The Day Heidi was Born

Over at the All the Anime website, I review Kaori Chiba’s new Japanese-language book on Heidi, Girl of the Alps, the landmark anime series that carved out an entire niche in evening programming.

“Chiba deals with the anime’s planning, the shooting of its pilot, and the crew’s location hunt in Switzerland, wherein Miyazaki, Takahata and their long-term collaborator Yoichi Kotabe descend like dervishes on the farmhouse of a baffled local family, demanding to photograph their kitchen table and their cows. From Maienfeld, they head up to Ulm and Frankfurt, soaking up the metropolitan imagery for Heidi’s later adventures in Germany.

“Chiba devotes ample space to the production of the first episode – the scoring of the music, the theme song, and the auditions for the voice actors, the character designs and the backgrounds. It’s only towards the end of the book that her account takes a darker tone, drawing on the complaints of the staff, particularly Miyazaki himself in many later articles and interviews, that television animation was a brutal, relentless, unending task, gobbling up talent and time. The animators put their all into Heidi, only to find that television networks greet its manifest quality with an indifferent shrug.”

The Phantom Pippi Longstocking

Up on the All the Anime blog, my article on the aborted Pippi Longstocking anime project that caused Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Yoshio Kotabe to walk off their jobs at Toei and jump feet-first into the world of television.

“There is no real evidence for [Astrid] Lindgren’s reluctance at the Japanese end, apart from a cryptic comment from Tokyo Movie’s Keishi Yamazaki, who thought that she had once said in a TV programme that Japanese animation was ‘too violent’. Where on Earth she got that idea from in 1971 is anyone’s guess — I like to imagine a Stockholm tea-time coven of famous children’s authors, complaining about foreign cartoons.”

Who Will Make Anime Now?

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Tadashi Sudo’s just-published book on disruptions to the Japanese animation business.

“Sudo’s book is no simple statement of the obvious. Despite its pocket size, it is an admirable synthesis of two decades of anime business writing, and of the immense changes wrought upon the industry by developments in technology and shifts in demographics. China is, sensibly, a huge part of his argument, as he deals with the seemingly unsolvable problem of pushing Japanese products into a marketplace with willing fans but hostile gatekeepers. He not only points to the disruption of traditional models, but also the growing influence of the likes of Netflix and Amazon in how anime is watched, and how it is funded in the first place. He also deals directly with issues of single personalities, and how they might be expected to influence the business.”

Norio Shioyama 1940-2017

In case you missed it over at the All the Anime blog, my obituary of the character designer and illustrator Norio Shioyama, who died last week.

‘“I wonder if that wasn’t the spirit of the times,” he said. “Everyone was ready to work their hardest, to do their best. The result made Japan the second-largest economy in the world, but I think we lost something. We got colder.’

The Cosplay Lynch-Mob

shinji-1

It was an odd internet scandal even by the standards of our post-truth age. Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, a man whose grasp of the truth makes Comical Ali look like George Washington, was “outed” in January by the Kotaku fan site, whose minions had been trawling his social media posts looking for something to laugh at. They found it, seemingly, on his Twitter feed for 2013, where he had been enthusiastically hash-tagging a Gundam costume he saw at Katsucon.

Could it really be that, in the year that America jumped the shark, the frowning White House press secretary was a recovering anime fan? And if so, could it be that he was That Guy… you know, That Guy?

spicer-twitter-imageNo, I didn’t know That Guy, but enthusiastic chatter soon enlightened me – a man at American conventions of a few years back, who dressed up as pathological whiner Shinji from Evangelion. What better illustration of his oft-repeated catch-phrase, “I Mustn’t Run Away”, than appending it to a picture of Spicer standing before the press corps, unreliably informing them that black was white, that crowds were much more biglier than people remembered, and that Evangelion 4.0 was sure to be released very, very soon?

Anime fandom was awash with giggly glee as they tried to hunt down five-year-old cosplay photographs. High-level nerds were put to work on facial recognition software. Everybody was mobilised to get him… but I didn’t understand what for.

“Wait,” I asked. “If that’s really Spicer dressed as Shinji, why would you laugh at him? Because he’s a cosplayer? Because he likes Japanese cartoons?” Isn’t that shooting all your fellow anime fans in the feet? It seemed like an oddly mean-spirited and self-destructive form of protest, discovering that one’s enemy was a bit like you, and then laughing at him for it.

Spicer and I are the same age, and the world is a small place – it turned out we had a mutual acquaintance. He’d been a hard-core otaku at the same college as Spicer, and reported that he had zero interest in anime in the 1990s. If he were a fan, he was something of a late bloomer, and these days probably had other things on his mind than assuring people they have five minutes until the planet explodes. But fandom should lay off trying to shame itself.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #161, 2017.

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.