Animation Plus

Animation Plus: Research on Transformation and Upgrading of China’s Animation Industry was published a year ago by the Social Science Academic Press, and has received a telling ZERO reviews on Amazon China. That, I would suggest, is palpably part of the problem – despite its immense leaps in recent years, people find it hard to get invested, emotionally or otherwise, in Chinese animation, including the Chinese themselves. Author Zhang Huiling has a background in both journalism and broadcast media, and has approached China’s underperforming industry armed with charts, facts and figures. But despite her diligent and extremely useful compilation of data, is anyone paying attention?

Her study is packed with admirably hard information, detailing the recent history of Chinese animation, as well as some intriguing elements of its statistical composition, including episode counts, genre percentages and studio locations. She deals with China largely as a sealed system, large enough to create winning franchises without recourse to foreign sales, although this is precisely why Chinese animation so rarely exports well.

To a certain extent, Zhang is both rediscovering the wheel and pretending she can’t see the cart. Much of her book is an extended argument about the crucial role of intellectual property – what the Japanese call contents – in forming a firm foundation for exploitation in multiple media, including animation. But in doing so, she runs right into the middle of a political minefield in which Chinese animation refuses to discuss the existence of Japanese competitors. Japanese animation, as noted on this blog on multiple occasions is not only a vital patron of the Chinese arts, but also a rival worth watching. Zhang acknowledges this with a final chapter devoted to the successes of Toei Animation in Tokyo, but one can’t help but wonder if the timidity with which she raises this topic undermines her own argument. It’s not her fault if “Japan” is a dirty word in modern Chinese academic discourse, but an understanding of Japan’s success is vital for seeing both where the Chinese animation industry may have gone wrong, and indeed where it has the potential to do right.

An intriguing section of her book breaks down animation around the world, suggesting that certain territories have fundamentally different production and finance trees for their cartoon production. I’m not sure I agree with her flowcharts all the time – the Japanese one, for example, contains a solecism that has not been true for fifty years – but it is fascinating to see how Zhang the external observer explains the functions of the “American”, the “British”, the “Canadian” or, say, the “German” system. Zhang delivers in spades her subtitle’s promise of “research on transformation” of China’s animation industry, but I am not persuaded that her conclusions say anything that hasn’t been said before regarding its “upgrade”. As suggested by Rolf Giesen, among many others, the fundamental issue facing Chinese animation is not something that can be solved with financial voodoo or marketing magic. It requires an overhaul at the very foundations, arguably nothing to do with Chinese animation at all, but lodged more squarely in the creation of the intellectual property itself. For as long as the Chinese animation industry is dominated by bean-counters, managers, and political meddling in content, it will never create the kind of intellectual property to support the sort of world-beating franchise that Zhang demands. Her book, however, is a treasure trove of useful information that other researchers will be sure to draw upon.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

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.”

Nothing Like a Dane

9781472136466‘I had that Danish karate team in the back of my cab once,’ says the driver. He uses the cabbies’ definite article, as if I am supposed to know which Danish karate team he is talking about.

‘They were over for that tournament, and they went out on the town afterwards. They drink a lot, you know? I was surprised. I didn’t think kung fu people liked beer or whatever. But I picked them up at like two in the morning, in their red tracksuits, and I was driving them back to their hotel, and we was all south of the river. In Brixton. And one of them says: “You know what, I want some orange juice. Pull over a second.” And I says: no mate, you don’t want to stop the car in bloody Brixton, not now, not at kicking-out time round all the clubs. And he laughs and says just pull over. So I do. I stops the cab, and all three of them hop out and go into a Seven-Eleven.

‘I just know there’s going to be trouble, and sure enough, there’s three big blokes go in. And one of them is like: give me your money. Give me your money, he says, to this ginger Dane in a tracksuit. Give me your phone and all. And the Danish guy is like: no, leave me alone. And the bloke is like (and he’s a big feller, right?) and he’s like give it to me now or I will eff you up. And the Dane is like: “No. Step away, sir, please.” Polite as you like.

