Variety is the Spice…

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I’m taking the chance to publish the unexpurgated version of Mark Schilling’s interview with me for his piece last week in Variety. My comments were, naturally, reduced to a couple of soundbites, but I think some interesting things came up. Sometimes my brain doesn’t grind into action until it’s asked the right question, and some of my ideas here were straight off the cuff. The question was that old favourite, the “new Miyazaki” in the light of Michael Dudok de Wit’s forthcoming Red Turtle and Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name but as ever, I preferred to think of it not in terms of the creative abilities of modern animators, but of the ways in which the industry can find an equivalent revenue stream for the biggest money-spinner of the last generation.

Mark Schilling: In your view, has the torch truly been passed?

Jonathan Clements: No. There is no torch, at least not in the way that the public expects. Hayao Miyazaki wasn’t just a one-off, he was part of a trio. You can’t have the Miyazaki phenomenon without Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki as well. All three of them are retiring. Suzuki spent ten years not just looking for someone to take the torch, but examining the torch itself, trying to work out what parts of it could be replicated by other means. He concluded that there was no torch but the legacy of Ghibli itself, and that’s why the Ghibli Museum is so crucial to understanding the studio’s late period.

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Do you view Shinkai, de Wit and others as “Miyazaki heirs”?

Studio Ghibli spent a decade looking for some way of continuing Miyazaki’s momentum. Takahata couldn’t get the same numbers, although Suzuki did hope to hide that by releasing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya on the same bill as The Wind Rises. When Kaguya was delayed, its box office numbers made it very clear that Takahata didn’t have the following that Miyazaki had. None of the non-Hayao Miyazaki films from Ghibli have done Hayao Miyazaki numbers.

Toshio Suzuki tried everything in the noughties. He tried to lure big-name directors into Ghibli, but they didn’t gel with the studio. He tried to train up new apprentices, some of whom have gone on to make names for themselves elsewhere. But he couldn’t find a proper replacement for Miyazaki.

So Suzuki engineered Goro Miyazaki’s controversial directorial debut, and invited audiences to come and see the car-crash. That lured Miyazaki himself back for Ponyo. That’s where they started the “We Made This” alphabetical credit listings, which conveniently obscured the fact that Miyazaki didn’t actually direct Arrietty! He engineered the father-son team-up on Poppy Hill, and got audiences to see that. Then he lured Miyazaki back for absolutely anything he wanted, no matter how controversial, so he could go out with The Wind Rises. He’s played Miyazaki (and the public) like a fiddle! He’s managed to stretch the heritage of Ghibli since 2006 with only two genuine Hayao Miyazaki movies. But after The Wind Rises, it really is over. Ghibli has to admit it’s got no more features in it that are going to trounce the next five rivals at the Japanese box office. It’s a brutal, accountants’ decision, but it’s based on firm evidence from the last decade that not even the Ghibli name on a film will guarantee that it will match the success of a Hayao Miyazaki film.

Laputa_Robot_on_Roof_of_Museum_-_CopyBut that’s not good enough for distributors, and it’s not good enough for exhibitors. Cinemas are fixed sites, they need more product. July is going to happen whether or not the film studios have something suitable for a vacation tent-pole movie.

The Ghibli Museum turns over US$7.5 million a year, just on admissions. Throw in the restaurant and the gift shop, and the museum is making its owners a modest movie’s worth of revenue every year, just by managing Ghibli’s own legacy. It doesn’t need to make any more films – in fact, doing so would risk compromising the brand. It just needs to keep the conversation going. It needs people like us talking about it like it’s still there, so people remember they want to take their kids to see the giant fluffy Catbus.

So what does it mean when they say The Red Turtle is a coproduction? Is Ghibli just putting its name on it, like it did with the Japanese releases of Aardman films? I’m guessing that Ghibli is slightly more involved in investment than that, but not in actual animation. The Red Turtle will be imitation Ghibli, ‘inspired by Ghibli’, and it’s an experiment to see if a Ghibli imprimatur is enough to get a movie a healthy box office return; and if it doesn’t work, they’ve got plausible deniability to edge it out of the studio history. It’ll be a tenth of Miyazaki numbers, but it’ll keep that conversation going for another year. There will be a Red Turtle exhibition at the Ghibli Museum. Ghibli will keep trending. This is legacy management with very modest expectations. Everybody will be pleasantly surprised if The Red Turtle is a box office smash, but I don’t think anyone is expecting it.

