Animation in Japan Until 1919

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Frederick Litten’s book on Animation in Japan Until 1919.

“In 160 closely-argued pages on animation in Japan and animation from Japan, Litten suggests that many scholars have committed an error of historical practice by believing the old-time hype. The 1923 Kanto Earthquake destroyed most of the materials of the early Japanese animation world, which leaves historical memory in the hands of the people with a vested interest in being remembered. Although Nobuyuki Tsugata has done fantastic work in reconstructing the life and films of the pioneer Seitaro Kitayama, Litten accuses Kitayama of ‘blatant self-promotion’, and calls into question much of what Kitayama wrote about his own achievements.”

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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.

Animation Plus

Animation Plus: Research on Transformation and Upgrading of China’s Animation Industry was published a year ago by the Social Science Academic Press, and has received a telling ZERO reviews on Amazon China. That, I would suggest, is palpably part of the problem – despite its immense leaps in recent years, people find it hard to get invested, emotionally or otherwise, in Chinese animation, including the Chinese themselves. Author Zhang Huiling has a background in both journalism and broadcast media, and has approached China’s underperforming industry armed with charts, facts and figures. But despite her diligent and extremely useful compilation of data, is anyone paying attention?

Her study is packed with admirably hard information, detailing the recent history of Chinese animation, as well as some intriguing elements of its statistical composition, including episode counts, genre percentages and studio locations. She deals with China largely as a sealed system, large enough to create winning franchises without recourse to foreign sales, although this is precisely why Chinese animation so rarely exports well.

To a certain extent, Zhang is both rediscovering the wheel and pretending she can’t see the cart. Much of her book is an extended argument about the crucial role of intellectual property – what the Japanese call contents – in forming a firm foundation for exploitation in multiple media, including animation. But in doing so, she runs right into the middle of a political minefield in which Chinese animation refuses to discuss the existence of Japanese competitors. Japanese animation, as noted on this blog on multiple occasions is not only a vital patron of the Chinese arts, but also a rival worth watching. Zhang acknowledges this with a final chapter devoted to the successes of Toei Animation in Tokyo, but one can’t help but wonder if the timidity with which she raises this topic undermines her own argument. It’s not her fault if “Japan” is a dirty word in modern Chinese academic discourse, but an understanding of Japan’s success is vital for seeing both where the Chinese animation industry may have gone wrong, and indeed where it has the potential to do right.

An intriguing section of her book breaks down animation around the world, suggesting that certain territories have fundamentally different production and finance trees for their cartoon production. I’m not sure I agree with her flowcharts all the time – the Japanese one, for example, contains a solecism that has not been true for fifty years – but it is fascinating to see how Zhang the external observer explains the functions of the “American”, the “British”, the “Canadian” or, say, the “German” system. Zhang delivers in spades her subtitle’s promise of “research on transformation” of China’s animation industry, but I am not persuaded that her conclusions say anything that hasn’t been said before regarding its “upgrade”. As suggested by Rolf Giesen, among many others, the fundamental issue facing Chinese animation is not something that can be solved with financial voodoo or marketing magic. It requires an overhaul at the very foundations, arguably nothing to do with Chinese animation at all, but lodged more squarely in the creation of the intellectual property itself. For as long as the Chinese animation industry is dominated by bean-counters, managers, and political meddling in content, it will never create the kind of intellectual property to support the sort of world-beating franchise that Zhang demands. Her book, however, is a treasure trove of useful information that other researchers will be sure to draw upon.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Munted with the Moomins

drunken-moomins

Tove Jansson was no shrinking violet. She’d made it very clear to the Japanese animators that the policy on her Moomins books was “No Money! No Cars! No Fighting!” That wasn’t clear enough for Tokyo Movie, who let a guy called Hayao Miyazaki put a tank in one episode. It wasn’t the only sore point with Jansson, but it sure didn’t help. Amid much finger-pointing and recriminations, and whispers in the industry that someone had offered a cheaper deal, production on the 1969 Moomin series suddenly shifted to Mushi Pro.

