Animated Encounters

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Daisy Yan Du’s new book about the inspiration and influences of Chinese animated films, which includes substantial detail on cross-pollination with Japan.

“Du’s concentration on Chinese animation in an international context is a rewarding account not only of films released, but of unexpected influences and projects that never happened. She regards the Wan brothers’ Princess Iron Fan (1943), for example, as’“far more influential in wartime Japan than in wartime China,’ but also reports that when Japanese animators came to Shanghai in 1988 looking for subcontractors on the Saiyuki TV anime, the Shanghai Animation Studio refused to work on it, because the Japanese version of the legend of the Monkey King deviated too far from acceptable norms.”

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Money for Nothing

Hayao Miyazaki’s fluffy forest spirit Totoro has been around in China for thirty years, sneaking in through Taiwanese or Hong Kong DVDs, or stowing away in kids’ luggage on return trips from Japan. But his first official cinema outing in the People’s Republic did not come about until December 2018, when he suddenly burst out on 3,000 screens.

Interpreting the numbers, Totoro had a fantastic opening weekend, making $12.9 million and beaten only by Aquaman. But by the end of its second week in Chinese cinemas, its takings had slumped 75%. I’m writing this article on New Year’s Eve 2018, as Totoro’s total Chinese box office takings edge over the $20 million mark.

You might not think that $20 million is a lot of money, especially considering that half of that money stays with the Chinese distributors and exhibitors, and fair old chunk probably went on marketing. But Studio Ghibli certainly hasn’t lost any money by belatedly releasing its much-loved classic in China. In fact, it’s easy to forget that Totoro only made $5 million on its original Japanese release, and that was on a double bill with Grave of the Fireflies. Thirty years on, this is money for nothing. The Chinese box office last month counts for 80% of Totoro’s global lifetime theatrical takings!

But as long-time readers will know, movie accounting is often not about those numbers at all. It’s about a bunch of other issues, including the fact that the Japanese 2012 Blu-ray of Totoro created an all-new, cleaned-up pin-sharp copy of the film, ready for duplicating on 3,000 hard-drives to open on 3,000 Chinese screens. It’s about the fact that, unlike creaky old TV shows or low-budget video fare, movies have a much longer shelf-life, and a period piece like Totoro, with a rural setting and a feel-good tone, seems tailor-made for the Chinese provinces.

Meanwhile, with the suspension of the One-Child Policy, there are suddenly twice as many Chinese children to form a market. Children’s entertainment, along with clothing and toys, is a surging new growth area in modern China. Even considering the vast piracy of Ghibli products over the last few years – and I have never seen a Chinese video pirate who isn’t selling Totoro, usually a knock-off of the Taiwanese dub – there’s a whole new generation of Chinese kids who have never seen it, who now get to see it in cinemas, ahead of a roll-out of other Ghibli products. And is someone eyeing up the blueprints for Japan’s new Ghibli theme park, and wondering if they could transplant something similar to Shanghai Disneyland…?

[Since this article was published, the Chinese box office takings for Totoro climbed to $25.75 million]

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #185, 2019.

Top Men

At the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones was assured that his priceless, powerful archaeological find was being looked after by ‘Top Men’. But as the credits began to roll, we saw it nailed into a crate, dumped in a giant warehouse full of similar boxes, forgotten and abandoned. The image was Lucas and Spielberg’s homage to Orson Welles, a little piece of Citizen Kane recycled for a modern audience. But in Japan, Hiroshi Takashige asked himself: what was in all those other crates? And more importantly, who were these Top Men?

In collusion with artist Ryoji Minagawa, he decided that they were a secret, self-sustaining unit within the Pentagon, tasked with nabbing any weird and wonderful artefacts that come to light, many of which had been left behind by an ancient, highly-advanced civilisation. They began work on the comic project that would become Spriggan, only to find themselves influenced by real-world events.

They were writing at the time of the First Gulf War; a very difficult prospect for the Japanese. A nation, supposedly sworn to avoid violence and military aggression, was forced to sit on the sidelines and watch while the rest of the world got involved in a conflict about resources in the Middle East, the cradle of civilisation, resources that Japan itself needed as desperately as everyone else. It resulted in such tales as the desert robot combat anime Gasaraki, and in an interest, partly fuelled by The X Files, in presenting the Pentagon as the bad guy.

There is more than one agency searching for these artefacts. The Pentagon competes with the KGB, and both are in opposition to ARCAM, a global corporation that wants the artefacts for itself. Its crack, super-powered agents are spies-cum-archaeologists named after ancient Celtic temple guardians, the Spriggan.

Minagawa and Takashige initially wanted to feature an adult agent, but ended up selling their concept to an anthology magazine aimed at boys. Consequently, they moved their original lead into the background, and concentrated on his teenage nephew, Yu Ominae.

