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.


The Day Heidi was Born

Over at the All the Anime website, I review Kaori Chiba’s new Japanese-language book on Heidi, Girl of the Alps, the landmark anime series that carved out an entire niche in evening programming.

“Chiba deals with the anime’s planning, the shooting of its pilot, and the crew’s location hunt in Switzerland, wherein Miyazaki, Takahata and their long-term collaborator Yoichi Kotabe descend like dervishes on the farmhouse of a baffled local family, demanding to photograph their kitchen table and their cows. From Maienfeld, they head up to Ulm and Frankfurt, soaking up the metropolitan imagery for Heidi’s later adventures in Germany.

“Chiba devotes ample space to the production of the first episode – the scoring of the music, the theme song, and the auditions for the voice actors, the character designs and the backgrounds. It’s only towards the end of the book that her account takes a darker tone, drawing on the complaints of the staff, particularly Miyazaki himself in many later articles and interviews, that television animation was a brutal, relentless, unending task, gobbling up talent and time. The animators put their all into Heidi, only to find that television networks greet its manifest quality with an indifferent shrug.”

The Phantom Pippi Longstocking

Up on the All the Anime blog, my article on the aborted Pippi Longstocking anime project that caused Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Yoshio Kotabe to walk off their jobs at Toei and jump feet-first into the world of television.

“There is no real evidence for [Astrid] Lindgren’s reluctance at the Japanese end, apart from a cryptic comment from Tokyo Movie’s Keishi Yamazaki, who thought that she had once said in a TV programme that Japanese animation was ‘too violent’. Where on Earth she got that idea from in 1971 is anyone’s guess — I like to imagine a Stockholm tea-time coven of famous children’s authors, complaining about foreign cartoons.”

Who Will Make Anime Now?

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Tadashi Sudo’s just-published book on disruptions to the Japanese animation business.

“Sudo’s book is no simple statement of the obvious. Despite its pocket size, it is an admirable synthesis of two decades of anime business writing, and of the immense changes wrought upon the industry by developments in technology and shifts in demographics. China is, sensibly, a huge part of his argument, as he deals with the seemingly unsolvable problem of pushing Japanese products into a marketplace with willing fans but hostile gatekeepers. He not only points to the disruption of traditional models, but also the growing influence of the likes of Netflix and Amazon in how anime is watched, and how it is funded in the first place. He also deals directly with issues of single personalities, and how they might be expected to influence the business.”

The Have-a-Go Hero

your-name-680It’s a familiar set-up for fans of anime director Makoto Shinkai. In his latest, Your Name, a boy and a girl have never met, but are still intimately connected by a mysterious switching of their personalities.

Shinkai often writes about distance – sometimes the micro-gestures that define how two people feel about each other when they are sitting on a bench; sometimes the time-lag between the sending of a phone message and its reception. But that’s not what made Makoto Shinkai famous. He became the poster boy for an entire generation of animation fans because his debut video release, Voices from a Distant Star, was made single-handed.

Or was it? Although he used off-the-shelf software, it helped that he could liberate the most expensive pro tools from his day-job at a computer games company. And by the time the public saw it, it had been buffed up with an injection of cash and manpower from Shinkai’s new patrons. But print the legend: Voices was an anime hit, made by a computer nerd in his living room!

Shinkai bypassed the usual route to an animation career, but that didn’t come without a price. He was propelled into movies, even though he had no apprenticeship in running a studio, and no experience in writing long. Hopeful hype rashly proclaimed him as the next Miyazaki, a ludicrous assertion to make about 31-year-old first-time feature director. His first full-length feature, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, was unremarkable, leading him to drift back into shorts amid whispers that he might have peaked too early. His next work, 5cm Per Second was a far more accomplished, emotionally compelling work, but comprised three linked shorts that fell seven tantalising minutes short of feature length.

Forget the Miyazaki comparison. Shinkai has much more in common with Charlotte Church (no, bear with me…!), an undeniable talent, successful at a perilously young age, and forced to learn the ropes of a more mature career path while trapped in the public eye. Shinkai has literally not had the time to make the mistakes and discover the skills that other animators hone over a decade. His particular style is often born from the things he never got around to learning, like photo-real backgrounds suffused with wondrous sunsets and dappled lighting effects to obscure the fact they’ve been ripped off from real photos.

your-nameIn the first flush of his success in 2008, he ducked out of the industry for several months and became an English student in London. His idle days spent mooching around the British Museum, he said, helped inspire his second feature Journey to Agartha. But Journey to Agartha was something of a flop – a bloated, half-hearted fantasy epic that evoked a meeting of accountants trying desperately to reverse-engineer the appeal of the retiring Hayao Miyazaki.

Shinkai’s follow-up was a bold return to his fannish roots, the 40-minute Garden of Words, about a student and a teacher who play truant in a Tokyo park. Garden of Words was a triumph – a thoughtful, bittersweet platonic romance, distributed in a bespoke, small-cinema format in which, more often than not, the director himself was in attendance, ready to sell you a signed DVD on your way out. At the time of its release, as its box office swiftly climbed, he gingerly told me that it was liable to steer his future productions. Money-men were sure to determine that his next movie should be another romance, not sci-fi. The fantasy elements in Your Name are liable to have been smuggled in by the back door.