Jansson never knew that many of the underlings and out-sourcing companies remained the same. Noboru Ishiguro, who’d been an inbetweener beforehand, got bumped up to director, and recalled that a number of the staff were self-medicating due to the stress of drawing squashy little Finnish trolls.

One Kanazawa-san was stopped by the police after a particularly boozy night at the studio, and breathalysed.

“Why are you up this late?” asked the policeman.

“We’re animators,” he slurred. “We worked… we finished and I had a glass. We draw… we draw… do you know the Moomins? Like this. Look.” And he dashed off a sketch on a piece of paper.

The policeman was impressed.

“My kid loves the Moomins,” said his fellow officer. “Can you draw one for him?”

All too aware of the threat of a drunk-driving conviction, Kanazawa smilingly complied, only to discover that every cop at the road block now wanted his own Moomin pictures. But eventually, all fan-art desires satisfied, the animators were waved on their way. It was close escape.

A week later, a suitably cowed Kanazawa clocked off at the studio and headed out, without a drink – he had learned his lesson. As was his habit, he offered a lift to a bunch of other animators, and the crowded car set off on the dark streets, only to run into a police roadblock.

An officer approached the car with a torch, and suddenly yelled out.

“They’re here! I’ve found them!”

Kanazawa was confused. He knew his driving wasn’t at fault, but could not help but notice half a dozen policemen running over towards his car.

“What is it?” he asked, butterflies in his stomach.

“Those Moomin drawings were so popular at the police station,” said the lead cop, “that all the other officers wanted ones of their own. We figured you would come back this way some time, so we’ve been waiting for you.”

Kanazawa reddened with anger, and pointedly started up his engine.

“How can I draw when I’m sober?” he growled, driving off into the night.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. This article first appeared in NEO #160, 2017. This story does not appear in the Adventures in Moominland exhibition, which is running on London’s South Bank until 23rd April.

Chinese Stop-Motion Animation

$_1Cao Di’s Mandarin-language book Chinese Stop-Motion Animation chronicles the rise of animated films using the media of pieces of paper, marionettes and claymation. She does so in an impressively all-encompassing 336 pages, according a weighty, persuasive presence on the bookshelf to a medium that is often otherwise confined to the footnotes.

Cao does not shy away from the fact that some of the leading lights of early Chinese animation were Japanese, such as the early pioneer Tadahito Mochinaga, a Japanese animator fleeing the last days of WW2, who adopted the Chinese name Fang Ming, worked in China for the early 1950s, and returned periodically over the next two or three decades clasping new contracts and technology. However, considering his Manchurian childhood, which made him a fluent speaker of Mandarin by adulthood, Mochinaga is arguably a liminal figure that all but went native. Cao does, however, whisk away Mochinaga’s crown, suggesting that he was pipped to the post to make the first Chinese stop-motion film by the obscure On the Front Line, produced in Chongqing in 1939.

Stop-motion films largely remain short works, with concentrated bursts of artistry like the iconic Princess Peacock (1963) and the charming propaganda film Red Army Bridge (1964). China’s political upheavals made remarkably little impact on the output of stop-motion films, with only a three-year gap in releases at the height of the Cultural Revolution. In recent times, stop-motion leaps out of the arthouse into TV commercials and pop videos, where its short running times and quirky look can grab it more hits on the internet.

Cao’s book is packed with usable data – not only its narrative account of the industry, but a thorough chronology, a filmography of the works mentioned, and even an account of spin-off media – even Mao-era China had books-of-the-films. It is a valuable account of this over-looked subset of the animation medium, and a fitting companion to the same serial’s The Stories of Animation Outsourcing in China (1989-2009).

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Animation in China

41haOrPwuXL._SX331_BO1204203200_Over on the All the Anime blog, I review Sean Macdonald’s excellent Animation in China: history, aesthetics, media and take the time out for a tangent about the politics of book pricing.

