Operation Yashima

And so, as the nights grow longer and the need for air conditioning reduces, the Japanese government has finally relaxed its emergency power-saving measures. Put in place after the March quake/tsunami and Fukushima shut-down severely compromised the power grid for Tokyo and all points north, these directives urged factories to reduce their electricity usage by 15%.

Some people are still wondering how the loss of a single power station can cause such upheaval. It’s not just about the accident at Fukushima, it’s about the fact that the super-modern nation of Japan has two different power grids, running on different frequencies. Back in the days of Japan’s rapid modernisation, a French company installed the grid in one part of the country, and an American company installed the rest, one on 50Hz, and the other on 60Hz. As a result, diverting power from the south to the north is not so simple.

Although the directives only applied to big corporations, the rest of the Japanese soon rolled up their sleeves and muscled in. Aircon thermostats were cranked up so that they only cut in when the heat was truly unbearable. Office dress codes were relaxed to allow men to take off those jackets and ties. Meanwhile, all over Japan, a grass-roots economy drive began to tweet ideas for saving energy.

Meetings were held outdoors, if a park was nearby. Someone reminded people that it was hot enough to dry clothes on lines instead of in tumble dryers. And so on. And if you’re wondering what this has to do with Japanese cartoons, it is another example of the far-reaching power of the anime image. The hash-tag for all these suggestions, presumably kicked off by an anime fan with a sense of humour, was #yashimasakusen, a reference to episode six of Neon Genesis Evangelion. The titular Operation Yashima, for those that haven’t remembered their Gainax lore, is a military action in which the entire electricity grid of Japan is diverted to power up a massive sniper rifle. This wasn’t played up all too much in the recent Rebuild movie, so whoever came up with it was an old-school fan of the original TV series. And their little joke was the best bit of PR Gainax have had in a decade.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #91, 2011.

Question Time

Gainax were in the house. Almost all of them. It was a one-hour panel at the Locarno Film Festival, with a veritable football team of famous figures. Takami Akai, creator of Princess Maker, wearing a pair of welding goggles. Yasuhiro Takeda, author of the Notenki Memoirs, sporting a dapper panama hat. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, designer on Evangelion and Summer Wars, with a shock of rock-star hair and a pair of posh spectacles. Hiroyuki Imaishi was there, in a polo shirt (the true uniform of the anime creator). All in all, half a dozen heavyweight figures, and a moderator, and an interpreter, and me, stuck on the end as a sort of intellectual sheepdog.

Locarno, screening hundreds of anime, had dozens of guests in attendance. The Japanese were loving the attention and the exotic vacation quality – Takeshi Koike, director of Redline, was there that week with his new wife, and telling her it was a sort of working honeymoon. Yoshiyuki Tomino, director of Gundam, was there with his wife (a supremely arty sort), and kept making detours to drop in on Swiss art museums to look at famous paintings. The Gainax boys were there with their wives, but since they all worked for Gainax, too, it served to double the number of available industry people with something to say.

Which is great, but at the sharp end it meant finding things for them all to do. At a panel for half a dozen Gainax luminaries, with only an hour allotted, and a packed cinema, I had to make sure that everybody got to answer at least one question, so they weren’t twiddling their thumbs while the big names got the limelight. Which meant one question each, what with all the interpreting and the explication.

And then. And then they threw it open to the crowd. A packed theatre of 800, excited at the first, and so far, only time that Gainax were all in a room, drunk on foreign fun and hospitality, far away from home and ready to tell anime truths. In the first row, a faculty’s worth of PhD students from all over Europe raised their arms. Behind them, a forest of eager hands straining to be noticed, a whole day of comments unmade, reminiscences unsaid, poignant questions unasked. With only a few minutes to go, every second counted. In budgetary terms, what with flights and food and hotels, I’d guess that every minute was costing Locarno a thousand pounds. So you’d better make it count.

The moderator picked a girl near the front.

“Hello,” she said. “I like Evangelion, and I think it’s great. But when I bought a widescreen TV, the image looked all squashy, and the characters were a funny shape and that. I wanted to ask Gainax if they were going to do anything about it?”

The producers looked at the directors with mounting bafflement. The interpreter interpreted. Then she re-interpreted. With the gentlest of Japanese politesse, the Gainax boys sought clarification of the stupidest question in Christendom. A thousand pounds ticked by, as they came to understand that, yes, she really was asking for widescreen telly tech support.

Eventually, Yasuhiro Takeda took the microphone.

“I respectfully suggest,” he said, “that you read the manual.”

This article first appeared in NEO 74, 2010.

Sub vs Dublin

Back now from Dublin, where I’ve been at the Irish Film Institute Anime Weekend. Festivities kicked off for me before I was even off the plane, when my neighbour turned out to be a man from Ghana who wanted to know about intellectual property rights. On Saturday morning, I taught a workshop on the way that anime are constructed, with special reference to the Introduction to Anime Screenwriting by Jinzo Toriumi. This is just one of several books by old-school anime writers that are used to teach the next generation in Japan how it all works — they make for very illuminating discussions with an audience of marketers, curators and students curious about what makes anime tick.

