Lu Over the Wall

Over at the All the Anime blog today, I write about Masaaki Yuasa’s film Lu Over the Wall: “Like the shadow cast by the looming crag, Reiko Yoshida’s script for Lu Over the Wall contains darker implications, a community in which every single member has some sort of ghost or hang-up that needs to be exorcised.”

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Chie the Brat

Up today on the All the Anime blog, my article about the obscure Isao Takahata series Chie the Brat. “A board member from the TV broadcaster came over to Tokyo Movie to protest about the use of inappropriate language, only for Takahata to turn on him, shouting that they should have thought of that before they bought the rights to a series about Osaka slum life.”

The Last Squad

Surprising literally nobody, Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement one last time to make another feature film. Studio Ghibli having laid off all its animation staff, he has to round up a new posse, which is great news, right? Except, in an advert that swiftly went viral, his studio was calling for new animators prepared to accept a monthly wage of £1400.

This is an animation studio. You will end up working seven days a week, regardless of the job description. That means £45 a day without overtime.

I think what has really taken fandom by surprise is that Ghibli is just as swayed by the bottom line as every other anime studio, despite its millions in profits and its blue-chip reliability. “Hayao Miyazaki’s last movie” is sure to top the box office again, but the studio is acting like it’s some start-up making a thing about ponies, or vampires, or whatever it is Japanese start-ups do. For years and years, Ghibli’s well-managed hype has presented it as some sort of socialist cooperative, where everybody gets to take part in creative decision-making, and where even the closing credits listed the staff in alphabetical order.

But, no, it’s just like all the rest.

People will still do it, I am sure. There will be canny young artists who realise that even if it ends up costing them money, they’ll be the elite, last class of animators mentored by Miyazaki himself. They will probably be rich already. Far from opening the studio to the best of the best, Ghibli’s decision frankly amounts to an intern scheme, and like intern schemes everywhere, will require its minions to be of independent means. Oh sure, you can be in the Last Squad at Ghibli, but Mummy and Daddy will end up paying for it.

There will be animators ready to take a hit in their income, because they suspect this is their last chance to get the words Studio Ghibli on their CV, and that’s going to be worth money in future. Or is it? Will they fight and duck and dive, scrimp and save, merely for the chance to fight and duck and dive all over again, at some other studio with equally low pay?

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #166, 2017.

M-People

Last month’s Guardian reported a drastic fall in the price of Elvis memorabilia. As his original fans die off and their collections hit the auction market, there simply aren’t enough new fans desperate to acquire that Jailhouse Rock limited edition.

Is this the fate that awaits our anime collectables 30 years down the line? Will your cherished, unopened, box-new copy of the Zavvi-exclusive Anthem of the Heart fail to monetise for your money-grabbing offspring as they dance on your grave? What is a “collector’s edition”, anyway? It used to carry with it some sense of exclusivity and bragging rights, but in recent years, it has more healthily come to simply connote an anime show worth owning in physical form, rather than trusting to the whims of online content providers. But as an early adopter of DVDs, I have already had to suffer the annoyance of a much-loved disc succumbing to drop-outs and scratches. Manufacturers refuse to guarantee a DVD past five years, although most of them can last for a few decades. But how long do you want to collect your collectable? Will you be watching Akira in your rocking chair, when you can’t read the subtitles anymore?

If that’s the plan, maybe we should get into M-DISCs, Millenniata’s answer to archival data storage. Readable on a standard DVD or Blu-ray player, M-DISCs record their data by physically etching it into a layer of carbon, rendering it far less liable to deterioration and safe for a thousand years. “Your data is engraved in stone – literally,” trills the manufacturer’s website, before immediately conceding that carbon is not actually stone.

The M-DISC might be the great unsung technology of this decade. It’s been commercially available for the last seven years; you can buy them off the spindle for a fiver a throw and many modern disc burners are already compatible with the format. And yet there’s been nary a whisper of it among the anime collectable community. I checked with several movers and shakers while writing this article, and none of them had heard of it. Will M-DISCs be a new fad for fans who want their children’s, children’s children to have access to Ghost in the Shell, or those extra mastering costs seem like too high a price to pay?

“Does this mean,” asks my wife, “that we won’t have to buy a new copy of Toy Story every three months?”

No. M-discs only last a thousand years when they are properly archived… not left on the living room floor for sticky hands to play with.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #165.

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.