Trickle-Down Memories

only-yesterday-isao-takahataBased on a manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, Only Yesterday was a gentle, soft-focus account of an office lady’s return from the big city to the country hometown she has all but forgotten. Taeko Okajima may not realise it yet, but she is facing a big decision, between town and country or career and domesticity. Is her Yamagata birthplace really a horrid, isolated dump in the sticks, or is it the idyllic, rural home she has always wanted?

Isao Takahata’s movie adaptation touched a nerve in 1991 Japan. It found its audience among urban yuppies, who were also wondering if their hectic careers were costing them something more soulful. It was a film suffused with nostalgia for the toys and telly of the 1960s, the stumbling steps of growing up, and the self-doubt of a twenty-something singleton. In one iconic moment, cheeky village children wave a wooden post behind the two leads. Two names scrawled beneath a stylised umbrella is the Japanese equivalent of a heart with an arrow through it – the supporting cast turns out to be a little bit ahead of the principals in realising that they are appearing in a romantic movie. It was a delightful, small film, but one that was soon overlooked in an age of increasing demands for box office gigantism.

Takahata’s adaptation added much new material; in fact, the entire framing story of the adult Taeko was his own creation – the original manga was solely concerned with her childhood. It’s her adult appearance that can be seen in much of the film’s publicity and stills, unsurprising since that’s what seemed to lure in most of the Japanese audiences, many of them similarly only a generation separated from their rural origins. They came in their droves, earning Only Yesterday 1.87 billion yen at the box office, and trouncing Godfather III in Japanese cinemas.

only-yesterday-trailer-123015But Only Yesterday is not merely a matter of nostalgia for the 1960s. The sharp-eyed, mathematically-minded anime watcher might notice that while Taeko’s childhood occurs in 1966, her adult return to her village is set in 1982. Takahata’s film, made just as Japan’s economy began to slump into its long recession, was hence not only an evocation of the sights and sounds of the 1960s, but also of the early 1980s.

He could, like his colleague Miyazaki with My Neighbour Totoro, have simply fudged his dates a little, setting it in a vague general period. Instead, Takahata seems to have deliberately plumped for 1982, allowing for a second wave of nostalgia among teenage Japanese film-goers, allowing them to look back on their childhoods, too. This decision, of course, also neatly ensured that his heroine was on the very cusp of what was then regarded as marriageability, just past the fateful “Christmas-cake” age of 25. Some, most notably Helen McCarthy in the Anime Encyclopedia, have criticised this subtext for fixating on a ticking-clock nuptial time-bomb, but it was very much an element of its time, and seemed to chime with many of the viewers who flocked to it. Released in the UK this year in a Blu-ray dub, the film is now 25 years old – creating yet another nostalgic framing device.

The first time Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki went head to head, Miyazaki was the underdog. Miyazaki was the guy who had accepted a challenge to make a children’s movie entirely free of conflict. His producer and friend, Toshio Suzuki, was so convinced that the resulting movie would be a flop that he insisted on putting it on a Studio Ghibli double bill with Takahata’s heart-rending war drama, The Grave of the Fireflies. That way, he reasoned, Takahata’s movie would pack in the compulsory block-bookings from school outings, and the kids could take or leave Miyazaki’s mad My Neighbour Totoro.

only-6The rest, as they say, is history. Totoro became one of the best-loved movies in animation history, so in demand all around Japan that there weren’t enough prints of Grave of the Fireflies to accompany it. Grave remains a classic of Japanese cinema, but it’s not what you would ever call a “feel-good movie.” Takahata followed up with the touching eco-comedy Pom Poko, about racoons with magic testicles, and that, too, was number one at the Japanese box office. But being number one was no longer enough!

Set the box office figures for Ghibli films on a graph, and Miyazaki and Takahata were practically neck and neck until 1997. Only Yesterday’s takings stopped just short of two billion yen; Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso just over it. But in 1997, Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke rocketed ahead, kicking off his run as a world-beating box-office winner. Takahata’s 1999 movie My Neighbours the Yamadas did reasonable numbers by the standards of the previous decade, but were considered a flop in the era of Ghibli blockbusters.

