Fireworks

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Akiyuki Shinbo’s Fireworks, a remake of a Shunji Iwai TV movie from 1993. “Producer Genki Kawamura expected sparks to fly between the main staff members, particularly since Iwai the original writer-director was sitting in with Shinbo the animator and screenwriter Hitoshi Ohne, himself no stranger to helming his own films. ‘It was very exciting sitting in a script meeting with three directors,’ Kawamura told Japan’s Buzz Feed. ‘Punches could fly at you from any direction.'”

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The Art of the Deal

When Noboru Ishiguro died in 2012, it was only fair to wonder would happen to Artland, the company he helped found. But even five years ago, Artland was already a changed entity. In 2006, it had been subsumed into Marvelous, a computer games conglomerate which turned Artland into a limited company, and then split it into two in 2010. One part, the Artland Animation Studio, continued under its sole shareholder Kuniharu Okano, who toiled on shows such as the upcoming Seven Deadly Sins.

In 2015 the other part was entirely absorbed within Marvelous in order to “improve the efficiency of group management.” Let me translate that for you: the other part was a holding company for intellectual property – shares in anime franchises. You might like to call the late Ishiguro himself an asset of sorts, but his days were numbered, while the franchises he helped create live under copyright law for decades after his demise.

Meanwhile, in 2016, a chunk of ownership in the animation studio was sold to Emon, a subsidiary of the Chinese company Haoliners, in order to “strengthen production capacity.” What did they think they were buying? It surely wasn’t a stake in Macross or Legend of the Galactic Heroes, as they were presumably still part of Marvelous. Was it, perhaps, just the Artland name, so that any work brought in could be spirited off down a fibre-optic cable to cheaper animators in China? Okano’s company, if it truly is merely an “animation studio”, amounts to tables and chairs, pens and paper. It doesn’t own the people who work for it, and it may even only rent the real estate where it resides. True enough, it might be able to work its way out of debt, but why would anyone fund this if it doesn’t own anything?

Four days after the anime press reported Artland’s bankruptcy this July, a fuming Okano went public to assert that the company was trying to restructure its debts, but was by no means dead. He had, he claimed, a bunch of offers from new investors, although he had yet to take any of them up on it. However, the question that everybody is asking is whether Artland itself actually retains any intellectual property – part-ownership of any of the franchises for which it is listed as a co-producer – when surely all that stuff is still sitting in a filing cabinet at Marvelous? Artland is for sale… but what would any new investor really be buying?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #167, 2017.

Chie the Brat

Up today on the All the Anime blog, my article about the obscure Isao Takahata series Chie the Brat. “A board member from the TV broadcaster came over to Tokyo Movie to protest about the use of inappropriate language, only for Takahata to turn on him, shouting that they should have thought of that before they bought the rights to a series about Osaka slum life.”

The Last Squad

Surprising literally nobody, Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement one last time to make another feature film. Studio Ghibli having laid off all its animation staff, he has to round up a new posse, which is great news, right? Except, in an advert that swiftly went viral, his studio was calling for new animators prepared to accept a monthly wage of £1400.

This is an animation studio. You will end up working seven days a week, regardless of the job description. That means £45 a day without overtime.

I think what has really taken fandom by surprise is that Ghibli is just as swayed by the bottom line as every other anime studio, despite its millions in profits and its blue-chip reliability. “Hayao Miyazaki’s last movie” is sure to top the box office again, but the studio is acting like it’s some start-up making a thing about ponies, or vampires, or whatever it is Japanese start-ups do. For years and years, Ghibli’s well-managed hype has presented it as some sort of socialist cooperative, where everybody gets to take part in creative decision-making, and where even the closing credits listed the staff in alphabetical order.

But, no, it’s just like all the rest.

People will still do it, I am sure. There will be canny young artists who realise that even if it ends up costing them money, they’ll be the elite, last class of animators mentored by Miyazaki himself. They will probably be rich already. Far from opening the studio to the best of the best, Ghibli’s decision frankly amounts to an intern scheme, and like intern schemes everywhere, will require its minions to be of independent means. Oh sure, you can be in the Last Squad at Ghibli, but Mummy and Daddy will end up paying for it.

There will be animators ready to take a hit in their income, because they suspect this is their last chance to get the words Studio Ghibli on their CV, and that’s going to be worth money in future. Or is it? Will they fight and duck and dive, scrimp and save, merely for the chance to fight and duck and dive all over again, at some other studio with equally low pay?

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #166, 2017.

M-People

Last month’s Guardian reported a drastic fall in the price of Elvis memorabilia. As his original fans die off and their collections hit the auction market, there simply aren’t enough new fans desperate to acquire that Jailhouse Rock limited edition.

Is this the fate that awaits our anime collectables 30 years down the line? Will your cherished, unopened, box-new copy of the Zavvi-exclusive Anthem of the Heart fail to monetise for your money-grabbing offspring as they dance on your grave? What is a “collector’s edition”, anyway? It used to carry with it some sense of exclusivity and bragging rights, but in recent years, it has more healthily come to simply connote an anime show worth owning in physical form, rather than trusting to the whims of online content providers. But as an early adopter of DVDs, I have already had to suffer the annoyance of a much-loved disc succumbing to drop-outs and scratches. Manufacturers refuse to guarantee a DVD past five years, although most of them can last for a few decades. But how long do you want to collect your collectable? Will you be watching Akira in your rocking chair, when you can’t read the subtitles anymore?

If that’s the plan, maybe we should get into M-DISCs, Millenniata’s answer to archival data storage. Readable on a standard DVD or Blu-ray player, M-DISCs record their data by physically etching it into a layer of carbon, rendering it far less liable to deterioration and safe for a thousand years. “Your data is engraved in stone – literally,” trills the manufacturer’s website, before immediately conceding that carbon is not actually stone.

The M-DISC might be the great unsung technology of this decade. It’s been commercially available for the last seven years; you can buy them off the spindle for a fiver a throw and many modern disc burners are already compatible with the format. And yet there’s been nary a whisper of it among the anime collectable community. I checked with several movers and shakers while writing this article, and none of them had heard of it. Will M-DISCs be a new fad for fans who want their children’s, children’s children to have access to Ghost in the Shell, or those extra mastering costs seem like too high a price to pay?

“Does this mean,” asks my wife, “that we won’t have to buy a new copy of Toy Story every three months?”

No. M-discs only last a thousand years when they are properly archived… not left on the living room floor for sticky hands to play with.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #165.

Soups You, Sir

Have you seen that quirky new Japanese film? The one that goes full-on geek about some silly little pastime – brass bands, or sumo wrestling, or candy selling, or cosplay – or that gets truly, madly deeply into a completely mundane profession, like funeral directors, or bus drivers or…? Amid the samurai and the sex kittens, it sometimes seems like every festival season has some earnest little Japanese comedy, making the best of a small budget by focusing with incisive high resolution on some tiny piece of the modern world.

Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985) was the granddaddy of them all, mashing the workplace drama into the comedy sketch show and the Zen pursuit of perfection. Turn on your TV any weeknight in Japan, and you will see a dozen serials that seem to riff on it – valorising the dedication of obscure professions, or enthusing about food… or both. Its blue-collar truck-driver hero Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) rides into town like some bygone cowboy, taking local widow Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) under his wing as she tries to master the art of cooking noodles. He and his swiftly assembled cabal of hangers-on gamely mansplain the nature of proper fast food in a series of test-runs and side-quests, while background characters, largely middle-class buffoons, blunder through a series of unrelated vignettes and satires about epicurean culture, taste and table manners.

It’s hard to remember, when piss-poor chain-restaurant ramen are to be had on every British high street, that there was once a time when Japanese noodles were an exotic foreign import for cinemagoers. Supposedly an evolution of Chinese noodles, but actually a post-war development that combined American food-aid wheat with Asian ingredients, these combinations of broth, noodles and optional toppings were a wonder for 1980s audiences to behold. It is, ironically, unlikely that many foreign cinemagoers appreciated how un-Japanese a film Tampopo could be, conceived by its director as a pastiche on numerous American genres, from Westerns to gangster movies to romance.

Three decades on, Tampopo is not merely an entertaining comedy about food and foodies. It is also now a time-capsule glimpse of a golden age, when a pre-recessionary Japan swum in so much money that it snapped up van Goghs, took over American corporations, and propelled its newly monied middle class into the world of fine wines, foreign cuisines and hipster menus. In that sense, its oddball cast were everymen a few steps behind the times, concentrating instead with pure-hearted nationalistic fervour on hearty, homespun local food: a proper meal, done properly. The titular heroine is a woman on the way up, aspiring to an honest day’s pay for a good job done well. Even as ramen was on the way up in the West, some feared it was on the way out in Japan, crowded out by spaghetti carbonara and burgers. Fortunately, rumours of its demise were greatly exaggerated.

And what a cast! Ken Watanabe, future star of The Last Samurai, is seen here as a gormless truck-driver sidekick. Koji Yakusho, future star of Thirteen Assassins, is a mad-eyed gangster who harangues the audience about consideration for others. His scenes are the ones that linger longest in the mind, not the least for their witty eroticism as he swaps an egg yolk mouth-to-mouth with his mistress (Fukumi Kuroda) or tries to discuss a secret recipe for sausages in the middle of a gunfight.

Tampopo remains a joy to watch for the Japan nerd. It’s not just the little cameos, like Lady Snowblood director Toshiya Fujita as a man with a sore tooth, it’s the dozens of little asides and nods to the rich tapestry of Japanese culture, from the pearl-divers who once formed an entire subset of soft-core erotica, to the domestication of foreign food (or some might say today, cultural appropriation) as the original Chinesey café name of Lai Lai is replaced by Tampopo’s own. Itami uses food as a keyword for examining Japanese life and customs from top to bottom, foreshadowing today’s wacky scholars who try and tell the history of the world through clocks or condiments. His masterpiece remains a film that leaves every viewer hungry.

Tampopo is playing as part of the Culinary Culture and Gastronomy in Japanese Cinema season in London on 26th August. This article was originally written for Geeky Monkey #23, although the magazine was cancelled from underneath it.