Manga & Anime Go To Hollywood

51qMWVRg1SL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Northrop Davis’ new book Manga & Anime Go To Hollywood, which was something of a disappointment from an academic press. Where were the peer-reviewers?

“There are a lot of quotes from contemporary internet reportage but far too much of the book simply rehashes earlier publications, pouring in excerpts from works that any serious researcher will already own.”

Christmas Movies: Tokyo Godfathers

Tokyo-GodfathersThree tramps, alcoholic Gin, transvestite Hana and teen runaway Miyuki, find an abandoned baby while searching through the trash on Christmas Eve. They decide to return it to its mother, only to plunge into a whirl of scandal, kidnapping and attempted murder, all on the one day when Tokyo is supposed to be quiet.

Tokyo Godfathers may have three wise men (one and half of whom are actually female), but its nativity story is not limited to Christian lore, and displays a typically Japanese attitude towards death. A cemetery becomes a treasure trove as the tramps search for votive offerings of sake, and the film’s stand-in for Santa Claus, white beard and all, can only perform his task properly if he dies doing it. The movie alludes to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which similarly features old men bickering over a foundling child in a storm, via John Ford’s 1948 Western 3 Godfathers, but at its heart is a search for kindness and warmth in materialist Japan.

Like Perfect Blue before it, Tokyo Godfathers initially seems like a strange choice for animation. With so many real-world locations, why not film it with real people? But nobody in the metropolitan government was going to approve a live-action film depicting a shanty town in the shadow of Tokyo’s distinctive twin-tower tax office, nor were too many of today’s TV idols likely to sign up for a tale of grunge and poverty; however happy the ending, they might have mussed their hair. The clincher would have been the snow. It is popularly believed that it only falls in Tokyo once every ten years – the presence of snow in Tokyo Godfathers being the first of its many Christmas miracles.

The baby’s arrival sends the tramps scurrying to buy water instead of booze at their local convenience store, much to the shop assistant’s surprise. Hana jokes in the soup queue that she is “eating for two”, only to shock the charity worker the following day when she does indeed turn up with a babe in arms. In its comedy and sentimentality, Tokyo Godfathers is the closest thing we’ll see to an anime pantomime, an end-of-year revel that turns everything on its head. It even features stars having a laugh at being cast against type, such as Koichi Yamadera (Cowboy Bebop’s Spike Spiegel), who has a brief cameo as a harassed taxi driver. The movie finds divine inspiration in everyday events, such as a wounded tramp seeing an angel, who turns out to be a bar-girl in fancy dress.

Satoshi Kon’s choice of subject matter is an act of faith in itself – framing the relentless hope and happiness of a Christmas comedy in the stark, realist tones of his other work. Gin walked out on his family over unpaid gambling debts. Hana lost her surrogate family of fellow drag artists after punching out an unappreciative listener to one of her songs. And Miyuki ran away from home over a misunderstanding with her father. Throw in a gangland wedding, a suicidal wife in the middle of a collapsing marriage, and a cross-dressing Filipino assassin, and the result is a seemingly impossible knot of problems to sort out before dawn.

Tokyo Godfathers performed poorly on British DVD, despite higher production values and even more fiendish twists than Kon’s better-known Perfect Blue. In a world where every December sees a rash of cynical, focus-grouped, predictable Christmas specials, Tokyo Godfathers urges its audience to see miracles on every street corner, and it’s good to know that there is a movie with a genuine heart. Since it’s the season to be jolly, why not give Tokyo Godfathers a try? But just remember, anime isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for life.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #14, 2005.

Death By Committee

sword-art-online-oculus-rift-virtual-realityJust for a day I would like to live my life like an anime production committee member. I shall tell the postman that I don’t approve of the way he opened the gate. I shall refuse to pay for a CD in a shop until the owner guarantees that he will end piracy on the internet. And I shall change my mind about the food I want to order in a restaurant, but only after I have already eaten it.

Such ideas are brought on by the revelation in a Manga UK podcast that the Sword Art Online DVD cover design has to change mid-series, because the Japanese licensors at Aniplex didn’t like the version that had gone out with the first disc – a version that they themselves had already approved. So Manga Entertainment is now left in the bizarre situation of having to change subsequent printings, leaving fans of the show with mismatched covers.

Collectors, if such creatures still exist, will be ecstatic to know that the art on the first pressing of SAO is never to be repeated. Fans who just want matching spines now face the prospect of having to contact Manga Entertainment at some future date to get replacements sent to them, which someone will have to pay for. Unless, that is, the SAO committee has another brainfart and changes its mind again.

Committees are supposed to make life easier. They are supposed to manage the franchises for everybody’s benefit. Since the 1970s, they have functioned as the executive bodies of intellectual property managing its hopefully long afterlife once it’s finished on Japanese telly.

One wonders about the make-up of the average committee. I like to think of a few disinterested lawyers, someone’s well-meaning widow, and the producer’s ex-girlfriend. One almost wishes for the devil-may-care days of the 1980s, when the Japanese didn’t really give a toss what happened to their material abroad. Now, can it be that they care too much? How many cooks are fussing over this particular broth for them to actually reverse their previous decision? At one point, one wonders, can someone stand up on the committee and recommend that their fellow members get a clue? If they can’t get their own product right, what are they for?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #122, 2014.

