We Are Woman

bata00_p_01_04The first of two Chinese translations of my Empress Wu biography is now being advertised, with the title Zhennai Nuren  — “I am Woman” declined with an imperial first-person pronoun, like the Royal We. This Taiwanese edition translated by Lai Yeqian, is released this month by Gusa. There’s another translation coming in the People’s Republic sometime in the autumn.

From my introduction to the Taiwan edition:

“Even as I delivered the original manuscript of this book in 2007, I was fielding phone calls from a TV production company interested in adapting the story of Empress Wu into a drama series. Nothing came of that, but I have twice sold the rights to this book to producers hoping to reimagine it as a saga of intrigue to rival Game of Thrones. Perhaps I shall be lucky the third time.

“What is it about Empress Wu that excites such interest? For foreign producers, it’s the dual appeal of manly adventure and feminine wiles, but also the chance to present medieval China, a country often regarded as monolithic and homogenous, as cosmopolitan and multiracial. At the height of the Tang dynasty, there were ‘blue-eyed girls in the taverns of Chang’an,’ ambassadors from Bohai and Syria, and handsome refugees from Persia. There were Christian priests and Muslim traders, offering tantalising potential for any director wanting to present a diverse and vibrant society.

“Wu remains a lively topic, even today. Since this book was first published, Tsui Hark has brought the pomp and ceremony of Wu’s reign to the screen with Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010, 狄仁傑之通天帝國) and its prequel. Archaeologists have found the grave of Shangguan Wan’er, and Chinese television has become embroiled in a new scandal fitting for its most infamous female sovereign. Low-cut dresses and flashes of cleavage in Fan Bingbing’s lavish Empress of China (2014-15, 武媚娘传奇) had made the PRC censor worried about a possible corrupting influence. Such stories are wonderful news to any historian – if anything lures in new readers of non-fiction, it’s the discovery that the Tang dynasty is ‘too hot for TV’ even in modern times.”

If you can read Chinese, there are several extracts available online, here, here, here, and here.

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Cult TV Times

Lillith_Rei_Ayanami_Eva_Unit_01_Third_Impact_Chabalistic_spiral_mystic_symbol_Neon_Genesis_Evangelion_End_of+EvangelionMay’s entertainment was provided by David Clarke, an author who used the Freedom of Information Act to wrest a report from the Metropolitan Police with the title of UFO New Religious Movements and the Millennium. In it, anti-terrorism officers were cautioned about the rise of conspiracy theories and wacky cults, centred around dangerous foreign imports like Star Trek and The X-Files: “it is not being suggested that the production companies are intentionally attempting to ferment trouble,” said the report, in annoyingly reasonable language. “However [they] know what psychological buttons to press to excite interest in their products. Obviously this is not sinister in itself. What is of concern is the devotion certain groups and individuals ascribe to the contents of these programmes….”

Clarke knows what buttons to press, too (he has a book on the way), since fandom’s dudgeon was most certainly raised. I, for one, am flattered that a bunch of nerds in Spock-ears presented an equivalent danger to, say, the fanatical suicide-bombers who blew themselves up on the London Tube. Imagine the unspeakable carnage if they got all Prime Directive on people… but there is method in the apparent madness.

It’s not clear exactly when the dossier was prepared, but Clarke suggests it was around 1997, after the suicide of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate religious cult in San Diego. Heaven’s Gate’s use of terminology from Star Trek is widely reported; less well-known is the presence of stacks of anime VHS tapes at the site of their “Away Team” deaths.

845396061326116755Heaven’s Gate were convinced that the world was shortly about to be “cleansed”, and humanity was going to be wiped away by the impact of some dreadful angelic apocalypse. Shortly before they drank a fatal mix of phenobarbitol and vodka, 39 people had been watching Neon Genesis Evangelion. I know this because the FBI wasted no time in tracking down the pedlars of such apocalyptic propaganda, and demanding they explain the plot to them. And, Evangelion being a tough one to describe at the best of times, ADV Films volunteered the services of the only person they thought could do the job. That would be me, at five in the morning in London, woken up by what at first I took to be a prank call.

Evangelion is “apocalyptic” because it draws upon Christian eschatology. It did not inspire Heaven’s Gate so much as offer them comforting reflections of their own delusions. The FBI worked that out soon enough, and went away happy that anime fans weren’t about to go on the rampage, but it wouldn’t surprise me, when the full text of the dossier is made available, to discover those pesky Japanese cartoons are also listed as potential threats to civil society. Again. Thank God they didn’t know about Queen’s Blade

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History (UK/US). This article first appeared in NEO 139, 2015.

White Box

shirobako-116501One of the big hits of recent anime seasons has been Shirobako (literally ‘White Box’), a show that shoe-horns an off-the-peg cast of perky graduates like refugees from K-On into the heady world of anime production. Shirobako is a workplace drama, but also a knowing parody of life in the anime industry, often with recognisable caricatures of well-known figures, and depictions, just the right side of actionable, of notorious incidents from business legend.

Shirobako successfully conveys the awful daily grind of working on Japanese animation. Entire scenes crawl past of people in messy, cluttered offices shouting each other about file numbers and storyboard pages, and losing the plot about frame counts. Despite occasional cutaways to the flights of fantasy they are working on, life in the fictional “Musashino Animation” company is largely seen to be a dull and stressful slog, with little obvious reward.

There is much of interest about the division of skills on anime productions. Artists go in at the bottom, but have a chance of getting swiftly promoted. Computer geeks get to faff with CG, but have to fight against unrealistic expectations of their technology. And the wannabe voice-actress is soon waiting tables at a restaurant…

Ironically, in the real world, she’d be the one on the highest wages. A study published by the Japan Animation Creators Association (JaniCA) claimed that the mean entry-level salary for new animators is (and has been since at least 2009) just £6,000 a year, with an average working day of 11 hours. Inbetweeners in Japan are competing directly with Chinese labourers who are submitting comparable work across the internet from a place with lower costs of living. If they don’t prove themselves worthwhile, they remain stuck on paupers’ wages, which have not gone up in five years. Put another way, the people who make your favourite anime can start on salaries as low as 65p an hour.

One wonders how the real-world versions of the breathless, gamine girls in Shirobako would come across if they couldn’t afford soap powder or, well, soap. It’s difficult to imagine these conditions lasting for much longer before there simply aren’t any Japanese animators in Japanese animation. Which means more producers and directors coming in sideways from other professions, not up through the ranks, and commanding a staff in a foreign country through Skype and shouting. Has anime, which always was regarded as a cheap option in the first place, successfully priced itself out of its own market?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History (UK/US). This article first appeared in NEO #138, 2015.