Cat-astrophe

At Tonghuamen station in the Chinese city of Xi’an, a man is dressed as Doraemon, the big, fluffy blue cat, hero of many a manga series, and known in China as Ding-Dang, the Time Travelling Cat.

“DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” he yells at me through the mouth of his costume.

“Indeed I do,” I say, not stopping. He starts to scurry after me, his big clown-cat-feet flopping on the dusty pavement.

“SAY MY NAME, THEN! WHAT’S MY NAME?”

“Ding-Dang, the Time Travelling Cat.” I resist the urge to add that the Chinese media have recently outed Ding-Dang as an agent of Japanese oppression, with an insidious soft-power message designed to distract them from the ongoing dispute over the Senkaku Islands. Mainly because I don’t know the Chinese for soft power (it is ruan shili, for next time).

“NOT BAD! AND LET ME TELL YOU, LARGE FOREIGN FRIEND, YOU’LL WISH YOU HAD A TIME MACHINE IF YOU DON’T SIGN UP RIGHT NOW FOR ONE OF THE UNITS ON OFFER AT THE RENWEI TOWERS CITY DEVELOPMENT, COMING SOON RIGHT NEAR HERE.”

He has to shout because he is wearing an all-over velour suit designed to make him look like a giant blue cat. The thermometer is climbing towards 30 degrees today, so I think the heat might have driven him a little bit loopy.

“I’m not interested,” I say.

“TIME MACHINES AREN’T REALLY REAL, YOU KNOW. YOU CAN’T ACTUALLY GO BACK IN TIME AND SIGN UP FOR THIS OFFER LATER ON.”

“In which case, how did you get here, Ding-Dang?”

There is a pause, while Ding-Dang the Time Travelling Cat thinks about this.

“TO TELL THE TRUTH, I AM STUDYING FOR A DEGREE IN MARKETING. I AM REALLY HUMAN.”

“And if were you, Ding-Dang,” I add, “I’d be more worried about if you were legal.”

“OF COURSE I’M LEGAL—!”

“Because a Chinese court has just ruled that Robot Cat [Jiqimao], a trademark registered by a Fujian sportswear firm, is a blatant copy of Doraemon, so their right to use the image has been revoked, four years after they tried to register it.”

“Wow,” says Ding-Dang, his voice suddenly low and muffled. “They really did that…?”

“Yeah. Like nobody would notice!”

“Well, apparently nobody noticed for four years,” he observes.

“You got that right, Ding-Dang. I bet they wish they had a time machine now!”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #177, 2018.

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New Bottles for Old Wine

Doreamon_is_HappyThis autumn sees two iconic anime serials finally reaching the British public – Doraemon, screened on the kids’ channel Boomerang, and the original Gundam, coming from Anime Ltd.

Doraemon is such a popular figure in East Asia that he has sneaked under the radar to entertain kids in Korea and China, many of whom still don’t know he’s Japanese. Despite being a hapless, accident-prone robot cat, he is much beloved, and the centre of a merchandise industry that keeps his owners very well-off. Gundam, meanwhile, is a show about children dragged into a conflict in space using majestic bipedal war machines. It is a vital influence on much anime in the last 40 years, not merely in terms of straightforward imitations, but of entire studios and franchises conceived in reaction to it. Although that’s less important to its owners than the vast numbers of robot toys they hope to sell you.

Doraemon’s appearance on UK TV is not that of a 42-year-old show – it’s starting with episodes that were first broadcast in 2005. But the classic Gundam on offer really is the first series from 1979. It’s older than most NEO readers.

As an anime historian, I am very pleased to see these shows turning up – both are vital to understanding the business of the last 40 years. As a consumer, I can’t help but wonder if both are less about Japanese culture going global, and more about a recession-hit Japan, desperately scrabbling in its bins for any off-cuts it hasn’t sold yet. As this column has noted in the past, there’s a lot of Japanese government boondoggle money available, but only to people who already have something to sell.

There has been much talk recently about exporting media. A cynic might suggest that this is less about a breathless passion for Cool Japan, and more about a bunch of companies sitting on intellectual property that has been paid for and isn’t doing anything. Somewhere in Tokyo, someone in a suit has been pointing at a chart and enthusing about “new” markets. To an accountant, the money that Gundam or Doraemon have racked up in Japan looks like a cash-cow waiting to be milked. If x million people pay for these shows in their home territory, then surely there are y billion people waiting overseas to pay for them?

Are there? It’s a gamble for the foreign distributors, although the Japanese rights-holders are largely playing with other people’s money, or perhaps misguidedly equating their own nostalgia with a niche in overseas markets. Who really stands to lose if these “new” releases turn out not to wow modern British audiences the way they wowed the Japanese all those years ago?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 142, 2015.