‘So the bloke pulls back to punch him, and POOF! He’s on the ground clutching his head. And the Dane says: really, I am warning you. But he’s like: “GET THE LADS!” And the other two run off to the club, and they are back in flash with half a dozen mates, and they all charge at these Danes.

‘And these are tired, right, but they train for this every day. They don’t even have to think. It’s like BOFF! BOFF! BOFF! Kung fu fighting and they knock them all down. A couple of berks try to get up again, and then it’s BOFF! Stay down. Then they go to pay for their orange juice, and the police turn up.

‘And what do the police see? They see eight or nine big thugs just lying on the ground moaning and hanging on to their arms and that. And these three little Danes having a packet of Wotsits. And the policeman says to me: “Did you see what happened here, sir?”

‘And I says: “Them three blokes are the Danish karate team. And them others just found out what that means!”’

I’ll save you the trouble, dear reader. I Googled this one. I Googled every possible permutation of Brixton and Denmark and karate. When I came up blank, I tried every other Scandinavian country, as well as the Netherlands, on a hunch. I switched the martial arts, just in case it was kung fu or aikido or judo. But despite such an epic account from my story-teller, despite a midnight riot that was sure to have entered the folklore of south London, despite the implied eye-witness experience of the narrator himself, down to the tracksuit colours and omnipotent view of what was said and done a hundred feet away while he was still in his car, there is not a scrap of evidence online of this supposed event. No court hearing, no police report, not even a snickering comment in the local newspaper.

I Googled it in Danish, too, just to be sure.

Nothing.

But that’s the story I heard, word for word. Straight up.

Excerpted from A Brief History of the Martial Arts, by Jonathan Clements.

The Beliefs of the Hidden Christians

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In the legends of Japan’s Hidden Christians, we can see the preservation of the Christian faith, seemingly by word of mouth, in the utmost secrecy, throughout the centuries of the Shōgun’s persecutions. The Kirishitan ‘Bible’, as written down by one group in the 19th century, begins with the creation of the world by Deus. The first man is called Adan, created on the seventh day along with the first woman, Ewa.

Lucifer (Yusuheru), another of the creations of Deus, demands that Adan and Ewa should worship him, as he is similar to their creator. Deus admonishes all three of them, and tells them not to eat a particular fruit in the land of Koroteru (Portuguese: hortelo – ‘garden’). However, Ewa is swindled into tasting the forbidden fruit, and as a result, she and Adan are cursed for four hundred years. The children of Ewa are sentenced to live on the Earth and worship unworthy gods, until a future date when Deus will send a messenger to show them the way back to heaven. Lucifer is transformed into a demonic form, and placed in the sky as the God of Thunder.

Much of the rest of the Old Testament is then skipped over, in favour of the story of Jesus. Mary becomes pregnant by swallowing a butterfly, and spurns the advances of a covetous king in the Philippines. Mary gives birth in a stable, and three days later she is allowed into the innkeeper’s house for a bath. Re-using the same bathwater, as is usual in Japan, the innkeeper’s son, who suffers from a skin disease, is miraculously cured after touching the same waters as the infant messiah.

The kings of Turkey, Mexico and France come to offer their congratulations on the birth of Jesus (in a stable), but they tell their story to King Herodes (Yorōtetsu), who orders the massacre of all children – his two henchmen are named as Pontia and Pilate. Fleeing to Egypt across the river Baptism, Jesus and Mary are protected by local farmers, whose crops magically grow as soon as they are sown; farmers who refused to help them are stuck with barren fields. The young Jesus argues over matters of religious doctrine with Buddhist priests, before he is betrayed by Judas (Judatsu), executed and then brought back from the dead.

