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.'”

The Shoulders of Giants

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It has been a hundred years since humanity was first devastated by the Titans, hulking, occasionally skinless man-eating giants. What remains of the human race huddles behind a series of concentric walls under martial law, the best and brightest co-opted into one of several military organisations that use repurposed climbing equipment to scale the enemy attackers in search of their hard-to-find weak spot. Teenage brawler Eren Yaeger swears to avenge his mother’s death at the hands of the Titans, and joins up along with a group of his friends, only to discover that the mystery of the Titans’ appearance and motivations runs far deeper, and closer to home, than he previously imagined.

With more than 30 million copies in print worldwide, Attack on Titan is one of those manga that has truly escaped from the ghetto. Its US sales run rings around many supposedly popular superhero comics, and its fans are a rabid, visible costumed presence wherever geeks gather. Hajime Isayama’s original manga has been adapted into an animated series, novels and a computer game, which is pretty good going for something that looks on the surface like the fever-dream of someone off his face at a Bodyworks exhibit.

Attack on Titan has truly caught the zeitgeist both in Japan and abroad. Local audiences warmed to its allegorical Wall of Fear, as a symbol of the social and cultural barriers that often continue to shut Japan off from the troubles of the real world… at least temporarily. Similar symbolism can be found in recent anime like Summer Wars and Howl’s Moving Castle, both of which dealt obliquely with modern Japan’s reliance on the pursuance of faraway conflicts, and the revelation that terror could still hit close to home. Viewers in Hong Kong praised it as an inadvertent metaphor for the influence of the overbearing colossus of mainland China on their lives. Newspapers in South Korea touted the whole enterprise as a propaganda exercise in encouraging young Japanese to support military expansion. The story is so surreal that it lends itself to any number of political messages, not the least a winner with young teens who feel that the perils of the world are all coming to get them. It is a zombie apocalypse and a monster-of-the-week disaster movie all in one, leavened with a healthy scepticism about the lies that the authorities might tell to hang onto power. Plus big fights.

The Attack on Titan live-action movies are an intriguing confection. They seemingly went into production for the same reason as any other comics or media adaptation – out of a managerial confidence that high sales in one medium would translate into another. But the original choice as director, Tetsuya Nakashima, dropped out in 2012 over unspecified conflicts regarding the script. His replacement, Shinji Higuchi, must have looked like an all-round jackpot, not only for his track record in the liminal area of modern sci-fi and cross-media ties, but for his highly regarded work in tokusatsu movies – special effects epics about big monsters stomping on buildings.

Higuchi has always been very good at “quoting” elements of a much-loved original. Over-emoting is common in anime that lack the resources to convey visual expressions, but in the live-action Attack on Titan, the characters routinely strike ludicrous poses and spout gung-ho dialogue that seems, well, cartoony. Meanwhile, whereas the original is set in a European dreamtime, all the actors in the movies are understandably Asian, which makes a mockery of a particular subplot about the “last” Japanese girl in the world.

I was recently taken to task by a viewer at the Scotland Loves Anime film festival for not introducing the live-action movies with sufficient respect. Apparently it was my fault that the audience was laughing at the hokier moments and protesting at some of the switches in plot and character. Then again, another punter commented that the live-action movies were a fantastically enjoyable, funny parody of the anime, although nobody seemed to have told the cast and crew. So the live-action movies aren’t quite the re-up that fans were hoping for. They take themselves seriously in all the wrong ways, seemingly unaware that, ironically, it’s the earlier cartoon incarnation that really hits the right note.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #4, 2016.

Gangsters vs Vampires

yakuza-apocalypseIn a Japan flailing through the recession, mob boss Kamiura (Lily Franky) faces surprise competition from a bunch of new arrivals, including a water demon and a violent anime fan. Dying from his wounds, Kamiura bites his lieutenant Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), passing on his vampire powers (yes, forgot to mention that) in a turf war that soon escalates into a Yakuza Apocalypse.