It is deeply, deeply unfair to consider Takahata as an also-ran of the anime business. The senior of the pair, he was instrumental in Miyazaki’s training and career, and a vital contributor to the success of all of “Miyazaki’s” movies. Each would work as a foil to the other on their various projects, right up to their final films. In any film industry that had not seen the exponential takings of Miyazaki’s later movies, Takahata would have been a national treasure. But Miyazaki’s early 21st century success has swamped his colleague’s profile abroad. I still run into movie buffs who do not even know Studio Ghibli has more than one director. Meanwhile, mainstream publications that only cover one anime a year plump for the one their readers will have heard of, rather than his long-term collaborator.

In 2013, things came full circle. Toshio Suzuki hatched a plot to release Takahata’s last film on the same bill as Miyazaki’s, thereby allowing the under-earning mentor to piggy-back on the sure-fire box office of his student. But Takahata didn’t finish his heavily stylised Princess Kaguya in time, and it was left to fend for itself, earning relatively meagre ticket sales. Now approaching his 71st birthday, Takahata is unlikely to complete another feature film as director, although he hopefully has many years ahead of him to write some quirky, romantic memoirs of his own.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article originally appeared as two separate pieces in Geeky Monkey #13 and NEO #155, 2016.

This is not a Brexit


Soon after the Brexit vote, I was knee-deep in a pit of Chinese corpses. That’s not because of Brexit, you understand; that’s my job, making a documentary about human sacrifice in the Shang dynasty. But the cameraman’s phone kept going off with sales offers from British companies, spamming the techies of the film world with their chance to snap up cameras and lenses, RAM cards and drones while the pound was weak.

I cling to the belief that common sense will win out, and that the politicians who lied about the appeal of Brexit are just as liable to lie about their willingness to go through with it. In the meantime, while I’m waiting for all those promised new hospitals to open, and all those immigrants to be kicked out (goodbye doctors, nurses, any chance of a good plumber…), and while I am watching the architects run away from the mess they have created, and Theresa May rising to unelected power like some Cthulhu of Conservatism, I’m wondering about the impact on anime.

Fortunately, as far as most licensing contracts go, the United Kingdom is rarely regarded as “part of Europe”. It is already either treated as a separate entity, or attached like a sixth finger to deals involving the rest of the English-speaking world. For acquisitions agents sitting down at meetings in Cannes, Los Angeles or Tokyo, political divisions are less relevant than DVD and Blu-ray region coding, or online lockout.

Well, in all respects except one – money. Since last month’s issue of NEO, the pound has dropped 10% in value [now 13% –JC], which means all deals currently under discussion are going to cost UK companies a tenth more. Companies are unlikely to pass that cost on to you, so something that costs £18.99 in the high street will still cost £18.99 next month.

But that money has to come from somewhere, and I predict it is going to start to show in the autumn season, not in terms of things you can see, but things you can’t. Companies like Funimation, paying in dollars for world English-language rights, probably won’t even blink. The damage will be felt by those smaller distributors with a UK-only footprint, having to pay extra cash not only for the rights to the anime in the first place, but for the pressing of the discs, currently done in Austria or Poland, and hence payable in euros.

Faced with mounting bills, even without an official date on Brexiting, they will drop whatever tenth title looks the least appealing. They simply won’t pick it up, and you won’t ever find it for sale. They will also think twice about re-pressing any other shows that go out of print. Anything that’s say, six years old, approaching the end of its licence, and unlikely to shift more than a few hundred more copies, will suddenly become entirely unavailable. All of which means, in the short term, buy any old shows you’ve been putting off, before they disappear from the shelves. And in the long-term: you’ll probably need a year’s supply of baked beans and a shotgun.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article originally appeared in NEO #154, 2016.

Resurrection Men


Information wants to be free. Despite the public failure of Dr Frankenstein’s experiments with reanimated cadavers, his technology spreads like wildfire. When the mathematician Charles Babbage invents “necroware” that can turn a corpse into a servant, the British Empire is transformed through an entire underclass of zombie workers. John Watson, a young doctor, is recruited by “M” from the secret service to track down Frankenstein’s missing papers, in the hope that he can unravel the last mystery – how to bring back a human soul along with a body…

Satoshi Ito was the darling of Japanese science fiction in the early 21st century. Born in 1974, he shot to fame in 2007 with his novel Genocidal Organ, in which terrorists get their hands on nuclear weapons, plunging the free world into a downward spiral of restrictive surveillance. It was voted the book of the decade by Japanese fandom, and swiftly led to Ito’s work-for-hire novelising the video game Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. His next original splash was Harmony, which concentrated on the hunger strikers who protested against a self-proclaimed utopia. But only two years after his debut novel, Ito was already mortally ill, repeatedly hospitalised with cancer. His obsession with medical technology in Harmony hence took on a new, grim relevance, as did the handful of pages from his last idea… left behind after his untimely death, aged just 34, in 2009.

