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 Hawking Index

We live in an age with unparalleled potential for big data. I nearly wrote “access to big data”, but in fact, a lot of that information is proprietary and only shared within the corporations that own it. Most notoriously, Amazon was able to use Kindle data to work out not only who was buying what, but who was actually reading it. The company was able to announce that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was the least-finished book of recent times, abandoned partway by 55% of the people who paid to read it.

The mathematician Jordan Ellenberg proposed a “Hawking Index”, named for the author of the much-bought, little-read Brief History of Time, listing all the books that failed to get any reader love. It was one of those jokey news items that closed out the day, and little has been heard of it since.

But that big data is still churning. When the online streaming giants started up, there was a veritable scramble for content. Companies sitting on a reasonable backlist of anime found themselves offloading digital rights by volume, because what mattered to the early-bird marketers wasn’t quality, it was quantity. Join our service, they would proclaim, because we have five hundred anime titles! Of course, most of those titles would be stuff like King of Bandits Jing, which nobody really watched, and which had previously only monetised when the warehouse storing the DVDs was burned down during the London riots and the owners got to claim on the insurance.

But that didn’t matter. Never mind the quality, feel the width… until you fast forward a couple of years, and companies like Netflix know exactly what people watch and what they don’t. They know now that nobody is actually impressed by King of Bandits Jing, and see no reason to hang onto it. They’ll just keep Attack on Titan, thank you.

But now Netflix is even dropping their blue-chip titles. Remember: Netflix is a channel, not an archive. Quite controversially, last month it even dropped Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because Netflix is no longer in the old-show game. It wants to make new shows. Good news for new anime that Netflix is prepared to commission, but bad news for anime companies that evaded due diligence for a few years. And bad news for you, if you wanted to watch a less-loved show and didn’t bother to buy the DVD.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #164, 2017.

Belladonna of Sadness

Stolen from her betrothed, raped by the lord of the manor and his men, medieval European peasant girl Jeanne loses her faith in God and turns to the Devil. Cast out by the baron’s jealous wife, she embraces witchcraft and leads a peasant rebellion. That, at least, is the basic plot of Eiichi Yamamoto’s surreal 1973 arthouse epic Belladonna of Sadness, a box office disaster in its native Japan that has become something of an anime legend.

The anime market was founded on a bunch of lies. In the hope of scaring off early competitors, Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka had misled his clients about the cost of making cartoons, assuring them that they were cheaper than kids’ puppet shows. This was not true at all, but in the mid-1960s, animation was such a booming market that there was always more money coming in. Tezuka started kiting the serials at his studio, Mushi Pro, using the advance money from one to pay for another, shambling through the decade in the constant hope of big advertising contracts or some huge foreign rights sale. By the end of the decade, he had burned all his bridges in television, and was determined to escape into the cinema market. His answer: erotica.

Figuring that there were more adults than children to buy tickets, and trusting rather sweetly in the arthouse leanings of grown-up cinema-goers, Tezuka backed a trilogy of animated movies – the Arabian-themed sex comedy 1001 Nights, the bawdy time-travel epic Cleopatra: Queen of Sex, and for a grand finale, the erotic tragedy Belladonna of Sadness, based on La Sorcière by Jules Michelet.

Animator Eiichi Yamamoto helmed all three, and wrote in his memoirs of the fury he felt as Tezuka’s karma caught up with him. Still strapped for cash, Tezuka ram-raided the Cleopatra budget to pay for 1001 Nights. Stuck with a shortfall, he lifted the budget from Belladonna to fund Cleopatra. But neither film was a soaring success, leaving hardly anything in the kitty for Belladonna. Gritting his teeth, Yamamoto went full-on, over-the-top arthouse.

Belladonna was mental. It was less a cartoon than a montage of paintings, leavened with abstract imagery and mere moments of animation. Critics would go on to deride it as a “patchwork” film, or “inanimate animation”. The animator Gisaburo Sugii had a different perspective, arguing that it was a white elephant caused by the artistic pretensions of Yamamoto, which Tezuka indulged because he wanted the director to sign up for 1001 Nights and Cleopatra. Although those films are remembered as “Tezuka films,” it was Yamamoto who did all the heavy lifting, while the famous creator spent far more time at the helm of his foundering company, often trying to draw his way out of trouble by dashing off dozens of manga shorts.

“To be precise,” Sugii said in a Japanese interview, “Mushi Pro was finished with Belladonna in some sense. It was the collapse.” Yamamoto found out for himself when he turned up at the studio to find that he had a new boss – Tezuka had been somehow shunted out of the boss’s chair, and his former office manager, a colourful character called Yoshinobu Nishizaki, proclaimed that he was in charge.

Belladonna was certainly the end for Mushi Pro, which stumbled into bankruptcy after its predictable failure at the box office. It also marked the end of anime erotica, which went into a generation-long hiatus until the rise of the video player brought it into private homes in the 1980s. But its legacy lived on. Yamamoto was utterly baffled a few months later when word drifted in that his forgotten flop had received an ovation at a German film festival. A recut version had played up the Joan of Arc storyline as an angry feminist polemic, finishing with a still of Eugene Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People. If you were on the right substances, it was suggested, Belladonna was a hallucinatory tour-de-force – a bitter storybook commentary on medieval oppression, like some sexed-up Jackanory. Was it anime heaven, or some terrible, underfunded film-turkey hell? Anime critics have been arguing about it ever since.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #21, 2017.

Trolled by the Finns

It was only a matter of time before the Finnish embassy in Tokyo came up with a mascot character. And what did they choose? An Angry Bird? A heavy-metal corpse? An open-source penguin? No, they came up with Fintan, a somewhat simple seven-year-old boy, dressed in a lion costume, whose gormless presence somehow helped propel the embassy Twitter feed to 130,000 followers, making it the “tenth most followed diplomatic mission Twitter account.” You hear that? Better than eleventh. In your face, Burkina Faso! Fintan has been infesting the embassy social media for five years, but this year, as the Finnish republic celebrates its centennial, he branches out into animation.

“Our aim through these short anime is to increase the interest of the Japanese public towards Finland, and convey the message that Finns are innovative but also easy-going and easy-to-approach people, who don’t take themselves too seriously”, said Markus Kokko, Counsellor, Press and Culture of the Embassy of Finland in Tokyo.

In Kenji Itoso’s first short episode, Fintan goes to an air-guitar competition and a cellphone-throwing competition, before sitting in a sauna for a while. The “plot” for this and episodes yet to come were the result of an open competition by the embassy in Tokyo, so I guess we should be glad that the public didn’t demand it be called The Adventures of Finny McFinnface. Coming soon from the British embassy, perhaps: the wacky animated adventures of Brekshit the incontinent, immigrant-hating bulldog?

And yet, Finland already has a good showing in Japanese animation. Lucy Heartfilia from Fairy Tail, sometimes seen wearing a Finnish flag made out of boobs, could easily be an ambassador for the country. The Moomins already are, to such an extent that there’s always summer work for Japanese-speakers if they want to dress up as troll-things in the Moominland Theme Park. Meanwhile, in Hetalia, the character of Finland is depicted as being in an oddly creepy relationship with Sweden… also true to life.

Hopefully Fintan’s later adventures will be more adventurous. Things that the Japanese would lap up like crazy about Finland: liquorice-flavour vodka, tar-flavoured ice cream, 58 words for frozen precipitation, the Winter War, the world’s 16th highest rate of gun-ownership, the Northern Lights, Topless Thursdays, and the time a Japanese secret agent sent a bunch of drunken sailors with a ship full of guns and ammo to start a Finnish revolution and distract the Russians from the Far East. Now there’s an anime…

I’m sorry: I made Topless Thursdays up, but there’s still time, Finland.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. This article first appeared in NEO #163, 2017.

Things Unheard

I would very much like to be enjoying A Silent Voice, but I have a bunch of other things to worry about. Just before the lights go down in the cinema, I get the word that the promised 40-minute post-film Q&A had suddenly dropped to 20 minutes – shoving an extra half-hour onto a slot’s running time often disappears in the cracks between schedulers, projectionists, front-of-house and cleaners. The woman who tells me this also warns me that we are starting 15 minutes late, because someone who shall remain nameless went off to the bogs, and we couldn’t start the film without them.

Anime Limited want to film the Q&A event for a DVD extra. Kyoto Animation are in the house with their own camera. The director, Naoko Yamada, is sitting next to me and has no idea about the blind panic unfolding in my mind over the next two hours. She’s already sat through a 40-minute meeting where we talk over the likely questions, and her minders steer me towards the areas they most want to discuss. But now I am feverishly calculating and re-calculating the logistics.

How much time do I actually have? Assuming that I am not thrown out the moment I take the stage, is there enough time for audience questions at all? If I drop audience questions (and risk the wrath of fans), will there be still time to talk about the staff at Kyoto Animation, as I have been requested to do, or do we now have to make this all-Naoko, all the time? Maybe if I rush. Maybe if I just fire questions at her like an interrogator. Maybe if I drop all questions about the manga and pre-production and just get her talking about her work, I can salvage something.

The lights go up. I take to the stage and introduce the director of A Silent Voice, and catch myself glancing at my watch when the applause goes on too long. Too much applause will cost me another question.

The cameras are running, the audience are laughing. I even relax the interrogation a little and we seem to have time for audience questions. Later on, I find out why – the person tasked with signalling me that we are out of time has decided to simply lie about it. We run over, which means that cinema-goers two films behind us might find themselves hard-pressed to make it for the last bus. Someone is going to get into trouble over this, but it’s a judgement call that saves the event. For the half-hour that the event lasts, it all looks smooth. Nobody saw the negotiations beforehand, the fretting throughout the film, or the slap on the wrist that the distributor got from the Glasgow Film Festival authorities for playing havoc with their schedule. It’s our job to make this all look easy, but sometimes it really isn’t.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #162, 2017.

Enemies Reunited

Over at the All the Anime blog, I write an article about Naoko Yamada’s acclaimed film A Silent Voice.

A Silent Voice had a rollercoaster ride to success. Despite winning a Kodansha comics competition in 2008, it sat unpublished for three years as editors and lawyers debated its provocative stance. Disability drama is a recognised sub-genre in the Japanese media, but usually strives for a worthy, didactic message. The implied audience is all too often an ignoramus who needs to be educated about specific conditions. Such stories are often termed Pure dramas, deriving their name from the autism-related 1996 TV series of the same name. But A Silent Voice often focussed not on the saintly deaf girl but on the young thug who bullied her, along with his classmates’ casual disinterest. When it finally saw print in 2011, it did so with a ringing endorsement from the Japanese Federation of the Deaf: ‘Please publish it as it is and do not change a thing.'”