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).
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.
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.
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.”
Over at the All the Anime blog, I publish a review of Galbraith et al’s Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan.
“Eiji Otsuka, a man complicit in the coinage and dissemination of the term otaku in the first place, is furious that it has become such a thing, and regards the attention of researchers and the vainglorious bragging of the Japanese government as an air-brushing of history…. He is so angry, in fact, that his foreword to this book comes with a prolonged translator’s note pleading mitigation and indulgence, like some apologetic youth dragging a drunken uncle away from a bar fight.”
It was Sentai Filmworks’ Matt Greenfield, then at ADV Films, who uttered the magic words to me at a party in 2001: “The next format is no format.” And for many of you, watching anime on a laptop screen in your bedroom, streaming it straight from the interwebs, that prophecy has come to pass. What surprises me 17 years later is that it’s still not true for so many of us – the anime market remains a healthy niche in the entertainment business, possibly because anime fans were some of the first to notice that online streaming sites were anything but permanent archives.
But anime fans without a Blu-ray player may soon have little choice except to knuckle up and buy one. Companies all over the globe are giving up on DVD, and with the likes of Sentai Filmworks in the USA, and Madman in Australia not even bothering to burn DVD masters any more, this inevitably affects those companies that rely on them for materials. Now, in Britain, MVM’s Tony Allen announces that his company is releasing Flip Flappers only on Blu-ray, because DVD masters were not forthcoming from his overseas partners.
This column reported way back in NEO #95 on the decision by Bandai America to give up on DVD. If it’s taken another six years for everybody else to catch up, it’s because Bandai trusted other companies to take up the slack by licensing the products for DVD themselves. This latest round of cancellations reflects the fact they have stopped bothering.
Even though only 15% of the UK public seemingly owns a Blu-ray player, roughly 60% of anime sales are on Blu-ray. It well be that the true figure is significantly higher, and that many of the DVDs “sold” in dual-format packs are little more than throwaway coasters to purchasers who don’t need them – we can’t say for sure.
But American Blu-ray sales peaked in 2013 and have been plummeting ever since. Last year, Den of Geek observed that Cameron Crow’s Aloha (2014) didn’t even go “straight to DVD” in the UK, but went straight-to-streaming. Could it be curtains for all discs…
“Packaged goods”, as they’re known, still form a crucial part of the anime market, because without a physical disc containing the film, it’s impossible for a distributor to sell you the box that it comes in, with the foil on the box, and the special foldy-out thing, and the liner notes, and all the other things that create value in a collector’s edition. So Blu-ray is here to stay, at least in anime, at least for the immediate future. There can be no flip flapping on that.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #179, 2018.
I don’t imagine that this will be the last time this column talks about Cool Japan film financing boondoggles. It certainly isn’t the first – way back in NEO #60 we discussed the likelihood of bail-out packages; then in NEO #63 there was all that hoo-hah over the proposed Media Arts Centre. We’ve followed Japanese studios as they tentatively embraced not only crowd-funding but also charity for their underpaid staff, and the gravy train of J-LOP funding for copyright holders.
But producer Hironori Masuda has just behaved in a decidedly un-Japanese way by blowing the whistle on what he calls the “institutional corruption” of Cool Japan. The subject of his ire is ANEW, a film fund announced with great fanfare in 2011, promising $80 million for new projects. Recently rebuffed for a film funding application, Masuda followed the money trail, and discovered that there wasn’t any cash to be found. ANEW had been sold off in 2017 to venture capitalists for just $311,000, while all those millions injected into it to pay for movies had frittered away on administrative salaries and dead-ends.
ANEW had five or six film projects under its aegis, including a putative live-action adaptation of the anime Tiger & Bunny, but none of them have come to fruition. Then again, isn’t this precisely what you expect to happen when government quangos dabble in media manipulation? Cool Japan has always been a marketing-focussed, image-obsessed concept, in which officialdom has lumbered far beyond the real achievers, trying to reverse-engineer their success. You can’t just make a new Pokémon happen. If you could, Bandai would have already done it. Nor does Japan go for those tax-break film initiatives that so many countries have successfully parleyed into movie success. There’s a reason The Walking Dead films in Atlanta – they get massive tax breaks, as long as they come to Georgia to spend their money. But that doesn’t work in Japan, where a tax break won’t take away the language barrier or the red tape. Instead, the Cool Japan policy wonks tried to make Cool Japan happen by starting their own movie projects.
Some might say that Masuda is just sulking because he didn’t get a piece of the pie, or that it was unrealistic all around for anyone to think that a mere handful of movie ideas might generate the next blockbuster. Regardless, after seven years, it seems that ANEW has absolutely nothing to show for all its investment, an amount of money that if spent more judiciously, could have paid for four Spirited Aways! Not even the Japanese government can create its own luck.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #178, 2018.