Animators Below the Line

ruyan wangshi coverThe presence of Chinese animators and colourists in the film industry has often been ignored or denied. In Ruyan Wangshi, which bears the English-language title The Stories of Animation Outsourcing in China (1989-2009), He Bing and He Feng document life below the line for the artisans and labourers who do the dogwork on overseas cartoons, at first in Shanghai, and then as the industry expands, in spin-off companies and daughter-branches in Suzhou and Guangzhou, Nanjing and Chengdu.

Toei Animation is first on the scene in the year of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, ordering seven thousand cels to be coloured in Shanghai in 1979. By 1985, it’s a company in Shenzhen, in the People’s Republic, that has animated the iconic logo used by the Hong Kong television channel TVB. The authors estimate that in the 1990s, out of a worldwide labour force of 50,000 animators, some 3000 dwelt in China – a proportion that has only increased in the 21st century as Chinese colleges pump out thousands of qualified personnel. By 1994, Disney reps are spotted in Suzhou looking for local talent, and before long, Chinese animators are toiling unnoticed on spin-offs from Pocahontas, Mulan and Hercules.

Many of the stories in the book echo similar tales of the Japanese industry. Art is never completed, only abandoned, and the Chinese struggle to find an equilibrium between the minimum amount of effort, which is a matter of economic sense, and the maximum, which is a matter of personal pride and artistic integrity. It is also theoretically infinite; there is always something that can be improved, a no-win situation that has driven many animators to exhaustion. There are mad dashes to get the artwork to the airport, and animation is described, in terms that echo those of Tadahito Mochinaga from the 1950s, as xinku de gongzuo – a bitterly hard job. The authors describe the Golden Age of Chinese outsourcing as the period from 1995-2005, bracketed by the boom in straight-to-video animation at one end, and, one supposes, the collapse of the anime bubble at the other. Less obvious at first glance is the impact of digitisation and the internet, which would allow Chinese art-college graduates, earning Chinese wages of £200 a month, and paying a Chinese cost of living, to essentially occupy a virtual office next door to their Japanese counterparts, who had to live in Tokyo, where £200 a month barely pays for parking.

Anime looms large in these memoirs, with references to work undertaken on Sakura Wars, Banner of the Stars, Lodoss War, Oh My Goddess, Madlax, Cowboy Bebop, Death Note and GTO, among others. Throughout the period, the Chinese animators dabble in making their own work, fumbling to make their own animated series based on famous proverbs, and holding out for a co-production deal.

Nothing makes the disruption between analogue and digital clearer than the book’s illustrations. A generous opening colour section offers a scrap book of images from the animators’ lives, but often contains frightfully dull pictures of people at forgotten banquets and grim group photocalls. Such images date from a time when cameras could only take 24 pictures, not the snap-happy 21st century where everybody documents their lunch. But the very mundanity of these images speaks volumes about conditions and attitudes in the industry, such as a shot of the anonymous, run-down block where a “studio” nestled above a print works, and a photograph of a visiting Japanese animator that simply credits him as “a visiting Japanese animator.” The clients, too, were often anonymous to their hirelings.

The Stories of Animation Outsourcing in China (1989-2009) is published as part of a series of books on animation by the Communication University of China Press. Several of its sister volumes cover well-worn topics like British or Japanese animation, but the titles relevant to China are far more ground-breaking, including a 336-page history of Chinese stop-motion animation that I hope to get around to reviewing sometime here, too. In the meantime, in attempting to delineate a history and a narrative of the uncelebrated low-echelon workers of the cartoon business, He and He have truly opened a new area in animation studies.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

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The Shoulders of Giants

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It has been a hundred years since humanity was first devastated by the Titans, hulking, occasionally skinless man-eating giants. What remains of the human race huddles behind a series of concentric walls under martial law, the best and brightest co-opted into one of several military organisations that use repurposed climbing equipment to scale the enemy attackers in search of their hard-to-find weak spot. Teenage brawler Eren Yaeger swears to avenge his mother’s death at the hands of the Titans, and joins up along with a group of his friends, only to discover that the mystery of the Titans’ appearance and motivations runs far deeper, and closer to home, than he previously imagined.

