Chinese Antiquities

lovejoyAs an antique-dealer’s son, I have long been used to the world where loveable rogues wheel and deal over flintlock pistols and meerschaum pipes, and occasionally solve crimes and/or bed baronesses. Everything you see in Lovejoy is true; just ask my Dad, but stand well back when you do. My Dad, meanwhile, as the father of an oriental linguist, has gained a new-found second-hand ability to make sense of Chinese in later life, and whenever I drop by his stall at Portobello Road, I am beset with exhortations to date Kangxi pottery or read the inscriptions on opium scales.

Audrey Wang takes such larks to new levels in Chinese Antiquities: An Introduction to the Art Market, published by Lund Humphries in association with Sotheby’s, in which she outlines the state, scandals and securities of the modern trade in Chinese artifacts. The assistant director of Sotheby’s course on the Art Business, Wang is predictably good on the antiques market as a form of bank, where investors seek to stash their money by crystallising it in bronzes and watercolours. Although, of course, the value of investments can go up as well as down, as the British Rail pension fund discovered when it backed Ming vases just before their value slumped.

She has lots to say about the spats in the art world over the right of modern owners to sell pieces pilfered from China. There is some space, for example, devoted to the infamous 12 bronze animal heads from a baroque fountain at the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanmingyuan), which are about as “Chinese” as Beyoncé, and were in fact once ordered removed by a Manchu princess who thought that they were ghastly. It is, Wang notes, ironic that pieces so untypical of Chinese culture should have come to become so symbolic of it. As noted elsewhere, not the least in a knockabout action movie starring Jackie Chan, the loss and recovery of these bronzes has become emblematic of China’s “Century of Humiliation,” and its long marathon back to international primacy.

I’ve long been aware of the army of Chinese agents who scour the world in search of antiquities to repatriate. But as an auction-house insider, Wang has a particular antipathy for the rarely mentioned gazumpers, who place winning bids on big-name artefacts, and then refuse to pay out of some sense of national revenge. Such actions consign antiquities to an unsold limbo, with auction houses pursuing their seller’s fee on a sum now redefined as £0, and sellers unable to off-load their property because its ownership is now a multi-faceted legal tangle.

Wang is not afraid to point out the elephant in the room, which is that some of the most prolific thieves and fences of Chinese antiques have always been other Chinese people. She observes, for example, that in 1913 “the imperial family offered to sell the imperial collection in its entirety to the American industrialist JP Morgan for $4 million,” but the trade was halted by his death. Had it gone through, presumably the Forbidden City would have been left entirely empty, and would have been turned into a Mao-era car park. In 1924, after the imperial family was pushed out of the Forbidden City, a suspicious number of antique dealerships opened up in Qianmen, “flooding the market with imperial artworks that had been secretly appropriated over the years.” There is, in fact, an entire 1926 volume, used as a sort of I-Spy book by Chinese collectors, called The Catalogue of Books, Calligraphy, and Paintings Lost from the Palace Collection, which continues to remind us how much has been removed. One of my favourite books of recent years, Who Collects the Yuanmingyuan?, attempts in a beautifully post-modern way to reassemble the Garden of Perfect Brightness by tracking down its extant fragments, built into other buildings, adorning swimming pools in Los Angeles, or gracing a French hotel lobby. Wang’s book deals with such issues deftly and dispassionately, while opening a window on the hard-nosed business world where ancient bronzes are used as storage devices for modern capital.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern China: All That Matters.

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China Goes Global

51KIiTJn-HL._SX328_BO1204203200_Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Michael Curtin’s Playing to the World’s Biggest Audience, which is possibly the best book I have read on the Chinese film market.

“As Dan Harmon once said of Hollywood, if the food industry offered the same quality standards as movies, every third can of tuna would have a human finger in it.”

Crimson and the Reds

crimson peak

To China, where there are conniptions among Gothic-loving expats about the unavailability of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak in local cinemas. Initial coverage carped that the Chinese censor was “afraid of ghosts,” which are classified as an unwelcome superstition in the People’s Republic. In fact, the ban hammer was more likely to have come down because of the depiction of a particular relationship in the film [spoilers avoided], as well as the fact that it is scary. The Chinese censor is afraid of fear, for the simple reason that, under the yes/no Chinese classification system, films are either fine for all the family or for nobody at all.