Empire of Corpses was lightning in a bottle – an industrial revolution founded not on slave labour, but on reanimated corpses, pushed every post-colonial button in modern fiction, along with a “Great Game” stand-off between British and Russian agents in the killing grounds of the Middle East. It had everything: espionage, exotic locations, steampunk stylings, and a league of extraordinary gentlemen ripped from the pages of history and adventure – we see the newly minted Dr Watson receive the injuries in Afghanistan that he would later grumble about to a more famous sleuthing companion. And he’s only the first of a whole host of figures who pile into the narrative like a who’s-who of the 19th century, including the Brothers Karamazov (working undercover for the Tsar), Thomas Edison and Ulysses S. Grant.

Ito’s publishers wouldn’t let it die. They commissioned his friend Toh Enjoe, a very different novelist, to finish the work in progress, and the collaboration beyond the grave would go on to win a Seiun Award (Japan’s Hugo) in 2013. All three of Ito’s novel-length works went into production as animated features – partly, one suspects because of his undeniable popularity, although a cynic might suggest that the best possible original creator in the eyes of an anime producer is one who is too dead to answer back. Empire of Corpses was the first of the three to reach cinemas – rumours persist that it was rushed through in order to take a slot vacated by a more troubled production. That, at least would explain some of its problems, since it looks fantastic, sounds like a dream come true, but ultimately shambles like creature born from several great ideas, sewn together but not quite quickened with the spark of life.

It’s difficult to know where the problem lies for Empire of Corpses – right from its publication in novel form, there was always the concern that Toh Enjoe took the narrative far from the original creator’s intentions. It starts so well, but you can almost feel the moment 20 minutes in when the original pages ran out, and Toh started to wing it. His rescue job on Ito’s notes won a Seiun Award in Japan, although we’ll never know how much of that was a sympathy vote for the dead co-author. Three further writers are credited with bringing the film to the screen, and it’s they, we might assume, who sat around brainstorming and decided that what the main female lead Hadaly Lilith needed was a really big pair of boobs. Her pneumatic shuffling through the movie detracts from a storyline that otherwise takes itself very seriously indeed, but which lumbers uneasily from fiercely argued anti-colonialism, to a subtle gay romance, to a somewhat illogical zombie drama (suddenly, biting people makes them undead), to the origin story for an entirely different series, only revealed in a post-credits sting. The final act, in particular, gets bogged down in a Japanese interlude and an explosion-happy finale, a big finish seemingly hobbled by the twin golems of budget and time.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #12, 2016.

Computer Says No

Jonathan Clements asks: is Sibyl faulty?

psychopass-coverAs part of the research for the PSYCHO-PASS anime film, director Naoyoshi Shiotani trained with Tamura Tactical Gear, a company that offers military re-enactments. “I asked them what was never done in movies,” he recalls, “and they told me that hardly anyone ever shows the wounded getting treated. I thought that was a brilliant idea.” It’s precisely the sort of attention to counter-intuitive detail that has made PSYCHO-PASS one of the anime hits of recent memory.

In the year 2113, Japan is kept safe by the Sibyl system, a super-powerful computer that uses on-the-spot brain scans to determine how likely someone is to even think of committing a crime. Anyone with criminal leanings can be terminated or imprisoned before they do wrong, except for a few “latent” criminals who are employed as enforcers to do the establishment’s dirty work. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out, everything, from deluded criminals whose psychological profile shows up as normal, to innocent people who inadvertently show signs of criminal tendencies. And that’s assuming that the system itself isn’t faulty or open to corruption. What happens when Amazon stops recommending things you might like, and rings the police instead to grass you up for liking too many films about terrorists?

“Intelligent people do not fit in,” warns writer Gen Urobuchi. “Because in that world knowledge is not regarded as something that makes people happy, so those who devote themselves to knowledge are criminals and drop-outs from the career track. The Sibyl society is a utopia where people become happy by putting a lid on knowledge.”