Now in his forties, Shinkai continues to live in the glare of publicity, now as the first Japanese animator to be in competition at the London Film Festival. But he also has something of the geek made good about him, barricading himself in his hotel room to complete the next instalment of the novelisation of his own movie, and using his clout as a film maker to fulfil the occasional nerdy dream. I asked him why he had cast Fumi Hirano, the actress who played devil-girl Lum in Urusei Yatsura, as the teacher in Garden of Words.

“Well,” he blushed. “I’d always fancied her…”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Your Name opens throughout the UK on 24th November. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #14, 2016.

Alone with Goldorak

Liliane Lurçat’s A cinq ans, seul avec Goldorak: Le jeune enfant et la télévision (1981) may have been the first book written about anime outside Japan, although it is really about viewers’ responses to something that happens to be anime. It remains a meticulously constructed work of psychological research, by a scientist testing children’s reactions to popular television programmes. She presents an often chilling view of the effects that such a show, made for older Japanese boys several years earlier, might have had on terrified French children, left ‘at [four] years old, alone with Goldorak.’

We might consider the degree to which viewers respond to what they think is on the screen – a possible issue of both ignorance and aesthetics, not in a historical sense, but a perceptual one. When Lurçat (1981: 25-6) asks her child interviewees if the ‘giant robot’ Goldorak really exists, she receives a dizzying array of responses. Lurçat herself notes (1981: 25) that the question is ambiguous – there is, after all, such a thing as Goldorak on television, and even toys that bear its name. It has both a ‘materiality’ and ‘an existence within the animated spectacle’. The children’s replies cannot even agree on the material of Goldorak’s construction, claiming that it is made of stone, or of wood, or is ‘a robot’. Tellingly, one boy calls Goldorak a ‘marionette’ and eight of Lurçat’s respondents claim that Goldorak is ‘a man in disguise’ – either a reference to the pilot of the machine within the show, or perhaps even an indicator that the respondents were not all that sure which show they were supposed to be discussing.

At the risk of injecting a note of snide hypercriticality into the debate, not one of Lurçat’s four-year-old interviewees points out to their adult questioner that Goldorak was not actually a ‘robot’ at all, but in fact a ‘mecha‘ or pilotable machine. Acuff and Reiher (1997: 69), suggest that children under seven are not mentally equipped to understand that Goldorak is a machine operated by human agency, but that is part of Lurçat’s point – that whatever fine distinctions or equivocations an older viewer might present, the youngest audience sector sees something quite different, and indeed rather terrifying.

Lurçat’s research remains valuable three decades later, in part because few others have concentrated so exactingly on the responses of the child viewer to a single anime. We might suggest that there are elements of the Hawthorne effect here, which is to say that the very fact that the respondents were the subject of an experiment led them to articulate positions that would not have otherwise troubled them. This is not to detract from Lurçat’s achievement; even if some of her respondents merely give the answer they thought they should, Lurçat’s collated responses provocatively argue that a television can be a horrific device that invades the sanctity of childhood.

Lurçat’s study is also notable in that the word ‘Japan’ is not mentioned at any point. Unlike Ségolène Royal’s politically motivated tract, Le ras-le-bol des bébé zappeurs (1989), which articulates media violence as an unwelcome foreign import in France, Lurçat entirely ignores the nationality of her cartoon subject. True to the formalism of Reader-Response, Lurçat spends no time wondering how Goldorak came to be, who made it, or what kind of channel it has landed on. Indeed, she does not even explain what Goldorak is, apparently expecting her readership to already know its plot and themes; readers that do not may only interpret them through the stumbling explanations of the infant interviewees.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade.

Before the Dawn

Nobuyuki Tsugata has already published books on the careers of Osamu Tezuka and the pioneering animation of Seitaro Kitayama, as well as broader studies of anime history as a whole. Last year he co-edited Anime-gaku, the first truly successful attempt to discursively construct ‘anime studies’ as an object of knowledge, delineating Japanese animation as a field of academic enquiry in and of itself, rather than as a subset of film, business, culture, media or any other discipline. And while far too many of his international colleagues continue to fritter away their lives in endless studies of What Some Fans I Met Think of Some Anime They’ve Seen, Tsugata continues to soldier on in the dusty archives of anime history and biography, rescuing forgotten sectors of the business, and mounting persuasive arguments that expand the nature of anime as we know it.

As so often happens in the media, artistic heritage is often left in the hands of the people who made it in the first place – usually because nobody else really cares until it’s too late. Japanese animation history is dominated by the twin big-bangs of Toei Animation and Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Pro, in part because they resulted in works and workflows that can still be found today. What about all those other studios that fell by the wayside or didn’t have a publicity-hungry manager at the helm? What about all those studios that churned out work that never got collated on DVD or shown at film festivals?

