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.”

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Manga & Anime Go To Hollywood

51qMWVRg1SL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Northrop Davis’ new book Manga & Anime Go To Hollywood, which was something of a disappointment from an academic press. Where were the peer-reviewers?

“There are a lot of quotes from contemporary internet reportage but far too much of the book simply rehashes earlier publications, pouring in excerpts from works that any serious researcher will already own.”

Death By Committee

sword-art-online-oculus-rift-virtual-realityJust for a day I would like to live my life like an anime production committee member. I shall tell the postman that I don’t approve of the way he opened the gate. I shall refuse to pay for a CD in a shop until the owner guarantees that he will end piracy on the internet. And I shall change my mind about the food I want to order in a restaurant, but only after I have already eaten it.

Such ideas are brought on by the revelation in a Manga UK podcast that the Sword Art Online DVD cover design has to change mid-series, because the Japanese licensors at Aniplex didn’t like the version that had gone out with the first disc – a version that they themselves had already approved. So Manga Entertainment is now left in the bizarre situation of having to change subsequent printings, leaving fans of the show with mismatched covers.

Collectors, if such creatures still exist, will be ecstatic to know that the art on the first pressing of SAO is never to be repeated. Fans who just want matching spines now face the prospect of having to contact Manga Entertainment at some future date to get replacements sent to them, which someone will have to pay for. Unless, that is, the SAO committee has another brainfart and changes its mind again.

Committees are supposed to make life easier. They are supposed to manage the franchises for everybody’s benefit. Since the 1970s, they have functioned as the executive bodies of intellectual property managing its hopefully long afterlife once it’s finished on Japanese telly.

One wonders about the make-up of the average committee. I like to think of a few disinterested lawyers, someone’s well-meaning widow, and the producer’s ex-girlfriend. One almost wishes for the devil-may-care days of the 1980s, when the Japanese didn’t really give a toss what happened to their material abroad. Now, can it be that they care too much? How many cooks are fussing over this particular broth for them to actually reverse their previous decision? At one point, one wonders, can someone stand up on the committee and recommend that their fellow members get a clue? If they can’t get their own product right, what are they for?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #122, 2014.

The Girl King

kuningatar kristiina elokuva kuvauksetMika Kaurismäki’s latest film, Tyttökuningas uses a deliberately counter-intuitive coinage in Finnish, directly translatable as “The Girl King.” Like Empress Wu and Queen Hatshepsut, the titular monarch was a woman who sought the recognition and power of a man in a man’s world. In the case of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-89) the terminology is truly apt – she was the sole heir of a doomed king desperate for a son, inheriting her father’s throne as a child, and, it seems, never quite growing up.

The movie is an earnest Europudding from multiple funding bodies – based on a French-Canadian play about a Swedish queen, but shot in Finland with Turku Castle and environs standing in for Stockholm. The Finnish connection eludes many international viewers, but is entirely apt; at the time that Christina took the throne, Finland formed the eastern marches of the Swedish empire. Christina was, indeed, also the Queen of Finland, and the Finnish republic remains peculiarly obsessed with Swedish royals.

tyttokuningasNETTIMichel Marc Bouchard’s script, based on his own 2012 stage play Christine: la reine garçon, makes much of Christina’s intellectual aspirations, depicting her as a crazy bibliomaniac, authorising the invasion of Czechoslovakia to get her hands on the king’s library (many books from which turn out to be in languages nobody can read), and frotting her girlfriend on the open pages of the stolen Codex Gigas or Devil’s Bible. In her own eyes she is a proud iconoclast, defying the old order represented by her chief minister, and scattering Enlightenment like fairy dust. In this mode, she pompously bestows china plates and wine glasses on the hidebound Swedish court, which she thinks is enough to qualify as a “revolution”, and pouts when she is not allowed to read books by Catholics.

Malin Buska smoulders persuasively in the title role, playing the clueless virgin queen as an occasionally saucy but usually baffled teenager with a winning lopsided smile. But if the film belongs to anyone, it’s the impotent menfolk who tut and wring their hands at the side lines. There is, to be sure, an argument that Christina’s mad life is best presented as a tragi-comedy, and the only moment that drew universal laughter in the Finnish cinema where I saw the film was the scene where Count Axel Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist) hems and haws and gamely tries to mansplain that “women’s friendships are different.” It’s Oxenstierna who shoulders the burden of running the country through his queen’s minority, and who begs her to do her duty, marry and get pregnant… and when she’s not up for that, to just try to be sane and not do anything daft like switch religious faiths at a time of political crisis.

True to any good historical movie, Kaurismäki and Bouchard do not rewrite the facts, although they do try and present them as best they can. A protagonist who does not change is a villain, not a hero, and the film struggles, as do historians and previous scenarists, to present Christina in any light other than that of a spoiled brat, impossibly deluded, drunk on power but shirking any sense of responsibility. She dresses in a tight, swashbuckling get-up, the first indicator of her androgynous personality, but then trips lightly around the castle balustrade pretending to be a pony: a far more evocative depiction of her infantile nature.

17-41592566ae4c65ab0dInitially, the story of Queen Christina must look like a dream come true for the queer film lobby: a European princess, raised as a boy, who falls in love with her lady in waiting and rails against the stuffy patriarchy! What a trailblazer she must have been… what a modern dash she must have cut among the dour Swedes. Except, no. The more one knows about the historical Christina, the more one cringes in embarrassment for any interest group that might dare to claim her. She has been depicted before in multiple media, including several operas, as well as the 1901 August Strindberg play Kristina, itself a source for the 1933 Greta Garbo costume drama Queen Christina. Garbo’s version pushed for an unlikely heterosexual resolution to her story, as did The Abdication (1974), in which Liv Ullman plays an older Christina, living in the Vatican and lusting after a cardinal.

There is, admittedly, some pleading of mitigation. Zachris Topelius, that great Finnish chronicler of the country’s Swedish past, wrote in his Stjärnornas Kungabarn of the similarities between Christina and her famous father King Gustav II Adolf, suggesting that her true misfortune was to inherit the hot temper and violent mood-swings that served him well on the battlefield, but which were deemed unwelcome in a regal daughter. Similar arguments are obliquely referenced in the film, particularly in an opening sequence which whisks through Christina’s awful childhood in thrall to a bonkers mother, who demands that she kiss her father’s putrefying corpse every evening, and who is later accused of having attempted to murder her. As the troubled dowager Maria Eleonora, Martina Gedeck periodically returns to chew the scenery, increasingly resembling a swivel-eyed Vivian Westwood, attended by an orbiting cloud of fops and dandies like a periodic pitch invasion by the cast of a Fellini film.

The script also pleads for the incipient intelligence of the young Christina. By the time she takes the throne in her teens, however, the bright, questioning girl of the early scenes has become a mercurial despot, unheeding of the advice of her ministers and generals, and promulgating a bipolar foreign policy that swings between hand-holding kumbayah internationalism and devious double-crosses. As her loyal subject Johan (Lucas Bryant) angrily berates her at one point, there is a human cost to every one of her decisions, and it is paid in the deaths and misery of others.

TheGirlKing_800aThere is an attempt in the closing scenes to present her abdication as a great self-empowerment, or the realisation of her True Self as some sort of wandering swordswoman. But there is also some sense remaining that this capricious termagant has skipped away from the burning wreckage of an entire kingdom, leaving broken treaties in her wake and a vast, costly expansion of the nobility, which someone else has to pay for. Queen Christina clung desperately to the trappings of royal power, even as she spurned any of the duties that it brought.

Christina is a privileged, predatory idiot when seducing her handmaiden Ebba (Sara Gadon), commanding her into bed and forcing herself upon her, only to realise that she has no idea what she should do next – a fitting metaphor for her entire life. And in the grand finale, as in the historical record, she marches smugly from the throne room, having dumped the crown on her cousin, riding not quite into the sunset, but into the Alps. A closing title reveals that she died in Italy as the centre of a great salon of intellectual debate, and understandably neglects to mention her pathetic return to Sweden in 1660, when she demanded the return of her crown and was sent packing by an establishment that was glad to be rid of her.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now in print and on the Kindle (UK/US).

What Next?

marnie_hires_6There were two notable absences from the screenings at this year’s Scotland Love Anime – or rather, two notable presences at the London Film Festival. Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie was There, the last feature film from Studio Ghibli, and The Boy and the Beast, the latest feature from Mamoru Hosoda, both made it onto the LFF roster instead. You might call this a victory all round – Hosoda’s films are often snatched by the LFF ahead of SLA, thereby leaving a slot in Scotland for less mainstream fare, as well as guaranteeing that Hosoda doesn’t sweep the Scottish Judges Award every year. But London’s programmers, as they are wont to do, are also snatching the most commercial and audience-friendly Japanese animated features. What are they going to programme next year?

Almost everybody in the anime business is tired of the “next Miyazaki” argument, in part because there can be no such thing. Hayao Miyazaki was a one-off, as was the synergy formed by his partnership with Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki. Moreover, the conditions that made their Studio Ghibli such a world-beater were also, in themselves, unique. The putative successors to Miyazaki are competing in an environment that is worlds away from the situation that saw Princess Mononoke rise to fame.

But concerns about who might be anime’s new poster-child aren’t just about the search for a new creative force. They are also all about money. For a Japanese movie to break even at the domestic box office, it has to be in the top twenty films released that year – a benchmark that only Studio Ghibli and a couple of long-running franchises (your Pokémon, your One Piece) could ever manage. A Studio Ghibli film (let’s be honest, a Miyazaki film), was a blue-chip investment, guaranteed to put bums on seats in Japan, and to monetise in foreign sales. Nobody else in Japan currently comes close, and that doesn’t just affect the likely enjoyment of family audiences. It affects festival programmers looking for something Japanese for their slates; it affects retailers planning how many feet of shelves to give to anime; and it affects distributors allotting budgets to those weird Japanese cartoons we keep hearing about. With Ghibli removed from the equation, the investment value of the entire anime medium drops by a significant factor, forcing everybody – distributors, retailers, and cinema owners, to work a lot harder to keep it in the public eye. So do your bit: go and see a Japanese animated film in a cinema this year… It’ll show up on someone’s balance sheet, and might make all the difference.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #143, 2015.

Scotland Loves Anime 2015

miss-hokusaiPacking my suitcase for this year’s Scotland Loves Anime, which begins on Friday in Glasgow. Keiichi Hara is in town to introduce the UK premiere of his Miss Hokusai, while I shall be fronting the UK premiere of Ryotaro Makihara’s Empire of Corpses, the steampunk epic based on the novel by Project Itoh and Toh Enjoe. I’m also looking forward to Production I.G’s latest Ghost in the Shell (another UK premiere) and the studio’s own self-inflicted competition over the same genre ground in Psycho-Pass: The Movie (which is, in case you hadn’t guessed, a UK premiere).

Behind the scenes, I shall be speaking about the state of the anime industry, both at the Edinburgh Education Day and in a pop-up lecture in Nottingham next Monday. I shall also be chairing the jury in Edinburgh as four opinion-formers argue over the conferral of this year’s Golden Partridge Judges’ Award. Shunji Iwai has a film in competition, and almost everybody is liable to be distracted by the Attack on Titan quadruple-bill (two anime movies and two live-action), but I’ll make sure the jury is in the right place at the right time.