The rest of the weekend was taken up with screenings, including the European premiere of Gundam Unicorn, and the Irish premieres of Summer Wars and Evangelion 2.0. I found myself on panels talking about, among other things, the career of Yusaku Matsuda, the uses of a naginata, the corporate structure of the Yomiuri Group, and the history of “breast dynamics” at Studio Gainax. And I found myself signing copies of the Anime Encyclopedia, Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, and even Beijing: The Biography of a City. In a very 21st century touch, I also got to sit in the bar and watch the Manga UK Twitter feed as Jerome Mazandarani explored Tokyo for the first time. Me in an Irish bar, reading live about the adventures of an Australian man on a Japanese toilet.

Meanwhile, Dublin was full of people who had come to watch rugby, which is apparently one of those mainstream situations where cosplay is considered acceptable, so although a number of anime fans had dressed up as cartoon characters, if I walked out of the cinema, I would find a street full of men in kilts and/or painted blue, to the extent that Temple Bar often looked like a low-budget sequel to Avatar.


Hiroyuki Yamaga was 22 years old when he became an anime director. The ink was still drying on his college degree when he was suddenly catapulted into the limelight, and sent off to make Royal Space Force, a vaguely defined science fiction epic about the race for the stars. There was also, somewhere in the pre-production meetings, a second vague assurance to the sponsors that there might be some merchandise tie-ins.

Yamaga doesn’t admit to feeling out of his depth. He went in supremely confident; he came out with an anime masterpiece. He knew what he was doing right from the start, and claims that, even though he graduated in film, the best possible training for directorship is to pick a movie and watch it ten times. Once is entertainment, twice is repetition… by the fourth or fifth time you’re climbing the walls. But then you start to see lighting you would have fixed, lines you would have rewritten, shots you would have reblocked. By the tenth pass, you hate the movie, but you are ready to make a better one.

Which is why, like all filmmakers, twenty years later he isn’t going to sit in the theatre while his work plays to an audience for the thousandth time. Instead, he’s with me, whiling away 90 minutes until the movie ends, sitting outside a bar in a square in Switzerland. He fiddles with his pipe, a sleek metallic artefact from Porsche Design, and sips his Italian wine.

I refuse to believe that his movie went that smoothly. I remember the first day I was given control of a meagre £17,000 magazine budget. I spent the first day vomiting. But he was 22 and running a six-figure production.

“Oh,” he admits, “there were the grown-ups, I suppose. The people who had to sign off on everything. The producers who’d put up the money. They left me to it largely, which is why I am still pleased with the film, but every now and then they insisted on some little tweak.”

It’s only when he talks of the changes made during production that we catch a glimpse of how outnumbered and outgunned he could have been. With Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind topping the box office, one of the “grown-ups” made the handy suggestion that The Something of Something would be a better title and would draw more audiences into the theatres. Since one of the movie’s sponsors was All Nippon Airlines, someone else helpfully suggested that something aerial-sounding should be in. And so Royal Space Force became The Wings of Honneamise.

I ask Yamaga how it felt on the first day, standing in front of a crowd of expectant animators, all waiting for  him to tell them what to do.

He shrugs and tinkers with his pipe.

“They’re animators. They’re professionals. It’s their job to do what I tell them. If I don’t like something, I am free to ask for changes. That’s my job. It’s much easier telling professional animators what to do, because they’re being paid to follow my orders. Like waiters,” he adds with a cheeky smile, as more wine is put in front of him.

“The most difficult thing is telling amateurs what to do. After you’ve run a fanzine… After you’ve run a convention, when the only staff members are volunteers and everyone is there out of love, and your only means of control is charisma and pleading… After you’ve done that, running a bunch of movie professionals is a piece of cake.”

(This article first appeared in NEO #67, 2009)

Back from Locarno

At last, I’m back from the Locarno Film Festival. Even though anime was only one of several strands, it still saw more incident than several conventions combined across ten-days of multiple screenings and events. There were hundreds of anime on show, including screenings of Summer Wars, Musashi: Dream of the Last Samurai and an open-air screening of Ponyo.
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Swiss Roles

Today I am in Switzerland, at the Locarno Film Festival, which has dedicated an entire strand of programming to Japanese animation. Specifically I am going to be talking onstage with film archivist Akira Tochigi about a subject close to my heart – the modern renaissance in pre-war anime and the problems of restoring old cartoons.
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The Notenki Memoirs

It’s hard not to like Yasuhiro Takeda, the hapless nuclear physics student who repeated his second year at university five times before giving up. His reason, the passion for sci-fi that led him to run conventions, sell model kits, and eventually become General Manager and Producer for the Gainax company. This textual autobiography takes him from his failed student days, through his time as fanboy and amateur actor, right through the tax evasion calamity that dogged Gainax in the wake of Evangelion.

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