Go, Go, Power Rangers

When astronauts accidentally free evil sorceress Rita Repulsa from 10,000 years of stasis, she resolves to take over the world. Only five (er… six) “teenagers with attitude” can hold her and her monsters back, suiting up as the Power Rangers to save the planet.

With a little bit of Thunderbirds and a little bit of Battle of the Planets, Japanese toy companies tried to find a winning combination that would maximise the potential of an action-packed kids’ show that would sell action figures. They first hit on the magic formula in 1975, when Masked Rider creator Shotaro Ishinomori brain-stormed Secret Battle Team Go Ranger, a bunch of super-powered, colour coded heroes who came accompanied by a toy line of matching vehicles. Thereafter, there was a “sentai” (Battle Team) show every year, each with a different unifying theme, everything from playing cards to Egyptian gods, and in the case of the 1979 Battlefever J, dance steps – including a Russian cossack and a disco-themed all-American girl.

There were a few experiments with Ishinomori’s template, but it was soon relatively fixed. A five-strong battle team would pilot signature vehicles that combine into a super-vehicle, all the better to encourage parents to buy the whole set. They would fight a series of crazy monsters-of-the-week, and there would usually be a “shock” discovery halfway through when one of the baddies switched sides. As for the toys, the uniforms would change just enough each season to make last year’s models seem like old hat. The moulds at the toy factory would make a slight adjustment to helmet design or giveaway weapons, and last year’s Red Ranger simply would not do

Producers Haim Saban and Shuki Levy struggled for years to find a way to transport the franchise over to America. They finally struck gold with 1992’s Dinosaur Battle Team Zyu Ranger, when they realised that they only had to keep the fights and monsters. The original Japanese heroes were thrown out, and replaced with all-new footage of all-American teens off-duty in everytown Angel Grove, chosen by the enigmatic Zordon to defend the Earth from the cackling Rita Repulsa.

“Oh… kids, y’know, they’re really funny,” Pink Ranger Amy Jo Johnson once told me. “But I mean Power Rangers has got everything that they look for in a show. It’s got dinosaurs, monsters, real kids they can relate to, bright colours.” Although it’s easy to overlook today, it was also worthily inclusive, with the WASPy leads accompanied by a black colleague and even Vietnamese girl Trini (although famously her boobs disappeared when she transformed, as her counterpart in the Japanese original was played by a man).

Despite its square-jawed genuflections towards love and peace, Power Rangers was also a fighting show, and inevitably there were tears at bedtime when toddlers in the Midwest tried to imitate a flying kick against a Putty Patroller. And yet, for an entire global generation of six-year-olds. Power Rangers was a veritable religion. It’s difficult to comprehend, a generation later, just how deep an impact it had on its young audiences. Most traumatic to many youngsters was the sudden disappearance of the Green Ranger, a figure who started as a bad guy, but then became arguably the biggest hero of the original line-up.

“Oh yeah!” remembered Amy Jo Johnson, “I mean, first season the Green Ranger leaves, but the kids went mad, so they bring him back. I mean, we had mothers calling up saying ‘My little boy won’t come out of his room.’ God!”

The problem was managed out of existence by finding new reasons to splice the former Green Ranger back into the show. Actor Jason David Frank came back as the White Ranger, two different Red Rangers and a Black Ranger in later seasons. Power Rangers and its Japanese counterparts have become increasingly hybridised in later years, with the Japanese actively contributing to the American (and more recently, New Zealand-shot) footage, swapping stuntmen and planning ahead for integrating characters. This year’s Power Rangers Ninja Steel is a respray of a Japanese original from two years ago. If you want to know what Power Rangers will look like in two years’ time, then Space Battle Team Kyu Ranger is running on Japanese telly at this very moment

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the original series, is released this June by Manga Entertainment. This article originally appeared in Geeky Monkey #20, 2017.

Age of Empires

When I met Yang Zhifa in 2013, he was living well off the proceeds of being ‘the man who found the Terracotta Army.’ Tall for a Chinese, he was sprightly for a grandfather nearing 80. What was left of his white hair was shorn off in a neat burr, he affected a blue Mao suit and an ostentatiously long cheroot holder. A week did not go by without a journalist or film crew wanting to talk to him about his place in history, and Yang was ever ready to oblige for a fee – my time with him cost about £100.

There was very little clue from Yang’s demeanour that he could pull down a week’s wages just by getting out of bed in the morning, at least, not until one was close enough to look in his eyes. The dark irises were limned with the faintest edge of blue, a telltale sign that the old farmer sported contact lenses.

