Monster Hunt

Up on the All the Anime blog I chronicle the weird background of Raman Hui’s Monster Hunt, which briefly became the biggest-ever film at the Chinese box office. “Critics are at a loss to explain why this particular film should have been the one to recapture the flag of Chinese distribution. A cynic might point out that by the time it was released, it was literally too big to fail, having notched up an additional US$70 million in extra costs after its original leading man, Kai Ko, was arrested in Beijing for smoking marijuana. Determined not to risk a China-wide release with a court case hanging over their hero, producers authorised the parachuting of Jing Boran into the lead role, requiring all his scenes to be reshot, along with a quarter of all the effects sequences. Effectively, the film went to market having cost double its original budget – you bet the owners were keen to keep it running longer than its rivals.”

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Chinese Animation… Again

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Wu Weihua’s new book on Chinese animation.

“Wu dedicates an entire chapter to the cultural impact of imported animation, beginning with the relatively obscure anime feature Taro the Dragon Boy in 1979, and followed swiftly by Astro Boy on television in 1982 (I presume that this was the 1980 colour remake, not Tezuka’s 1963 original), and a flood of both Japanese and American cartoons. Astro Boy, in particular, rode the spirit of the times, encapsulating the pro-science message of the Deng Xiaoping era, when Chinese science fiction experienced a brief boom in futurist speculation. Again, to split hairs from an industrial perspective, I would point out that from 1979 onwards, many of the “foreign” cartoons coming into China were also partly made there, although as before, this does not necessarily detract from the critical arguments that Wu is repeating.

“Foreign rivals were in it to win it. Wu recounts the arrival of Hasbro in the early 1980s, which baffled the Chinese by handing the complete run of its Transformers cartoon series to broadcasters in Beijing and Shanghai. At first, it seemed insane, simply dumping a cartoon for free… until the toy stores started to fill up with robots. The pay-off from that era is highly visible today, not only in the blockbuster Chinese success of the Transformers movie franchise, but in Decepticon decals on half the boy-racer cars I see in Chinese cities.”

Big Fish and Begonia

Over at the All the Anime blog, I write up the Chinese animated film Big Fish and Begonia.

“There are a lot of fishy comments in Zhuangzi – water and the creatures that live in it serve multiple purposes, as allegories for the workings of government, and for the place of living creatures in a grander universe. Some quotes are purported to be the work of Confucius, including the one that might serve as a nihilistic tagline for the film: ‘Fish live in water, but men die in it.'”

Shared Sociality

The 1919 Paris Peace Conference legendarily redrew the map of Europe, but had implications all over the world, as one might expect for the negotiations that closed a “World” War. Urs Matthias Zachmann adds to the growing literature on its impact in the East by editing the nine-chapter collection Asia After Versailles: Asian Perspectives on the Paris Peace Conference and the Interwar Order, 1919-33, out now from Edinburgh University Press.

Ably setting the scene, Mark Metzler’s “Correlation of Crises” examines the Great War as an economic explosion – a massive boom and sudden bust that saw crop substitutions, mass labour hirings and firings, and disruptions both good and bad. To cite one example, from Carol Benedict’s Golden Silk Smoke, the sudden squeeze on the growing and transportation of tobacco opened a sudden new market in southwest China, growing the drug for export to Europe. Tommy’s fags on the frontline created a sudden swell in wealth among Fujian farmers, and a similarly precipitous drop in their good fortune when the demand fell in 1918. Such big data, Metzler decrees, amounts to an early exercise in globalisation, with worldwide spin-offs in ideologies, revolutions and diseases. India, he observes, lost the most lives to the Great War, not merely on the battlefield, but to influenza and famine.

Naoko Shimazu regards the Japanese delegation’s primary mistake to be one of “performance” – not realising that the media, and hence prevailing opinion, were best managed through public showmanship. The US President Woodrow Wilson was feted in Paris like a visiting Tsar, while the leading Japanese diplomat, Saionji Kinmochi, stayed out of the limelight. Although warned by their advance scouts in several panicky telegrams, the Japanese had failed to grasp that every other major power had sent a head of state, which was used as an excuse to keep Saionji’s team from joining the Big Four nations. As noted by Kevin M. Doak in his own chapter, Japan was also a proud but rather skittish monarchy, facing delegations from several newly minted republics. An anonymous critic in the Japanese press bemoaned the shame of Baron Makino having to tussle with a “comeuppance” like Wellington Koo – China’s first foreign PhD, a future prime minister and ambassador, snootily discounted as an arrogant bounder.

But Koo was a compelling, eloquent public speaker, able to run rings around the Japanese delegation, whereas the Japanese attendees were all too often ridiculed over mispronunciations and misunderstandings. Shimazu herself does not mention, at least not here, the public spat between Saionji and his junior Konoe Fumimaro, which forced Saionji into damage control before the delegation had even reached France. Curiously for Saionji, a regular fixture among the brothels and bars of Tokyo and no stranger to backroom deals, he seems to have failed to appreciate the need for what Shimazu calls “shared sociality” – the need to have dined, drunk and debated with one’s peers outside the conference chambers. Saionji fatally avoided being seen at the right parties, although his young mistress was briefly a much-storied hit in her kimono.