The Girl King

kuningatar kristiina elokuva kuvauksetMika Kaurismäki’s latest film, Tyttökuningas uses a deliberately counter-intuitive coinage in Finnish, directly translatable as “The Girl King.” Like Empress Wu and Queen Hatshepsut, the titular monarch was a woman who sought the recognition and power of a man in a man’s world. In the case of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-89) the terminology is truly apt – she was the sole heir of a doomed king desperate for a son, inheriting her father’s throne as a child, and, it seems, never quite growing up.

The movie is an earnest Europudding from multiple funding bodies – based on a French-Canadian play about a Swedish queen, but shot in Finland with Turku Castle and environs standing in for Stockholm. The Finnish connection eludes many international viewers, but is entirely apt; at the time that Christina took the throne, Finland formed the eastern marches of the Swedish empire. Christina was, indeed, also the Queen of Finland, and the Finnish republic remains peculiarly obsessed with Swedish royals.

tyttokuningasNETTIMichel Marc Bouchard’s script, based on his own 2012 stage play Christine: la reine garçon, makes much of Christina’s intellectual aspirations, depicting her as a crazy bibliomaniac, authorising the invasion of Czechoslovakia to get her hands on the king’s library (many books from which turn out to be in languages nobody can read), and frotting her girlfriend on the open pages of the stolen Codex Gigas or Devil’s Bible. In her own eyes she is a proud iconoclast, defying the old order represented by her chief minister, and scattering Enlightenment like fairy dust. In this mode, she pompously bestows china plates and wine glasses on the hidebound Swedish court, which she thinks is enough to qualify as a “revolution”, and pouts when she is not allowed to read books by Catholics.

Malin Buska smoulders persuasively in the title role, playing the clueless virgin queen as an occasionally saucy but usually baffled teenager with a winning lopsided smile. But if the film belongs to anyone, it’s the impotent menfolk who tut and wring their hands at the side lines. There is, to be sure, an argument that Christina’s mad life is best presented as a tragi-comedy, and the only moment that drew universal laughter in the Finnish cinema where I saw the film was the scene where Count Axel Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist) hems and haws and gamely tries to mansplain that “women’s friendships are different.” It’s Oxenstierna who shoulders the burden of running the country through his queen’s minority, and who begs her to do her duty, marry and get pregnant… and when she’s not up for that, to just try to be sane and not do anything daft like switch religious faiths at a time of political crisis.

True to any good historical movie, Kaurismäki and Bouchard do not rewrite the facts, although they do try and present them as best they can. A protagonist who does not change is a villain, not a hero, and the film struggles, as do historians and previous scenarists, to present Christina in any light other than that of a spoiled brat, impossibly deluded, drunk on power but shirking any sense of responsibility. She dresses in a tight, swashbuckling get-up, the first indicator of her androgynous personality, but then trips lightly around the castle balustrade pretending to be a pony: a far more evocative depiction of her infantile nature.

17-41592566ae4c65ab0dInitially, the story of Queen Christina must look like a dream come true for the queer film lobby: a European princess, raised as a boy, who falls in love with her lady in waiting and rails against the stuffy patriarchy! What a trailblazer she must have been… what a modern dash she must have cut among the dour Swedes. Except, no. The more one knows about the historical Christina, the more one cringes in embarrassment for any interest group that might dare to claim her. She has been depicted before in multiple media, including several operas, as well as the 1901 August Strindberg play Kristina, itself a source for the 1933 Greta Garbo costume drama Queen Christina. Garbo’s version pushed for an unlikely heterosexual resolution to her story, as did The Abdication (1974), in which Liv Ullman plays an older Christina, living in the Vatican and lusting after a cardinal.

There is, admittedly, some pleading of mitigation. Zachris Topelius, that great Finnish chronicler of the country’s Swedish past, wrote in his Stjärnornas Kungabarn of the similarities between Christina and her famous father King Gustav II Adolf, suggesting that her true misfortune was to inherit the hot temper and violent mood-swings that served him well on the battlefield, but which were deemed unwelcome in a regal daughter. Similar arguments are obliquely referenced in the film, particularly in an opening sequence which whisks through Christina’s awful childhood in thrall to a bonkers mother, who demands that she kiss her father’s putrefying corpse every evening, and who is later accused of having attempted to murder her. As the troubled dowager Maria Eleonora, Martina Gedeck periodically returns to chew the scenery, increasingly resembling a swivel-eyed Vivian Westwood, attended by an orbiting cloud of fops and dandies like a periodic pitch invasion by the cast of a Fellini film.

The script also pleads for the incipient intelligence of the young Christina. By the time she takes the throne in her teens, however, the bright, questioning girl of the early scenes has become a mercurial despot, unheeding of the advice of her ministers and generals, and promulgating a bipolar foreign policy that swings between hand-holding kumbayah internationalism and devious double-crosses. As her loyal subject Johan (Lucas Bryant) angrily berates her at one point, there is a human cost to every one of her decisions, and it is paid in the deaths and misery of others.