Some of you may be wondering why this column so often drifts off into Chinese topics, when it is supposed to be about Japan. But China is becoming the prime mover of the contemporary film industry. It recently overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest movie market, and could be the biggest by 2018. There are a boggling ten new screens being added to the Chinese market every day. Craig Mazin, on the Scriptnotes podcast called this “the most profound change that has happened to the movie business since the creation of the movie business.” Chinese money is flooding into film production, and Chinese audiences can make or break a movie even if it flops in America.

220px-AoE_shuhua_milkThis in turn has led to the phenomenon of hyper-localisation, as supposedly “Hollywood” movies pander to unseen Chinese audiences. Iron Man gets a leg-up from some Chinese guy; the Transformers keep pushing a brand of Mongolian milk; Matt Damon doesn’t get off Mars without the Chinese lending a hand. And have you noticed there aren’t any Chinese baddies anymore?

Pickings have been historically low in the Chinese market. It is only recently that foreign rights holders have been able to cream 25% from their ticket sales, as opposed to the previous, paltry 13%, but 25% of the price on the door, for a film that can be digitally squirted at a million screens in a single day, is real money. Meanwhile, Japanese films, including anime, currently have to scramble against all other foreign films for one of the 34 slots available annually (14 of which have to be IMAX/3D). That was easy in the Miyazaki days, when any Ghibli got an instant thumbs-up. It’s substantially harder when most other Japanese “family” cartoons are hard-wired into a decade-long franchise, and Japan gets such bad press in China. Those China slots are the most valuable real estate in modern movies, and tits and tentacles won’t get a look-in. Does Japan have what it takes to elbow its way in, or is the Chinese market increasingly closed to it?

[Time Travel Footnote: After I filed this article, Julie Makinen of the LA Times published a piece about the Chinese market, revealing that 24 extra films had sneaked in as flat-fee exhibitions, which returned no profit to the owners beyond the original payment. The anime Doraemon was one of them].

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 146, 2016.

Variety is the Spice…

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I’m taking the chance to publish the unexpurgated version of Mark Schilling’s interview with me for his piece last week in Variety. My comments were, naturally, reduced to a couple of soundbites, but I think some interesting things came up. Sometimes my brain doesn’t grind into action until it’s asked the right question, and some of my ideas here were straight off the cuff. The question was that old favourite, the “new Miyazaki” in the light of Michael Dudok de Wit’s forthcoming Red Turtle and Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name but as ever, I preferred to think of it not in terms of the creative abilities of modern animators, but of the ways in which the industry can find an equivalent revenue stream for the biggest money-spinner of the last generation.

Mark Schilling: In your view, has the torch truly been passed?

Jonathan Clements: No. There is no torch, at least not in the way that the public expects. Hayao Miyazaki wasn’t just a one-off, he was part of a trio. You can’t have the Miyazaki phenomenon without Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki as well. All three of them are retiring. Suzuki spent ten years not just looking for someone to take the torch, but examining the torch itself, trying to work out what parts of it could be replicated by other means. He concluded that there was no torch but the legacy of Ghibli itself, and that’s why the Ghibli Museum is so crucial to understanding the studio’s late period.

tale-of-princess-kaguya

Do you view Shinkai, de Wit and others as “Miyazaki heirs”?

Studio Ghibli spent a decade looking for some way of continuing Miyazaki’s momentum. Takahata couldn’t get the same numbers, although Suzuki did hope to hide that by releasing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya on the same bill as The Wind Rises. When Kaguya was delayed, its box office numbers made it very clear that Takahata didn’t have the following that Miyazaki had. None of the non-Hayao Miyazaki films from Ghibli have done Hayao Miyazaki numbers.

Toshio Suzuki tried everything in the noughties. He tried to lure big-name directors into Ghibli, but they didn’t gel with the studio. He tried to train up new apprentices, some of whom have gone on to make names for themselves elsewhere. But he couldn’t find a proper replacement for Miyazaki.

So Suzuki engineered Goro Miyazaki’s controversial directorial debut, and invited audiences to come and see the car-crash. That lured Miyazaki himself back for Ponyo. That’s where they started the “We Made This” alphabetical credit listings, which conveniently obscured the fact that Miyazaki didn’t actually direct Arrietty! He engineered the father-son team-up on Poppy Hill, and got audiences to see that. Then he lured Miyazaki back for absolutely anything he wanted, no matter how controversial, so he could go out with The Wind Rises. He’s played Miyazaki (and the public) like a fiddle! He’s managed to stretch the heritage of Ghibli since 2006 with only two genuine Hayao Miyazaki movies. But after The Wind Rises, it really is over. Ghibli has to admit it’s got no more features in it that are going to trounce the next five rivals at the Japanese box office. It’s a brutal, accountants’ decision, but it’s based on firm evidence from the last decade that not even the Ghibli name on a film will guarantee that it will match the success of a Hayao Miyazaki film.

