Vocal Variants

To America, where a group of high-profile voice actors, many with a firm footprint in the anime world, have declared war on artificial intelligences. Or rather, artificial intelligence’s meat masters, noting that many actors performing “voice performance replication work are unaware of or do not fully understand their rights regarding employment contracts.”

Vocal Variants, a pressure group including Yuri Lowenthal, Stephanie Sheh and Matt Waterson, outlined a set of simple demands and stipulations. The group aims to inform companies and actors, chiefly to warn actors off inadvertently signing away all their rights to exclusivity in their own voices.

Any voice actor with a significant body of work inadvertently creates an audio bank of their voice. This is particularly true in the gaming world, where actors are often less reciting a script than delivering “barks” and soundbites. Sakura Wars even made a big deal out of its audio component, for which the Japanese voice actresses recorded themselves saying all 100 syllables in the language, thereby allowing the audio software to address the (Japanese) player by name, and, in theory, to say anything the computer wanted.

Give an AI enough material to play with, and it can generate dialogue as if the actor is saying it themselves. It was Steve Blum, the voice of Cowboy Bebop’s Spike Spiegel, who first poked his head above the Twitter parapet to ask who had the right to make him say things he never said. It started up a social media storm that led to the formation of Vocal Variants, and its statement that voice actors were entitled to safe storage of their voices, clear stipulation of what those voices might be used for, approval on the use of their voices to generate synthetic dialogue, and appropriate payment for use.

Stephanie Sheh noted on Twitter that although many of the AI apps agree to take down unsanctioned audio files, the actors are often obliged to police them themselves, and often don’t even know their voice has been uploaded unless they join each specific app service.

“As AI/Synthetic voice work now covers much uncharted territory,” says the Vocal Variants website, “it’s imperative that we collaborate to create and amend laws and contracts to protect both laymen and professional performers against deep fakes, improper use and exploitation of recorded performances.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article originally appeared in NEO #229, 2023. Since its publication, Vocal Variants has become a division of the National Association of Voice Actors.

Tales of the Ticktock Man

The distance from Puli to Hualien is 40 miles as the crow flies. You can drive it in just three hours, although, tellingly, today’s bus and train routes still take seven, edging all the way around the north of Taiwan, rather than making a beeline across the towering central mountains. But there was a time when it was a track unknown to all but a few aboriginal hunters, until one brave Japanese frontiersman, Katsusaburo Kondo, led a surveying party through the jungle.

That, at least, is what Kondo claimed, in a series of 1930s newspaper articles in which he chronicled his experiences among the tribesmen of the Taiwanese hinterland, a life-long association that led him to acquire the nickname “Kondo the Barbarian”. His memoirs have now been published by Camphor Press, a small publishing house that punches way above its weight in Taiwan Studies, responsible for much of the best and most original material in the field in recent years.

In October 1930 a group of Taiwanese Seediq tribesman infiltrated the sports day at a Japanese-run high school and massacred over 130 Japanese, as well as two Chinese observers who had fatefully decided to cosplay in kimono. The “Musha Incident” became a touchstone of Japanese-aboriginal relations, and would lead to a brief colonial war that claimed hundreds of Seediq lives. The Musha Incident was a shock to the Japanese system, but has also been framed as a form of indigenous apocalypse, as the last generation of Seediq warriors, deprived of their traditional manhood rituals, went hunting for their colonial oppressors in a last, desperate attempt to merit the killers’ tattoos that would entitle them to join their ancestors in the afterlife.

Suppressed for decades under the Kuomintang government, the story of Musha sprang back into life in the 1990s, as the Taiwanese media gained increasing interest in indigenous issues. It was adapted into a comic by a native artist, which itself became a major source for the film Seediq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow (2011, pictured), an epic action movie that reframed the story along the lines of Braveheart or the Native American “ghost dance” cult.

The Musha Incident, in fact, remains such a huge presence in reports of Taiwan under the Japanese that it still accounts for 10% of all the material published in Japanese relating to the fifty years of colonial rule. Paul Barclay’s new book digs down into one of the ur-texts that inform so many of these stories, the reminiscences of an unreliable narrator who tried to place himself at the centre of the story.

