Ninja: Unmasking the Myth

Ninja: Unmasking the Myth is a brave book. With a scientific sense of objectivity, Turnbull tears down an edifice that he himself helped to build, shining the harsh glare of academic rigour on his earlier work. In doing so, he uncovers some striking facts about the evolution of the ninja, not the least that the word doesn’t even occur in Japanese-English dictionaries until 1974.”

My review of Stephen Turnbull’s demolition (and reconstruction) of ninja in history, up now on the All the Anime blog.

Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East

At long last, available on the Kindle, my biography of Admiral Togo, from Amazon in the UK and Amazon in the US.

“ … a fine attempt to revive the memory and reputation of a most professional and successful naval officer who lived through a period of astonishingly rapid and radical change for his country and service.   Recommended for the general reader, but especially for those who may find themselves working with the Japanese.” – Naval Review

“Clements… recounts the life of a Japanese admiral famous for his victory at the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War. Through his extensive reading of multiple-language sources, Clements points out deficiencies in some of the… sources he quotes, and presents so far little-known episodes like the important roles French advisers played in the Battle of Miyako Bay in 1869 during Japan’s civil war in the early Meiji period.” – CHOICE

“This book is a refreshing account of a defining figure of modern Japan. It is well written and deals with themes such as leadership, individual commitment, social transformation and cross-cultural understanding of great contemporary relevance.” – Mariner’s Mirror

Steven Bochco 1943-2018

“I’ve always tried to console myself,” writes Steven Bochco, “that if you’re a baseball player, and over the course of a twenty-five year career you fail to get a hit six or seven times out of ten, you’re still a sure shot to get elected to the Hall of Fame.” He will be remembered as the co-creator of a run of television serials from 1981-2005 that transformed the nature of television, particularly Hill Street Blues, LA Law, and NYPD Blue. His memoir, Truth is a Total Defense: My Fifty Years in Television, gives ample space to his hits, but also to his misses, including the police musical Cop Rock and the animated satire Capitol Critters. He alludes, smartly, to “the distinction I have always made between failing and not succeeding.”

Truth is a Total Defense is framed by the experience of the older, semi-retired Bochco, experiencing a heart attack and a leukaemia diagnosis in quick succession. It is openly intended as a message to his children, an account of who he was and how he got there, to be set down before his inevitable death. As such, it contains an degree of score-settling, ranging from the entertaining attack on the man who boffed his first wife (“Hey Barry, how’ve you been?… Wherever you are – if you’re alive – go fuck yourself!”) to an embarrassing diatribe against the sister who refused to be screened for a bone marrow match.

Bochco saw himself on both sides of the precinct desk, as both the maverick cop who doesn’t play by the book, and the hard-pressed captain trying to keep a lid on trouble. Twice, in his book, he mentions middle management with “crushing responsibilities and not enough authority” – it’s the empathy he had, not just for the crime-busters on the street, but those Suits in City Hall, that allowed him to pursue so many unexplored elements of the life of police and lawyers.

He seems to have been unable to avoid trolling his superiors. When he titled one episode of Hill Street Blues “Moon Over Uranus”, he started a month-long fight with the censors. Episode titles were never shown onscreen, but higher-ups objected to the fact that titles were often included in TV Guide listings. Although he eventually won, he pushed them further by writing subsequent episodes called “Moon Over Uranus: The Sequel”, and “Moon Over Uranus: The Final Chapter.” In order to avoid vetting from a real-life police station, he never specified which city Hill Street Blues was set in, but still ran into trouble from executives. An episode featuring a man caught in a hotel room with a sheep was the source of constant bickering with his boss, Brandon Tartikoff, who demanded to be reassured that it was, at least, not a gay sheep. His biggest score surely came after he discovered that the Fox network was refusing to take bids for syndication on NYPD Blue, hoping thereby to sell it to one of its own affiliates at a knock-down price. Bochco was barred from the studio canteen after having the company owner, Rupert Murdoch, served with a subpoena there, but when the company settled out of court, he insisted not only on being reinstated, but having the table next to Murdoch’s.

His memories of the making of Silent Running clearly still wound him after 40 years; he was paid $1500 for a week’s work writing the script, but never worked in film again, choosing instead to work in television, where he could control his own material. He blames Bruce Dern, specifically, for adding dialogue to the film that was sure to date it, and is unforgiving, thereafter of any badly-behaved actor. He is brutal towards David Caruso, who nearly wrecked NYPD Blue before its second season, and Sharon Stone, whose attitude was unappreciated on the set of Bay City Blues.

