Out of Tune

Music producer Akihiro Tomita has fired a warning shot at anime financers with a comment about the decline of the anime theme song. Speaking at an event in Shinjuku on 9th September, Tomita observed that Netflix’s habit of chopping off the credits was a binge-watcher’s dream, but diminished the relevance of the traditional 90-second opening and ending songs.

Their purpose has been a matter of debate for generations. They used to be handy announcements that your show was starting, reinforcing the ritual of appointment television. But producers fretted that a long theme song might lure trigger-happy channel-hoppers to see what was on the other side. This was particularly an issue in the 1990s American market, where viewers might sit through the theme song to, say, Friends, only to have to then endure another commercial break before the show began. Will & Grace saw its theme tune squashed and occasionally reduced to nothing but a musical sting if the action overran in in an episode. Frasier’s opening was just a few bars on a vibraphone – lasting just seven seconds. Anime themes, however, have remained notably long, turning into a veritable juke box of tie-ins and product placement.

Tomita’s comments quietly assert the bargaining power that Netflix is enjoying behind the scenes. The online behemoth’s ability to call the shots threatens the delicate balance of many an anime production committee, most of which feature a record company among investors. So they’ll chip in 10% of the budget, but they want their new pop idol singing the theme song. And the animators don’t mind, because 90 seconds off the top and tail of every episode means they only have to make those bits once, giving them a week off every season.

Since record companies are still substantial players in the Japanese market, they are liable to want their airtime some other way. Godzilla: Planet of Monsters, for example, on which Tomita was musical director, was made by Polygon Pictures, which is part-owned by King Records. If theme songs phase out, get ready for excuses for musical interludes elsewhere within anime shows, possibly even anime musicals that make watching the songs part of the action, and animators complaining that they have to work even harder to fill up the time. But I, for one, hope the old style of theme tune stays, because I still like that ritual quality. I might even sing along, occasionally with my own made-up lyrics. You should hear me do Evangelion. “Lots of robots / And people in misery / There’s a penguin but please don’t ask me what for…” [That’s enough – Ed.]

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo. This article first appeared in NEO #181, 2018.

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Japan Station 03: Sacred Sailors

Over in Hawaii, I’m interviewed by Tony Vega for the Japan Station podcast about the incredible story of Japan’s first animated feature, Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (1943).

“In this episode we discuss the origins of Japanese animation and its fascinating history. We particularly focus on the making of Japan’s first feature-length animated film: Momotaro: Sacred Sailors (桃太郎 海の神兵, Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei). Clements talks about how this World War II era Navy funded propaganda film got made, the challenges faced by the film’s director Seo Mitsuyo, the influence of Western animation like Popeye and the 1941 Disney film Fantasia,and what people today can gain by watching this sometimes strange and often unsettling work.”

Fred Patten (1940-2018)

My obituary for anime’s First Fan in America, Fred Patten, is up now on the Anime Limited website.

‘Fred was soon scooped up by a Japanese company, Hiro Media, which hoped to off-load straight-to-video anime on the American market, although his earnest efforts to interest American fans were hampered by two issues. “Firstly,” he wrote, “they weren’t very good.”’

Scotland Loves Anime 2018

I’m back home from ten days of guest wrangling, crowd control, film-pushing and jury slapping at Scotland Loves Anime, which had a wonderful ninth year. As is becoming traditional, a round-up of the jury deliberations has been released as a podcast, in order to give the public an insight into the kind of arguments and positions involved in selecting a single winner. Jurors Roxy Simons, Kim Morrissy, Callum May and Almar Haflidason had to deal with the trade-off between immediate, gut reaction (which snagged the Audience Award for the weepy I Want to Eat Your Pancreas), versus a more objective, considered assessment (which left Penguin Highway with the Golden Partridge, controversially beating Mamoru Hosoda’s acclaimed Mirai).

Yet Another Corner

The director Sunao Katabuchi has just announced that he will be re-releasing his Hiroshima film In This Corner of the World with half an hour of bonus footage, interleaving other scenes from the original manga. I am rather surprised that everybody appears to be pleased about this, and not kvetching that they have already paid to see the film once, and now will have to pay to see it again, at a bum-numbing 159 minutes.

In This Corner is arguably a special case, since it was crowd-funded from the start, and its director might, presumably, genuinely have other bits he wants to tinker with. Art is never finished, as they say, only abandoned, and it’s easy to see why creatives given the chance to fiddle with their work will jump at the chance to improve it. One of anime’s worst-kept secrets, after all, is the number of releases that are buffed up after their hasty cinema release or TV broadcast, toshed up a little before anyone gets the chance to spot mistakes and fudges on home media.