If that all sounds a uncomfortably prophetic about our post-truth, Brexit-obsessed world, PSYCHO-PASS is rooted firmly in the “If this goes on…” school of sci-fi, positing a world where big data is increasingly used to control the citizenry. Far from creating a safe and happy society, the concentration on pre-crime has led to a paranoid and fearful dystopia, where people are tarred with the brush of criminality not because of what they have done, but what a computer thinks they might. The series reflects a healthy scepticism about the reliability of statistical tests – a particular bugbear in Japan, where school examinations are often ridiculed for squeezing out originality of thought in favour of rote learning.

The reasoning behind the scenes at animation studio Production I.G is liable to be tied up in both the success and limitations of their former cash cow: the Ghost in the Shell franchise (affectionately known in fandom as GiTS). Ever since the 1995 movie, GiTS has periodically rebooted as a TV series, as spin-off movies and video works, the rights in its ownership becoming increasingly tangled. With the oncoming splash of the live-action Hollywood GiTS movie, starring Scarlett Johansson, the intellectual property is liable to become even more convoluted. Meanwhile, GiTS is based on a manga from the 1980s, arguably a whole generation behind the times. For a long while, Production I.G has injected fresh new sci-fi ideas into the franchise, but someone must have surely asked: why don’t we just invent our own?

The name to watch behind the scenes is supervising director Katsuyuki Motohiro, a man with only an oblique relationship to the anime world. The director of the live-action TV and cinema smash Bayside Shakedown, Motohiro is a master at crafting thoughtful policiers, and brings to the table a healthy disrespect for anime trends. It was him, one suspects, who was largely to be credited with the production’s stated “anti-moe” policy, refusing to fetishise cute female characters as a sop to an imagined audience of emotionally stunted fanboys. The result is leading lady Akane Tsunemori, who believes in the system even though she is confronted with its many flaws.

A PSYCHO-PASS animated feature went into production alongside the second TV season, offering a new plot in which the “successful” Sibyl system is experimentally installed in a South-East Asian country. Writers Gen Urobuchi and Makoto Fukami welcomed the chance to showcase how an idea that almost makes sense in strait-laced, conservative Japan could go right off the rails in an unstable dictatorship where all sides have better access to firearms. They also observed that Motohiro was on hand to push them in unexpected directions, such as forcing the cast to speak English even in the Japanese release, and insisting on a puzzle introduced in the first act. “He said,” remembers Urobuchi, “that if you want the audience to sit there for two hours, you have to offer them a mystery at the start.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #11, 2016.

Sacred Sailors

momotaro_still_page3_4-850x620Over at the All the Anime blog, I write an introduction to the wartime propaganda movie Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (i.e. Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors), which is receiving its belated UK premiere at Scotland Loves Anime next month.

“Japan’s first animated feature was a masterpiece of propaganda film-making, uncompromising in the bile it directed at the enemy, romantic in its evocation of home and hearth and of imperial Japan’s Pan-Asian aspirations, and still unsettling today in its depiction of the mindset of the Japanese military. Its survival to reach modern audiences is itself an adventure story in which it somehow evades bombing raids, burial, shredding and bonfires, emerging from hiding after almost 40 years to offer modern audiences a horrifying glimpse of a very different world.”

Under the Hammer

Tezuka_Sothebys1To Paris in June, where the local branch of the auction house Sotheby’s held a sale of 260 pieces of comics artwork, including samples from the likes of Jim Lee, Hugo Pratt and Uderzo, with a total sale value of €1.3 million.

The manga component was only a small fraction – largely from Osamu Tezuka. Notably, the Tezuka pieces sold at the low end of their expected price, suggesting that Sotheby’s assessors, whoever they were, had rightly predicted their likely value. Your mileage may vary – none of them looked particularly interesting to me. Astro Boy et Autres Personnages, for example, which went for a posh-sounding €3,625, was a scrappy little pen-and-ink study of five unrelated Tezuka characters. What you were paying for was largely its provenance, which is to say that value of knowing that these images were drawn by Tezuka himself, who is too dead to draw any more.

toriyama.jpgMost surprising was a single head-shot of Dragon Ball’s Son Goku, drawn by Akira Toriyama, which went for €15,000, five times the estimated price. Toriyama is still happily alive, and is presumably cackling to himself in his studio as he knocks out another hundred such sketches to put on eBay. One suspects that Chinese capital is at work here, bidding up the value among people who have read the manga in Mandarin.

In the meantime, here are my top tips for anyone seeking manga artwork as an investment.