With more than 30 million copies in print worldwide, Attack on Titan is one of those manga that has truly escaped from the ghetto. Its US sales run rings around many supposedly popular superhero comics, and its fans are a rabid, visible costumed presence wherever geeks gather. Hajime Isayama’s original manga has been adapted into an animated series, novels and a computer game, which is pretty good going for something that looks on the surface like the fever-dream of someone off his face at a Bodyworks exhibit.

Attack on Titan has truly caught the zeitgeist both in Japan and abroad. Local audiences warmed to its allegorical Wall of Fear, as a symbol of the social and cultural barriers that often continue to shut Japan off from the troubles of the real world… at least temporarily. Similar symbolism can be found in recent anime like Summer Wars and Howl’s Moving Castle, both of which dealt obliquely with modern Japan’s reliance on the pursuance of faraway conflicts, and the revelation that terror could still hit close to home. Viewers in Hong Kong praised it as an inadvertent metaphor for the influence of the overbearing colossus of mainland China on their lives. Newspapers in South Korea touted the whole enterprise as a propaganda exercise in encouraging young Japanese to support military expansion. The story is so surreal that it lends itself to any number of political messages, not the least a winner with young teens who feel that the perils of the world are all coming to get them. It is a zombie apocalypse and a monster-of-the-week disaster movie all in one, leavened with a healthy scepticism about the lies that the authorities might tell to hang onto power. Plus big fights.

The Attack on Titan live-action movies are an intriguing confection. They seemingly went into production for the same reason as any other comics or media adaptation – out of a managerial confidence that high sales in one medium would translate into another. But the original choice as director, Tetsuya Nakashima, dropped out in 2012 over unspecified conflicts regarding the script. His replacement, Shinji Higuchi, must have looked like an all-round jackpot, not only for his track record in the liminal area of modern sci-fi and cross-media ties, but for his highly regarded work in tokusatsu movies – special effects epics about big monsters stomping on buildings.

Higuchi has always been very good at “quoting” elements of a much-loved original. Over-emoting is common in anime that lack the resources to convey visual expressions, but in the live-action Attack on Titan, the characters routinely strike ludicrous poses and spout gung-ho dialogue that seems, well, cartoony. Meanwhile, whereas the original is set in a European dreamtime, all the actors in the movies are understandably Asian, which makes a mockery of a particular subplot about the “last” Japanese girl in the world.

I was recently taken to task by a viewer at the Scotland Loves Anime film festival for not introducing the live-action movies with sufficient respect. Apparently it was my fault that the audience was laughing at the hokier moments and protesting at some of the switches in plot and character. Then again, another punter commented that the live-action movies were a fantastically enjoyable, funny parody of the anime, although nobody seemed to have told the cast and crew. So the live-action movies aren’t quite the re-up that fans were hoping for. They take themselves seriously in all the wrong ways, seemingly unaware that, ironically, it’s the earlier cartoon incarnation that really hits the right note.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #4, 2016.

Taxing Problems

maoyuThis month’s big news in the anime world is the sentence handed down by the Tokyo District court to Daisuke Umezu, better known to anime fans by his writing name Mamare Touno. The author of series such as Maoyu and Log Horizon, Umezu had been indicted for tax evasion, on the grounds that he neglected to declare royalties to the Japanese tax man of an extra 122 million yen (that’s £754,000). His company was fined an additional seven million (£43,000) and he will have to wear a three-year suspended sentence, conditional on him not re-offending.

Let me start by saying how pleased I am that there is an author on the planet who can actually find himself owing that much. JK Rowling and Dan Brown are outliers – the average professional writer in the UK still earns barely £12,000 a year. Umezu’s accounts make it very clear that, in Japan at least, there is a thriving market of readers and, presumably, intellectual property spin-offs that will reward someone who writes something that readers and producers love – long may it continue. As my accountant occasionally mumbles, if your worst problem is paying more tax, then you’re not doing badly. And notably it’s Umezu’s company that has been fined – corporate tax law is a whole other ball game, in which ignorance is no defence. If you are running a company, you can’t just shrug and say you didn’t read the small print in the rules; you are expected to know what the rules are.

Umezu has been under house arrest for four months, so one might consider this time served. But lock the average writer in his home for 16 weeks, and he is liable to write another novel, so that’s Umezu already well on his way to paying his next tax bill. It paints a very different picture of the Japanese media than the one implied in a recent Tokyo government boondoggle, which offers a 300,000 yen grant (£1800) for anyone willing to make a ten-minute pilot for a new anime. That’s peanuts, not just to an author like Umezu, but to any anime company, which would be sure to spend ten times that money on such a venture. Your correspondent can’t see the point in it – it seems like a half-hearted measure to kick-start new productions, when as the success of Umezu’s enterprises seems to suggest, there are already plenty of stories out there that real people are already prepared to pay real money for. Long may that continue, too.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #151, 2016.

Frost on Top of Snow

ruffle 1In A Decent Bottle of Wine in China, author Chris Ruffle recounts his foolhardy efforts to set up a vineyard and build a replica Scottish castle in Shandong. This is not as crazy as it might sound, since Shandong was arguably the home of the modern Chinese booze industry – a former German colony that saw the first lines of grapes planted to make the usual acrid Riesling, as well as the site of the Tsingtao brewery. Ruffle decides to get in on the game, naming his company Treaty Port Wines with a certain degree of tactless cheek. His is by no means the first book to grapple with doing business in China – Tim Clissold has twice sobbed into his typewriter on such matters, and then there’s Paul Midler’s horrifying Poorly Made in China, for starters – but the wine trade brings with it unique issues of classification, husbandry and supply, not the least the government’s insistence that it is not “farming”, but “industry”.

Ruffle is no bumbling idiot or starry-eyed dreamer. He has already successfully restored a real Scottish castle, inadvertently becoming a baron along the way, so has a head start on sourcing architects and materials. He is a master strategist, thinking ahead not only about access roads and transport links, but also about the nature of his customers – the castle is there as a branding exercise, and because he knows the biggest chance of the Chinese spending big money is if they are in a wedding party, and he’s as interested in providing the view, the food and the roof over their heads.

Ruffle is a true money man – an investment capitalist with an eye for the bottom line and a smart drive to understand where his customers’ money is going. This being China, the usual troubles of any new business are compounded by additional hassles, which create, as the Chinese say, “frost on top of snow.” Ruffle’s agonies include inclement weather, corrupt officials and workshy staff. Although he sometimes leaves his tormenters anonymous, there are occasions where he bluntly names the names behind incompetences and betrayals. This, of course, only makes the book more fun, particularly when he reveals the blatant grade-inflation of the Shandong authorities, who talk up his investment almost tenfold in their official reports. As Ruffle observes, it’s this disruption between industry on the ground and officialdom’s appraisal of it that makes investment in China such a volatile enterprise. He captures this reality gap with his account of landing in a private jet at Shanghai airport – oh, it’s ever so swish, except one’s plane has been parked so far from the terminal that getting there requires a 30-minute ride across the tarmac in a ramshackle minibus.

Ruffle tries to do right by the local farmers, only to discover that they have been offered the merest fraction of the sum he handed over to the authorities to buy up their land. Some play the system by planting apple trees on their plots. These three-inch saplings transform their cabbage plots overnight into “orchards” and thereby increase their resale value. On several occasions, Ruffle loans money to grasping employees who then skip town, and he is even scammed by men who pretend to be buying an entire truckload of wine for the People’s Liberation Army, merely to get a free meal out of him.

Although Ruffle presents himself as a gruff and exasperated Yorkshireman shouting at yokels in flipflops, he has a degree in Chinese from Oxford. They don’t just hand those out with packets of cornflakes, putting him further ahead of the competition when it comes to getting things done. But as numerous slamming doors and maddened resignations imply, Ruffle’s plan is regarded by many of his underlings and professional advisers (and occasionally by Mrs Ruffle) as a quixotic money pit.

Despite such misgivings, he is an admirable salesman for capitalism. As he makes clear, but could have perhaps even made clearer, his nutty scheme for putting a Scottish castle in eastern China not only creates a slew of jobs for the population, but encourages the government to improve local amenities. His frankly blind faith in the quality of the soil lures the Lafite corporation to set up its own vineyard next door, and several of his disgruntled ex-employees are not quite so disgruntled that they don’t attempt to ape his project with vineyards of their own. Graciously, Ruffle does not regard them as competition, understanding that a cluster of rival vineyards is more likely to attract longer-term tourism. This, of course, brings problems of its own, such as the threat that some latecomer with no taste will ruin the valley by putting up a shopping mall on the next ridge. But it also brings economies of scale, with the rival vintners lending each other plant and machinery to get the best out of their crops.