But I’d like to register a possibly lone protest about the ongoing fetish for “director’s cuts” that, far from honing work of art a little bit closer to perfection, simply hang adornments on it in a cynical attempt to fleece customers of more money.

Culturally, there seems to be a fetish in Japan for making films as long as possible so that everyone feels that they are getting their money’s worth. I used to think this was a hold-over from the pre-video days when TV serials were re-cut for cinema release, whereby producers felt that if they couldn’t show you anything new, they could at least give you a long film. But such economies simply don’t work in the world of original anime, where every frame you see has to be painstakingly created from scratch. Whisper it, then: sometimes this is really counter-productive.

As a case in point, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, for which the film-makers actually boasted in their publicity that they had taken a taut, lean 90-minute thriller and bloated it with half an hour or unnecessary filler. Sometimes less, really is more, and I am baffled by creatives’ willingness to test the patience of their audience. Sometimes I wonder if some film-makers are really making films for human beings at all, and instead have an eye on appeasing a robot at a streaming service, that only counts minutes accessed, rather than stories told.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #180, 2018.

Jesus is My Flatmate

Morning Two’s greatest success story was a manga that began running in its very first issue, Hikaru Nakamura’s Saint Young Men. At one level, it is a slice-of-life comedy about two with-it hipsters sharing a Tokyo apartment. They squabble over vegetarian recipes; they experiment with a boutique T-shirt business, and they go shopping for noodles at the corner store. But Nakamura’s high concept has incredible bite, because these young men are really Buddha and Jesus, roughing it in an earthbound vacation.

In this month’s chapter, they argue about the washing up, and then go on a trip to Ikea, because even God-made-flesh needs a working hob and an extractor fan. Buddha enthuses about how idyllic life must be for all those Viking gods and Valkyries in their beige Swedish wonder-kitchens. Jesus goes a bit crazy in Home Furnishings, and then realises he has to carry his purchases home.

Nakamura’s storyline injects a much-needed humanity and humour into figures usually viewed only through translations of ancient books. Jesus is a resolutely happy person, who can laugh at the fact that schoolgirls mistake him for Johnny Depp. He runs a blog about TV drama, and frets about how to keep his crown of thorns dry in the shower. Buddha likes reading manga (particularly Osamu Tezuka’s famous Life of Buddha), and has an irritating ability to somehow get infinite lives whenever he plays a video game.

This could have all too easily gone horribly wrong. Nakamura is well aware of this, and has been reluctant to allow her manga to receive an English-language edition, because she is afraid of the likely knee-jerk reaction from the Christian Right in the USA. This doesn’t appear to have stopped it getting translated in Italy (the home of the Pope), or in Spain (the home of the Spanish Inquisition – nobody was expecting that). This is a sad state of affairs, because Saint Young Men is a truly charming story, rich with humour and compassion, and oddly respectful of its protagonists. Its satire is not directed so much at them, but at the modern world in which they find themselves, repeatedly confronting 21st century customs and attitudes with the nature of old-world religious figures.

If you think that gay marriage causes hurricanes, that tattoos will send you to Hell, and that a prawn cocktail is forbidden, then you are never going to like Saint Young Men. If you believe that “reverence” means never laughing at absurdity or imagining “what would Jesus do”, then this manga is certainly irreverent, and that makes it literally blasphemous. Nakamura is an equal opportunities satirist, and throws in a bunch of other gods and goddesses – this is typically Japanese eclecticism, but unlikely to play well with anyone who refuses to accept that others believe differently.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #144, 2015, and is reprinted now because of the Saint Young Men live-action TV show, currently creating waves online.

Cowboy Bebop

Up on the All the Anime blog, I write a piece on Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, and its place in exhibition history.

“When finally released, it was slated to hit American cinemas slap-bang in the middle of hysteria about 9-11. Its concentration on the motives of a terrorist turned into a sudden spell of cold feet on the part of its distributors, and it was consigned to the movie sin-bin for a while, along with Rintaro’s Metropolis, which featured a disturbingly familiar sight of a large building crumbling into dust. And when it first hit the UK with a 15-week run at the prestigious ICA cinema on Pall Mall in 2003, its coughing, plague-ridden characters evoked unpleasant reminders of SARS, a different kind of terror then threatening the Far East.”