Make sure it’s signed clearly, and preferably not to you. Future buyers will want the artist’s signature, not the fact that it includes the message “GEMMA YOU ARE TOPS!” Not unless their name is Gemma – a limited crowd.

Try to get a single study (a bust, full-length shot or face), not a random collection of heads; it’s worth more if it’s hangable as a portrait.

Beware of gimmicks – Motoko Kusanagi depicted as your girlfriend might feel like a giggle today, but only if you become as famous as she is.

Do think, too, about the capital you are already investing. If you’re spending £10 for the sketch, and giving up two hours in a line, and a weekend at the convention, and the train that got you there, the incidentals do mount up. Has it really cost you £10, or has it already left you £200 out of pocket? Because not every queue is going to be worth standing in.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #153, 2016.

When Miyazaki Was There


Asthmatic, blue-eyed Japanese girl Anna is sent away by her adoptive family to recuperate in north Hokkaido. She finds herself in an idyllic rural retreat, where the sea has a haunting habit of invading the marshy land; where a dilapidated mansion seems to call out to her, and where she befriends the ethereal, blonde stranger Marnie, who assures her that this is not a dream.

Based on the 1967 novel by Joan G. Robinson, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There is a melancholy, elegiac account of a disappearing countryside and forgotten melodrama, set in Japan’s far north. Although there are twists of a sort in the tale, they are so obvious even in the above synopsis that the film becomes much more invested in the how rather than the what, and in the recreation of stunning vistas of the natural world. Such forests, such mountains, such skies, the animators whisper, are not a dream, either.

Marnie was the last feature-film production from Studio Ghibli, coming at the end of a decade-long series of fixes and bodges designed to keep the studio going after Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement. Producer and all-round svengali Toshio Suzuki tried to hire big-name directors to replace him; then he tried to train up new talents. He lured Miyazaki himself back for two more films, cunningly spacing them wide apart, and obscuring the precise details of who did what with an entirely alphabetical crew listing, so that when other directors took the reins, only the attentive audience members would even notice. Suzuki’s biggest and most controversial coup came with Tales from Earthsea, for which he dragged Miyazaki’s son Goro, a landscape gardener by trade, out from the rose bushes and into the director’s chair.

Goro had spent his whole life playing second fiddle to his parents. Before he even went to school, he and his brother had been the unwitting subjects of a book, Goro & Keisuke: A Mother’s Childhood Picture Diary. Hayao Miyazaki himself has publicly acknowledged that he neglected his own family while entertaining everybody else’s, and Goro rejected animation as a career. He contributed admirably to the Ghibli legacy by helping design its world-class museum, but was deeply reluctant to ride his father’s coat-tails. The critical failure of Tales from Earthsea, which begins with a prince stabbing his kingly father to death, was a foregone conclusion, but Suzuki milked the controversy, daring audiences to come and see the wreckage, and then daring them again to see how the two Miyazakis worked together on From Up On Poppy Hill, with dad writing the script and junior directing once more after a public burying of the hatchet.

Throughout all of this drama, Hiromasa Yonebayashi was the quiet labourer in the shadows. Rising through the ranks from in-betweener to key animator, Yonebayashi was arguably the most successful of Suzuki’s trainees. A cynic might infer that Yonebayashi did all the real work on Tales from Earthsea while Goro was just a figurehead. But Yonebayashi has had little chance to stamp his own imprimatur on his work. He’s spent the last ten years diligently pastiching Miyazaki’s world-beating style, helping to carry Studio Ghibli through a vital transition as its founders retire and its output devolves into “legacy management” – the museum, the gift shop, and the retrospective Blu-rays.

One of Miyazaki’s parting gifts to his studio was a list of 50 recommended “children’s books” – although some of them, like Sherlock Holmes and The Three Musketeers are hardly childish. It’s this list, it seems, that is a working document for the studio’s swansong, with Marnie picked from it in order to regenerate a bit of the old Ghibli magic.

There have been a lot of tears shed over the shuttering of Studio Ghibli’s animation division, but true geeks should celebrate the boldness of the move. Do we really want Totoro II or Spirited Away Again? Instead of devolving into slapdash sequels, with the leading lights retiring, what better way to preserve its legacy by quitting while they’re ahead? But spare a thought for poor Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who was nominated for an Oscar for Marnie, but who is little-known or recognised in the anime world, having worked for a decade to keep someone else’s reputation alive.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #9, 2016.