Japan Crazy

When the future Admiral Togo was a young cadet in Britain, he spent several months in the company of a homestay family. His arrival caused great disappointment to the youngest boy in the Capel family, who had assumed that if Togo came from Japan, he must surely be an acrobat? Certainly, he must have been a friend of the most famous Japanese man among British youth, a circus performer known as Little All Right? The stoic Togo, already a veteran of the Japanese civil war, gruffly denied any association with jugglers or plate-spinners, and that was that.

But who were the Japanese Imperial Troupe? There was, indeed, such a group, although if either the Shogun or Emperor had ever heard them described as “Imperial”, they would have had conniptions. The Troupe’s impresario, “Professor” Richard Risley Carlisle, was a hard-up strongman who introduced the Japanese to Western circus traditions in 1864. Realising that the newly opened land of Japan had its own performers and trickery, Risley pulled all the strings he could in order to bring a platoon of Japanese entertainers to the West, getting a motley crew of itinerants to sign away their lives for him in a contract that would take them literally around the world. The first-ever civilian passports granted by the Japanese government were given to Risley’s performers, a fractious, occasionally drunken and regularly licentious bunch of rascals who back-flipped, juggled and caroused their way throughout Europe and America.

Frederik L. Schodt’s account of this landmark event, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe, argues for it as the first flowering of japonisme, in which these unlikely blue-collar ambassadors from the mysterious land of Japan brought a highly unrepresentative and oft-misunderstood series of performances to a cluster of industrial towns, from the mills of Wakefield to the mines of Wales. Pursued by creditors, scandal and intrigue, the Imperial Japanese Troupe became many Europeans’ first-ever encounter with things Japanese; they sang old Kyoto songs in the Wild West, and got into bar-room brawls in Piccadilly…. Schodt mines the Troupe’s own diaries, contemporary newspapers, theatre reviews and even court reports in order to unearth a truly globe-trotting adventure, which prods the underbelly of Victorian society, and whispers the first strains of The Mikado, Madame Butterfly and other Western obsessions with the east. He presents the Imperial Japanese Troupe as the first true Japan craze, but does so with an incredible sense of place and time, dragging the reader into a narrative of carnival barkers and gasping crowds, spectacular entertainments and forgotten celebrities. An amazing work of scholarship, and an incredible feat of literary plate-spinning. Roll up, roll up…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East.

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2009: The Year in Anime Books

It has been a good year for worthy books on Japanese animation. Apart from my own Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, of course, there have been a couple of books I have yet to read but suspect I will like: Andrew Osmond’s Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist and Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Surely the prize for best anime book of the year must go to Hayao Miyazaki’s Starting Point, lovingly translated by Frederik L. Schodt and Beth Cary, and treating the anime fans of the English-speaking world to an unparalleled glimpse inside the mind of the medium’s most famous director, warts and all. Miyazaki is surrounded at all times by a cloud of idle speculation and spin, and it’s great to see him speaking up in his own words. Not wholly about anime, but deeply illuminating about one of its best-publicised elements, was Lowenthal and Platt’s Voice-Over Voice Actor, also published this year.

Osamu Tezuka has enjoyed a revival, with two excellent English language studies of him arriving in swift succession, first from Natsu Onoda Powers in May, and then Helen McCarthy in October. Meanwhile, in Japanese, the “God of Manga” was the subject of the multi-authored The Osamu Tezuka That Nobody Knew, and Yuka Minakawa’s chunky, gossip-ridden tomes, The Rise and Fall of Japanese Animation: Osamu Tezuka School, 1: The Birth of TV Anime, and 2: Psychologist With an Abacus.

Japanese-language books on anime this year have offered some tantalising glimpses behind the scenes. Just before the end of 2008, the Association of Japanese Animations (sic) and Tokyo Bureau of Industrial and Labour Affairs published a new syllabus for trainee animators and those wishing to enter the business, which seemed to carefully airbrush out much of anime history before the millennium. You might argue that on a need-to-know basis, new animators don’t really need to know… but for those of us with a historical perspective, industry stories are vital for keeping a sense of institutional memory in a notoriously amnesiac business. Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, guiding light of Production IG, published The Animation Business and a Non-Conformist Producer’s On-the-Spot Revolution, and Masanobu Komaki published his memoirs from behind the scenes at magazine in My Time at Animec. Meanwhile, Mana Takemura published Magical Girl Days. And in 2008, although I did not acquire it until this year, Mamoru Oshii (yes, him) published a management guide called (deep breath) : Salvation Through Outside Help: Seven Powers for Work That Does Not Fail, which not only included some wonderful insights to the anime movie-making process, but some mental photographs.

Few of these works seemed to have troubled the reading lists of people who call themselves anime fans, or indeed who call themselves anime scholars. It irritates me that so much anime scholarship seems to revolve around the re-invention of the wheel, as hordes of newcomers blithely ignore what has already been published in the field. Enough respect, then, for Simon Richmond, whose Rough Guide to Anime, also published this year, took the trouble to acknowledge his predecessors. If you just like watching Japanese cartoons for fun, then this shouldn’t bother you in the slightest, but anime seems to be attracting a lot of self-styled experts these days, and it wouldn’t kill some of them to pick up a book every now and then. Starting with the Anime Encyclopedia, which really does have some very interesting essays in it, the contents of which I keep finding other people to have ‘discovered’ independently, which is frankly a waste of their time, and of mine!

Mostly Harmless?

Just stopped off for a week in Hawaii finalising materials for my forthcoming book on Admiral Togo, who spent a tense time there during the Hawaiian Revolution, and accidentally inherited an escaped murderer who claimed asylum aboard his battleship. I am sure I will write more about it here next spring.

In the meantime, on to San Francisco, spiritual home of anime and manga in the United States, where I have been staying with Frederik L. Schodt and poking around the alleyways of Chinatown. Friday was the official release date of the Astro Boy movie, so we were unable to resist the temptation to grab tickets and sneak unnoticed among the evening punters.

The audience in downtown San Francisco seemed split evenly between anime fans and families. Many of the children did not seem to have the faintest clue who Astro Boy was, which is the ideal way to approach this modern upgrade. The kids seemed to like it, apart from one little girl who started yelling “MOMMY I’M SCARED!” when Donald Sutherland started acting crazy… this is not an unknown reaction, even among adults.

There were a few tips of the hats to fans — a cameo for Tezuka himself, and occasional walk-ons for some of his other cast members — but the Astro Boy movie was largely and resolutely a reboot, toning down the death of Professor Tenma’s son Toby, but otherwise staying remarkably true to the spirit of the original. It was, in short, exactly what I would have expected a Hollywoodised Astro Boy remake to be, redolent in many places of Wall-E, although considering Tezuka’s influence on the world of cartooning, that might well be a case of putting the cart before the horse.

I sat there counting the number of Japanese names in the crew, and didn’t have to stretch my fingers too far. Astro Boy’s real influence, and its real future success, will not rest on the contribution of Hollywood — the likes of writer/director David Bowers and composer John Ottman already have resumes they can call on. It rests on Hong Kong, and on the many hundreds of Cantonese names that dominate the crew. Astro Boy might have a Japanese origin and an American sheen, but perhaps this film is better regarded as a work of Chinese animation. In American terms, it appears mostly harmless — a kiddie friendly, Saturday afternoon cartoon that is unlikely to make Pixar worry. But in Chinese terms, it could be seen to represent an incredible leap in talent and technique, lifting the capabilities of Chinese animators so high that they could now be positioned to give American cartoons, and indeed anime itself, a serious run for their money. And if money is the key, then this release is sure to be regarded in China as a “local” production, evading import quotas and heading out into the world’s largest market.

Astro Boy famously speaks more than 60 languages, but the only one he may really need is Mandarin.