Sacrament, in the belief system of at least one cell of Hidden Christians, is not a thing but a person – a teacher sent by Deus to educate Jesus. Judas is punished for his betrayal by transforming into a tengu – a Japanese demon. These creatures will return to tempt believers during seven years of bumper crops – the last chance for heathens to convert to the true faith.

It is impossible to tell how much of the story of Amakusa Shiro lies buried within the legends of the Hidden Christians. There are Biblical analogies or understandable errors for almost every element, but some are still tantalisingly similar to reportage of the Rebellion. At the end of the world, say some Hidden Christian legends ‘…a great fireball will descend. Winds will roar, torrential rains fall and insects plague the earth. All kinds of human negligence will be visible.’

Christ's Samurai cover smallSoon after, the world itself shall be consumed in fire, leading to times so desperate that animals and birds will beg to be eaten by Christians, so that at least some small part of them might survive the apocalypse. Finally, Deus will return to the Earth and sit in judgement upon humanity. Those on his right, the Christian believers, will all become ‘buddhas’, and live eternally. Those on his left, the unbelievers, will be kicked down into hell along with the tengu.

Book extract from Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion by Jonathan Clements.

Armchair Beijing

41A5LcKbTvL._SX268_BO1,204,203,200_Comments are in for my new Armchair Traveller’s History of Beijing, from some impressively heavy hitters.

“This book is like having a friendly, knowledgeable companion taking your arm as you wander through the back alleys and boulevards of one of the world’s great cities. Clements wears his learning lightly, and his informed but inclusive tone makes this the perfect book for the visitor to Beijing.” — Rana Mitter, author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction

“Beijingers, both Chinese and foreign, mourn the Chinese capital’s rapidly-disappearing traditional alleys but few of us appreciate Beijing as a city that has lasted through 2,500 years of building and destruction. Jonathan Clements’ tour of the city starts with Peking Man and a jovial candy seller, and moves on through the Chinese dynasties with a readable flair. He comes well-stocked with tales that will be new even to long-time residents. It’s a book for a warm teahouse on a cold winter afternoon.” — Lucy Hornby, China correspondent, Financial Times

“It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Jonathan Clements to compile a readable account of Beijing. Authoritative yet deliciously irreverent, his history of the city is an essential companion for the visitor and a treasure trove of vicarious delights for the chair-bound.” — John Keay, author of China: A History

“If New York and London dominated the global imagination in the twentieth century, Beijing is already in the process of usurping them in the twenty first. An extraordinarily exciting city, possessed of enormous optimism and expectation, it has a long, fascinating and complex history. Jonathan Clements unpeels the onion that is Beijing and in a highly readable and informative book gives us a wonderful glimpse of the history of a compelling city.” — Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World

“…direct, well-written history, that travels at a steady pace from Peking Man to the ill-fated opening of a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City… if you’re after some interesting facts to impress friends and visitors with, this is the book for you.” — That’s Beijing

“Jonathan Clements evocatively captures the contradictions and complexities of contemporary Beijing while rooting the city in its broader historical context … Covering such a wide swathe of territory is no easy task, but Clements does so skilfully and often wittily, weaving together myth, factual data and vivid details … Clements’s written is lyrical at times, but there are also moments of jocularity in unexpected places. When introducing the Beijing Zoo, for example, he wryly notes that “dogs are available for rental, for anyone who wants to… rent a dog.'” — Times Literary Supplement

Available now from Amazon UK/US.

The King Hippo

Japan’s “forgotten” anime mogul, Hiroshi Okawa

toei logoThe animator Yasuji Mori used to call Hiroshi Okawa (1896-1971) the King Hippo, describing him (albeit not to his face) as a distant, preoccupied man in a suit whose approach would strike fear into the hardest of section chiefs. If Okawa was coming to visit, even the boss would have a mop out.

