Munted with the Moomins

drunken-moomins

Tove Jansson was no shrinking violet. She’d made it very clear to the Japanese animators that the policy on her Moomins books was “No Money! No Cars! No Fighting!” That wasn’t clear enough for Tokyo Movie, who let a guy called Hayao Miyazaki put a tank in one episode. It wasn’t the only sore point with Jansson, but it sure didn’t help. Amid much finger-pointing and recriminations, and whispers in the industry that someone had offered a cheaper deal, production on the 1969 Moomin series suddenly shifted to Mushi Pro.

Jansson never knew that many of the underlings and out-sourcing companies remained the same. Noboru Ishiguro, who’d been an inbetweener beforehand, got bumped up to director, and recalled that a number of the staff were self-medicating due to the stress of drawing squashy little Finnish trolls.

One Kanazawa-san was stopped by the police after a particularly boozy night at the studio, and breathalysed.

“Why are you up this late?” asked the policeman.

“We’re animators,” he slurred. “We worked… we finished and I had a glass. We draw… we draw… do you know the Moomins? Like this. Look.” And he dashed off a sketch on a piece of paper.

The policeman was impressed.

“My kid loves the Moomins,” said his fellow officer. “Can you draw one for him?”

All too aware of the threat of a drunk-driving conviction, Kanazawa smilingly complied, only to discover that every cop at the road block now wanted his own Moomin pictures. But eventually, all fan-art desires satisfied, the animators were waved on their way. It was close escape.

A week later, a suitably cowed Kanazawa clocked off at the studio and headed out, without a drink – he had learned his lesson. As was his habit, he offered a lift to a bunch of other animators, and the crowded car set off on the dark streets, only to run into a police roadblock.

An officer approached the car with a torch, and suddenly yelled out.

“They’re here! I’ve found them!”

Kanazawa was confused. He knew his driving wasn’t at fault, but could not help but notice half a dozen policemen running over towards his car.

“What is it?” he asked, butterflies in his stomach.

“Those Moomin drawings were so popular at the police station,” said the lead cop, “that all the other officers wanted ones of their own. We figured you would come back this way some time, so we’ve been waiting for you.”

Kanazawa reddened with anger, and pointedly started up his engine.

“How can I draw when I’m sober?” he growled, driving off into the night.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. This article first appeared in NEO #160, 2017. This story does not appear in the Adventures in Moominland exhibition, which is running on London’s South Bank until 23rd April.

The End of Fantasia

agentaika

There have been some heartfelt eulogies in fandom for Studio Fantasia, which has declared bankruptcy after a generation in the anime business, most notoriously with its micro-skirted spies in Agent Aika and its panty-flashing operatives in Najica Blitz Tactics.

Fantasia itself was born under suspicious circumstances, by staff manning the lifeboats from the foundering Tsuchida Production in 1983. Tsuchida eventually sank in 1986, but to say it went down with all hands would be misleading – by the time it went, it was a name on a filing cabinet, without real estate, equipment or employees, while its former staff were already running Studios Comet and Fantasia.

It’s important when reporting the history of the anime business to understand the difference between a disaster and a simple change in circumstances. Studio Fantasia, from what I can see, appeared to shut down because it was little more than some signatures on paperwork that allowed a guy to get some bank loans. Tomohisa Iizuka, the man who led the exodus from Tsuchida all those years ago, set up a company that in its 2006 heyday was bringing in £2.7 million a year and had 43 employees. But if Iizuka wants to retire, and if there is nobody willing to take on the company and its liabilities… if the company itself has no intellectual property worth preserving, then Fantasia might as well cease to exist on the day that Iizuka puts on his golf shorts and heads out to the country club.

As the director Noboru Ishiguro put it in his memoirs: “It is so easy to create a TV animation subcontractor. That’s because 90% of the cost is labour and hardly any investment is needed. As long as you have money to rent a studio and to buy tables for animators, all you need is people. You could start an animation production company tomorrow. But they go bankrupt quickly, too – just like a pub. Because the production cost is cheap, subcontractors can never make large profits. You’re lucky if you are not making a loss. As soon as you start doing a different job and the efficiency level drops, or an animator quits, the business goes downhill.”

2006 wasn’t just a peak for Fantasia, it was a peak for the entire anime industry. The studio visibly slowed over the following decade, until it was just picking up a few bits of piece-work on a couple of recent shows. It was not, like Studio Ghibli, initiating and owning new content. But it was, like Studio Ghibli, very much the workplace for a group of guys who were looking forward to not having to work anymore. Except the guy who draws knickers, for whom it is still probably still a labour of love.

Then again, never say never. Who would have guessed at the beginning of last year that the “next Hayao Miyazaki” would turn out to be Hayao Miyazaki?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #159, 2017.