Katsusaburo Kondo is that most dangerous of conmen: an evocative and persuasive writer. He begins his story with the aftermath of the Musha school massacre, when he visits his estranged aboriginal stepdaughter, who confides to him the true reason for the war, before hanging herself in her prison cell. He then leaps back in time to tell the story of his relationship with Taiwan’s indigenous people, as an interpreter, explorer and trader.

In particular, Kondo is keen to insert himself into the narrative of the Fukahori Expedition, an ill-fated platoon murdered by head-hunters in the Taiwanese hinterland. He frames much of his subsequent adventures as a quest to avenge the lost soldiers, and to retrieve their bodies and possessions, finally striking it lucky when he stumbles across their skulls on display in a tribal longhouse. But as Barclay notes in his meticulous annotations, Kondo’s life-long claim that he, too, would have perished on the expedition were it not for a fortunate bout of malaria, was part of his ongoing attempt to appear far more involved than he really was.

The scene of the Musha massacre, 1930.

“Despite… many inconsistencies, falsehoods and implausible claims,” observes Barclay, “Kondo’s writings wedged their way into discourse, by hook or by crook.” However, they are also loaded with tantalising and convincing glimpses of aboriginal culture, including a chilling account of the “guardian of heads” (the crone priestess who welcomes a new skull to the tribal shrine), and a charming anecdote in which an indigenous girl confides to Kondo that her people are “afraid of the Japanese people who tick-tock.”

It takes Kondo a while to realise that she is frightened of his pocket watch, which makes him, too, seem like an otherworldly creature bearing haunted devices. This is catnip to the historian in search of local colour, but Barclay is on hand to warn that it seems suspiciously close to another story told by one of Kondo’s associates, and was quite possibly something that he ripped off. In another part of the tale, he recounts a horrifying attack by several tribal youths, who decide to lynch him for his skull. He fights them off, but is so grievously wounded that he writes his will… except he is “fully healed” within two weeks. Well, which is it?

And yet, and yet, there are moments in Kondo’s story, translated here in full, that are truly illustrative of the stand-off between the aborigines and the Japanese, such as the sight of tribesmen going cap-in-hand to the local police station to plead for meagre parcels of gunpowder and a couple of bullets, merely so they can continue their livelihoods. Kondo tells tales of the Seediq hardening the soles of their feet by walking on hot iron rods, and of the strict lumber merchants whose insistence on unmarred timber is the cause of much misery among tribal log-carriers. Finding a corpse on their mountain mission, he asks his tribal companions if they want to eat it, and they look at him in horror – cannibalism being taboo among them, despite claims to the contrary made by the foreign media. These observations are so mundane, so everyday that they have to be true. Right?

Taiwan as imagined in a 1930s Japanese tourist poster.

With Barclay as our guide, Kondo’s tall tales become an object lesson in text-critical analysis, as we get to grips with the lies he tells others, the lies he tells himself, and some of the truths that are still revealed. His account of his divorce from his common-law wife, in which he delivers a pig’s head and a keg of rice wine to her father, seems faithful to tribal traditions, although one wonders just how happy the former Mrs Kondo was with it – Kondo claims she waves him away with a laugh. Barclay even gently makes Kondo more relevant to modern historians, by redacting some of his hand-waving racist dismissals of everyone as “savages”, replacing his blanket descriptions with more exacting classification of tribes and sub-groups.

Sometimes, one thinks, the tribesmen have the last laugh. Kondo writes sneeringly of a moment on his expedition when he convinces his tribal companions that he has a magical amulet that will turn a single grain of rice into a full belly for each of them. “So simple-minded,” he scoffs when they appear to fall for it. And yet he also tuts in annoyance when they attempt to delay the mission by waiting for a new-born baby to grow up so that its mother is free to accompany them. Kondo decries this as a moment of savage sloth, but one wonders if the tribesmen weren’t concocting an excuse to delay the city boy’s dangerous mission for another season.

Resistance to the Japanese authorities was futile. Barclay has some winning data on the nature of colonial wars, pointing out that the Musha Incident was such an embarrassment to Tokyo that the soldiers who avenged it were handed the most desultory of medals and rewards. Even as the Hague Convention attempted to limit the savagery of modern warfare, colonial campaigns were somehow exempt, subjecting the Seediq to some of the very worst of modern weaponry, including aerial bombardment of their forest hideouts.

