Warning! Chatterley

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Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Kirsten Cather’s Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan, which chronicles several landmark cases, including dodgy films, suspicious books, and tawdry manga.

“Cather’s book tracks censorship in Japan from the landmark Chatterley case, through several key cinema and literary rulings, all the way to the present day and the first manga to have its merits debated in court. Her wit and irreverence takes its cue from VS Naipaul, who quipped on the issuing of a fatwa against Salman Rushdie that the Ayatollah of Iran was offering a somewhat extreme form of literary criticism. She moves into film in the 1960s, revealing that Tetsuzo Watanabe, last seen in Anime: A History leading a group of tanks against striking special effects technicians at Toho, went on to find an even more bonkers job working for the censorship authority Eirin. Eirin saw themselves as defenders of public morals, surrounded by an ever-rising tide as erotica as Japanese cinemas increasingly chased the blue-movie market. The statistics do not lie; Cather uses big data to point to the transformation of Japanese cinema. ‘In 1963, only 37 of the 370 films checked by Eirin warranted adult ratings, whereas by 1965 the number had reached 233 of the total 503.'”

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Watching Paint Dry

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This issue, we observe disgruntled film-maker Charlie Lyne, trolling the British Board of Film Classification by submitting a ten-hour movie of drying paint. Since the BBFC is obliged to scrutinise every second of every film sent to them, Lyne solicited online donations to send the censors the longest possible sequence of nothing, and to pay the boggling £7/minute fee required for all submissions. Paint Drying was passed on 26th January with the comment “no material likely to offend or harm.”

I’m not going to get into the ins and outs and the rationales for the existence of the BBFC – there’s a letters page for that, get stuck in. Instead, I want to talk to you about Lyne’s reasons for this Situationist protest in the first place: the tax on creativity he had to pay just to release a movie. Although nobody ever thanks me for pointing out how small the anime world is, we live in a world now where some releases underperform to the extent that their audience would literally fill a single cinema. When there is a likelihood, or even a mere risk, that a DVD will only sell a few hundred copies, the producers have to make some tough decisions about how much financial exposure they want.

Sure, I hear you say, but that’s the price of doing business. If someone’s forked out £5,000 for the rights to Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, they might as well have another grand on top to pay for the certificate, otherwise they shouldn’t be in the game in the first place. But for many anime, the BBFC fee is the last straw that kills off any extras.

Although this is rarely discussed among fans, extras also have to be certificated. That 30-minute making-of you wanted to see? That’ll cost over £300 just to get a BBFC nod. That feature commentary track you want to hear? That still has to be certificated at £7 a minute, even though it’s just some guy (usually me) talking about the thing you’ve already seen. I strongly suspect that the reason for the recent proliferation of art-books and sleeve notes in Anime Ltd releases like Sword Art Online and Durarara!! is because the £700 fee for certifying a feature commentary track feels like a protection racket. Someone could probably mount a legal challenge, arguing that a commentary was “educational” and hence exempt, but someone would still have to pay the lawyers to fight that corner.

But spare a thought for the BBFC, having to literally sit and watch paint dry for ten hours. They had to watch Legend of the Overfiend. Haven’t they suffered enough?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 148, 2016.

Crimson and the Reds

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To China, where there are conniptions among Gothic-loving expats about the unavailability of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak in local cinemas. Initial coverage carped that the Chinese censor was “afraid of ghosts,” which are classified as an unwelcome superstition in the People’s Republic. In fact, the ban hammer was more likely to have come down because of the depiction of a particular relationship in the film [spoilers avoided], as well as the fact that it is scary. The Chinese censor is afraid of fear, for the simple reason that, under the yes/no Chinese classification system, films are either fine for all the family or for nobody at all.

Some of you may be wondering why this column so often drifts off into Chinese topics, when it is supposed to be about Japan. But China is becoming the prime mover of the contemporary film industry. It recently overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest movie market, and could be the biggest by 2018. There are a boggling ten new screens being added to the Chinese market every day. Craig Mazin, on the Scriptnotes podcast called this “the most profound change that has happened to the movie business since the creation of the movie business.” Chinese money is flooding into film production, and Chinese audiences can make or break a movie even if it flops in America.

220px-AoE_shuhua_milkThis in turn has led to the phenomenon of hyper-localisation, as supposedly “Hollywood” movies pander to unseen Chinese audiences. Iron Man gets a leg-up from some Chinese guy; the Transformers keep pushing a brand of Mongolian milk; Matt Damon doesn’t get off Mars without the Chinese lending a hand. And have you noticed there aren’t any Chinese baddies anymore?