His account of Daniel Benzali’s behaviour on the set of Murder One, demanding to take a morning dump in a specific Malibu toilet, verges on the unbelieveable. Actors largely seem to get Bochco’s attention when they are difficult. He has kind words to say about Dennis Franz, who clung on for all twelve seasons of NYPD Blue, and speaks for all mankind on the divine beauty of Hill Street Blues’ Veronica Hamel, but is usually focussed on what’s going on behind the camera, not in front of it. Included in such stories is a hymn to his lawyer, The Doberman, who secured him the sweetest of exit deals on Hill Street Blues. Fired from his own show with two seasons still to be made, Bochco could put his feet up and enjoy $75,000 per episode as creator, effectively “paid not to come to work.”

But his book also presents fascinating glimpses of the workings of television, including a masterclass in story-editing as he cuts down the pilot of Hill Street Blues from its original, bloated length to something that can be broadcast. Around about the time of the publication of his one and only novel, Death by Hollywood, Bochco gave an interview in which he suggested that his time had passed. He felt outnumbered by young executives, and marginalised by a TV industry that didn’t care about drama any more. I was one of his greatest fans, and the author of an entire Judge Dredd script in homage to his work, but even I could see that he had been left behind. NYPD Blue with its shakey-cam edginess and its studied theatricality, was very much a 1990s show. The last series of Bochco’s that I bought sight-unseen, Over There, was an ill-judged attempt to cram the Gulf War into the modes of his police and legal procedurals.

There are moments in Bochco’s book where you can see attitudes that would never play today. He boldly states he is “all for nepotism”, simply observing with very white, very male blinkers on that nobody stays in the business unless they’ve got what it takes. This swiftly neutralises any criticism that he might have got where he was through the exercise of privilege and connections, but undermines much of the modern diversity and equality that his shows helped to foster in the popular imagination.

Bochco gets to dump in long screeds of his emails from hospital, in which he chronicles the indignities and inanities of chemotherapy. The attentive reader might also notice a distinct change in tone between the emails he sends his friends and family, and the writing in the rest of the book. Being self-published, Truth is a Total Defense lacks front matter and indicia, and it’s only after the epilogue that he acknowledges the assistance of an amanuensis. There would have been no shame in publishing this as a book of interviews – indeed, framing it in such terms would have given Rich Eisen a chance to impose a stronger mode of emplotment. For posterity’s sake, Eisen could have pressed Bochco a little more on big-picture issues, such as whether Hill Street Blues ever earned back the money in syndication that its backers hoped it would. But that’s another legacy that Bochco has left the TV world – TV shows like Mad Men, with tiny audiences but huge award-winning profiles, monetising for their makers in marketing and subscriptions, rather than ratings.

Bochco finished his career barnacled with Emmy awards, and recalls the moment when he received his first, and accidentally stabbed himself in the thigh with its sharp tines. He has a modest proposal for the Emmys today, suggesting that nobody is ever allowed to win more than once in the same category for the same job. “Once you’ve been acknowledged by your peers,” he suggests “it’s time to get off the stage and let someone else have a turn.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Sacred Sailors: out on the Kindle

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. Its path to modern audiences is itself an adventure story in which it somehow evaded bombing raids, burial, shredding and bonfires, emerging from hiding after a generation to offer modern audiences a disquieting glimpse of a very different world.

Momotarō, Sacred Sailors (1945) is a film of immense contradictions – the creative pinnacle of Japan’s right-wing military aesthetic, it was made by a director who would later be hounded from the film industry for being a Communist, and a lead animator derided as an “unpatriotic” pacifist.

Jonathan Clements traces the incredible life and career of the film-maker Seo Mitsuyo (1911–2010), and takes the reader on a scene-by-scene analysis of this classic film, its context, reception and legacy. Available now on the Kindle from Amazon US and Amazon UK. Or buy it as a hard copy with the film included, direct from All the Anime.

The Music of Yoko Kanno

Up on the All the Anime blog, my review of Rose Bridges’ new book about the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack of Yoko Kanno. “Kanno’s work has shown a constant ability to create a unifying theme to the music she supplies to particular shows, even if they include polyphonic chants in Zentraedi, bagpipes, bongos and a song whose lyrics entirely comprise the recitation of pi to two dozen decimal places.”

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.