From Truant to Anime

Up on the All the Anime blog, my review of Mari Okada’s memoir of dismal schooldays and her escape to the not-that-glamorous world of anime screenwriting.

“Mari Okada’s memoir of two decades in the anime business begins and ends with the disastrous premiere screening of Anthem of the Heart in her hometown of Chichibu – a huge event in the middle of nowhere, inconvenient for all attendees, with a film that stops playing halfway. As the screenwriter, she fumes impotently as the patrons wait and flunkies try to look busy, and watches with head-shaking resignation as the celebratory fireworks, timed to coincide with the end of the film, are launched too early while the audience is still waiting for it to restart.

“From Truant to Anime Screenwriter: My Path to Anohana and The Anthem of the Heart is her account of how she got to that place, as the writer of a standalone film. Her writing is distinguished by a constant resistance to the performativity of Japanese life, refusing to play the game of empty accolades and fake-news proclamations that all is well. Instead, she presents a compelling portrayal of a life (and industry) that constantly ‘fails up’, until she becomes one of modern anime’s rare hyphenate talents.”

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Ignoring Anime

Eiga Geijutsu (Film Arts) magazine is not afraid to call a spade a spade, infamously publishing both a Ten Best and Ten Worst list each year about Japanese movie releases. But in this year’s round-up of the highs and lows of 2017, editor Haruhiko Arai has refused to consider animated works.

The films that have particularly irritated him will be familiar to many readers of NEO magazine. One is Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, which prompted Arai to ponder at a screening whether the enthusiastic movie-goers enjoying themselves around him had seen any other films recently.

Well, no they hadn’t. The huge box office figures for Your Name imply that many people who went to see it were either coming back for seconds or had not been to a cinema for a while. But how on Earth is that a reason to exclude it from consideration? It is surely an indication that Arai’s movie ratings are ignoring the opinions of the public. I, myself, make a living out of ignoring the opinions of the public, but Arai has not even afforded Your Name the backhanded compliment of calling it crap. He just stuck his head in the sand and pretended it wasn’t there.

Ignoring things, says Arai, is part of the problem with modern anime. He is disgusted by Your Name’s uplifting spin on tragedy, and regards it as a betrayal of history. He feels much the same way about In This Corner of the World, for presenting a childish innocent as a victim of war.

His reasoning is unexpectedly sound – frankly, it’s thought-provoking criticism. Your Name does indeed flaunt bad-taste brinkmanship by offering a reset button on an allegorical Tohoku earthquake – part of Shinkai’s incredible achievement lies in getting away with it. And ITCOW does rehash that old anime staple that regards WW2 as some sort of inevitable natural disaster visited upon the unsuspecting Japanese. But neither comment justifies pretending that the entire animated medium isn’t there anymore! In discounting two of the best anime of 2017 on spurious ideological grounds, Arai risks consigning his own magazine to the doldrums of film criticism. Instead, he argues that anime viewers are somehow cine-illiterate, unaware of trends and tropes in film itself, dumbly consuming pointless pap without any understanding of film as a medium. So I guess that tells us all where Miyazaki can shove his Oscar.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #175, 2018.

The Anime Boom

Up on the All the Anime blog, my book review of Daliot-Bul and Otmazgin’s The Anime Boom in the United States: Lessons for Global Creative Industries, which includes the following incendiary quote from Marco Pellitteri:

“Fans are a noisy minority that led many observers in the industry (and in academia!) to think that they are more numerous, representative and important than they actually are…. today, the targeting of narrow audiences is a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of total economic failure: you make a series for a very tiny specific audience, then you want to sell it [overseas] for a higher price, because you want to make abroad the money that you failed to make in your own country.”

From Our Sponsors

Everybody’s trying really hard not to call it the end of an era. But after 48 years the Toshiba Corporation is no longer the chief sponsor of the Sazae-san cartoon. Based on Machiko Hasegawa’s mild-mannered comic series, which itself ran from 1946 to 1974, Sazae-san has always been a time-capsule of post-war Japan. Its leading characters, a family with three children and several relatives, led by the titular harassed housewife, were always intended to be timeless. Scriptwriter Masaki Tsuji once explained that the stories were supposed to be as taboo-free as possible, sure to catch the largest possible viewership on primetime. But they were also decreed to be free of bad language, modern slang and electronic devices.

Sazae-san lives in a Japan untroubled by right-wing nationalism or looney religious cults, where nobody has heard of Tinder or Facebook. She has become a living fossil – even her three-child family is an outmoded phenomenon in a Japan where few can afford more than one kid. If you haven’t heard of her, then you can blame her late creator, whose contracts, signed before most of you were born, stipulated no spin-offs, which has been interpreted as meaning a ban on videos and DVDs.

That hasn’t stopped Sazae-san being the top-rated cartoon on Japanese television, and the longest-running cartoon series in the world. And all through her broadcasting history, Toshiba has paid the big bucks to top and tail every episode with whatever is up to the minute in electronics – air conditioners, washing machines, faxes and laptops. For the first thirty years, Toshiba was the sole sponsor, and even sneaked some of its devices into the show itself in early product placements.