Pickings have been historically low in the Chinese market. It is only recently that foreign rights holders have been able to cream 25% from their ticket sales, as opposed to the previous, paltry 13%, but 25% of the price on the door, for a film that can be digitally squirted at a million screens in a single day, is real money. Meanwhile, Japanese films, including anime, currently have to scramble against all other foreign films for one of the 34 slots available annually (14 of which have to be IMAX/3D). That was easy in the Miyazaki days, when any Ghibli got an instant thumbs-up. It’s substantially harder when most other Japanese “family” cartoons are hard-wired into a decade-long franchise, and Japan gets such bad press in China. Those China slots are the most valuable real estate in modern movies, and tits and tentacles won’t get a look-in. Does Japan have what it takes to elbow its way in, or is the Chinese market increasingly closed to it?

[Time Travel Footnote: After I filed this article, Julie Makinen of the LA Times published a piece about the Chinese market, revealing that 24 extra films had sneaked in as flat-fee exhibitions, which returned no profit to the owners beyond the original payment. The anime Doraemon was one of them].

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 146, 2016.

A Chinese Burn

Terror-in-ResonancePosted on the BBC website on April Fool’s Day, and hence not attracting any attention until it turned out to be serious, was the news that China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television had declared war on “borderline pornographic” Japanese cartoons such as Blood C, Highschool of the Dead, and Terror in Resonance. SAPPRFT promises to draw up a blacklist of proscribed Japanese cartoons, all the more to save Chinese streaming sites the trouble of licensing them.

Even in China, the news was greeted with a degree of hilarity. SAPPRFT, after all, was the same body that tried to ban time travel (fortunately only on TV, my time machine is still legal). But as the Qianzhen news site in south China pointed out, SAPPRFT was making the perennial error that has dogged anime all over the world for the last 30 years, confusing cartoons for adults with cartoons for children, and then making the false assumption that children would be watching them.

It’s Japan that’s really in SAPPRFT’s sights. Anime was dragged off-air in China in 2006, where it was proving far too popular. Anime continued to sneak in on video, since apparently Ghibli films didn’t count as evil cartoons. Then, a survey in 2008 concluded that 75% of Chinese undergraduates were watching anime on their computers. Television might have been stamped out, but anime continued to find an audience in pirate editions and on streaming sites. And consider that percentage for a moment: China generates seven million graduates every year – that’s a big audience.

Streaming sites didn’t count as television, so now they are on the hit list, not the least because of the titles listed in the SAPPRFT press release, only Terror in Resonance appears to have any legal presence in the People’s Republic – it’s got bombs going off in Tokyo, sure to entertain the kids. As for Blood C and Highschool of the Dead, both were released in Hong Kong and Taiwan – in other words, they are sneaking in across the border, unhelpfully subtitled in Chinese by the running dogs of capitalism. Long-term readers may remember a similarly absurd situation a few years ago, when Death Note was “banned” in northeast China, despite not actually being legally available there in the first place.

What’s going to happen? Nothing. Servers at Chinese universities will continue to host terabytes of torrented foreign media. Chinese fans will continue to watch anime on their computers, just now without paying a penny to Japan. And distributors everywhere are doing cartwheels at the thought of being able to say that their anime titles are now “banned in China.” Nothing will bump up audiences more than the idea that the cartoon they’re watching can excite such ire.

One wonders, however, if SAPPRFT has bothered to check the credits on Highschool of the Dead and Blood C, which feature listings for companies such as Xuyang and Xing Yue Animation, both based in Jiangsu province. That’s right: the horrible foreign cartoons that SAPPRFT is targeting were partly made in China.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History (UK/US). This article first appeared in NEO #137, 2015.

[Time travel footnote: and here’s me in the LA Times, explaining why Attack on Titan qualifies as “pornographic”]

Festivals and Preserving Film

The Manga UK podcast is back for its ninth episode, in which Jeremy Graves heads for Glasgow to talk with Andrew Partridge of Scotland Loves Anime, Hugh David, formerly of ADV Films, and Jonathan Clements of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis about film festivals, Japanese premieres and the drama of bringing old television shows back to life.

