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 lead’s mother 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.

Digital Disruption

My review of Iordanova and Cunningham’s Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves On-Line is up now on the Manga UK blog. It’s a very interesting walk through some of the issues facing “cinema” and “broadcasting”, in a globalised economy where nobody wants to pay for anything.

I particularly like the authors’ decision to eschew content, access and production, and to talk about matters of exhibition and distribution, which are all too often overlooked in film studies.


From the very outset, Iwao Takamoto (1925-2007) was torn between his parents’ birthplace of Japan, and his own homeland of America. His autobiography, Iwao Takamoto: My Life With a Thousand Characters, notes the uneasy situation in 1930s America, where Japanese immigrants were not permitted US citizenship, effectively ensuring that Takamoto grew up with a different nationality to his parents.

As a Japanese-American growing up during WW2, Takamoto’s dual ethnicity was a constant concern. He and his family were carted off to an incarceration camp in 1942, and spent the latter years of the war kicking their heels in the middle of the desert. As one inmate waggishly commented, if the Japanese win the war, Takamoto will be sent back to the camp, this time because he is American.

In 1945, Takamoto guilelessly turned up with a hastily drawn set of samples at Disney, where he was hired on the spot – it turned out that his ability to knock out a book full of sketches to order actually trumped the more considered portfolios of his fellow applicants. He arrived at a cash-strapped studio that had only made it through the 1940s on wartime government contracts, and which suddenly had to make money from entertainment cartoons again. His contributions included sequences and designs in Cinderella and Lady & the Tramp. There’s one intriguing aside where Takamoto brings up the subject of Yusaku Nakagawa, an animator sent from Japan to Disney to learn how things are done (and although Takamoto does not mention this, also the little brother of a famous Japanese film star). This is the same “Steve” Nakagawa who ends up a generation later working on a number of Japanese-American co-productions, including Frosty the Snowman and the ill-starred Metamorphoses, although there are allusions to behind-the-scenes skulduggery which kept his name off the credits.

In 1961, Takamoto ended up at Hanna-Barbera Productions, where he would eventually become “creative producer” – a made-up title for a series of responsibilities that, in Japan, would be parsed as character designer and supervising director. Takamoto would often be the point man who created specific looks and characters, storyboarded early shows, and then departed to set up the next project, leaving his creations to live on without him. He threw himself into work on The Flintstones, a show that had already established that it was, much to many animators’ surprise, possible to make a half-hour weekly TV show. He created characters for Wacky Races and Hong Kong Phooey, and most memorably came up with the “comedy dog” for a detective show who soon took over. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, with its counter-intuitive exclamation mark, is surely Takamoto’s most enduring creation, and dominated kids’ TV in America for decades. For what it’s worth, Takamoto also notes that he has always thought Scrappy-Doo was “a crummy idea.”

The autobiography itself is a work of academic brinkmanship. Takamoto died as the book was being laid out, which only adds to the sense of legacy and elegy in this excellent memoir. His collaborator Michael Mallory is deftly invisible, leaving Takamoto himself to do all the talking, in a story that spans six decades of animation, as well as tall tales of indoor archery and abuse of thumbtacks. Although of Japanese ancestry, Takamoto was never a “Japanese” animator, but his life-story only goes to demonstrate the transnational quality of the animation business – as The Jetsons is aired in Japan, in turn inspiring Tezuka to make Astro Boy, Go-Bots is made by the Taiwanese studio set up by Hanna-Barbera’s own James Wang, and Scooby-Doo ends up dubbed into Japanese under the hands of Satoshi Kato, an alumnus of Tezuka’s Mushi Production, who also worked on anime such as Berserk, Space Adventure Cobra and Tomorrow’s Joe.

In later years, Takamoto became less of an animator and more of a brand. Following the takeover of Hanna-Barbera by Warner Bros in 2001, Takamoto was wheeled out in countless public appearances at Warners stores around the world, to sign sketches and shill for merchandise. He seems to have embraced this “ambassadorial” role with great gusto, and gleefully reports his unexpected celebrity late in life, even down to the “respect” accorded him by unnamed rap stars when he appeared on The Big Breakfast.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Iwao Takamoto: My Life with a Thousand Characters is published by the University Press of Mississippi. This article originally appeared on the Manga UK blog in May 2012. It has been reshared here after that site was disappeared in the 2021 Funimation putsches.

The Shadow Line

My review of Ramon Lobato’s Shadow Economies of Cinema is up online now at the Manga Entertainment blog. There’s plenty of food for thought there about copyright enclosures, informal distribution networks, and what exactly pirates get up to. It’s not a student with two linked video recorders… there’s much more to it than that.

Anime's Media Mix

My review of Marc Steinberg’s new book Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan, is up now on the Manga UK blog. It’s an incisive study of the way in which patterns of consumption have changed in Japan since 1963, placing Astro Boy and Haruhi Suzumiya front and centre in the story of how passive viewers have transformed into active fans.

2011: The Year in Anime Books

For the last few years, it has been my mission to read through as many Japanese books about anime as possible, with special concentration on personal testimonies from the animators themselves. And I have been annotating as I go. For some reason, many of the people who write books about anime are allergic to indices, so I have been writing my own, of dozens upon dozens of memoirs and biographies, in order to build up a picture of the way the anime business looks to the people who actually work in it. The concordance is currently at 230 typed pages, although I think it will hit 300 before I am done. The work has functioned as a sort of audit of what people think they know about the business they work in, and has allowed me to chart several memes and misconceptions from their birth through to their establishment as industry lore.