With up to two film crews a day hanging on his every word, and tourists eager to get his signature or calligraphy, Yang was a jealous guardian of his status. He had been in something of a feud with several other Yangs, who wanted to claim equivalent status as co-discoverers – I still suspect that he and his cousins once took turns to sit in the museum shop and sign autographs as ‘Mr Yang, who found the Terracotta Army.’ He cherished a photograph of himself with a grinning Bill Clinton, and still scowled at the memory of articles that had claimed the American President had met with an ‘illiterate peasant’. He clutched his adze proudly, showing me the seal of government authenticity that pronounced it to be the very tool that had struck at that fateful terracotta fragment in 1974.

Yang’s version of events featured a degree of self-figuration – first-person I’s and me’s about what the record usually describes as a group effort, but nonetheless came from the horse’s mouth, in a Shaanxi dialect so thick that I often had to ask him to repeat himself.

‘It was hot and it was dry. It was March and there had been no rain all winter, and we needed to sink a new well. There was some low-lying ground with persimmon trees on the plain, and I figured that the water there would be sweeter, so we started digging. When we got down a couple of metres, we hit something. It looked like the top of a pot, the lip around the edge, so we stopped digging.

‘I said: “Look, if this is a pot, we might have found an old kiln from the Han dynasty or something. Those pots are still good to use. Let’s keep digging.” So, we edged around it and saw that it wasn’t a pot. It wasn’t a pot because it was decorated really weird, like a suit of armour, and then we found an arm.

‘So this is a problem, because the elders hated it when we uncovered old temples or graves. That’s really bad for the feng shui. They made us go back that evening with joss-sticks. We lit incense and chanted prayers in case we had disturbed earth gods or something. But I said to the elders: “You shouldn’t worry that this is something to do with the First Emperor. I mean, it’s two kilometres away from his grave, this can’t possibly be anything to do with that. There’s no way it could be that big.”

‘So we went to the cultural office at the museum, and they said oh yes, that looks very Qin dynasty. Bring us the terracotta bits and we’ll give you some cash. They offered me 10 kuai [£1] for every wheelbarrow-load of pottery I could bring them. So we edged around the well and hauled up three cart-loads of the stuff. I took it to the museum and got 30 kuai, but then I had to share it with the other members of the crew and the village. At the end of it all, I got 1.3 mao (13p).’

The Yangs’ well-sinking exercise had transformed into an archaeological dig and gained him another rival. At another museum on the edge of town, the local Party official also happily signs himself as the ‘man who discovered the Terracotta Army’, on the understanding that Yang didn’t know what he was looking at, and that in an intricate semantic sense, the Terracotta Army was only ‘discovered’ by the person who identified the pottery as a Qin artefact. At the time, however, nobody seriously considered that the pottery uncovered by the Yangs was directly related to the First Emperor’s distant mausoleum. For centuries it had been assumed that the First Emperor’s mausoleum centred on Mount Li itself, and yet the finds of the well diggers were far from it. The well now forgotten, the soil from the initial dig was sifted, unearthing more terracotta pieces, and the fragments of what might once have been crossbow trigger mechanisms.

By that June, the news was out. Something had been found near the site of the First Emperor’s mausoleum, and if a find of the magnitude of the Yangs’ was present so far from it, the size of the necropolis itself may have been grossly underestimated.

‘Then they said we’d found something significant, something of national importance, so it all kind of got taken away from us,’ Yang tells me. His role in the site was forgotten for twenty years, while archaeologists sifted the earth. He confessed that he had done nothing but swing a pickaxe for his life up to that point, and his ability to monetise being the ‘discoverer’ of the Terracotta Army turned problematic. He was once flown to Japan for an academic conference, but was able to little more than trot out his well-rehearsed account of that fateful day. Since then, he has observed the slow growth of the museum as a tourist site, and done his best to capitalise on the influx of visitors.

‘It’s brought a lot of wealth to all of us in the village,’ he says carefully, ‘and that cheers me up. Yes, I like being famous. It’s better than not being famous. People come from all over and they want to shake my hand and buy my photograph. It’s better than holding a pickaxe.’

From The First Emperor of China, by Jonathan Clements available now in the US and the UK. The exhibition Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties is running at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art until 16th July.

Norio Shioyama 1940-2017

In case you missed it over at the All the Anime blog, my obituary of the character designer and illustrator Norio Shioyama, who died last week.

‘“I wonder if that wasn’t the spirit of the times,” he said. “Everyone was ready to work their hardest, to do their best. The result made Japan the second-largest economy in the world, but I think we lost something. We got colder.’