This isn’t new. We’ve seen a lot of this lately, where studios will rent out their IP to someone else and take 5% off the top. A Nigerian Astro Boy? An Indian Star of the Giants? A Wachowski Speed Racer? Ghibli has shut down its feature production arm, but what the hell, if someone else wants to take the risk, Ghibli will put in 5% of the effort for 5% of the returns. This is anime Moneyball.

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Is there a “Miyazaki tradition” being passed on, even though Ghibli is not making features with its own directors?

That’s the conversation Ghibli wants us to keep having. Come and see this movie, to see if the director is The One! Will he save us? Is he the anime messiah? Or are we stuck hereafter with otaku-bait that can’t fill a single cinema for more than a couple of weeks?

That’s why Toei’s risk with Shinkai is so interesting. Shinkai has no trouble pulling in audiences on the small circuit. A Shinkai movie is usually a much more bespoke event. He makes a lot of personal appearances when his films go on tour, so it’s not just a trip to the cinema, it’s a trip to the cinema to see the director and get him to sign the DVD.

“Events” are a small but growing part of the Japanese cinema model, because if you have a small otaku audience, then you want to make sure they spend triple the usual money on a trip to the cinema. It’s not just about popcorn, it’s about T-shirts and phone cases, and often the limited edition Blu-ray. You limit and target the availability of the merchandise, and you make sure that you provide an experience which can’t be pirated. People are ripping off the software all the time, but Shinkai’s not going to sign a pirate copy, not of his movie nor the novel spin-off. He’s not going to shake your hand while you’re downloading the torrent.

“Events” at the moment are worth less than 5% of Toei’s revenue, but that’s a huge increase on just five years ago. It’s taking Japanese cinema back a hundred years to the days of the benshi and a cinema experience as a form of live vaudeville. But Kimi no Na Wa is different because it’s being touted, as you say, as a summer tent-pole movie. Shinkai can’t go to every screening; they can’t spread him that thinly. They’ll do some glad-handing for the hard-core fans at the premiere events, and hope that there’s enough momentum to keep it going with the general public. Watch the marketing on Kimi no Na wa, because I bet Toei goes all-out on interactivity. I bet they steal an idea from Mai Mai Miracle and try to engage the consumers with lobby exhibits. I bet they come up with a hashtag on social media and try and drag everybody into it. They are going to have to do this, because most of the users are going to have to bring their own event.

Look at the title, for God’s sake! They’ve called it Kimi no Na wa because I bet you half the general public will think it’s a remake. There was a radio series of the same name in the 1950s, adapted for TV in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s. Half the eyeballs for this movie’s advertising will only look because they think it’s something else. Much of the social media trending for this film will be people telling their confused friends that it’s not what they think it is. That’s some smart mockbuster marketing to get their attention. Then the pressure’s on Shinkai to keep it.

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Or is the Miyazaki legacy (including his box office supremacy) in danger from not only Hollywood hits like Frozen, but also domestic trends?

I think everyone would love it if there were a domestic trend that could compete with Miyazaki’s numbers. I don’t think there is. Everyone has to dial down their expectations to a level where domestic anime earn the kind of money they did in the 1980s, not the 2000s (or rather, the kind of money that people have earned all the way through if they are not Hayao Miyazaki). That’s the problem with movie punditry. Everybody wants to talk about the outliers. The successes are outliers! Miyazaki was an outlier. The general trend is much more modest in terms of returns, and Miyazaki’s success has hidden that for a generation.

Frozen is a red herring – Disney cartoons have always outperformed domestic product at the Japanese box office, with the exception of Miyazaki movies. A much more long-term issue is CG, because the stats for CG make it abundantly obvious that Japanese movies are getting their ass kicked by computer animation. Japanese movies are still struggling to compete with CG, because even when they get a hit like Stand By Me Doraemon, it’s not exportable like a Miyazaki movie. Nobody wants it abroad because nobody knows what Doraemon is; part of the film’s domestic success was because of the blue-chip marketability of the Doraemon brand, which still doesn’t travel far outside Japan.

Of course, it does export to China, but what happened there? Stand By Me Doraemon wasn’t in the 34 movie quota for foreign movies in Chinese cinemas. The Japanese had to sell it for a lump-sum and take no further profits. That’s not growing a business, that’s treading water and hoping that something will happen.

China’s the elephant in the room in all of this, because it’s the largest possible new market for Japanese animation, but Japanese animation is made to feel very unwelcome in formal distribution channels. It’s censored, it’s banned, it’s shut out of theatre exhibition. There are only two brands that get any love in China: Studio Ghibli and Makoto Shinkai…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Parks and Recreation

ikiru2News arrives from Okinawa that a retired artist has donated 300 million yen (that’s £1.5 million) to the Zenda Forest Park in Kumejima, Okinawa, to make a Children’s Interaction Centre. He even designed it for them! What a kind old man, like that guy in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, who devotes his twilight years to getting some swings in the local playground. It helps that the philanthropist in question is Hayao Miyazaki, and it should come as no surprise that the Zenda park is getting something of a reputation as a home away from home for displaced refugees from the Fukushima disaster.