Laputa_Robot_on_Roof_of_Museum_-_CopyBut that’s not good enough for distributors, and it’s not good enough for exhibitors. Cinemas are fixed sites, they need more product. July is going to happen whether or not the film studios have something suitable for a vacation tent-pole movie.

The Ghibli Museum turns over US$7.5 million a year, just on admissions. Throw in the restaurant and the gift shop, and the museum is making its owners a modest movie’s worth of revenue every year, just by managing Ghibli’s own legacy. It doesn’t need to make any more films – in fact, doing so would risk compromising the brand. It just needs to keep the conversation going. It needs people like us talking about it like it’s still there, so people remember they want to take their kids to see the giant fluffy Catbus.

So what does it mean when they say The Red Turtle is a coproduction? Is Ghibli just putting its name on it, like it did with the Japanese releases of Aardman films? I’m guessing that Ghibli is slightly more involved in investment than that, but not in actual animation. The Red Turtle will be imitation Ghibli, ‘inspired by Ghibli’, and it’s an experiment to see if a Ghibli imprimatur is enough to get a movie a healthy box office return; and if it doesn’t work, they’ve got plausible deniability to edge it out of the studio history. It’ll be a tenth of Miyazaki numbers, but it’ll keep that conversation going for another year. There will be a Red Turtle exhibition at the Ghibli Museum. Ghibli will keep trending. This is legacy management with very modest expectations. Everybody will be pleasantly surprised if The Red Turtle is a box office smash, but I don’t think anyone is expecting it.

This isn’t new. We’ve seen a lot of this lately, where studios will rent out their IP to someone else and take 5% off the top. A Nigerian Astro Boy? An Indian Star of the Giants? A Wachowski Speed Racer? Ghibli has shut down its feature production arm, but what the hell, if someone else wants to take the risk, Ghibli will put in 5% of the effort for 5% of the returns. This is anime Moneyball.

kimi

Is there a “Miyazaki tradition” being passed on, even though Ghibli is not making features with its own directors?

That’s the conversation Ghibli wants us to keep having. Come and see this movie, to see if the director is The One! Will he save us? Is he the anime messiah? Or are we stuck hereafter with otaku-bait that can’t fill a single cinema for more than a couple of weeks?

That’s why Toei’s risk with Shinkai is so interesting. Shinkai has no trouble pulling in audiences on the small circuit. A Shinkai movie is usually a much more bespoke event. He makes a lot of personal appearances when his films go on tour, so it’s not just a trip to the cinema, it’s a trip to the cinema to see the director and get him to sign the DVD.

“Events” are a small but growing part of the Japanese cinema model, because if you have a small otaku audience, then you want to make sure they spend triple the usual money on a trip to the cinema. It’s not just about popcorn, it’s about T-shirts and phone cases, and often the limited edition Blu-ray. You limit and target the availability of the merchandise, and you make sure that you provide an experience which can’t be pirated. People are ripping off the software all the time, but Shinkai’s not going to sign a pirate copy, not of his movie nor the novel spin-off. He’s not going to shake your hand while you’re downloading the torrent.

“Events” at the moment are worth less than 5% of Toei’s revenue, but that’s a huge increase on just five years ago. It’s taking Japanese cinema back a hundred years to the days of the benshi and a cinema experience as a form of live vaudeville. But Kimi no Na Wa is different because it’s being touted, as you say, as a summer tent-pole movie. Shinkai can’t go to every screening; they can’t spread him that thinly. They’ll do some glad-handing for the hard-core fans at the premiere events, and hope that there’s enough momentum to keep it going with the general public. Watch the marketing on Kimi no Na wa, because I bet Toei goes all-out on interactivity. I bet they steal an idea from Mai Mai Miracle and try to engage the consumers with lobby exhibits. I bet they come up with a hashtag on social media and try and drag everybody into it. They are going to have to do this, because most of the users are going to have to bring their own event.

Look at the title, for God’s sake! They’ve called it Kimi no Na wa because I bet you half the general public will think it’s a remake. There was a radio series of the same name in the 1950s, adapted for TV in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s. Half the eyeballs for this movie’s advertising will only look because they think it’s something else. Much of the social media trending for this film will be people telling their confused friends that it’s not what they think it is. That’s some smart mockbuster marketing to get their attention. Then the pressure’s on Shinkai to keep it.

doraemon

Or is the Miyazaki legacy (including his box office supremacy) in danger from not only Hollywood hits like Frozen, but also domestic trends?