The enemy calls in “The Modern Monster” – a martial artist in a ridiculous frog costume, who steals the whole movie – and battle ensues, played for laughs but not scrimping on the athleticism and acrobatics. It’s aided in this by the presence of Yayan Ruhian of The Force Awakens in the role of Kyoken (“Mad Dog”, same name as his character in The Raid), but also by off-screen efforts by an insane cameraman who seems to want to wade into the middle of all the fight scenes.

Time to test your geek credentials, since any Japanese movie buff reading the above synopsis is sure to say: “This sounds like a Takashi Miike film.” And indeed it is, with all the hallmarks of this most notorious and beloved director, from a visceral, kitchen-sink-inclusive plot to the gory stand-offs and the social commentary. These yakuza (gangsters) are literal blood-suckers, draining the vitality from small-town Japan, while clinging to a ridiculously po-faced and archaic honour system like something out of a kung fu movie.

yakuza-apocalypse 2Organised crime has been an integral part of the Japanese movie world for a century, both on and off-screen. Isolde Standish, in A New History of Japanese Cinema, has no qualms about pointing out that one well-known studio was actually founded by gangsters, and there are many blood-curdling stories about the poaching and nobbling of stars, the abuses of hopefuls on a many a casting couch, and the super powers of mob accountants in burying money in supposed box office flops, or generating “hits” by intimidation and threats

It should come as no surprise that there should be an entire sub-genre of films in which such mobsters are the heroes, depicted as the last guardians of the samurai ethic by a movie machine that is literally terrified of the real-life versions. And this only makes director Takashi Miike’s satire all the more biting and brave, as he depicts yakuza protagonists as woefully stupid, belligerent poseurs, knifing each other over who gets to call himself the king of a particular street corner

Some of Miike’s snootier champions object to the popular image of him as a crazy scatter-gun creative, but even they have to admit that a man who has sometimes managed to notch up four or five movies in a single year can’t produce good work all the time. Legendarily, Miike just loves to work. He is addicted to making movies, and rarely stops long enough to read his worst reviews. There is a certain irony that the very accessibility, insanity and prolixity of Miike’s early work made him a darling of schlocky horror magazines and hungry young media academics. While some award-winning, worthy Japanese movies struggled to find foreign distributors, Miike’s B-movies and gross-outs often found themselves bundled in package deals or nestling somewhere in a bargain bin. This had the odd effect of putting him on the radar of a bunch of film students scouring Blockbuster Video for something to write about, and turning him into a much-discussed auteur

And while there are some truly awful films on his resumé, he has managed to pack several lifetimes of movie-making experience into his career, including some real gems. Every now and then, he creates a work of enduring appeal, like the grotesque stalker drama Audition or the horror musical The Happiness of the Katakuris. He also managed to make what is, to my mind, one of the best Japanese movies of the last decade, the gritty, intense samurai drama Thirteen Assassins

Miike loves to divide the critics, and Yakuza Apocalypse is no exception, lauded by The Daily Telegraph for its “demented brilliance,” but damned by The Hollywood Reporter as “numbingly idiotic.” Knowing Miike, he’ll want to put both reviews on the poster.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters.This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #5, 2016.

China Goes Global

51KIiTJn-HL._SX328_BO1204203200_Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Michael Curtin’s Playing to the World’s Biggest Audience, which is possibly the best book I have read on the Chinese film market.

“As Dan Harmon once said of Hollywood, if the food industry offered the same quality standards as movies, every third can of tuna would have a human finger in it.”

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.

Variety is the Spice…

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I’m taking the chance to publish the unexpurgated version of Mark Schilling’s interview with me for his piece last week in Variety. My comments were, naturally, reduced to a couple of soundbites, but I think some interesting things came up. Sometimes my brain doesn’t grind into action until it’s asked the right question, and some of my ideas here were straight off the cuff. The question was that old favourite, the “new Miyazaki” in the light of Michael Dudok de Wit’s forthcoming Red Turtle and Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name but as ever, I preferred to think of it not in terms of the creative abilities of modern animators, but of the ways in which the industry can find an equivalent revenue stream for the biggest money-spinner of the last generation.

Mark Schilling: In your view, has the torch truly been passed?

Jonathan Clements: No. There is no torch, at least not in the way that the public expects. Hayao Miyazaki wasn’t just a one-off, he was part of a trio. You can’t have the Miyazaki phenomenon without Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki as well. All three of them are retiring. Suzuki spent ten years not just looking for someone to take the torch, but examining the torch itself, trying to work out what parts of it could be replicated by other means. He concluded that there was no torch but the legacy of Ghibli itself, and that’s why the Ghibli Museum is so crucial to understanding the studio’s late period.

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Do you view Shinkai, de Wit and others as “Miyazaki heirs”?

Studio Ghibli spent a decade looking for some way of continuing Miyazaki’s momentum. Takahata couldn’t get the same numbers, although Suzuki did hope to hide that by releasing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya on the same bill as The Wind Rises. When Kaguya was delayed, its box office numbers made it very clear that Takahata didn’t have the following that Miyazaki had. None of the non-Hayao Miyazaki films from Ghibli have done Hayao Miyazaki numbers.

Toshio Suzuki tried everything in the noughties. He tried to lure big-name directors into Ghibli, but they didn’t gel with the studio. He tried to train up new apprentices, some of whom have gone on to make names for themselves elsewhere. But he couldn’t find a proper replacement for Miyazaki.

So Suzuki engineered Goro Miyazaki’s controversial directorial debut, and invited audiences to come and see the car-crash. That lured Miyazaki himself back for Ponyo. That’s where they started the “We Made This” alphabetical credit listings, which conveniently obscured the fact that Miyazaki didn’t actually direct Arrietty! He engineered the father-son team-up on Poppy Hill, and got audiences to see that. Then he lured Miyazaki back for absolutely anything he wanted, no matter how controversial, so he could go out with The Wind Rises. He’s played Miyazaki (and the public) like a fiddle! He’s managed to stretch the heritage of Ghibli since 2006 with only two genuine Hayao Miyazaki movies. But after The Wind Rises, it really is over. Ghibli has to admit it’s got no more features in it that are going to trounce the next five rivals at the Japanese box office. It’s a brutal, accountants’ decision, but it’s based on firm evidence from the last decade that not even the Ghibli name on a film will guarantee that it will match the success of a Hayao Miyazaki film.

Laputa_Robot_on_Roof_of_Museum_-_CopyBut that’s not good enough for distributors, and it’s not good enough for exhibitors. Cinemas are fixed sites, they need more product. July is going to happen whether or not the film studios have something suitable for a vacation tent-pole movie.

The Ghibli Museum turns over US$7.5 million a year, just on admissions. Throw in the restaurant and the gift shop, and the museum is making its owners a modest movie’s worth of revenue every year, just by managing Ghibli’s own legacy. It doesn’t need to make any more films – in fact, doing so would risk compromising the brand. It just needs to keep the conversation going. It needs people like us talking about it like it’s still there, so people remember they want to take their kids to see the giant fluffy Catbus.

So what does it mean when they say The Red Turtle is a coproduction? Is Ghibli just putting its name on it, like it did with the Japanese releases of Aardman films? I’m guessing that Ghibli is slightly more involved in investment than that, but not in actual animation. The Red Turtle will be imitation Ghibli, ‘inspired by Ghibli’, and it’s an experiment to see if a Ghibli imprimatur is enough to get a movie a healthy box office return; and if it doesn’t work, they’ve got plausible deniability to edge it out of the studio history. It’ll be a tenth of Miyazaki numbers, but it’ll keep that conversation going for another year. There will be a Red Turtle exhibition at the Ghibli Museum. Ghibli will keep trending. This is legacy management with very modest expectations. Everybody will be pleasantly surprised if The Red Turtle is a box office smash, but I don’t think anyone is expecting it.

This isn’t new. We’ve seen a lot of this lately, where studios will rent out their IP to someone else and take 5% off the top. A Nigerian Astro Boy? An Indian Star of the Giants? A Wachowski Speed Racer? Ghibli has shut down its feature production arm, but what the hell, if someone else wants to take the risk, Ghibli will put in 5% of the effort for 5% of the returns. This is anime Moneyball.

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Is there a “Miyazaki tradition” being passed on, even though Ghibli is not making features with its own directors?

That’s the conversation Ghibli wants us to keep having. Come and see this movie, to see if the director is The One! Will he save us? Is he the anime messiah? Or are we stuck hereafter with otaku-bait that can’t fill a single cinema for more than a couple of weeks?

That’s why Toei’s risk with Shinkai is so interesting. Shinkai has no trouble pulling in audiences on the small circuit. A Shinkai movie is usually a much more bespoke event. He makes a lot of personal appearances when his films go on tour, so it’s not just a trip to the cinema, it’s a trip to the cinema to see the director and get him to sign the DVD.

“Events” are a small but growing part of the Japanese cinema model, because if you have a small otaku audience, then you want to make sure they spend triple the usual money on a trip to the cinema. It’s not just about popcorn, it’s about T-shirts and phone cases, and often the limited edition Blu-ray. You limit and target the availability of the merchandise, and you make sure that you provide an experience which can’t be pirated. People are ripping off the software all the time, but Shinkai’s not going to sign a pirate copy, not of his movie nor the novel spin-off. He’s not going to shake your hand while you’re downloading the torrent.

“Events” at the moment are worth less than 5% of Toei’s revenue, but that’s a huge increase on just five years ago. It’s taking Japanese cinema back a hundred years to the days of the benshi and a cinema experience as a form of live vaudeville. But Kimi no Na Wa is different because it’s being touted, as you say, as a summer tent-pole movie. Shinkai can’t go to every screening; they can’t spread him that thinly. They’ll do some glad-handing for the hard-core fans at the premiere events, and hope that there’s enough momentum to keep it going with the general public. Watch the marketing on Kimi no Na wa, because I bet Toei goes all-out on interactivity. I bet they steal an idea from Mai Mai Miracle and try to engage the consumers with lobby exhibits. I bet they come up with a hashtag on social media and try and drag everybody into it. They are going to have to do this, because most of the users are going to have to bring their own event.

Look at the title, for God’s sake! They’ve called it Kimi no Na wa because I bet you half the general public will think it’s a remake. There was a radio series of the same name in the 1950s, adapted for TV in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s. Half the eyeballs for this movie’s advertising will only look because they think it’s something else. Much of the social media trending for this film will be people telling their confused friends that it’s not what they think it is. That’s some smart mockbuster marketing to get their attention. Then the pressure’s on Shinkai to keep it.

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Or is the Miyazaki legacy (including his box office supremacy) in danger from not only Hollywood hits like Frozen, but also domestic trends?

I think everyone would love it if there were a domestic trend that could compete with Miyazaki’s numbers. I don’t think there is. Everyone has to dial down their expectations to a level where domestic anime earn the kind of money they did in the 1980s, not the 2000s (or rather, the kind of money that people have earned all the way through if they are not Hayao Miyazaki). That’s the problem with movie punditry. Everybody wants to talk about the outliers. The successes are outliers! Miyazaki was an outlier. The general trend is much more modest in terms of returns, and Miyazaki’s success has hidden that for a generation.

Frozen is a red herring – Disney cartoons have always outperformed domestic product at the Japanese box office, with the exception of Miyazaki movies. A much more long-term issue is CG, because the stats for CG make it abundantly obvious that Japanese movies are getting their ass kicked by computer animation. Japanese movies are still struggling to compete with CG, because even when they get a hit like Stand By Me Doraemon, it’s not exportable like a Miyazaki movie. Nobody wants it abroad because nobody knows what Doraemon is; part of the film’s domestic success was because of the blue-chip marketability of the Doraemon brand, which still doesn’t travel far outside Japan.

Of course, it does export to China, but what happened there? Stand By Me Doraemon wasn’t in the 34 movie quota for foreign movies in Chinese cinemas. The Japanese had to sell it for a lump-sum and take no further profits. That’s not growing a business, that’s treading water and hoping that something will happen.

China’s the elephant in the room in all of this, because it’s the largest possible new market for Japanese animation, but Japanese animation is made to feel very unwelcome in formal distribution channels. It’s censored, it’s banned, it’s shut out of theatre exhibition. There are only two brands that get any love in China: Studio Ghibli and Makoto Shinkai…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Goodbye to All That

wind rises crashIt must have been a very earnest meeting. I like to think of them sitting round a table in a smoky, high-end restaurant, plenty of beers in, so that the producers and money-men think they have an edge on their quarry.

“Please,” one of them might have said. “Just make one more film for Studio Ghibli. Just one. You can do anything you like.”

And Hayao Miyazaki, for it is he, raises a querulous, bushy eyebrow and says with a puckish smile: “Anything…?”

Fast forward a couple of years, and the world-class director’s latest and last film hits cinemas, a fictionalised bio-pic of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. From retirement, producer Toshio Suzuki must have laughed his adenoids off, because for once, it wasn’t going to be his problem.

The Wind Rises has achieved a remarkable feat, managing to annoy both the left and right wing in its native Japan. Denounced by Korean critics for its “moral repugnance,” it is already making waves in America, where the Miyazaki love-in has been disrupted by a movie about, in a sense, one of the architects of Pearl Harbor. But Horikoshi is presented as a simple inventor and dreamer, horrified at the uses to which his work is put.

Whereas Tales from Earthsea infamously played out tensions between Miyazaki and his son, The Wind Rises alludes to memories of his own father, Katsuji, director of the Miyazaki Airplanes factory. It celebrated a man who loved flight and flying, who made simple widgets that happened to get used in military machines. But perhaps it also celebrates Miyazaki himself, as the artisan who just wanted to make nice things, only to discover he was the poster-boy for an industry that also made Pokémon and porn.

He’s been grappling with this subtext for several movies now – the distracted, conscripted wizard of Howl’s Moving Castle; the muttering boiler man of Spirited Away, toiling behind the scenes but forbidden from escaping. He is saying goodbye to all that, at long last, and getting his life back.

I’d wish Miyazaki a long and peaceful retirement, but honestly, I still don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO magazine #120, 2014. The Wind Rises will be part of the Studio Ghibli season at London’s BFI Southbank this spring.

Rooms with a View

gft_ext1There are pictures on the wall of the Glasgow Film Theatre that show it in its heyday. Bit by bit, it’s got a little more cramped. Where there was once a sweeping Deco foyer with plenty of space overhead, a false ceiling has been shoved in to make way for a bar. And now the little café on the ground floor has been gutted to make way for Screen Three.

Digital filmmaking has created an environment where less theatre-goers have to choose between more films. Where shipping a film print to a destination once involved a stack of reels the size of the average drum kit, you can now Fedex a humble hard-drive containing the main attraction. Projection rooms are getting smaller, but so is the average audience size for the ever-increasing archive of content.

Modern cinema design hence favours increasingly smaller theatres like Glasgow’s upcoming Screen Three, allowing smaller groups of fifty or sixty punters to huddle into a space that increasingly resembles someone’s living room.

I spend a lot of my time in such bespoke mini-theatres. In Soho’s movieland they call them screening rooms, because that’s what they are. And for distributors, exhibitors and reviewers, it’s perfectly fine to relax in a plush chair with a posh sound system to assess next month’s movies for review or consideration. What they miss out on, however, is that vulnerable, ineffable sense of community that one gets from being an audience member, in a crowd, in a truly big cinema. I still cherish memories of The Empire Strikes Back, Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park at the vast Empire in Leicester Square. Last October’s Scotland Loves Anime jammed hundreds of fans cheek-to-cheek to laugh and cry and gasp at a roster of films from the apocalyptic Evangelion 3.0 to the intricate Garden of Words. Do audiences miss out on something if they see such epics on a mere laptop? What about if the screen is only marginally larger than your rich mate’s telly? After all, if a giant robot is supposed to be forty feet tall, doesn’t it help the whole movie-going experience if it actually is?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, out now from the British Film Insititute. This article first appeared in NEO # 118, 2013.