So Miyazaki gets to do some more for the kids, and to return to his trademark ecological themes in a new way. One wonders, perhaps, if the park’s layout might be expected to have a bit of input from his son, Goro, a former landscape gardener whose career in anime has hardly set the world on fire.

Miyazaki’s interest in parks and playgrounds has been a recurring feature of recent years. His recently-translated Turning Point devotes more space to discussing the Studio Ghibli crèche than to his latest movie, as Miyazaki exhorts his fellow animators to observe the film’s target audience in their natural habitat. But his studio has also got a park of its own, the famous Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, which generates a movie’s worth of income every year.

How does it manage it? Firstly, it carefully kettles its customers, insisting on pre-booked entries to ensure that the staff are neither left short-handed nor idle. Then it promises exclusive experiences, including Ghibli short films that can only be seen at the museum. Then there’s the restaurant and the gift shop… but it’s a much classier affair than your average theme park. Miyazaki and his fellow designers put incredible effort into visualising the experience from a child’s eye view, with pathways that make it possible to wander but never to get lost, and little easter-eggs visible only if you are meter high.

The Ghibli Museum and the plans for Zenda demonstrate only too well that Miyazaki truly is one of a kind. You won’t get that sort of treatment from the people who brought you Transformers.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History (UK/US). This article first appeared in NEO #140, 2015.

The Anime Erotic

crisis-header11.jpgAt the request of the Czech convention Animefest earlier this year, I reprised my infamous speech on the Anime Erotic — a transcript of which can be found in my book Schoolgirl Milky Crisis (US/UK). The speech has now been uploaded onto Youtube with English subtitles and, soon, I am told, subtitles in Czech. You can watch it here.

And of course, my Wrong About Anime speech from the Animefest two years earlier, is still available here.

Nakama Britannica

The folks over at Nakama Britannica have moved heaven and earth to get their podcast interview with me, Jonathan Clements, out in time for Scotland Loves Anime. If you’re at all interested in the history and direction of the anime industry, there is a lot of information in here, real-world statistics and behind-the-scenes gossip. You can download the podcast here.

0:00 The loss of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, the great unseen anime, disappeared from the record in an unfortunate boating accident. Scotland Loves Anime — the logistics of getting Japanese guests to Glasgow. And a quick plug for my latest book, the new translation of the Art of War.

10:00 What is anime? Nowhere near as dull a question as it sounds, leading to all sorts of gossip about the battle for anime’s soul between the spirits of Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki. Includes the words: “Communists”, “witchhunts” and “crappy”.

20:00 Anime as Soft Power. The size of otakudom. The meaning of TV ratings. How anime form follows function. How much is the anime business worth? Includes the words: “chimpanzee”, “over-engineering” and “popular”.

30:00 What is a silver otaku? The impact of Heidi and Yamato.The phenomenology of fandom and misremembering Evangelion and Gundam. The influence of Tadao Nagahama and Yoshiyuki Tomino. Includes the words “pander”, “toss” and “Aznable”.

40:00 Traditional concepts of storytelling, and how unlikely you are to find them. How “traditional” was the Hakkenden. The ethics of tying anime directors to chairs and slapping them. Noh drama and Gasaraki. Jinzo Toriumi’s Introduction to Anime Scenario Writing. Includes the words: “fallacy”, “posh” and “pervy”.

47:00 Wimmin. Do 125 million Japanese people all like hentai? The demographics of female anime fans and the birth of Noitamina. Fujiko Mine and the line between sexy and sexist. The role of women within the anime industry. Includes the words: “mind bleach”, “boobs” and “jellyfist”.

57:00 The chivalry of chauvinism and its impact on anime staff rosters. The evolutionary role of colour recognition. Women in powerful positions, like CLAMP. Includes the words: “xerography”, “concordance” and “primal.”

67:00 Aloha Higa and the unpleasantness over Polar Bear Cafe. How many fingers am I holding up? Includes the words: “sod off”, “Disney”, and “torpid”.

69:00 The nature of originality: giant robots and schoolgirl witches. Downton Abbey the anime, and what a production committee might do to it. Creativity within limits. Includes the words: “tropes”, “Metallica” and “Minovsky particles”.