“He was a pompous king,” wrote Mori in his memoirs, “and rarely spoke to us commoners. I did meet with him once when we’d finished work on Hakujaden. Me and [Akira] Daikuhara, who did the key art, were invited to his office, and he just said ‘thank you for your work’ in this high-pitched voice, like when a tape is played on fast-forward. And in the autumn of the year that Toei Animation was founded, there was a sports day for all the Toei employees and their families, and the animator team won first prize in the fancy dress. I went to collect the prize money, and he said to me ‘that was really funny’ in a way that showed he really didn’t think it was funny at all.”

07186_1Nobuyuki Tsugata’s new Japanese-language book, The Man Who Aimed For Disney – Hiroshi Okawa: The Forgotten Entrepreneur, labours under the weight of its two subtitles, both of them seemingly concocted less for the benefit of readers than to ensure that the right tags are in place for search engines. Tsugata regards such phrases as points to be considered rather than statements of fact, as well he might. I bristle, for example, at the suggestion that Okawa truly is “a forgotten entrepreneur.” Obscure he may be, but of the two English-language books that cover his era, Hu Tze-yue has five references to him in her index to Frames of Anime, and my own Anime: A History has eight. Moreover, Tsugata’s own publication record has made him the institutional memory of the anime industry – he’s pretty much the guy who decides who is forgotten and who is not, and if he’s written a book about you, it’s fair to say everyone in the field will know who you are.

Okawa certainly aimed to be the “Japanese Disney”, and it’s this element of his career that has proved the most problematic in historical memory. That’s because, of course, the Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka also wanted to be known as the Japanese Disney, and the Tezuka estate has been far better at pushing its case. We might scoff today at such fervent auto-orientalism, but as Tsugata has argued in earlier books, while Tezuka did a marvellous job with public relations, Okawa has a valid claim to the crown from a business point of view.

After many years chronicling the world of animators and artists, Tsugata drags himself far from his comfort zone to talk about the life and times of an avowed Suit. He has no qualms, for example, about describing Okawa as “a film studio boss who knew nothing about films.” Okawa arrived at Toei Animation by the oddest of routes, starting his career as an accountant at the Ministry of Railways (“There was no man better with an abacus”), before being head-hunted to work for the Tokyo Rapid Electric Railway (Tokyu) corporation in 1942. He entered the post-war period as a middle-ranking executive at a company that was swiftly diversifying, pouring infrastructure profits into developing the first of those fantastic shopping malls that can be found at Japanese train stations. Don’t just get on the train home, stay and have dinner in a nice restaurant; do your shopping in our department store; catch a movie!

In 1946, Okawa found himself shunted over to a new role as the manager of a baseball team that Tokyu had somehow acquired. This moved him inexorably into the world of commodified entertainment, as he worked to turn baseball into more than just a run around the local park, but a media event that demanded merchandise, fixed sites, novelty food, and season tickets… Okawa became instrumental in the funding of the Pacific League, in which his team competed against a bunch of others, dragging fans around the country (by train, of course) to witness more matches.

Groomed as a likely president, Okawa was shunted sideways yet again, put in charge of turning around a trio of media companies, merged as Tokyo-Yokohama Films, Oizumi Films, and their parent Tokyo Film Distribution. This unwieldy mess, described by Okawa himself as a lame three-legged racer, hobbled by its own ties and deep in hock to loan sharks, is known today by a contraction of the words for Tokyo and Film, as “Toei”. Among its holdings was a modest collection of 36 cinema theatres. In an epitome of integration, Okawa helped to make the films that were shown in the cinemas and watched by the passengers who had eaten at the restaurants… funnelling money back into Tokyu at every stage.

Okawa dragged Toei out of the hands of its gangster creditors and into the arms of legitimate banks. He scooped up new film talent among refugees from Man-Ei Studio, newly returned from Japan’s lost puppet state of Manchuria. He ducked and dived in the movie market in search of new niches, heading downmarket but with a promise of more bangs for the buck by offering double bills on the same ticket at Toei cinemas. He scored his first big hit mere months after the end of the US Occupation with The Tower of Himeyuri (1953), a weepy about a unit of nurses killed at the Battle of Okinawa. In pursuit of the children’s audience, and in anticipation of the rise of television, he also acquired the struggling animation studio Nichido, renaming it Toei Animation in 1956.