Ruffle’s tenses waver from past to present, betraying the book’s origin as an occasional diary – halfway through, we see him having the idea to repurpose it as a book to promote his vineyard, which is honest at least. But like many novice authors, Ruffle has not quite worked out who his readership is. There are several chapters seemingly missing, sometimes out of modesty, sometimes out of discretion, sometimes out of lack of editorial foresight. It’s unclear at the start if Ruffle even knows anything about wine – it’s not until the closing chapters that he describes the industrial process in any detail, and only then reveals his numerous research trips to more established vineyards. Some chapters read like a business report; others like a sump of documents; still others like a Christmas round-robin, name-dropping a bunch of people that the reader stands no chance of knowing. There are odd cul de sacs, such as the full text of a visiting intern’s testimony, along with the suggestion that all was not as reported, but no further details.

As Ruffle notes himself, all land in China is owned by the state, “so what you are buying is only the right to use the land for a specific period of time: residential land for seventy years, industrial for fifty years and agricultural thirty years. No one knows what will happen at the end of the specified periods, but if there is not some ability to roll-over ownership, I guess there will be another revolution.” I was ready to pick up a banner and a brick myself by the end, when he finally glimpses success, only to be kneecapped by the very same institutions he has been struggling against.

In 2013, new government austerity initiatives deliver a savage blow to the gift-giving and booze-drinking market that Ruffle hopes to supply. Meanwhile, the authorities who have thus far only seemed to express an interest in back-slapping and glad-handing, suddenly come up with a bunch of tagalong schemes that seem destined to ruin Ruffle’s venture even as they profess to help it. There is a half-hearted effort to build a Taoist temple nearby, which gets its own eyesore access road, even though it is never finished. Ruffle’s efforts for the valley are eventually rewarded with the news that the government plans to drive a motorway right through the middle of it, compulsorily purchasing back large tracts of the vineyards, and sullying the carefully managed view.

Ever the disarming Oxbridge charmer, Ruffle does not let his anger show, although his quoting of a Czech proverb makes his feelings plain. “In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.”

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

Prime Directive

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Starting with this season’s Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, new shows from the highly-regarded Noitamina late-night slot on Japanese television will only be streamed abroad on Amazon Prime. Some fans are angry because that closes the window that previously might have allowed them to see it for free from another supplier.

But it doesn’t seem to bother the UK’s anime companies. “Streaming from another large platform can only be a positive thing,” comments Andrew Partridge of Anime Limited. “I heard naysayers flapping when Netflix came along, too. The truth of the matter is that the Amazons and Netflixes of this world are the terrestrial TV we never really had.”

In the years before NEO, anime TV shows weren’t on TV in the UK. Japanese cartoons were written off as glorified toy commercials or unsuitably violent, and fans sourced them from the video trade instead. In the last decade, anime has undergone a quiet revolution in streaming and simulcasts, but I don’t think fandom likes to feel that it’s being “handled”, even though enclosing intellectual properties is the way that any broadcaster builds its brand. SKY TV initially sold itself as the place where you could watch The Simpsons. Sporting channels snatch exclusive access to Your Team versus Their Team. If you gave me the mission of seizing the high ground in anime, Noitamina would be the first thing I went for, because it’s come to be associated with quality. If you were previously the sole gatekeeper to Noitamina, you would have had Erased, Psycho Pass, and Terror in Resonance, Nodame Cantabile and Eden of the East. But so what? You still wouldn’t have had Attack on Titan or Ghost in the Shell.

Fans love the idea of getting their own, tailor-made anime-streaming “channel”. But they hate it when they discover it Doesn’t Have All The Things. So it’s not just one monthly payment, it’s two, it’s three… When Battery starts running in July, you won’t be able to preview it for free on Crunchyroll. But if you really want to see it, it will still be right there, if you pay the annual fee, on Amazon Prime. That’s what’s making a lot of fans twitch. When Funimation or Viewster subscriptions cost no more than a once-monthly Happy Meal, they feel negligible. But Prime’s £79 a year doesn’t feel like £7 a month, even though it is. Or another £5.99 a month for Prime Video, if you prefer.

Of course, down the line, these shows will continue to come out on disc anyway. Which is where the real cleverness lies, because if you’ve already paid for Amazon Prime, it’s pretty obvious where you’re going to buy your Blu-ray. They’ll get to take your money twice.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #150, 2016.