73:00 Three trends for the future: Kickstarter, mobiles and China. The size of the informal anime market. Issues for intellectual property. What’s changed in Sino-Japanese relations since the publication of the Dorama Encyclopedia. Includes the words: “crowd-sourcing”, “Margaret Thatcher cyborg”, and “sandwich-making”.

84:00 The Death Note backlash in north-east China. Cosplay in China. And goodbye. Includes the words “boobs” and “grabbed”.

The Shadow Staff

In the new issue of Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal:

Despite the attention paid by Japanese animation historians to cartoon propaganda films made during the Second World War, twice as much animation may have been produced in the period for military instructional films. These films, now lost, were made by a group of animators seconded to the Tōhō Aviation Education Materials Production Office (Tōhō Kōkū Kyōiku Shiryō Seisaku-sho). Occasionally running for five or six reels (c. 48 minutes), and in one case consisting of a feature-length eight reels, they form the missing link between the one- and two-reel shorts of the 1930s and Japanese animation’s first feature, Momotarō Umi no Shinpei (1945, Momotarō’s Divine Sea Warriors). The films included tactical tips for the pilots who would bomb Pearl Harbor, short courses in identifying enemy ships, and an introduction to combat protocols for aircraft carrier personnel. This article reconstructs the content and achievement of the Shadow Staff from available materials, and considers its exclusion from (and restoration to) narratives of the Japanese animation industry.

Scooby-Who?

My review of Iwao Takamoto’s posthumously published memoirs is up online now at the Manga Entertainment UK blog; one of several articles recently on the blog that aim to commemorate creatives of Japanese ethnic origin who work in America. Other articles in the same series have included Andrew Osmond on Jimmy Murakami and there are a couple more in the pipeline.

Tea Time

An unexpected highlight of the Scotland Loves Anime Festival has turned out to be a surreal quest narrative that has been screened before every film on offer in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It’s the new advert for Twinings tea, “Getting You Back to You”, (see it here) and according to its makers, is intended as an allegory of ten minutes of “me-time”.

“Women today juggle such a wide variety of roles, on a day to day basis, whether it is being a mother, housekeeper, cook, employee or friend. Recent research has revealed that women all over the UK are so focused on looking after others, they do not have the opportunity to take any “me-time”, and as a result are sometimes left forgetting who they really are.”

By “recent research”, I think they mean a focus group at Red magazine, but rediscoveries of the wheel aside, the Twinings advert brings to mind a subject that has been recurring throughout the festival, and particularly at the Education Day on Friday. Here we are, at a week-long series of events dedicated to animation, including not only Scotland Loves Anime, but also showcases for Polish animators and presentations from Aardman and a workshop from Axis. And yet the animated works seen on the most occasions, by the most attendees, regardless of what they actually paid to see, are commercials.

Psyop, the company that made the Twinings advert, are the latest in a long line of animators who have used advertising as a patron of the arts. All three presentations at the Education Day showed commercials as part of their studio showcase, and noted that it was a far better way of paying the bills than animating stick-men in a garret and waiting to be discovered.

The Twinings advert has met with repeated hilarity at Scottish screenings, largely, I think, because some people have confused it with a festival bonus film, only to discover that they are being sold a cup of tea. But in terms of generating interest in the product, it already has people talking. Since part of my job here is to introduce the films, I have had to sit through the adverts before every single one, and have been noting the number of times that animation plays a part. Red Bull, entirely animated. M&Ms, integrating animation and live-action. Even Orange, in their “Phone Break” satire, have had to pay someone to go away and make the “Phone Break” animation that appears on movie screens as part of the advert.

I’ve written elsewhere about the most widely seen piece of Japanese animation in 1958, which, contrary to expectations, was not the feature-length colour movie Hakujaden, but a 60-second commercial for Torys Whisky. The recent book Anime-gaku claims that up to 70% of early Japanese commercials used animation in some form, even if it was just a simple graphic presentation of the way that an indigestion tablet worked, or a striking product logo. This has always been the way, and the Festival Director Andrew Partridge and I will be discussing the presence, absence and enduring value of short animation at our Q&A later today.

But first I have to go in for my last day of duties. Firstly, herding cats at the festival jury, in order to pick our winner. Still no name for the award. I have suggested the “Golden Partridge”. Someone else has mooted the Scotland Loves Anime Vaginahands Homodolphin. I think we’ll just call it the Judges’ Award. Then I have Ryosuke Takahashi for a Q&A on his career and an introduction to the Tekken movie. OH…I nearly forgot, I am off to London on the sleeper tonight. I’d better pack!