The War on Christianity

Christ's Samurai coverJJ O’Donoghue in the Japan Times covers my new book Christ’s Samurai, calling it “a concise and lucid account of a unique period in Japan’s history”.

Come for the article, stay for the comments! I was worried I might be accused of being anti-Christian, but it turns out that I am an apologist for missionary subversion and a whitewasher of colonialism… according to an online pundit who hasn’t actually read the book.

Out now: Amazon US, Amazon UK.

Manga in America

50375324Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Casey Brienza’s Manga in America, a detailed and beautifully researched account of the last decade of Japanese comics in translation.

“Brienza acknowledges the awful poison at the heart of the American manga industry, which is that it was colonised some 15 years ago by snake-oil salesmen and carpet-baggers determined to slap the word manga on anything that they did, out of a cynical desire to clamber aboard a bandwagon that promised, at the time, ‘double-digit growth.’ As I have pointed out on many previous occasions, this didn’t just confuse everybody as to what manga actually was, but also corrupted much of the available data. A manga is a Japanese comic, anybody who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.”

Manga & Anime Go To Hollywood

51qMWVRg1SL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Northrop Davis’ new book Manga & Anime Go To Hollywood, which was something of a disappointment from an academic press. Where were the peer-reviewers?

“There are a lot of quotes from contemporary internet reportage but far too much of the book simply rehashes earlier publications, pouring in excerpts from works that any serious researcher will already own.”

Turning Point

Turning-Point-1997-2008-postMy review of Hayao Miyazaki’s second volume of collected writings is up now on the Manga UK blog. Just a taste:

“It’s crucial, for a long-term understanding of Miyazaki’s legacy, to know just where his priorities were, and the answer is often surprising – more space is given in his afterword to the construction of the Studio Ghibli crèche than to his movies. Nor is this an idle comment – with typical eccentric insight, Miyazaki sees the Three Bears daycare centre not only as a place for his animators to leave their kids, but as a place for Studio Ghibli’s workers to observe their audience in its natural habitat. As ever, he cares passionately about the Child. His producer Toshio Suzuki might always have his eye on the ticket buyer and the bottom line, but Miyazaki remains touchingly involved with the world of the under-tens.”

Event Horizons

Spinal_Tap_-_Up_to_ElevenI’m fascinated by the procedures that get the cast and crew of a touring production from one venue to another, the economics of tour buses, and the nature of life on the road. In recent years, I have become acquainted with many behind-the-scenes elements, owing to my little brother’s career as a swan wrangler and lion tamer on several famous tours. Whenever I see him, he is soon ranting about point-loads and scissor-lifts, and the problems inherent in getting your steel rigs to Paris when your lighting’s stuck in Amsterdam and your dancers are down the pub.

“I am sick of people saying ‘Oh, Ravenna? You’re so lucky!’” he once raged. “I’m not on holiday, I’m putting 6 tonnes of intricate steelwork in the roof, which will be manipulated on tiny bits of string by people who don’t speak the same language as me in a vain attempt not to kill or maim anybody recreating the Blitz (through the medium of dance) underneath. And all this in searing heat and unbelieveable moisture, in a 300-year-old space, with no extra time.”

So, yes, I am probably the only person in the world who regarded Waddell, Barnet and Berry’s This Business of Concert Promotion and Touring as a fun read. My interest is actually in what the Japanese are calling “events” – live shows featuring starlets or special guests, designed to be unpirateable. This includes film festivals and Hatsune Miku performances, and maybe even the occasional convention, but I’m ready to see how things look like to touring rock bands as well. I’m a sucker for insider business books, and this one is authored by the triumvirate of a production manager, Billboard’s executive director of content and programming, and a professor in the Department of Recording Industry at Middle Tennessee State. You can actually study Advanced Concert Promotion! I love it.

this bizThis Business of Concert Promotion and Touring is a hard-core business book, all about the numbers, and the way they can be massaged. From four guys and a second-hand van, to Iron Maiden and their own 747, it investigates the logistics of getting out on the road and earning money through events rather than record sales. It examines the varying economics of ticket prices – Garth Brooks charging a mere $20, in order to get as many people in the venue as possible, versus Paul McCartney’s courting of the corporate crowd with tickets in excess of $450 for that special VIP treatment. It’s also particularly good on spin-offs, revealing, for example, that the Rolling Stones expect every ticket buyer to spend an average of $18 on merchandise before they can reasonably be said to have got that elusive satisfaction. Ah yes, but that kind of merchandise means you are adding a whole extra truck to the entourage just to ship it and its sellers around with you, and costs mounts up…

Perhaps most interesting for me is a section on the impact of online ticketing, particularly the Ticketron software perfected by three boffins in Arizona, and sold to Ticketmaster in 1991. The first ever ticket sold on was an accident in 1996, when the company turned on its system to check for bugs, and saw that someone immediately used it to buy a ticket to Seattle Mariners game. Curious, they tracked the buyer down and asked him why he had bought a ticket online.

“Yeah,” came the reply, “because I don’t like talking to people and I don’t like talking to you.” Then he hung up.

A section at the back talks the reader through the hour-by-hour experience of different members of a rock band’s entourage, from the roadies to the support act, demonstrating how each experiences the day of performance in different ways, and with different bottlenecks and milestones. Sadly there’s no gossip or groupies, although one wonders wistfully about some of the likely questions on a Middle Tennessee State examination paper. You’ll finish the book knowing the exact difference between an “arena” and a “theatre” (no mistakenly booking the EnormoDome for you) and won’t ever make the rookie error of buying rather than renting expensive, crash-prone sound systems to take on tour. And next time I see a guitarist smash his instrument on stage, I will always be wondering if he isn’t following this book’s advice, to cover up a broken string by doing something dramatic until his roadie can slip him a replacement.

