through the Ages adverts “charted the history of beer from ancient Babylonia and Egypt, through medieval Germany, and up to its arrival in Japan in the 19th century on the black ships of Commodore Perry.”
The book’s second half deals with titles better known to anime fans, starting from the landmarks of Toei’s Hakujaden and Tezuka’s Astro Boy. However, Clements maintains a historian’s scepticism and a refusal to take ‘well-known’ accounts as read. He considers, for example, the accounts of “anime syndrome” among staff; that is, the health problems caused by “unremitting late nights, irregular diets of junk food and cramped, repetitive labour.” These were all certainly unhealthy, but “anime syndrome” might have been a useful image for staff to maintain, so they could take a sick-break after a hellish crunch time.
Equally provocatively, Clements questions the standard criticism of Tezuka – that he was a terrible businessman whose underselling of Astro Boy and subsequent anime products scarred the industry ever after. True, Tezuka’s anime productions were crazy, chaotic affairs where frazzled middle-men frantically outsourced work to second and third-hand parties, while moonlighting animators stole work from themselves, and the enterprise resembled a teetering pyramid scheme.
Yet Clements suggests that, at the end of the day, Tezuka might have been no more reckless than one of his idols, Walt Disney, who risked far more money on Snow White. Then again, Walt was at least sometimes restrained in his excesses by his prudent brother and business partner, Roy O. Disney. Tezuka, it seemed, had no such outside voice of sanity.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, anime coalesced more into the medium we know today. But it’s not always a story of evolution. Today, Japan’s (and the world’s) longest-running animated series remains Sazae-san, a mild comedy about a Japanese housewife, which began in 1969. “Its very mildness is surely one of the factors that allows it to remain part of the televisual wallpaper more than forty years after its first broadcast,” Clements says. He calls it a case of Japanese animation in extended equilibrium.
As a primetime series about an ordinary family, Sazae-san appeals across demographics (it’s by far the highest rated cartoon on Japanese TV). Many other anime are “kid’s shows,” though Clements questions if this is the same as their target audience. After all, the “audience” will involve the children’s parents, watching, dozing, eating or knitting, but still receiving the show’s underlying self-advert, that “it is this show, these characters, these toys that most occupy their children’s interests.”
With mecha series, for example, one does not need Evangelion to decode the genre. “There is a recurring message that must surely have a subliminal message for an office worker hoping to buy his child’s love: my father gave me a robot, my father gave me a robot, my father gave me a robot.” Later in the book, Clements cites claims that Japanese children’s tastes shifted in the late 1980s. Before, kids would happily buy both heroes and villains/monsters as toys; later, they just wanted the heroes. This helps explain both the prevalence of “battle teams” in action series, and the later rise of harem series for older viewers. “The best possible character roster for an anime show would be a large number of female characters, each a possible love interest for the hero.”
Clements quotes Japanese pundits who argue that the idea of ‘anime’ partly arose out of negative comments on cartoons – their violence, their limited animation, their low popular denominators (unlike the experimental Japanese films at animation festivals). Some artists tried to transcend this, most famously Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, who made the TV series Heidi (1974) much more painstakingly than the average show. “Heidi’s quality was over-engineered, far in excess of the minimum requirements for it to be fit for purpose.”
A different approach was taken by the robot-show director Yoshiyuki Tomino, who applied deep thought to a genre machine-tooled to sell toys. Tomino broke rules by killing major protagonists in 1977’s Zambot 3, which was “no loss to a franchise that was already being shut down.” Then, Tomino focused on believability, creating “mecha that increasingly needed to obey at least some of the laws of physics.” The result, the first Gundam in 1979, was initially a ratings flop. “However, its artistic heritage, rejuvenated by subsequent feature-length movie edits, and with repeats that gained it a 15% audience share, would make it a pivotal event in the history of anime.”
Gundam stands between Space Battleship Yamato and Akira, three landmark SF anime often said to define the medium. Anime fandom in Japan became notable during the production of Yamato, when middle- and high-school fans turned up at that show’s studio Artland, “full of curiosity and amazement.” However, Artland’s owner Ishiguro Noboru noted that “the girls sheepishly confessed that although they had seen Space Battleship Yamato, they much preferred Heidi.”
Male fans, though, started forming clubs (not necessarily formal; the director Satoshi Kon participated in fervent “Otakuesque conversations” about Gundam at his high school). The first Yamato movie in 1977 marshalled fan energies. The Yamato studio recruited fans with a guerrilla marketing kit, “which instructed them to fly-post posters in prominent locations, call radio stations to request the theme song, and pester newspapers to run coverage – for which (the fans) were rewarded with animation cels and other production items.”
Contrary to popular belief, the film did not break records (though its sequel, Farewell, Yamato, did). But, Clements says, Yamato “demonstrated that anime fandom represented a discrete sector of new consumption that could be served or exploited through releasing more anime aimed not at children, but at teenagers.”
The advent of home video met that sector. “Viewers who had been children in the 1960s and 1970s now had the opportunity to consume sequels and remakes with an older sensibility.” Straight-to-video was born, throwing up the sometimes baffling range of anime titles through with British fandom picked its way in its own early years. These titles ranged from wellsprings for multimedia franchises (Patlabor, Tenchi Muyo) to “an advert for the opening pages of a novel, all but meaningless in foreign territories where the novel was not available” (hello, Vampire Wars).