“Macdonald acknowledges the vital importance of Japanese animation for understanding the Chinese market, both in terms of early innovators such as Tadahito Mochinaga, who enjoyed a Chinese career under the name Fang Ming, and later helpers such as Tetsuya Endo, who did the real work on “Tsui Hark’s” animated Chinese Ghost Story. He discusses the famous Uproar in Heaven, the Monkey King from which remains the mascot of SAFS, not only in terms of its Chinese context, but of its parallels with Tezuka’s Alakazam the Great, which was released a year earlier. He even compares the working practices of the Wan brothers (with welcome translated quotes from one of their memoirs) with those of Osamu Tezuka in the age of “limited animation,” playfully comparing the car-crash scene in the first episode of Astro Boy to a famous sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.”

Animators Below the Line

ruyan wangshi coverThe presence of Chinese animators and colourists in the film industry has often been ignored or denied. In Ruyan Wangshi, which bears the English-language title The Stories of Animation Outsourcing in China (1989-2009), He Bing and He Feng document life below the line for the artisans and labourers who do the dogwork on overseas cartoons, at first in Shanghai, and then as the industry expands, in spin-off companies and daughter-branches in Suzhou and Guangzhou, Nanjing and Chengdu.

Toei Animation is first on the scene in the year of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, ordering seven thousand cels to be coloured in Shanghai in 1979. By 1985, it’s a company in Shenzhen, in the People’s Republic, that has animated the iconic logo used by the Hong Kong television channel TVB. The authors estimate that in the 1990s, out of a worldwide labour force of 50,000 animators, some 3000 dwelt in China – a proportion that has only increased in the 21st century as Chinese colleges pump out thousands of qualified personnel. By 1994, Disney reps are spotted in Suzhou looking for local talent, and before long, Chinese animators are toiling unnoticed on spin-offs from Pocahontas, Mulan and Hercules.

Many of the stories in the book echo similar tales of the Japanese industry. Art is never completed, only abandoned, and the Chinese struggle to find an equilibrium between the minimum amount of effort, which is a matter of economic sense, and the maximum, which is a matter of personal pride and artistic integrity. It is also theoretically infinite; there is always something that can be improved, a no-win situation that has driven many animators to exhaustion. There are mad dashes to get the artwork to the airport, and animation is described, in terms that echo those of Tadahito Mochinaga from the 1950s, as xinku de gongzuo – a bitterly hard job. The authors describe the Golden Age of Chinese outsourcing as the period from 1995-2005, bracketed by the boom in straight-to-video animation at one end, and, one supposes, the collapse of the anime bubble at the other. Less obvious at first glance is the impact of digitisation and the internet, which would allow Chinese art-college graduates, earning Chinese wages of £200 a month, and paying a Chinese cost of living, to essentially occupy a virtual office next door to their Japanese counterparts, who had to live in Tokyo, where £200 a month barely pays for parking.

Anime looms large in these memoirs, with references to work undertaken on Sakura Wars, Banner of the Stars, Lodoss War, Oh My Goddess, Madlax, Cowboy Bebop, Death Note and GTO, among others. Throughout the period, the Chinese animators dabble in making their own work, fumbling to make their own animated series based on famous proverbs, and holding out for a co-production deal.

Nothing makes the disruption between analogue and digital clearer than the book’s illustrations. A generous opening colour section offers a scrap book of images from the animators’ lives, but often contains frightfully dull pictures of people at forgotten banquets and grim group photocalls. Such images date from a time when cameras could only take 24 pictures, not the snap-happy 21st century where everybody documents their lunch. But the very mundanity of these images speaks volumes about conditions and attitudes in the industry, such as a shot of the anonymous, run-down block where a “studio” nestled above a print works, and a photograph of a visiting Japanese animator that simply credits him as “a visiting Japanese animator.” The clients, too, were often anonymous to their hirelings.

The Stories of Animation Outsourcing in China (1989-2009) is published as part of a series of books on animation by the Communication University of China Press. Several of its sister volumes cover well-worn topics like British or Japanese animation, but the titles relevant to China are far more ground-breaking, including a 336-page history of Chinese stop-motion animation that I hope to get around to reviewing sometime here, too. In the meantime, in attempting to delineate a history and a narrative of the uncelebrated low-echelon workers of the cartoon business, He and He have truly opened a new area in animation studies.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.