01:00 What does Scotland Loves Anime have to do with swans? The perils of scheduling a film premiere only three days after the Japanese finish making it. Includes the terms: “human playthings”, “community” and “Volkswagen.”

07:00 Last week’s Edinburgh University symposium on soft power and Cool Japan last week, and the controversial revelations of Shinji Oyama. 15:00 The Glasgow Film Theatre and the atmosphere therein. Comparisons with Fright Fest and Sci-Fi London. Takashi Miike and Ace Attorney. Hidden messages in K-on. Includes the words “can of worms,” “transvestites,” and “dog poo.”

egg_of_the_king.jpg27:00 The Judge’s Award and jury management. The long-term effects of Anime UK magazine. The Berserk movies, worldbuilding and fantasy adaptations. K-on the Movie and the spectacle of London. Naoko Yamada and the research that went into the film. Includes the words “bummed,” “balloons” and “retro-Nazi mutants.”

40:00 Hugh David, formerly of ADV Films, discusses the trials and tribulations of film restoration at Network DVD. The phasing-out of film and its impact on archives and retrospectives. Why has there never been a dub of the original Gunbuster? Why do archivists put tapes in the oven? Macross Plus and its unexpected function as an ashtray. Censored footage in Rock & Roll Cop and From Russia With Love. Shooting “day for night” and the colour-timing of James Bond movies. Includes the words “electrodes,” “sympathy” and “Nigella.”

61:00 Ask Manga UK. Twinings Tea adverts and their role in anime history. Hiroyuki Yamaga’s advice on becoming a film director. The unlikely connection between Goodfellas and Schindler’s List. An unexpected appearance by Jeremy’s boss Jerome Mazandarani (or is it…?). The resale value of digital media. Include the words “Hitler,” “iTunes,” and “daggers.”

Available to download now, or find it and an archive of previous shows at our iTunes page. For a detailed contents listing of previous podcasts, check out our Podcasts page.

Finder's Keepers

To Germany, where Ayano Yamane’s manga series Finder has been been rated as “harmful to young persons.” From the shocked reaction on some message boards, you’d be forgiven to think that the Germans were dragging up every copy of Finder that they could… er… find, and burning them in the streets. In fact, the story has been simply “indexed” by an organisation with the Teutonically exacting title of Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons. The name pretty much does what it says on the tin – they look for harmful stuff, and then make sure people know about it.

We can learn a lot from the German censorship system. Dodgy anime, unpleasant porn, morally suspect manga, all these things are freely available in Germany. You can buy anything you want, but you won’t find it in the high street or the shopping mall. If you want to find something that is unsuitable for children, you have to go to a place where only adults are welcome to buy it. Hence, in Germany, there is none of the tiresome brinkmanship and false “surprise” that hounds the anime and manga business elsewhere in the world. You won’t find German parents accidentally picking up a Toshio Maeda anime in the video store, and assuming that it will make a nice gift for their kids (this has happened in the US). You won’t find German journalists combing eagerly through the comics section of a sci-fi store, doggedly, desperately hoping to find something to which they can react with feigned indignation (this has happened in the UK). You won’t find German customs officers probing your luggage in case you are carrying one of those awful manga books that so notoriously corrupt the young (this has happened in Canada).

You won’t find any of these things, because fine, upstanding, conservative citizens, by definition, would never go to a sex shop or the adults-only section of a comics store, and hence cannot possibly be taken by surprise by what they see there. Nor, of course, will you find anyone underage in such places. Ten years ago, in the afterword to the Erotic Anime Movie Guide, I made a modest proposal, that other countries might examine the German model as a means of keeping everyone happy.

Finder is not “banned” in Germany. It’s simply been rated as unsuitable for children, along with Legend of the Overfiend and a host of other titles, such as the computer games Duke Nukem 3D, Command & Conquer: Generals, and Mortal Kombat II. If you want it, you have to go to a place that sells that sort of material. If you are a child, you are not supposed to encounter it. You can’t point at it at the shelves and pester your parents for it, because you won’t see those shelves. What criticism there is about the German model revolves around two other issues. One is the question of who gets to decide what is “harmful”. The other is how far this indexing goes. It remains unclear, legally speaking, whether the indexing of a title makes it illegal to even talk about it. Advertising an indexed title is a problematic area, although of course, merely turning up on the index adds an element of notoriety and publicity. I’ve never been moved to mention Finder before in this column, but now, because of this… here we are.

(This article first appeared in Neo 62, 2009)