This Business of Concert Promotion: A Practical Guide to Creating Selling, Organizing and Staging Concerts, by Ray Waddell, Rich Barnet and Jake Berry, is out now from Billboard Books.


Re-AgitatorMy review of Tom Mes’s latest book, a collection of essays and articles on the director Takashi Miike, is now up on the Manga UK blog.

It makes for an interesting comparison with his earlier Agitator, in terms of the implied readership, and Mes’s assessment of what kind of book his subject needs — very different ten years ago, when he didn’t think anyone would actually see the films he discussed.

Some China Diaries

“There is a tension between the obstructions of getting things done, and the enormous decency and kindness and genuine humor of the people.” – George Bush, 1975

I read a lot of travel books about China, ranging from the sublime to the infuriating, from the clueless observations of disinterested tourists, to the considered memoirs of people who live and work in China for years on end. There’s also a wide range in intent, from simply telling one’s relatives about what one’s been up to, to the first book up for review today, which chronicles the “making of an American president” by publishing his forgotten account of a period spent as Our Man in Beijing.

George Bush Senior’s China Diary is fascinating, as the Party cadre flees America in the wake of Watergate, and volunteers, much to his superiors’ bafflement, for a posting to China, long before the US and China had normalised relations. Bush is hence an ambassador in all but name in the dying days of Chairman Mao, biking around Beijing and attending endless rounds of parties with other diplomats. Barbara Bush, meanwhile, risks causing an international incident at the hair-dressers, where she strikes up a friendly conversation with a woman who turns out to be the Cuban ambassador’s wife.

As a result of his non-official status, Bush represents a global superpower but comes lower down the pecking order than the ambassador of Gabon, and hence must exercise extreme diligence not to be caught out in the cold at photo calls and banquets. What struck me most about his memoirs was how many of the names of his fellow diplomats were familiar to me. Party politics will get you on the diplomatic track, but so will knowing a hell of a lot about the country in question, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to see people like Jan Vixseboxe (Netherlands ambassador) and Ann Paludan (wife to the Danish ambassador), whose work I know better as “scholars”, popping in for tea and caviar.

Bush narrated his diary into a Dictaphone that was transcribed many years later. Jeffrey Engel edits and annotates the messy original by correcting solecisms and adding copious footnotes, sometimes critical of the author himself.  Published in 2008, the China Diary is oddly obscure – I only stumbled across it by accident, and was rather surprised that I had never bumped into it before – it’s not on the shelves at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, for example. And it’s not available on the Kindle (time travel footnote: now it is), a device which has hoovered up £400 of my book spending since I succumbed to digital devilry in September.

One of the joys of Kindle access is that it is possible to charge what the market will bear. I enjoyed and greatly appreciated the unique sections of Alan Paul’s Big in China that were about his expat life as a corporate househusband, but rapidly lost interest when he drifted into (for me) tedious reminiscences about his band. This isn’t any fault of the author; it’s plainly something that interests him greatly. Unfortunately, it interests him so much that he stops talking about China in order to talk about guitar strings and music clubs, about which this reader does not give a toss. Don’t get me wrong, Big in China was an enjoyable book, but I would have enjoyed it a lot more if it had cost me a third as much. I might have been similarly put off by Leanna Adams’s Pretty Woman Spitting, but in pragmatically charging me a mere 77p to read her China diary, the author ensured that I finished it with a smile on my face, feeling that my money had been well spent.

Despite conceding that she knows very little about China, and peppering her book with questionable statistics and outright apocrypha, Adams has an eye for detail and character that makes her writing entertaining and worthwhile. She also constructs a proper narrative for herself, turning what could have easily been a series of random diary entries into a character arc of growth, love, loss and learning. Pretty Woman Spitting is a well-written and carefully balanced account of an American woman in China – the title itself is a fair encapsulation of Adams’s innate ability to find drama and poetry in the most mundane of situations.

Sometimes it seems that everyone and his dog has a China memoir about the time they spent trying to pronounce the words for “I NO WANT CHICKEN HEAD” to uncomprehending waiters, but coming back such books after several years evaluating anime industry testimonials, I have come to regard them in a new and indulgent light. Historical researchers will sympathise, perhaps, with having to hunt around in obscure library collections for forgotten, hand-written travel diaries from the distant past, many of which only reach a larger public when a distant descendant or relative edits them for a PhD. The internet and e-Books makes such pieces immediately and widely available in real time, chronicling hundreds of snapshots of life in a fast-changing country. I find it fascinating, as a historian, that I can read such testimonials as reportage, and eavesdrop on the contemporary China experience of total strangers. Rated in such terms, Chris McElwain’s Dispatches from Crazytown is similarly great value: informative about life in Xi’an, and laugh-out-loud funny, at a cost of approximately 15p per chuckle. McElwain, like Adams, arrives in China as a teacher, but approaches his experience with merciless snark. Openly confessing that his book is the ramblings of a “confounded yokel”, he seems to court trouble, initiating a Frisbee competition at the tomb of the First Emperor, and contemplating exactly what he is supposed to do with the live catfish he can buy at the local supermarket. There is a very fine line between hostility and humorous observation, but McElwain keeps resolutely on the right side of it – he loves China, but is unafraid of puncturing its pomposities when the opportunity arises.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy, now out on the Kindle.