The Cosplay Lynch-Mob

shinji-1

It was an odd internet scandal even by the standards of our post-truth age. Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, a man whose grasp of the truth makes Comical Ali look like George Washington, was “outed” in January by the Kotaku fan site, whose minions had been trawling his social media posts looking for something to laugh at. They found it, seemingly, on his Twitter feed for 2013, where he had been enthusiastically hash-tagging a Gundam costume he saw at Katsucon.

Could it really be that, in the year that America jumped the shark, the frowning White House press secretary was a recovering anime fan? And if so, could it be that he was That Guy… you know, That Guy?

spicer-twitter-imageNo, I didn’t know That Guy, but enthusiastic chatter soon enlightened me – a man at American conventions of a few years back, who dressed up as pathological whiner Shinji from Evangelion. What better illustration of his oft-repeated catch-phrase, “I Mustn’t Run Away”, than appending it to a picture of Spicer standing before the press corps, unreliably informing them that black was white, that crowds were much more biglier than people remembered, and that Evangelion 4.0 was sure to be released very, very soon?

Anime fandom was awash with giggly glee as they tried to hunt down five-year-old cosplay photographs. High-level nerds were put to work on facial recognition software. Everybody was mobilised to get him… but I didn’t understand what for.

“Wait,” I asked. “If that’s really Spicer dressed as Shinji, why would you laugh at him? Because he’s a cosplayer? Because he likes Japanese cartoons?” Isn’t that shooting all your fellow anime fans in the feet? It seemed like an oddly mean-spirited and self-destructive form of protest, discovering that one’s enemy was a bit like you, and then laughing at him for it.

Spicer and I are the same age, and the world is a small place – it turned out we had a mutual acquaintance. He’d been a hard-core otaku at the same college as Spicer, and reported that he had zero interest in anime in the 1990s. If he were a fan, he was something of a late bloomer, and these days probably had other things on his mind than assuring people they have five minutes until the planet explodes. But fandom should lay off trying to shame itself.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #161, 2017.

Videosyncratic

Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Jon Spira’s Videosyncratic, an account of life in the video rental trade.


“I am already encountering students and researchers with no memories of the media of the 20th century, who never had to fast-forward through a Simon Bates warning; who can pause and rewatch with pinpoint accuracy; who do not appreciate the concept of waiting, of not bingeing. They need to read this book.Spira helps ground his readers in a historical context by rewinding way, way back, to the kind of customer journey his great-grandfather would have had to go on to see a screening of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927. He’d have had to dress nicely, and get the bus into Central London, and sit through the preliminary programme with its Wurlitzer serenade and newsreels, and concentrate really hard because he was unlikely to see it again. And today? As Spira notes, you don’t even have to get out of bed to be able to access a bunch of variant Metropolis movies on your phone. Some of which, you don’t even have to pay for.

“But Spira is interested in his own culture of entertainment. More specifically, the generation spanning 1983 to the early 2000s, the first generation that was effectively given control over exhibition. For people of Spira’s era, the VHS cassette could turn your home into a cinema and your lounge into an archive. It was, as Yasuo Nagayama observed in his history of Japanese fandom, a huge disruption to the nature of film-watching all over the world, equivalent, in his words, to ‘the discovery of time travel.'”

Robotic Angel

metropolis-7_zpsizomta1yDetective Shunsaku Ban and his nephew-assistant Kenichi arrive in Duke Red’s city of the future on the trail of an organ-trafficking doctor. But the city is coming apart, with Duke Red’s adopted son Rock leading a predatory police force, and the enslaved robot population scapegoated as the cause of all ills. Meanwhile, Tima, an android facsimile of the Duke’s dead daughter, goes on the run, unaware of her true nature.

The 2001 feature Metropolis was a who’s-who of big names from the Japanese animation business, including a superstar writer, a director at the top of his game, and an original story from the renowned “God of Manga.” It was also famously the last great clash of old and new animation techniques, using the traditional cel animation method in conjunction with conspicuous digital animation – thereafter, almost all Japanese animation would be entirely created within computers, whether it had a hand-drawn appearance or not. Such juxtapositions even carried across into the characters themselves, with a cast that faithfully mimicked the cartoonish look of Osamu Tezuka’s original comic, dwarfed and often upstaged by gleaming, realist steampunk backgrounds and machinery.

In Germany, the film is known as Robotic Angel, seemingly because nobody was going to get away with giving it the same name as Fritz Lang’s classic movie. Even in the new English-language release from Eureka Films, the movie is pointedly called Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis. But this only opens a whole new can of worms.