As Tsugata notes in the introduction to his latest Japanese-language book, Before the Dawn of Television Anime, it’s like some areas on the map of anime history are still marked terra incognita. Many people have at least heard of TCJ (Television Corporation of Japan), mainly because this commercial animation company, since renamed Eiken, is still at work today, most famously as the production house that makes the TV series Sazae-san. But TCJ’s advertising past, usually dismissed in a single line before discussion of its TV programming output, was truly massive, amounting to more than 1400 cartoon adverts between 1954 and 1960 (and more than 2200 if you include those live ads for which TCJ provided animated diagrams or titles).

Tsugata’s focus is not merely on forgotten byways of anime history, but also on forgotten geography. Although it is widely known that the Japanese animation industry, along with many other forms of production, relocated to the Kansai region after the devastating Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, Tsugata argues that Kansai remained the centre of Japanese animation for the next three decades, only ceding primacy to Tokyo with the establishment of Toei Animation in 1956. His narrative picks delicately at the Tokyo-centred bias of other Japanese books, pointing out that many landmark events in Japanese media, including, for example, the irresistible rise of Osamu Tezuka, actually ‘happened’ in Kansai. He also notes that Toei’s own press and self-commemoration has largely overshadowed the achievements of Saga Studio, a Kansai start-up, also established in 1956, which played a highly influential role in the first decade of Japanese animated commercials.

Tsugata diligently chronicles the perils of anime historiography. The men and women who churned out thousands of cartoon commercials in Kansai were not part of the academic conversation about what anime was. Hardly anyone has bothered to remember their work, because their work was usually the bit that happened in between the TV shows, and before the main features that anime historians actually bother to write about. This is despite the fact that the Kansai area studios turned an impressive buck, undeniably formed a part of the 1950s zeitgeist, and displayed a mastery and economy of line that must have made animation in the 1950s look considerably less ‘Japanese’ than it did after 1963. Tsugata’s cover includes one such image from several dotted throughout his book: a charming, dynamic layout of a pilot scattering leaflets from his plane, drawn as part of an Osaka Eiga commercial for a local prefectural election.

Tsugata has never been afraid of doing the legwork, scraping information from wherever he can. In his biography of Seitaro Kitayama, he famously reconstructed part of Kitayama’s 1920s studio output in true Blade Runner style, by enlarging a staff photograph to read the schedule stuck to the wall in the background. For Before the Dawn of Television Anime, he diligently tracks down the surviving industry veterans, now with an average age of seventy, and gathers testimonials that restore much of the Kansai story to narratives of anime history.

These teams, often working out of pokey six-mat rooms and identifiable only by the occasional initials in the corners of their sketches, were responsible for the animation in some of the iconic Japanese adverts of the 20th century, including commercials for Nisshin Cup Noodles, Vick’s Cough Drops and Matsushita Electrics. Some of their works were 90-second narratives, others merely ten instructional seconds inside a commercial filed as “live action”, but with a little animated section explaining how cockroach spray works, or how menthol clears out your tubes. They were also responsible for the creation of iconic characters such as Yanbo and Mabo, the twin tykes who shilled for Yanma Diesel, ubiquitous in the 1960s but forgotten now because they didn’t appear in the kind of anime that gets archived or remembered.

Tsugata’s narrative also fills in a gap in accounts of “art” animation, revealing how art-house animators like the award-winning Renzo Kinoshita actually paid the bills while tinkering with their high-brow creations. Far too many researchers seem to assume that art-house animators spend all day sitting in garrets playing with sandtables, supported by some magical and secret government super-subsidy, whereas many of them, including the Oscar-winning Kunio Kato, have day-jobs that often get left off the resumés that are sent to film festivals. I wish such information was made available more frequently, as it might smack a degree of realism into the aspirations of some arts students. Tsugata does not shy away from it, and reveals that far from working in an adman vacuum, the animators of the Kansai set had strong and often reciprocal connections with big-name animators like Noburo Ofuji and Hakusan Kimura (himself the founder of Osaka Eiga in 1960).

Tsugata finishes with an outline of the vestiges of the old Kansai anime tradition, as kept alive by such companies as today’s Kyoto Animation. He also returns to a subject familiar from some of his earlier books: the little-discussed admission that even the big names in Tokyo were keen on ad revenue to pay the bills. Tsugata has argued before that Toei Animation itself was set up partly in anticipation of the money that could be made from the expansion of commercial Japanese television in the 1950s, and staff from Mushi Pro have admitted that they used to get paid a lot better making adverts with Astro Boy in them, than they did making Astro Boy itself.

His conclusion recalled a passage I had read elsewhere, in the posthumously published memoirs of the animator Soji Ushio, who had once decided to visit the famous canal-side studio building where the renowned Iwao Ashida had made many of the big animated splashes of the 1950s. Instead, when he arrived at the address, the canal had been filled in, the studio itself had been turned into a tatami shop, and there was no sign of the man whose company Ashida Manga Eiga had once been the biggest name in the Japanese animation medium. How soon they forget.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade.