Floating Worlds

Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Maria Roberta Novielli’s Floating Worlds: A Short History of Japanese Animation, which sadly misses the opportunity it sets itself to be a “History of Short Japanese Animation”. There’s a moment when you think she’s really going for it, and she’s really going to try to tell the story of Japanese animation through the arthouse and what wins awards at festivals, but such a solid methodology doesn’t quite materialise. Instead, it turns into a largely unreferenced narrative of Japanese animation history with some odd inclusions and some even odder omissions.

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The Music of Yoko Kanno

Up on the All the Anime blog, my review of Rose Bridges’ new book about the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack of Yoko Kanno. “Kanno’s work has shown a constant ability to create a unifying theme to the music she supplies to particular shows, even if they include polyphonic chants in Zentraedi, bagpipes, bongos and a song whose lyrics entirely comprise the recitation of pi to two dozen decimal places.”

Promiscuous Media

Up on the All the Anime blog, I review Hikari Hori’s new book Promiscuous Media: Film and Visual Culture in Imperial Japan 1926-1945, which has an entire chapter on the development of animated propaganda.

“Animation forms a crucial component of Hori’s book – a fair reflection not of mere scholarly bias, but of a contemporary sense of its transnational value. No less a figure than the film theorist Taihei Imamura argues that animation and newsreels should form the prime media unleashed on Japan’s South Sea colonies, to soften them up for acculturation. Animation hence gets an entire chapter to itself regarding the attempts to form a uniquely Japanese style. In this, Hori cites both the wonders of Disney and the glove thrown by the Wan Brothers with their Princess Iron Fan in China, which already established a bunch of specifically ‘Chinese’ tropes. She notes that when Princess Iron Fan was screened in Japanese cinemas, it was shown on a double bill with the paratrooper documentary Divine Sky Warriors, perhaps explaining why animation and paratroops might occur to the Navy as a reasonable subject for Japan’s first feature-length cartoons.”

Chinese Animation… Again

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Wu Weihua’s new book on Chinese animation.

“Wu dedicates an entire chapter to the cultural impact of imported animation, beginning with the relatively obscure anime feature Taro the Dragon Boy in 1979, and followed swiftly by Astro Boy on television in 1982 (I presume that this was the 1980 colour remake, not Tezuka’s 1963 original), and a flood of both Japanese and American cartoons. Astro Boy, in particular, rode the spirit of the times, encapsulating the pro-science message of the Deng Xiaoping era, when Chinese science fiction experienced a brief boom in futurist speculation. Again, to split hairs from an industrial perspective, I would point out that from 1979 onwards, many of the “foreign” cartoons coming into China were also partly made there, although as before, this does not necessarily detract from the critical arguments that Wu is repeating.

“Foreign rivals were in it to win it. Wu recounts the arrival of Hasbro in the early 1980s, which baffled the Chinese by handing the complete run of its Transformers cartoon series to broadcasters in Beijing and Shanghai. At first, it seemed insane, simply dumping a cartoon for free… until the toy stores started to fill up with robots. The pay-off from that era is highly visible today, not only in the blockbuster Chinese success of the Transformers movie franchise, but in Decepticon decals on half the boy-racer cars I see in Chinese cities.”

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.”

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.