For starters, much of the film’s plotting and look owes more to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and its distaff descendant Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, both touchstones for the film’s famous scriptwriter, Akira-creator Katsuhiro Otomo. Yet neither of those works were known to Osamu Tezuka when he wrote the original Metropolis manga, which he began working on as a teenage boy in the 1930s. His inspiration was a magazine article about the Fritz Lang movie, which he had not seen at the time. In fact, Tezuka was once heard to claim that his sole true inspiration was a sighting merely of the poster for Lang’s film, and his teenage speculations as to what it might have been like. At best, Tezuka’s story and setting were inspired by a handful of stills and a bit of text, but were not as directly related to the Lang film as Otomo’s version could be said to be.

Moreover, it’s become commonplace in writing about movies to assign a possessive credit to the director. Films of all stripes are collaborative ventures, but although there are occasional complaints from the Writers Guild and other interested parties, it’s the directors who most often get to say that a film is “theirs”. But Osamu Tezuka didn’t direct Metropolis. In fact, he’d been dead for a generation when it was made, and left explicit instructions that it should never be filmed. Metropolis was actually helmed by Shigeyuki Hayashi, usually known by his pen-name Rintaro, an animator who got his big break in the 1960s working for Tezuka on the iconic Astro Boy.

Rintaro’s attitude towards Metropolis, although usually spun in the media as an hommage to his beloved mentor, doesn’t have quite the same reputation among many anime professionals. One bitterly observed to me that Tezuka had been crystal clear about his opposition to seeing the story animated. In championing the production, Rintaro was less tipping his hat to Tezuka than flipping him the finger. He even admitted in press interviews that Tezuka “would have hated the film and will probably haunt me as a ghost.” Otomo, too, was heard to say that while Tezuka had been an inspiration to him, he was sure that his cyberpunk stylings would not have found favour with Tezuka, were he to ever see them.

In mitigation, such decisions over literary estates are fraught with what-ifs. Tezuka’s heirs have been superbly adept at preserving his legacy with a number of modern remakes, so it should come as no surprise that Metropolis gets the same treatment as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. As with all estates, there is a question of whether the originator would have ever changed his mind. But the wrangles in the background over “Osamu Tezuka’s” Metropolis will always leave the audience guessing whose Metropolis it really is

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #18, 2017.

The Grafton Affair

johngraftonIt was not lost on the Tsar’s enemies that the Finns were ready for direct action, leading the Japanese secret service to plot a daring act of espionage in 1905, designed to distract the Tsar from the Far East by creating trouble on his doorstep.

The Japanese naval attaché in Stockholm, Motojiro Akashi, was given a million yen in cash, and told to do everything he could to stir up the Finns. Akashi, a lone man ‘worth ten divisions’ in the eyes of the Japanese high command, hatched a plan to undermine Russia by starting a revolution in its most volatile territory. He assembled an unlikely multinational group of agents, led by Konni Zilliacus, a committed revolutionary who acquired an aging tramp steamer, the John Grafton, bought in the name of a Stepney wine merchant and stocked with thousands of rifles, pistols and rounds of ammunition, all bought by agents claiming to represent the King of Siam.

Owing to a misunderstanding with the aforementioned wine merchant, the John Grafton was also loaded with several hundred gallons of wine, which the Finnish crew had already begun to work through by the time the ship was in the North Sea. Zilliacus, meanwhile, unwisely chose this highly stressful secret mission, with his crew unconvincingly disguised as members of the Southampton Yacht Club, to try to give up smoking – leading to an embarrassing set-to with the police in Copenhagen where he was caught trying to break into a tobacconist.

After several more misadventures in the Baltic, the John Grafton eventually reached the Finnish coast, which it located by unceremoniously ramming into it. Trapped in the shallows of Ostrobothnia, the crew began unloading their cargo, only to be surprised by a vessel from the Russian navy. Realising that time was tight, they ran up the red flag, saluted it, and then ran for dear life while a lit fuse sparked the onboard explosives.

The explosion of the John Grafton was heard two counties away. The Tsar’s men inspected its twisted wreckage, and fearfully reported on the conditions of the many hundreds of rifles that had been landed before the explosion. Although the revolutionary mission had been a failure, the mere fact of the existence of the John Grafton, and the possibility that it was only one of many ships, was a source of great concern to the Russian state. However, it had taken care of most of Akashi’s money, and he would soon be run out of Europe after some of his meddling correspondence was made public; he ended up as governor of Taiwan. Konni Zilliacus, meanwhile, fled to England, and would write his memoirs and a cookbook. In one of those odd footnotes of history, his namesake son became the Labour MP for Manchester Gorton.

Extract from An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland by Jonathan Clements, available now in print and on the Kindle (UK/US).