I think everyone would love it if there were a domestic trend that could compete with Miyazaki’s numbers. I don’t think there is. Everyone has to dial down their expectations to a level where domestic anime earn the kind of money they did in the 1980s, not the 2000s (or rather, the kind of money that people have earned all the way through if they are not Hayao Miyazaki). That’s the problem with movie punditry. Everybody wants to talk about the outliers. The successes are outliers! Miyazaki was an outlier. The general trend is much more modest in terms of returns, and Miyazaki’s success has hidden that for a generation.

Frozen is a red herring – Disney cartoons have always outperformed domestic product at the Japanese box office, with the exception of Miyazaki movies. A much more long-term issue is CG, because the stats for CG make it abundantly obvious that Japanese movies are getting their ass kicked by computer animation. Japanese movies are still struggling to compete with CG, because even when they get a hit like Stand By Me Doraemon, it’s not exportable like a Miyazaki movie. Nobody wants it abroad because nobody knows what Doraemon is; part of the film’s domestic success was because of the blue-chip marketability of the Doraemon brand, which still doesn’t travel far outside Japan.

Of course, it does export to China, but what happened there? Stand By Me Doraemon wasn’t in the 34 movie quota for foreign movies in Chinese cinemas. The Japanese had to sell it for a lump-sum and take no further profits. That’s not growing a business, that’s treading water and hoping that something will happen.

China’s the elephant in the room in all of this, because it’s the largest possible new market for Japanese animation, but Japanese animation is made to feel very unwelcome in formal distribution channels. It’s censored, it’s banned, it’s shut out of theatre exhibition. There are only two brands that get any love in China: Studio Ghibli and Makoto Shinkai…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Faking It

mcm imageCosplay was not the centre of attention for once at the recent MCM Expo in London, when the copyright licensors of Tokyo Ghoul and Attack on Titan toured the dealers’ room in a carnival of garbage collection, rooting out and confiscating an estimated £20,000 worth of unlicensed merchandise. The unexpected entourage included reps from a Japanese company, the UK’s Anime Limited, a lawyer with a Powers of Attorney notice, and a trio of minions to cart away the swag. By the time the sweep was over, several dealers were shown the door with the full approval of MCM’s management, and the enforcers actually ran out of bin bags, leading to the delicious irony of a bootleg Tokyo Ghoul carry-all being commandeered to lug illegal Tokyo Ghoul merchandise

Gone are the days when some guy from Hong Kong could set up stall in a Birmingham hotel and flog a few lopsided Totoro knock-offs to fans on their way to the masquerade. In the last decade, industry and fandom have increasingly met each other halfway; MCM has become a prime retail location for copyright holders to sell direct to their punters, and to demand the right to do so without facing illegal competition. Meanwhile, such massive consumer events rely upon the continued cooperation of the anime business for guests, exclusives and the purchase of retail space. If you’re looking for pirate goods, MCM is definitely and officially the wrong place

“The first time we found someone [selling such items],” said Anime Limited’s Andrew Partridge, “I wondered if they knew what they were doing. By the time we took action I was sure of why and realised how much they made off selling products that hadn’t even been on the same island as the original creators, ever!” Notably, however, the legal powers invoked in this case only applies to two licences. There is plenty of scope for future clampdowns, although hopefully the dealers have already got the message

An assistant from one of the knock-off dealers, who asked not to be named, said that he appreciated the issues involved, although he considered the public shame of bin-bagging in full view to have been “a bit heavy-handed.” He noted that an equally pressing issue at some events has often been the unlicensed use of fan art on some dealers’ merchandise, and he hoped that the authorities would soon be policing that, too. But where will the small-time fan artists get their legal muscle….?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #145, 2015.

Manga in America

50375324Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Casey Brienza’s Manga in America, a detailed and beautifully researched account of the last decade of Japanese comics in translation.

“Brienza acknowledges the awful poison at the heart of the American manga industry, which is that it was colonised some 15 years ago by snake-oil salesmen and carpet-baggers determined to slap the word manga on anything that they did, out of a cynical desire to clamber aboard a bandwagon that promised, at the time, ‘double-digit growth.’ As I have pointed out on many previous occasions, this didn’t just confuse everybody as to what manga actually was, but also corrupted much of the available data. A manga is a Japanese comic, anybody who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.”