Meanwhile, cartoon porn videos “placed anime fans on a continuum that is inextricably connected to the activities of murderers and molesters.” In Clements’ view, this was the cost of refashioning a children’s medium for adults, which may “make a statement about wider applications for the art, but also risks appealing to an audience caught in arrested development, clinging to notions of infantilism.”
Thanks to censors, Britain didn’t get “straight” porn anime, but rather their mutation into sex-horror (Overfiend, Wicked City). For years, they were a disreputable standard bearer, a public “image” for anime until the global sweep of Pokémon in the 1990s. Pikachu’s arrival coincided with the rise of the DVD format and what Clements calls “a degree of transnational rationalisation,” bringing anime’s motley multiple histories closer. Previously, shows could often be huge in some territories, unknowns in others –Saint Seiya is a prime case.
More recently, foreign anime viewers have been split into those who consume anime “in celebration of its difference, such as the adult anime fans who like Akira”, and the generation who watched it as “an established norm, such as children who grew up with Pokémon.” A comparable split developed in Japan, between the “niche” 0.4% audience who watched late-night TV anime, versus the “mainstream” audience for Ghibli films or Sazae-san. (Sazae-san, incidentally, was still made with cels long after other anime had switched to digital, because some of Sazae-san’s staff were too old to learn digital techniques.)
But the “niche” animation market, Clements says, is far more lucrative than the mainstream. “A one-shot children’s movie might appear to deliver higher short-term returns in DVD sales… A late-night TV series with a limited edition box set, tie-in laptop, collectible metal figurines and a subscription-based online game tie-in will sell fewer copies, but generate substantially more revenue from a single, notional consumer.” The otaku population in Japan is small in number (contra certain BBC documentaries), but a Japanese commentator, Matsumoto Satoru, reckons it’s worth 85 to 90 per cent of Japan’s animation market.
On the “mainstream” side, Clements argues that popular hits depend on brands, and has done since Toei’s 1960 film Saiyuki (aka Alakazam the Great) was supported by its source manga and famed creator, Osamu Tezuka. As a more recent case, Clements cites the 2005 film Zatch Bell: Attack of the Mekavulcan. It looked like a flop in cinema but the film may have greatly benefited its franchise, which included manga and computer games. Clements also cites the ill-fated 2000 film The Boy Who Saw the Wind, which tried to copy Studio Ghibli without Ghibli’s first decade of brand-building. “Even Ghibli’s box-office returns started off small.”
Clements judges the biggest risk in cinema anime now would be “an entirely original, standalone” film, though limited cinemas releases are less risky, serving as adverts for foreign buyers and the home release. (When the new Makoto Shinkai film The Garden of Words was shown in Japanese cinemas, customers could buy the DVD edition in the foyer.) The substantial box-office returns of Hosoda’s The Wolf Children, a wide release original film, looks like a counter to Clements’ argument, although Hosoda’s name has brand cachet of its own.
The book’s last pages touch on the challenges posed by fansubbing, in a world where a sample of 21 new anime titles were ‘fingerprinted’ and traced across the net for four months in 2009-10. They were duplicated over 25,000 times, and viewed 28.7 million times, with most of the illegal servers and downloads seemingly in China. As a Japanese writer said ruefully, “if every one of those viewers were paying a mere 100 yen (£0.81) each to watch the same content, the revenue from the anime business would be twenty or thirty times larger than it is.”
As it is, there’s a possibility of an anime “crunch” in the near future, an implosion in the number of ‘supportable franchises.’ However, this wouldn’t end Japanese animation, but open the next chapter in its history. In any case, Sazae-san and Pokémon aren’t facing the apocalypse, though Ghibli is entering interesting times with Miyazaki’s retirement.
As for how other producers could cancel the apocalypse, there may be salvation through advertising, through multimedia (making anime to advertise other parts of a franchise) or through foreign markets; China could even replace America as the industry’s foreign holy grail. There’s also the possibility of mining fan events – making anime an adjunct to conventions, Hatsune Miku-style concerts or simulcast screenings. The last is topical in Britain as the BBC milks Doctor Who with a fiftieth anniversary film in cinemas and on TV.
But, Clements concludes, the future of anime rests on its artists – on the successors to the mavericks that today’s establishment once were, as diverse as Miyazaki and Tomino. The anime business is not just the story content, the robot designs and cute girls of the season. But nor is it just the “featureless monetising boxes” which spit out money (or combine, robot style, with more boxes to make money-spitting franchises). Animation is not the province of cartoon characters, nor bank balances, but of humans.
As Clements says, anime is “the frantic morning scramble to complete an animatic reel sufficient for an afternoon sound recording session; a courier arriving at Narita airport only to discover in a moment of panic that his luggage has gone missing, along with the 500 urgently-needed cels it contained from a South Korean subsidiary; Itano Ichiro climbing into the cockpit of an American fighter jet to research dog-fighting; Yamamoto Eiichi demanding his fair share of the royalties for a song on the Jungle Emperor album; Rintaro ringing a manga artist’s doorbell in the pouring rain to argue about a change in the script.”
And in all these things, “we are still speaking of the Japanese animation industry, of its workers and its scandals, its successes and failures, its legends and its truths.”
Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements is available now from the British Film Institute.