Kondo writes vividly of some of the attempts to get the aborigines to understand how pointless it was for them to fight back, with a tribal delegation brought to visit Japan itself to show them the power and might of the Land of the Rising Sun. Put aboard a train for the journey to Keelung, the Seediq scream in fear, protesting at the dizzying speed, pointing in terror at what appears to them to be “dancing trees” beside the tracks. It is a beautiful image, but Barclay points out that while Kondo’s early writings describe the aborigines as brave, hardy trackers and hunters, his later work transforms them into clueless, whiny man-children, reflecting Japan’s own drift towards imperial condescension. In Barclay’s hands, Kondo the Barbarian transforms from an account of the Taiwanese indigenous people to an even more revealing narrative about the Japanese who were writing about them.

Kondo the Barbarian: A Japanese Adventurer and Indigenous Taiwan’s Bloodiest Uprising is published by Camphor Press. Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China.

The Vagabond’s Waltz (1941)

Carefree Finnish nobleman Arnold (Tauno Palo) makes the mistake of beating a Russian prince at cards, and is challenged to a duel over the attentions of a lady. Fearing he is wanted for murder, he flees from St Petersburg back to his native land, switching clothes and identities on the train with a violinist. Hiding out among circus folk, he becomes the unwitting centre of a love triangle between an acrobat and a strongwoman, and has to flee once more, throwing in his lot with a band of gypsies who love his violin-playing.

He soon charms local lady of the manor, Helena (Ansa Ikonen), who is torn between the man she believes to be little more than a tramp, and local rich boy Eric (rent-a-cad Jorma Nortimo, sneaking back in front of the camera after many months directing behind it). Arnold plays up his vagabond status, wriggling out of an illegal fishing charge by pretending he can’t read the sign, and eventually accepting Helena’s charitable offer of a low-ranking job at her mansion in order to “better himself”. The two would-be lovers are surprised by the apparently justifiably jealous Eric, leading to a tense wedding in which Arnold and his gypsy band dominate proceedings. Arnold and Helena elope, only for him to drive her up to his own family mansion, and reveal that he has, somewhat cruelly, been lying to her all along.

All’s well that ends well, because he’s rich.

Leading man Palo is initially unrecognisable beneath a 19th-century moustache, in a film that comes loaded with baroque, imperial sets, hearkening back to the Bad Old Days when Finland was but a Grand Duchy within the Tsar’s Empire, and even posh Finns were little more than servants to the Russians. Much of the fun derives from the slurry of women that Arnold leaves spattered in his wake, including Athalia (Lida Salin), the incredibly enthusiastic circus strongwoman, and Cleo (Laila Jokimo), the lithe acrobat. Regina Linnanheimo in a black curly wig is uncharacteristically joyous and smouldering as “Rosinka the beautiful gypsy girl” for whose affections Arnold briefly wrestles, before being told something borderline racist about how “gypsies should keep to their own kind.”

Of course, he’s also “keeping to his own kind,” pursuing the usual wet-lipped and grasping Finnish film romance of a woman with pots of cash, although one imagines that the producers would plead that, at the time she elopes with him, Helena doesn’t believe he has two pennies to rub together. Ansa Ikonen’s face, in the final scene, is a picture of wounded pride, as she gets a happy ending, but only through a deception that has been perpetrated on her for the entire movie. She genuinely looks like she’s going to slap him, and then she actually does. Their romance is only saved at the last moment by Arnold’s fearsome mother (Elsa Rantalainen), who literally commands them to kiss – a dramatic device we have seen before in The Regiment’s Tribulation and Did Emma Laugh at the Sergeant.

The “Vagabond’s Waltz” was originally a Swedish tune written in 1909 by J. Alfred Tanner. It was the film director Toivo Särkkä who decided that such a well-known ditty deserved a film built around it, in a sort of precursor to modern juke-box musicals. He threw 50,000 marks at the writer Mika Waltari, whose summery script was then lensed in the dark and rainy days of a Finnish autumn, leaving the cast looking somewhat drab and bedraggled when they are supposed to be having fun.

Despite such tribulations, the film became one of the most popular ever at the Finnish box office, circulating in a dozen prints and making it as far afield as Bulgaria and Turkey. “One of the finest products of the Finnish film industry,” enthused the unimpressable Paula Talaskivi in the Ilta Sanomat. “A beautiful, glossy picture,” agreed Olavi Vesterdahl in Aamulehti. “The viewer is happy to forget all the impossibilities of the plot for a couple of hours and surrender to the flow of events when they happen quite effortlessly and in a brisk good-natured way.”

“The film is the Finnish counterpart to the melodrama Gone with the Wind,” wrote Antti Lindqvist in Katso magazine in 1990. “Both works nostalgically describe the idyll of a bygone era that never existed.”

The real stand-out star, however, is Regina Linnanheimo, usually a bored-seeming and often sulky blonde onscreen, suddenly transformed into a vivacious dancer with flashing eyes. Maybe it was the wig?

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland. He is watching all the Finnish films, so you don’t have to.

Hot Blobs

Zibo is famous for glass. It’s where they make the glass vases with paintings on the inside, and the ones with the different coloured coating that’s carved into the outside. The glass flowers that form vast corporate installations, and the horrible little paperweights and dust-collectors beloved of many a mad old lady.

Li Daxi loves glass. He loves its malleability and the speed with which he can put together a vase or a figurine. This wiry, friendly man shoves a metal pole into a furnace at 1400 degrees, withdrawing it with a hot blob at the end, and he sits at a chair made of scaffolding where he can roll the blog and pat it with a trowel, where he can blow into it and tap it.

“Today,” he says, “we’re going to make a fish.” He taps and rolls the first blob, and as it cools to 800 degrees, the white hot gunge congeals to a bright red. Belatedly, I see the signs that hang on each of the furnaces – “Tea”, “Red”, “White Jade.” The true colours only manifest as it cools, but while the red blob is still too hot to touch, he dunks it into another molten bucket marked as Transparent.

I roll the hot blob for him on the scaffold chair while he sets about the clear outer layer with tongs and clippers, teasing it into fins, shaping a fish’s head and poking two little eyes into it. It’s done in less than five minutes, and yours for thirty pounds. He lets me have a go and my first fish looks more like a dinosaur. The second is more like a teapot. The third is a fish.

Li Daxi is a certified master of glass, and he leads me around the gallery in the factory, in the company of four eager students. They have been scooped up from the local polytechnic, and arrived unaware that they were going to be on television. It’s only as we stand there waiting for a lens change that I decloak as a Chinese speaker, and they suddenly burst into animated conversation about what this show is, and why we’re here. Belatedly, they realise that Li Daxi’s comments on their hand-drawn designs, and my tin-eared questions about them, are going to be broadcast in 30 countries. Everybody is very excited, and intrigued by the process of television, and boggled to discover that their taxes are being funnelled by their local government into putting a film crew in their factory to make a five-minute advert for it.

“Your job is so hard,” says Li, whose arm I have just watched tan in front of me as he holds his pole in the furnace for slightly too long. “So much standing up, and repeating yourself, and running backwards and forwards.”

But his job is hard, too, as he attests, revealing that the youngest student he has is in his thirties.

What about those nice young men this morning, I ask.

“Oh, they were all designers. They come with ideas for vases and jugs, but they still expect someone else to make them. They come to me and I tell them the handle won’t support the weight, or that the whole thing will have to be exterior-cut or interior-painted, but they won’t do any of that themselves. Nobody wants this job. The heat is incredible, every day. We wear asbestos gloves, we’re throwing around molten glass…”

The day started at 0530. By sunset, we are filming the pick-ups of me arriving at the factory and doing a rushed piece to camera in front of a sunset that we are hoping will pass for a sunrise. Then it’s back indoors after the light fails, to film me and Mr Li looking around the gallery and talking about his favourite pieces. We wrap at 1830, then there’s just time for a rushed dinner before the four-hour drive to Qufu, the home of Confucius.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events appeared in Shandong: The Land of Confucius (2018).

The History of Modern Manga

“If you are a newbie to manga,” the authors write, “you can certainly find the perfect series to dive into.” And that’s certainly true – this is an excellent introduction to manga, especially for the curious teen.

Over at All the Anime, I review the new History of Modern Manga from Insight Editions.

Now in Turkish

I see that the cover is up for the Turkish translation of my Brief History of Japan, out this month from Kronik in Istanbul.

“Yazar Clements, Japonya’nın dünü, bugünü ve yarını arasındaki bağlantıyı zekice ve nüktedanlıkla kuruyor ve geniş ama detaylı bir anlatıyla bu paradokslar ülkesini gözler önüne seriyor.”

[“Author Clements cleverly and wittily connects Japan’s past, present, and future, revealing this land of paradoxes in a broad but detailed narrative.”]

Available to buy here.

Japanese Film and the Challenge of Video

“Toho Video Shop statistics might have been skewed by a tiny handful of early-adopting male customers, as if Hollywood film production were steered exclusively on the rental choices of Quentin Tarantino and Kim Newman, or as if me repeatedly typing ‘redhead discussing chess moves in her underwear’ into Netflix’s search function, every day for a year, was the sole cause of The Queen’s Gambit getting made.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Tom Mes’s informative and entertaining book on “V-Cinema”.

The Dean of Shandong

Canadian-born Daniel Bell was appointed as the dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University from 2017 to 2022, a period characterized by Xi Jinping’s austerity drives and the sudden global shutdown of COVID-19. Freed from academic bondage, he writes up his experiences in The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University.

Now, if you asked me to write up my China experiences (an approach twice made to me by British publishers), you’d get a series of angry rants and raves about supermarkets and tea houses, fake goods and racists, but as a political philosopher in the homeland of Confucius, Bell has many more productive things to say about China and the Chinese. He does, occasionally, fulminate about injustices, most notably the restrictions brought on academic banqueting by anti-corruption laws. But he also has much to say about the drift in China’s political economy from what he calls “Leninist Legalism” into a philosophy that derives much of its foundations from Confucius.

Bell dates the official “Confucianisation” of China to 2008, where the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics tried to present Confucius as the cuddly face of modern China, rather than Mao or Marx.

He sniffs out some truly quirky but illuminating areas of Chinese political life, starting with a chapter-long discourse on why Chinese men dye their hair. Bell tracks it all the way back to Spring and Autumn statements on rites and rituals, that suggest that black-haired men, young and vigorous, should run the state, while white hair is a sign that it’s time to put someone out to pasture. That might have played well in the Bronze Age, when life expectancies were so much lower, but today it means that the arrival of grey hairs sends Chinese politicians into a panic.

Speaking as someone whose hair went white while I was in China, this puts a huge number of things in perspective. For the first time in my life, after reading Bell, I seriously considered dyeing my hair, all the better to squeeze a few more years out of my career before I am deferently consigned to the lower table.

As a political philosopher with a deep sympathy for China, Bell has harsh words for the complacent West. He rails against “cuteness” in politics, arguing, much as once did Charlie Brooker with Cassandra-like powers of prophecy, that all those people who voted for Boris Johnson because of his apparent bumbling bonhomie were setting themselves up to be swindled. The culture of “cuteness,” he claims, has had “little social impact” in the world’s happiest countries like Denmark or Finland, only in places trying to hide systemic toxicity.

Bell concedes that the Chinese government apparatus might be a humourless monoculture of dark-suited robots, chosen in secret and unaccountable to the electorate, but he also leans into John Stuart Mill’s comment on “the tyrant of public opinion” – giving the people their say, no matter how ill-informed, is what gave us Brexit and Trump.

He is not an apologist for China, by any means. But he is someone who has tried to accommodate and engage with a one-party state with a very different set of cultural cues and traditions. With wry annoyance, he notes that the more experienced he became in Chinese matters, the less he was asked to comment on them by the Western media. He details his feud with the New York Times over editorial policy, and his banishment from The Guardian after daring to complain about an inflammatory headline added to one of his articles.

The result is a fascinating snapshot of the late 20-teens in Chinese bureaucracy, an era already fading into history, but as Bell argues persuasively, strongly rooted in paradigms that stretch back much, much further into the Chinese past.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University is available now from Princeton University Press.