Undercover Manga

shimajiro appI’ve been wondering for a while when the Doraemon bomb was going to go off. Every time I’ve been to China in the last three years, amid ever-escalating sabre-rattling over the Senkaku Islands, I have found the locals avidly denying any interest in Japanese culture. I have found media students unprepared to work on papers about anime, for fear that the word “Japan” will be on their resumé ever more. And I have watched, every day, as two Japanese invaders march in right under Chinese noses.

One is Shimajiro, an infant tiger cub who appears in a hybrid kids’ show that is part anime, part live-action play school. I’ve watched Shimajiro sing songs about London Bridge and demonstrate how to go to the toilet, and nobody has noticed that he’s really Japanese, because the broadcasters have stripped out the original live-action framing footage and replaced it with Chinese people. Also, they don’t make the mistake of calling him Shimajiro, either. In China, he is known as Qiao Hu Dao, the “brave and clever tiger.”

doraemonThe other is Doraemon, that time-travelling blue robot cat who recently enjoyed the surprising honour of a 12,000-page manga translation funded by Japanese government boondoggle money. Doraemon remains a popular movie and TV figure with anime audiences, but was also the subject of so much manga piracy in decades past that he is known by several different names in the Chinese world. My favourite is Ding Dang the Robot Cat (ding-dang, you see, being Mandarin for ding-dong, if you ever need it). He’s even the subject of an exhibition in Hong Kong, which trilled, unwisely, about his true origins.

The Japanese authorities, excited at the amount of love for Ding Dang all over the mainland, have made Doraemon a cultural ambassador, thereby pushing their soft power agenda by showing the Chinese that a perennial favourite was actually from the other side of the water. This has entertainingly backfired, with a schmuck-bait editorial in the Chengdu Daily pointing out the blindingly obvious – that Doraemon was an effort to make Japan look cute and less threatening – and several lesser newspapers getting increasingly irate about the idea, with the Global Times frothing “we must never let a little robotic cat take control of our minds.” Top tip.

This article first appeared in NEO 131, 2014. Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, in shops now (UK/US).

All Aboard the Gravy Train

doraemonLike some magical artefact pulled from an Anywhere Door, the Doraemon manga suddenly arrives in English, in its entirety! Yes, that’s 12,000 pages of one of Japan’s best loved comics, a valuable missing piece of the manga puzzle.

Publishing Doraemon in its entirety is a big risk, but not as big as it once would have been. E-publishing means that the owners, Fujiko Pro don’t have to print ten thousand copies of a 12,000-page manga, but can store it on a hard-drive and wait for your money. More crucially, the long-running adventures of the time-travelling blue cat arrive part-funded by a Japanese government initiative.

It’s been five years since this column speculated about the likely bail-out package for Cool Japan (NEO #60). But finally we have the Japanese Contents Localisation or Promotion fund, or “J-LOP”, as it appears to have been termed by whimsical policy wonks with a love of Jennifer Lopez. One of the few schemes to survive the collapse of the Aso administration, J-LOP offers millions of pounds to subsidise the translation or promotion of Japanese works.

J-LOP is an impressive exercise in trickle-down economics, an incentive scheme for copyright owners (not publishers or distributors) to push their work in new markets. And while it can front up to 70% of the costs, the owners still have to come up with some of the cash themselves – this is mainly going to be a scheme that benefits the rich, in the expectation that their ventures generate employment for the rest of us.

So it’s a job creation scheme to attract foreign money, thereby creating work for Japanese tax-payers on which they can pay tax. It is, according to its website at j-lop.jp, also a tourism initiative, in order to keep foreign readers and viewers enthusiastic about Japanese stuff. One wonders if Doraemon is merely the first of many classics to get a leg-up, but I suspect that canny form-fillers will soon be at the trough, applying for subsidies not for worthy wallflowers, but for fan-bait that would have got translated anyway. A heroic tribunal will apparently be on hand to stop this happening. Now there’s an anime waiting to happen…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, published by the British Film Institute. This article first appeared in NEO #123, 2014.

Lost in Translation

The top ten reasons why anime are “lost in translation”…

10: Lip Sync and Line Length
Lip Synchronisation, known in America as “fitting the flaps”, is a means of ensuring that the sound of the words being spoken matched the lip movements of the onscreen speaker. This can often lead to the addition of words on the spur of the moment in the dubbing studio – in erotic horror like Return of the Overfiend, this usually means the use of the F-word as a bonus adverb, adjective and noun! Subtitles normally suffer from the opposite problem – the deletion of parts of a script in order to make the lines fit a pre-determined length. Subtitlers must take into account not only the meaning of the line, but the reading speed of the average viewer…

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