TheGirlKing_800aThere is an attempt in the closing scenes to present her abdication as a great self-empowerment, or the realisation of her True Self as some sort of wandering swordswoman. But there is also some sense remaining that this capricious termagant has skipped away from the burning wreckage of an entire kingdom, leaving broken treaties in her wake and a vast, costly expansion of the nobility, which someone else has to pay for. Queen Christina clung desperately to the trappings of royal power, even as she spurned any of the duties that it brought.

Christina is a privileged, predatory idiot when seducing her handmaiden Ebba (Sara Gadon), commanding her into bed and forcing herself upon her, only to realise that she has no idea what she should do next – a fitting metaphor for her entire life. And in the grand finale, as in the historical record, she marches smugly from the throne room, having dumped the crown on her cousin, riding not quite into the sunset, but into the Alps. A closing title reveals that she died in Italy as the centre of a great salon of intellectual debate, and understandably neglects to mention her pathetic return to Sweden in 1660, when she demanded the return of her crown and was sent packing by an establishment that was glad to be rid of her.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now in print and on the Kindle (UK/US).

Your Country Needs Geeks Like You

ob2Just when life looks grim for slacker Shinichi Kano, he discovers that his love of anime, manga and games is a fast-track to a new career. Earth has opened a magic portal to a parallel universe, and now it needs cultural ambassadors to jump into a fantasy world and sell the locals… stuff! Walkmans and iPads, Nintendo consoles and cartoon serials about demon warriors, anything they will buy.

Shinichi is packed off to the magical Eldant Empire. Imagine some hipster salesman wandering around the set of Game of Thrones, trying to interest Queen Cersei in Viagra, and offering Tywin Lannister a better lock for his toilet door. But it’s a dream come true for the average sci-fi nerd, dropping in on a world of slave-girls and stirring swordplay, but still being able to pop home.

The anime series Outbreak Company beautifully captures a very modern sensibility. Look around any classroom of bleary-eyed teenagers, and you will see a bunch of kids who, only the night before, were leading armies of orcs, rescuing kidnapped princesses, and slaughtering legions of zombies… in their bedrooms. Fantasy worlds have made increasing demands on our time, sneaking out of books and films and into our daily lives, our games consoles, conversations and even our phones. And there is, indeed, money to be made. As the spoof advert that begins Outbreak Company makes clear, there is a chance, however slim, that geekish interests can actually turn into a geekish career.

This is only partly true. Take anime itself, for example, where the creation of such shows is a notorious grind, underpaid and unappreciated, and where hard-core fans are given short shrift by producers whose eyes are always on the bottom line.

But Outbreak Company is also a playful retelling of Japan’s own desperate desire to sell its culture to other countries. In the middle of a recession in 2005, the prime minister Taro Aso began a long-term effort to push “Cool Japan” abroad, and to recognise Japanese films, books and games as major exports. You’ve got it; you sell it; you’ve still got it! Some of these initiatives have spearheaded Japanese culture into foreign territories, and, presumably, inspired Ichiro Sakaki to write the seven-volume book series on which this anime is based.

So although your average Japanese salaryman hasn’t quite met a half-elf maid like the anime’s Myucel, or introduced someone like child-queen Petralka III to Japanese comics, they’ve probably done something very similar when trying to push sushi in Sao Paulo, and noodles in Neasden. There is a sense that when Shinichi arrives in this fantasy realm of dragons and accordions, he is like a Japanese tourist staring goggle-eyed at the weirdness of the mysterious West. Nor does Outbreak Company shy away from the fact that much of Shinichi’s sales pitch is offloading a load of junk – the anime equivalent of selling mirrors and beads to clueless natives.

The people of Earth are also busily interfering in the politics of Eldant, from do-gooders trying to bring an end to slavery to military personnel with secret agendas. What starts out as a celebration of fan culture and good-natured bridge-building soon takes a darker turn, as Shinichi is confronted with the economic side-effects of colonialism, and the prospect that cultures can exchange the bad along with the good. His trips to Eldant broaden his mind as he encounters a different way of life, but also leads him to appreciate the world he has left behind.

Commendably, Outbreak Company is not one long allegory for gap-year tourism. Instead, it starts off funny and satirical, and becomes increasingly wary of motivations for such initiatives. As well it might – only last year, the Chinese press in the real world accused the Japanese of trying to win them over by getting them to love the fluffy blue robot cat Doraemon. With ever louder sabre rattling in the South China Seas, some Chinese pundits began complaining that Japanese “soft power” – manga, anime, and games – was functioning as a form of insidious propaganda, and concealing their plans for world domination. Now, there’s an idea for an anime series.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #2, 2015.

Anime: A History (eBook)

41bkTuP9TdL._SY445_Out of nowhere, my book Anime: A History is suddenly available as an eBook including here from Amazon UK, and here from Amazon US on the Kindle. I’ve been waiting for this for literally years, and I know I am not the only one.

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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.