But now that all has to change. Stumbling in the American atomic energy market and reeling from a series of accounting scandals, Toshiba can’t afford to keep fronting the cash. Instead, it gave the producers a season’s head start to find new sponsors, and officially bows out this March.

Is this the end for Sazae-san? Fortunately not – although nobody has the clout to be the sole sponsor of a primetime anime, someone did rustle up a committee of new sponsors to carry the costs. Clearly seeing the viewership as a bunch of young home-makers, the baby-wares company Nishimatsu has stepped up, alongside Daiwa House, a residential builder. Another new funder is Amazon Japan, suggesting that perhaps Sazae-san might soon be under pressure to allow a particular kind of new spin-off after all. Could streaming episodes be in its future…?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #174, 2018.

Reading Mononoke-hime

Fittingly for a twentieth anniversary collection of essays on a single, much-loved film, Rayna Denison’s just-published Princess Mononoke: Understanding Studio Ghibli’s Monster Princess (Bloomsbury) throws in everything but the kitchen sink. In the sense that it went mainstream and has been the focus of widespread appreciation, Princess Mononoke has generated a vast amount of secondary materials. Through critical acclaim, corporate backing and foreign sales, Hayao Miyazaki remains the best-represented anime director in translation in his own words, which boosts him in terms of scholarly access – it’s not only easier to sell a Miyazaki book to publishers, but also to readers and even contributors.

And this is an impressive bunch of contributors, featuring some of the sharpest minds working on anime today. Shiro Yoshioka examines the position of Princess Mononoke within Miyazaki’s work, noting that is very success may have forced him into a compromising niche, turning him from an action director into an eco-pundit. Eija Niskanen pokes around Japanese archaeological sites in search not only of Miyazaki’s inspirations, but the gaps in knowledge that he imaginatively filled with his own designs and ideas, noting in the process that the film defies traditional notions of what a “period film” should be like – a samurai movie with no samurai in it, showcasing the also-rans of Japanese history. Julia Alekseyeva provocatively but persuasively argues that Princess Mononoke is a prolonged homage to the Soviet film The Snow Queen, which Miyazaki saw in his shop-steward days. Both Helen McCarthy and Alice Vernon argue for Miyazaki as a feminist storyteller, seeing in his work echoes of the Maid, Mother and Crone of Robert Graves and the “heroine’s journey” of Maureen Murdock, and in Vernon’s case, asking whether the pragmatic, driven Lady Eboshi is a threatening vision of what the future holds for the heroic San.

Other chapters review cunning ruses in stunt-casting, not only of the film’s A-list voices, but of Neil Gaiman as the script adaptor, examining both the promotional value of these decisions and the nuances they introduced to the English-language version, the marketing of which is carefully analysed from the perspectives of posters, trailers and featurettes. Refreshingly, Denison has assembled writers who are not only prepared to dive into appreciations of the film itself, but overlooked elements as its critical reception (for which Emma Pett wades through over 800 reviews), and the long tail of its merchandise. The result is an impressive meeting of Princess Mononoke minds, although at £80 hardback and £55 on the Kindle, Bloomsbury seemingly lacks faith that the film’s much-mentioned blockbuster status will translate into a wide readership.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #173, 2018.

The Hard Cel

Maybe they don’t have anything better to do? When the Japanese government reconvenes in Tokyo, a multi-party group of MPs promises to present a new bill that calls for the establishment of a Media Arts Centre that will preserve the core materials of Japanese animation. It turns out that some people are worried that horrible foreigners are ram-raiding the Japanese arts, carting off truckloads of cels and manga sketches, and depriving the Japanese people of their rightful heritage.

Wait a minute… are these the same anime cels that were previously regarded by the studios as “industrial waste”, impossible to dispose of amid ever-escalating government green initiatives, and on one occasion surreptitiously buried in the back yard of a studio that had no space for them? They’re not even a thing any more, since Japanese animation for the last 20 years has been largely a digital affair, even if it looks like it’s drawn on cels. Why on Earth would Japanese politicians suddenly start agitating about something that they literally couldn’t give away in the past? The first notable exodus abroad being the flogging off of all the Akira materials in one big shipping container, to Streamline Pictures, who handed them out as extras to people who bought the video.

You could, of course, argue that it’s a tardy appreciation of the value of animation cels as art, and as a crucial, ineffable element of Japan’s artistic heritage. For reasons to do with intellectual property law, the cels can’t just be scanned into a computer, so they have to be physically stored somewhere if someone wants to preserve them. But why preserve them at all? Or rather, why now?

Maybe it has something to do with that “Media Arts Centre”, which long-term readers of this column may recall was first mooted during the Taro Aso administration in 2009, as a $120 million white elephant to celebrate all that Cool Japan content we keep hearing about. As I observed all those years ago, it wasn’t all that clear what the Media Arts Centre would actually do; maybe this new initiative is a desperate attempt to give it some purpose as a big… bin… full of the stuff the studios used to throw away, built just around the time that the 1980s animation generation, the last to work with actual cels, are retiring, downsizing, and looking to sell off their archives to the nearest customer.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #173, 2018.