Getting Away With It

525077130_1280x720

Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (Yu Aoi) is a writer’s daughter, cursed with an over-active imagination. Shunted into a new school by her parents’ divorce, she finds the perfect foil in local truant Hana Arai (Anne Suzuki), a pathological liar who eggs her on into wild conspiracy theories, breathless scandal-mongering and a series of misadventures that grow hilariously out of hand.

A decade after his early success with Hana & Alice, a live-action comedy about two hyper-active schoolgirls who dupe a boy with amnesia, director Shunji Iwai decided to revisit his characters with a prequel about a fateful day that saw them stranded in Tokyo and inadvertently starting a missing-persons hunt. The film’s title, The Case of Hana & Alice, makes it sound like some bloodthirsty murder investigation, a fitting evocation of the leads’ compulsion to read melodrama into everyday situations.

“The thing is,” Iwai laughs, “you can get away with a lot more when you’re a girl. Look at Hana and Alice and the way they behave. In the first movie, they were basically stalkers, telling that poor boy that they had a past together. In this prequel, they are causing all this trouble around the city. They’re kind of… how can I put this? They’re perverts. If I made that story about a man, if I made it about you, for instance, then you’d be locked up.”

It would also have been impossibly expensive as live-action. It wasn’t just a case of redressing Tokyo to look like it was 2004 – the film’s plot demands an absence of social media, as many of its escalating misunderstandings could be halted today by 20 seconds’ Googling. But the original film made stars of its leading ladies, who were not only now out of Iwai’s price range, but pushing 30 and unconvincing as middle-schoolers. Iwai hit on a solution inspired by the films of Ralph Bakshi. He shot the entire film on the run in 30 days, using teenage stand-ins for the stars, and then painting over every frame to make it look like an animated film.

After the guerrilla film-making was done, the touch-up was outsourced to 150 freelancers all around Japan. Iwai denies that he ran the whole post-production process without having to get out of bed, but one can easily imagine him pottering around his living room in a dressing gown, watching as digitised packets flow in and out of his server. The expensive leads were lured back for a single day to record just the voices; their younger onscreen selves moved and emoted like the teens they really were, and digital effects fixed the lighting and scrubbed out buildings and technology that did not exist a decade ago. The result might look on the surface like an animated film, but the use of live actors delivers huge amounts of nuanced data – flinches, tics and micro-expressions that would simply never happen in a cartoon.

The real charm of The Case of Hana & Alice is the compassion that suffuses the film. Two clueless kids, poised on the cusp of adulthood, go AWOL overnight in a big city, but are kept safe by the good deeds of the people they meet, from the taxi driver who waives an unaffordable fare, to the indulgent strangers who put up with their histrionics. There’s not a dark moment in a film that is as confident about its leads’ right to be silly as it is about the surety that all will be well in the end. The Japanese, unsurprisingly, have a word for it: omotenashi, or kindness for the sake of kindness.

The Case of Hana & Alice is also a winning portrayal of the slippery relationship that teens have with the truth, although Iwai himself says the original inspiration came from somewhere much closer to home. “When I started working in the film industry, I was astonished at how many of the people there were bare-faced liars. There are an awful lot of them, like half! It’s very surreal, and that provided a lot of material for Hana.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A HistoryThis article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #16, 2016.

Excess Baggage

kiki1

October’s cause celebre, as reported by Justin McCurry in The Guardian, involved a Japanese train conductor announcing to his passengers that their travel was being inconvenienced due to an excess number of foreigners on his train. He was reported by a Japanese passenger and swiftly reprimanded, but there’s more to this particular story than meets the eye. The clues can be found in the timing of the incident, Monday morning, and the location: on the Nankai express to Kansai International Airport.

The conductor had heard a Japanese passenger at an earlier station effing and blinding about the trouble being caused by “foreigners”, and sought to explain to the rest of the train what was going on. It’s clear to me that the problem was not the foreigners per se, but their luggage.

Japanese trains don’t have a whole lot of space. There’s the usual overhead shelf big enough for a rucksack or a carry-on, but extremely limited space for the kind of trunk-with-wheels favoured by the average foreign tourist. The reason for this is that no sane Japanese person carries their luggage any further than they have to. Ever since the 1970s, they have used a takuhaibin service, which picks up your luggage from your hotel or home and spirits it away to your next destination by the next morning. If I’m shuttling from Tokyo to Kyoto, say, then the freight cost is about £10, and my suitcase is waiting for me at the next hotel. I save more than that by not having to get a taxi to the train station, and I don’t end up clogging an entire carriage of angry commuters. The only place I expect to see big luggage is on the dedicated Kansai airport train, the Haruka.

More popularly, takuhaibin is known as takkyubin, but this latter term is actually a trademark of the Yamato Transport service, recognisable by its iconic logo of a black cat carrying a kitten, and best known to anime fans by the co-option of its name in the Japanese title of Kiki’s Delivery Service – the company was even a sponsor of Studio Ghibli’s charming film about a witch who goes into haulage. So if you are going to Japan any time soon, do look into takuhaibin services at the airport or your hotel, you’ll save yourself lugging a suitcase across town, and buy into a bit of anime history into the bargain.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 157, 2016.