Rights for a movie adaptation were soon sold, and Spriggan went into production as an anime. The film-makers plumped for a script that emphasised the Indiana Jones parallels, chasing after a different Ark (Noah’s, in this case) at Mount Ararat, with cyborg Pentagon agents roughing it up with the ARCAM Spriggans in an action-packed thriller.

As Ominae, producers cast Shotaro Morikubo, better known in Japan as the movie-dub voice of Johnny Depp. Originally intended to go straight to video, the budget received a massive injection of cash, sufficient for a movie, when Katsuhiro Otomo announced he would be ‘involved.’ Akira creator Otomo was supposed to be working on his own project, the long-delayed Steam Boy, but fancied Spriggan as a kind of busman’s holiday. In fact, he is rumoured to have been the director in all but name; his fingerprints are all over Spriggan, in the design of the space-faring Noah’s Ark that the agents unearth, in the blue-skinned Pentagon child-telepath General MacDougall, and in the large amount of night-time shooting – an expensive luxury in animation that relies so heavily on light coming through the cels, but one that Otomo often enjoyed for the artistic hell of it. The credited director, Hirotsugu Kawasaki, has not had another movie to his name since, only emphasising the impression that Otomo’s more nebulous title of ‘General Superviser’ may have been adopted for contractual reasons. But for those in the know, there was no mistaking who the Top Man on the Spriggan production really was.

This article first appeared in the Judge Dredd Megazine #236, 2005, and was subsequently reprinted in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. A new adaptation of Spriggan has just been announced, forthcoming from Netflix.

Law & Justice

In case you missed it up on the All the Anime blog, my review of the academic collection Law and Justice in Japanese Popular Culture: From Crime-Fighting Robots to Duelling Pocket Monsters.

Law and Justice in Japanese Popular Culture is packed with interesting concepts and articles. It will prove particularly useful as a wildcard for the savvy college tutor – something to throw into the reading list in order to engage with young students about the implications of Pokémon fights or the way that the best sci-fi anime can suggest new and prickly areas of legal dispute. It also offers valuable details on some of the peculiarities of the real-world Japanese legal system, as seen through the way they influence the plots of thrillers, and even the assumptions that fictional characters make about the nature of right and wrong.”

Gods of Egypt

There were times, at Akhnaten, when I wondered what everybody else in the audience made of a man in fake boobs and jodhpurs, repeatedly shouting “Haaaaa!” while a dozen jugglers threw balls around him, but hopefully they already knew enough of the story to follow what was going on. That strangest of incidents in the mists of history, an Egyptian pharoah suddenly proclaiming there was only one God, smashing the old order and writing a hymn to the Sun.

There were wonderful moments — the priests clad like doctors, huddled in the shadows around the mummified Amenhotep III as they prepare him for his funeral, lights shining from their heads; Queen Tye in permanent shock, her hands red with blood from holding Amenhotep’s heart, staring in mute horror at the sky as if hoping to catch a glimpse at his departing soul; the constant presence of the Scribe, creator and curator of what little we know, his body often held in a rictus of despair. And a libretto drawn, like Steve Reich’s Different Trains, from fragments of found material — the Hymn to the Aten and a letter from a troubled general, asking for military assistance, from which an entire reign has somehow been extrapolated.

My mind wandered, as I suspect it was supposed to, to other things. As I watched Akhnaten’s six daughters, their matted hair entangled like rat-tails, dragged away in slow motion, I wondered if Philip Glass would ever consider a sequel about Ankhesanamun, Akhnaten’s daughter, wife and daughter-in-law, married to the boy pharoah Tutankhamun, and author of the melancholy letter sent to the Hittites: “My husband is dead and I have no son…. I am afraid.” As Akhnaten and Nefertiti advance slowly across the stage towards each other to share a kiss, their long crimson silk trains entwine, recalling Chie Shinohara’s Red River, a story which does indeed include the story of Ankhesanamun’s letter arriving in Anatolia, and the failed mission to send her a prince as a husband.

The animal-headed gods on the rooftop transform into a class of idle students, misbehaving while a tweeded academic bumbles his way through a tourist guide to a desert ruin where there is almost nothing to see, and offers handy tips for the ferry. One student tries, and fails to juggle with balls of paper, a faint mockery of the constant juggling throughout that has been symbolic of the rise and fall of the sun disc. Akhnaten himself is redressed, as if for his coronation, but now he is a figure in a museum… and then he comes to life once more, wordlessly comiserating with the ghosts of Nefertiti and Tye at the ruin of their world, as a river of time washes past them.

Akhnaten is playing at the Coliseum in London until 7th March.