And so my neck-deep wade through Japanese-language books on anime has continued, most recently with the NTT collection of scholarly essays Anime in Transition (or Anime Across Borders? or Anime Transnational?). The book is something of a landmark, forming an entire volume of the eight-part Japanese Film is Alive series from Iwanami Shoten, and hence perhaps redeeming anime as just as reasonable a field of study as, say, documentary, performance or audience. Notably, however, five of the eleven chapters in the book are written by foreign authors, with the likes of Marc Steinberg, Thomas Lamarre and Hu Tze-yue providing commentary and perspectives that the Japanese seem unwilling or unable to provide themselves. Is Japanese academia on animation really that lacking in local heroes, or is this a form of auto-orientalism, with the Japanese lapping up foreign attention as a means of validating their own interests in such an unlikely, unloved field as animation studies?

I’d believe it if NTT Shuppan had not answered within the year with an all-Japanese collection. There is no question about the anime book of the year 2011 — that award surely goes to Anime Studies, edited by Mitsuteru Takahashi and the omnipresent Nobuyuki Tsugata. Anime Studies contains ten chapters of detailed commentary on many interesting areas in the anime field, including education, intellectual property and national animation policy. The authors include academics, but also producers and directors, most notably with a chunky section from Ryosuke Takahashi about Tezuka’s anime “revolution”. Anime Studies is the book to which I wish every Western scholar had access, laden with charts and diagrams explaining the way that modern anime works, but also with informed references to peripheral areas, and, that greatest rarity in books on anime, a functional index.

Anime directors continued to be feted with studies and analysis, notably in books about Kenji Kamiyama and the journeyman director Keiichi Hara, now enjoying a new-found fame thanks to his breakout feature Colorful. This has also been a good year for books that analyse anime from the perspective of a producer or manager. Six years after he penned a guide to the anime business, Hiromichi Masuda writes an all-new account of the same subject, incorporating the wild ride of changes since the 2006 production peak. Meanwhile, Kinema Junpo jumps on the bandwagon with books on the below-the-line squabbles that get anime made in the first place including How to Make a Hit “Mundane” Anime and On the Job of the Anime Producer. Meanwhile, Yuichiro Oguro publishes the long-awaited second volume of his Anime Creator Interviews, collating material originally run in Animage at the beginning of the last decade.

You’ll notice, perhaps, that many of the books have dully typographical covers. In a country where Japanese studios will often charge magazines even for illustrations used to accompany rave reviews, the studios are often their own worst enemies when it comes to picture sourcing. I am pleased to note that the current crop of Japanese academics and scholars have simply given up playing the studios’ game, and instead published the texts that they want to publish, without bending over for outrageous fees or assenting to textual tampering — here’s a hello to the idiot who tried to get us to lie about the production details of his company’s movie in the Anime Encyclopedia, and who tried to use image access as the lure to make us cooperate. Anime is, assuredly, a visual medium, but I would much rather have good books published without pictures than see compromised picture-books, defanged of all their interesting content.

There is still a good deal of pretension awash in the anime field. Ani Kuri 15 DVD x Material is an infuriatingly packaged book of interviews and storyboards from the short series of NHK commercials made to order by creatives including the late Satoshi Kon, as well as Yasufumi Soejima and Shinji Kimura. Which is all very well, but it comes with a tight yet flimsy paper wraparound that is sure to tear after a single use, and includes an origami robot by way of apology.

Other books I’ve read this year have included Yuka Minakawa’s two-volume account of the “rise and fall” of Tezuka’s Mushi Production, although the fall is bundled into the final few pages. Like Eiichi Yamamoto’s much-cited 1989 Rise & Fall of Mushi Pro, the book is presented in fictionalised form, although Minakawa presents detailed references, usually to DVD sleeve-note interviews and other ephemera that might elude the more traditional scholar. I also found much of interest in Makoto Misono’s 1999 Complete Book of TV Animation, a forerunner of the Anime Studies collection that diligently attempted to create an institutional memory for television cartoons more than a decade ago. I think I bought it when working on the first edition of the Anime Encyclopedia, but I haven’t properly gone through it till now. I also stumbled across Masaki Tsuji’s long out-of-print The Youth of TV Anime, a memoir of the 1960s and 1970s by the scriptwriter of, among other things, Astro Boy, Star of the Giants and Sazae-san. It’s the last that interests me in particular, since the studio that made Sazae-san has never really had to try since. Go on: see if you can name it without opening a book or another window. It’s not all that famous, despite making Japan’s highest-rated and longest-running cartoon. Whereas other studios have to push and flash and bluster to get attention, the studio that makes Sazae-san just motors along on a job that is essentially below-the-line… certainly below the notice of many foreign fans.

In this periodic round-up, which I have previously run in 2010 and 2009, it’s usually my habit to talk about the English-language books on anime that come my way. In many cases this year, I have already reviewed them elsewhere, such as this piece on the excellent Ladd and Deneroff memoir of early anime in America. I’ve also written a glowing review of Iwao Takamoto’s autobiography, but that won’t appear until later in 2012. In others, I simply haven’t got round to them, since the Japanese-language books are prioritised ahead of them. In a couple of others, I have read them, although they were so awful that I cannot bring myself to even name them. One was an academic account so up itself as to be entirely impenetrable, including an interview with a Japanese creator who actually tells the author to piss off and talk to someone else. The other was a seemingly self-published witter about divinity in anime, by a man who couldn’t even spell Wikipedia, even as he cited it.