A century on, Gotelind Müller observes that the Paris Peace Conference is substantially better-known among Chinese teenagers than among their European counterparts. This, at least in part, is due to Wellington Koo’s infamous refusal to sign the Treaty of Versailles, marking an important moment of punctuation in the ongoing tale of China’s Century of Humiliation. It’s thus particularly ironic that the Chinese delegation should be so lionised and worshipped when they were far more at odds with one another than their Japanese colleagues. The Chinese at Paris were effectively representing two rival governments and acting to mollify the threat of angry mobs back home but somehow managed to present a united front. Ever the diplomat, Koo even played down the internal arguments in his own memoirs, not published until 1983. Hiroko Sakamoto closes the collection with a surprisingly light-hearted coda on what the Chinese and Japanese inadvertently shared: a love of cartoons, with Okamoto Ippei’s comics culture transplanted to Shanghai in the 1920s, just in time to fuel a strong movement of graphic protest and nationalism.

Jonathan Clements is the author of biographies of Wellington Koo and Prince Saionji, the Chinese and Japanese delegates at the Paris Peace Conference.

Xi’an to the Max

Despite periodically depicting herself as a square-jawed manga hero, “Tommy” Hino is apparently a woman, usually self-identifying as a drab, androgynous drudge in a skull-cap, weeping copiously and cartoonishly at the prospect of being posted to China. Linked to a blog that has found a fond following in Japan, Hino’s work seems to have laboured under a number of different titles. Some iterations of it have a subtitle implying “survival tips” for Japanese animators, others draw upon the blog’s title of Giri Giri Xi’an, perhaps best translated as Xi’an to the Max. The actual title of her collected four-panel strips, however, is the much more histrionic Nande Watashi ga Chugoku ni!? Or if you prefer: What am I doing in China!?

Hino seems to have largely swallowed the line, common to surprisingly many urban Chinese, that her adopted town of Xi’an is some sort of second-tier backwater and not, say, the former capital of China for over a thousand years, rich in historical artefacts and sites. Apart from a predictable genuflection in the direction of the Terracotta Army, Hino’s exploration of Xi’an culture is hence largely limited to foodie expeditions among the noodle shacks and dumpling parlours, and a foray among the fake handbags of the city’s Muslim Quarter.

But this is because she is there to work, not see the sights. She coquettishly uses anonymising initials for the companies and ateliers she works at as a Flash animator, but uses recognisable cartoon characters – there is not a whole lot of effort expended at concealing the identity of Pleasant Goat, one of the most iconic characters in modern Chinese animation.

Hino’s chirpy account lists a number of issues affecting the animator who wishes to work in China, not merely universal issues of acclimatisation and culture shock, but more specific problems like the sudden blocking of internet access, and her hosts’ pig-headed refusal to understand that she cannot wave a magic wand and make cartoons “like anime, but cheaper.”

More entertainingly for the animation scholar, even though Japanese animation has been integral to the Chinese industry for decades, Hino arrives in China at a time when local media are puffed up with anti-Japanese nationalism, Japanese cartoons are banished from Chinese airwaves, and even streaming sites are subject to purges of unwelcome Japanese cartoons. At a time when openly importing anime can literally damage a Chinese citizen’s credit rating, China’s “dongman” community of fans of animation and cartoons is faithfully presented as a mixed bag of furtive true-otaku and a far larger, rather gormless herd of comics fans who don’t really know what manga is.  As an artist, Hino is comically boggled at the locals’ apparent satisfaction with ghastly pseudomanga that proclaim themselves as “Japanese style” but are just plain bad.

It is fascinating to see a creative struggle with such a contradictory status, hired for her skills in a medium that is respected by the artisans, but proscribed by the authorities, for an audience that is largely ignorant of the issues in play. As alluded to by Zhang Huiling in her study Animation Plus, China has placed itself in the odd situation of striving to emulate Japanese successes, while constantly trying to shut out and deny the existence of such successes in the first place. Hino finds herself at the sharp end of such tensions, but gamely pushes a mouse around in her garret so that the Chinese animation business can pat itself on the back at how it’s beating Japan at its own game.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Confucius: A Biography (2nd edition)

‘Rich with history and studded with the sayings for which the sage is known. . . Clements uses his considerable story- telling skill to make “the troubled life of a teacher who lived two-and-a-half thousand years ago” come alive.’
– The Asian Reporter

‘Clements reveals the man behind the legend, as well as providing a useful introduction to Confucius’ thoughts and teachings.’
– The Good Book Guide

The teachings of Confucius have survived for twenty- five centuries and shaped over a quarter of the world’s population – his image appears not only in temples across East Asia, but also above the entrance to the US Supreme Court.

Confucius: A Biography reveals unexpected sides of the ancient philosopher – his youth, his interaction with his pupils, his feuds with his rivals and even his biting wit.

This revised edition includes three new chapters on the influence of Confucius in Chinese history, the modernist and post-modernist backlashes against Confucian thought, and its relevance in our world today.