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Nichido’s animators were punch-drunk after a decade of living hand-to-mouth, and reported that Okawa was “more enthusiastic than us” about the prospects for animation. And this is where Tsugata’s book comes into its own, as he investigates the degree to which the success of Toei Animation in the 20th century can be credited to the talents of its many famous animators, or to the stern money-man who pushed them on to greater things.

In animation terms in the 1950s, making a full-length feature film was an enterprise akin to breaking the sound barrier. It was not merely a  case of building up the talents, training and materials necessary to get a workflow going on a 70-minute movie, it was the pay-offs in exhibition when that movie could sell its own ticket. Until Japan could produce its own feature-length cartoon, its animation output was doomed to remain as filler. Okawa, however, conceived a plan to churn out animators in an on-site training exercise, until he had so many that he could make a film. He got his wish in 1958 with the release of Hakujaden, Legend of the White Snake, a film that conveniently filled the gap left in Japanese cinema bookings by the petering out of Disney movies postponed since the war. He also pinned his hopes on export, hoping to ship the Chinese-themed film out to other Asian markets, effectively playing the race card against Disney, and banking on “Asian” trumping “Japanese” in the eyes of foreign buyers.

A rift grew ever wider between Okawa and Tokyu after the death of the company founder, Keita Goto in 1959. Okawa, it was said, had once been told the corporation would one day be his, and was understandably at odds with Goto’s heir. Tokyu effectively cut Toei free in 1964, right in the middle of its labour struggles with disenchanted animators, and just as a TV boom led to start-ups poaching its staff. There is surprisingly little about this in Tsugata’s book, but if we’re prepared to assign credit to Okawa for some of Toei’s achievements, then surely we should also consider the degree to which he may have been responsible for the agitation, strikes, disputes and lock-ins that characterised the studio’s troubled years. Certainly, there were grumbles at Toei Animation about a brand of cronyism that favoured employees parachuted in from railway affiliates and sister companies, rather than the artists who did the actual work. One of the most infamous of the angry voices was one Hayao Miyazaki, a shop steward who pushed for workers to be paid for what they did, rather than which branch of the company they hailed from.

Okawa’s training scheme led to Toei’s nickname as “Toei University”, but by the late 1960s, his business model was hopelessly outmoded. He had funded the training of the bulk of the anime industry, including Miyazaki himself, but in doing so, he had paid for the mentoring of countless rivals. He remained adamant that television was not the enemy – it might have seemed like cinema was suffering at the hands of home viewing, but Toei Animation turned a pretty profit making hundreds of animated adverts. Shortly after Okawa’s death in 1971, Toei pivoted to a leaner model, becoming the centre of a diverse web of companies formed by its former employees, outsourcing many jobs and letting the subcontractors take the risks.

Tsugata finishes his book with a prolonged meditation on Okawa’s legacy, both visibly in terms of the modern output of the Toei studio, and invisibly, in terms of its competitors, many of whom owe their founders’ education to Okawa’s schemes. After all, Nerima ward in Tokyo is known today as the anime district because it is the location not only of Toei, but of Toei’s many satellites.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

The End of Cool Japan…?

41OlrO2WKWL._SX331_BO1204203200_Over at the All the Anime blog, I review the new collection of academic essays The End of Cool Japan: Ethical, legal and cultural challenges to Japanese popular culture.


“Thanks in particular to the rise of Fan Studies, it has become all too easy for the Western pundit to lock themselves in a convention-centred hugbox in which ‘everybody they know’ thinks that anime and manga are the bee’s knees. Then, someone ruins their day by giving them the actual sales figures. Not that sales figures should be the sole determinant for avenues of academic enquiry, but if someone is setting themselves up as an expert in what is ‘popular’, they’d better have some idea what that actually means.”