A New Type of Bomb

akira1

It always began on the day after tomorrow. In the original manga, in its translations, and even in the film itself, the opening sequence of “a new type of bomb” wrecking central Tokyo was assigned the date at which the audience was supposedly sitting down to watch it. And then it would leap ahead a generation. The kids have run wild on the streets. The government is secretly funding the terrorists. New religious cults have sprung to life. There are riots, and in a gang fight out in the old town, a bunch of rude boy-racers accidentally run into an escaped guinea pig from a secret military project.

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira came heavily loaded with local allusions which flew over the heads of many English-speaking fans. The very words “new type of bomb” recalled those of Emperor Hirohito in his infamous surrender speech from 1945. But Akira’s Japan was most strongly rooted in Otomo’s youth, when the wide-eyed country boy came to the big city of Tokyo to earn his fortune. He found a city struggling to recover from the aftermath of an apocalyptic war yet still mired in scandals, war-crime revelations and revolutionary fervour. A giant crater sits at the heart of Otomo’s Tokyo, like the suppurating cesspool that forms the structuring absence of Akira Kurosawa’s break-out movie Drunken Angel (1948). The children of Otomo’s Japan have been transformed by the war’s aftermath – brash, irresolute and feckless, cruising the city on motorbikes and spouting an unintelligible argot thick with ze’s and zo’s, two emphatic particles unknown outside Tokyo gangs. I fondly remember showing Akira to a Japanese class at Leeds University in 1991, and Dr Penny Francks sticking her head around the door, listening for a few moments, and observing: “I can’t understand a word!”

The anti-hero Kaneda is all mouth and trousers, a street thug whose passing interest in revolution is soon deconstructed as merely an excuse to pick up girls. But it’s he and his outlaw bikers who inadvertently stumble upon (in fact, crash into) a secret plot to restore pre-war weapons programmes and human experimentation – the Akira project that attempts to harness and release the creative energy of the universe. In Japanese, it is written with katakana, a writing system that makes it sound like a foreign acronym – A.K.I.R.A.

Behind the scenes, Akira was an awful albatross of a movie project, with spiralling budgets and onscreen experimentation that left its producers panicking about the likelihood of it ever earning its money back. But the result was an apprentice piece of enduring power – a post-holocaust sci-fi epic that featured discordant gamelan music and Noh-influenced chanting, a cartoon that featured biker gangs throwing hand grenades and arguing about the origin of the universe, an animation that featured naturalist afterimages from passing headlights, and realistically curling smoke from cigarettes. To put matters in perspective, in 1989, the Hugo Award shortlist for Best Dramatic Presentation included Willow, Big and Alien Nation, and the winner was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? For a substantial subset of avant-garde science fiction fandom, Akira was a harbinger of a radical new sub-genre. For an audience that luxuriated in the “Japanesquerie” of the cyberpunk movement, the arrival of science fiction from Japan itself had a markedly alien frisson.

One of the unsung heroes in bringing Akira to the West was the curator and producer Carl Macek, who persuaded the Japanese to hand over all their art materials. An entire shipping container of cels and backgrounds, regarded by the film-makers as industrial waste, was sent to America, where Macek turned it into an asset. He framed iconic moments to sell as art, and headed off video pirates by offering a free piece of the original film to anyone who bought a legitimate copy.

As the film approaches its 30th anniversary, and indeed, the year in which both it and Blade Runner were set, it has become a standard bearer for Japanese animation. It may be difficult to remember in an age where Hayao Miyazaki dominates so much of the discourse of animation, but there was a time when Akira was the benchmark for everything that made anime cool. 28 years after its premiere, shined up for Blu-ray, it’s still pretty damn good-looking.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Akira is released on Blu-ray by Manga Entertainment/Animatsu. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #15, 2016.

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.

Hear Me Now

silent-voiceOver at All the Anime on their monthly podcast, I appear in my role as jury chairman on the awards committee for Scotland Loves Anime, in discussion with members of this year’s panel: Eric Beckman from Gkids and the New York International Children’s Film Festival, Anna Francis from the distributor National Amusements, and Miles Thomas from Crunchyroll. The fourth and final juror, Shelley Page from DreamWorks, was off climbing a hill in Edinburgh.

Discussion includes the four films under consideration: Kingsglaive, Momotaro — Sacred Sailors, A Silent Voice and Your Name, alongside the likely damage that Mods can cause to international sales, the rise and rise of Makoto Shinkai and the tropes of “disability” drama.

Listeners with an interest in what goes on behind the scenes at film festivals can also check out podcasts from earlier years. Highlights include Justin Sevakis and a NSFW digression on hentai in 2015, Gemma Cox on writing about women in anime in 2014, and Hugh David on film and video restoration in 2013.