Speaking in Subtitles

“She alludes to the unspoken shadow at the heart of modern anime translation, that whatever some companies may claim, English is still sometimes used as an unacknowledged ‘pivot’ between Japanese and the target language. I remember this vividly myself, not only because of my discovery that a script I’d translated for Plastic Little was being swiftly rendered into Dutch as part of a movie-business horse-trade, but that a well-known (and still operating subtitle company) once told me that their Japanese ‘translation’ service would require me to first provide them with a spotting list for a Japanese film in English. So, not translation at all, then.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Tessa Dwyer’s Speaking in Subtitles.

Eurovision Shouty I-Spy 2023

“Cha Cha-cha Cha-cha-cha-cha!” We’re back for the game of the year, the Eurovision Song Contest hosted this time by Britain, on account of Ukraine being all invaded and that. Enter our Blue Screen of Death sweepstake by predicting the hour when a vengeful Russian cyber-attack will crash the voting system.

We’ve already had to say goodbye to Ireland’s Cameltoe Elvis and a Maltese entry that began at a notional party attended by cardboard cut-outs of previous Maltese entries. And we’ve had to retire our “Slava Ukraini!” bonus round, because you’d shout yourself hoarse and/or drink yourself under the table by the end of the first song if you had to acknowledge every time a Ukrainian flag shows up.

The bookies are backing Sweden’s Loreen, but insiders suggest that the finale will be a Nord-off between Sweden and Finland. Look out, too, for the possibility of a few sympathy votes for Ukraine, even though they have sent a “My Lovely Horse” place-holder, which would mean that the real battle will be for second place.

Step One: you will probably need to be quite drunk. Step Two: The following sights and sounds will occur during this Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest. Can you spot them first? Remember to shout it out. As ever, there is more than one key change, and plenty of orbital cleavage. Keep your eyes (or ears) open for any of the following. And when you notice it, SHOUT IT OUT! Points can be scored all through the contest, on and off stage, including during the voting and in the greenroom.

In no particular order, in Saturday’s final you should be ready for:

  • KEY CHANGE! (every time you hear one)
  • Braid whips
  • Mullet dresses (short at the front, long at the back)
  • Accordion!
  • Glowing white hand.
  • It’s the Leninist Village People!
  • LYRICS: “WE ARE NOT YOUR DOLLS.” (every time)
  • Human centipede
  • Dances like a gibbon
  • PINK! Lots of people wearing it this year. Shout at them.
  • Foot licking (blink and you’ll miss it)
  • Doing the Splits
  • “Zut alors!” Brexitland presenter makes a colossal meal out of being able to speak French.
  • Human cat’s cradle
  • Self-playing piano
  • Onstage Missiles
  • LYRICS (all together now): “Poe Poe, Poe-Poe-Poe, Poe-Poe, Poe-Poe-Poe”
  • Someone wearing clothes made out of mosquito netting (several)
  • Swede in a Box
  • Finn in a Crate
  • Somersault
  • LYRICS: Every time someone says “ŠČ”.
  • Mohican!
  • Drummers drumming with their heads
  • Pointing
  • Pointy heads
  • Dwarf playing a recorder
  • Rammstein logo tattooed on someone’s chest
  • CLAWS!
  • Glowing aircraft traffic direction batons
  • FLAME ON! (every time there’s pyrotechnics)
  • Bimbling*
  • Buddha Jazz Hands***

Our optional bonus categories are:

COVID BINGO – which entry will be suddenly withdrawn from live competition owing to a plague scare?

HOLA OLA! Surprise sighting of former supervisor Jon-Ola Sand. Can he really stay away?

RUSSIAN FLAG: Will someone dare to wave one?

Greece awards 12 points to Cyprus / Former Yugoslavian Republic awards 12 points to Former Yugoslavian Republic.

(*swaying one’s head from side to side in a snakey fashion)
(**ostentatious cleavage sufficient to see from a satellite in orbit, which, according to Eurovision bra consultant Tom Clancy, requires a minimum of C-cup)

(***the dancers all pile behind the singer in a line and then fling their arms out, creating a multi-limbed oriental deity-look)

“Cha Cha-Cha Cha-Cha-Cha-Cha.”