“Who do you think are the greatest characters in history? I teach that the greatest character of all time is Jesus Christ, and the second is the Devil. The third? Buddha.” My obituary for manga writer Kazuo Koike, over at the All the Anime blog.
Over at the All the Anime blog, my obituary for Kazuhiko Kato.
“The editor said to me – ‘It’s hard to tell whether your art was done by a Japanese or a foreigner, so let’s create a pen-name that is indistinguishable by nationality.’ And after a lot of discussion in the editor’s room, they came up with MONKEY PUNCH.” Which was nicely inconspicuous.
The singer Akatsuki Teruko summed up the Occupation era with her 1951 song Tokyo Shoe Shine Boy, an upbeat ditty with a downtrodden message about a Japan that was still in thrall to American dominance. The titular shoeshine boy is getting on with his work, doing his earnest best to make every scrap of leather sparkle, while musing:
That lady that I like
Hasn’t turned up yet today
But perhaps she’ll come back
Even if it’s rainy or windy.
The girl in question appears to have business elsewhere, as a later verse reveals:
That lady in red shoes
Is she back walking around Ginza today
With gifts of chocolate
Chewing gum and Coca Cola?
With its recognisable foreign words and its frisky rhythm, Tokyo Shoeshine Boy was a hit in the dance halls – but it is also a flatly hopeless elegy, loaded with subtle clues, starting with the slang term for a Ginza promenade, Gin-bura. As the novelist Tanizaki Junichirō once archly observed, only a country hick would use such a phrase. That poor migrant labourer has nothing to offer her – he literally couldn’t even shine her red shoes with his boot-black polish, nor can he pile her with presents like GI-issue chocolate and chewing gum, or take her for an exotic Coke in swanky Ginza. ‘I’m sure she’ll come back tomorrow,’ he says brightly. ‘Someday we’ll go out dancing together.’ It is a triumph of Japanese melancholy, never once letting its enthusiasm slip, even though any listener can plainly see what has happened. The song makes background appearances in two films – listen closely and you’ll hear it evoking the pop culture of the Korean War in M*A*S*H, and playing incongruously during a terrorist attack in Akira.
Just a couple more years, and Bandai accountants might have thrown away all the relevant documentation, allowing two former employees to get away with deceptively simple crime. But someone got a surprise when checking over old invoices, leading at least one man to get caught cooking the books at the Japanese company most famous for Gundam.
I say “at least one”, because so far among the accused, only Takashi Utazu (44) has pleaded guilty to the charges, which include talking up the costs of installing the giant Gundam statue in Odaiba in 2013, and pocketing the surplus. LED lighting, which should have cost 10 million yen, was billed to the company at 20 million, leaving Utazu and his alleged accomplice with almost £70,000 in pure profit. And that’s only one incident in a four-year scam, thought to have netted the embezzlers a total of 200 million yen (£1.4 million).
Because of the sheer size and volume of certain franchises, toy companies have to deal with sums an order of magnitude above what simple folk like you and I are used to. A few years ago, when the Japanese government was dickering about the expense of the much-mooted National Media Arts Centre, it was a Bandai staffer who put everybody in their place by pointing out that the sums under discussion cost no more than a single new theme-park ride. It’s very easy, said another, to spend a million dollars. He meant that when you’re dealing with numbers this big, the overheads of simply making enough toys for something to stand a chance of becoming a bestseller turn into phone-number sized entries on a spreadsheet. Bandai won’t miss a few thousand, right?
Well, wrong. Their bean-counters are super-powered, transforming maths robots, and the dating on these reports makes me think that someone flagged up something fishy, seemingly in projects connected to another employee – a man who is currently continuing to protest his innocence, even though he was fired in October 2017 over the audit findings. There’s a statute of limitations on financial reporting – in Japan as in the UK, companies aren’t obliged to hold on to records for longer than seven years. So the thieves might have got away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling accountants.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #186, 2019.
Forty years after the first broadcast of Gundam, I recount the day that its impact first became truly apparent, over at the AlltheAnime blog.
“The posters were gone by 10am. By midday, Tomino estimated the numbers were pushing 15,000, which threatened to turn the event into a riot. Ever since the Anpo Protests over the controversial US-Japan Security Treaty (an event later referenced in the opening unrest of Akira), ‘public demonstrations’ had been illegal around Shinjuku station. Enough Gundam fans had now gathered to risk attracting police attention, and Tomino fretted that an injury in the crowd could attract exactly the wrong kind of media attention. His “new anime century” risked dying before it could even begin, with future events shut down as too dangerous.”
It was the party to end all parties. Otomo no Tabito, the governor-general of Dazaifu had invited thirty-one bigwigs from all over Kyushu to a fete in his garden, scheduled to be held a fortnight before reigetsu, the “auspicious moon” that marked the second month of the lunar calendar. The year was 730 AD. People came from as far away as Satsuma and Tsushima. The plum blossoms were just starting to open, there was mist on the mountains and the first signs of life were stirring – new butterflies had hatched from their cocoons, and old geese returning from their winter retreats.
Pleasantly sozzled, the vice-governor Lord Ki came up with a poem of welcome, suggesting that it was a nice night to welcome the plums – likely a reference not only to the flowers in the garden, but to the booze everyone was knocking back. His junior assistant, Mr Ono, answered with a poem of his own, pleading with the blossoms not to fall and scatter. Don’t forget the willows, said Mr Awata, another junior, again in verse form, creating a chain in which every guest threw in his own variation on a theme. It was a decidedly Chinese affair, redolent of the contemporary drunken poet Li Bai, conceived in apparent imitation of similar festivities in Chang-an, the distant capital of China’s Tang dynasty. There was a lot of talk of flowers, but also of the transience of life and the joys of booze. Later verses, fuelled by more wine, drifted a little towards the maudlin. The penultimate poem, from the secretary Mr Kadobe, spoke wistfully of the blossoms staying forever to delight the girl he loved… a rather tardy acknowledgement that only men’s voices were being heard, and that maybe they could all find something better to do than sitting around talking to other blokes. The women, presumably, were off somewhere having a party of their own, with limbo dancing and pillow-fights.
Tabito himself spoke in the middle, wondering if he could see scattering petals or flurries of late snow. But once the verse cycle was complete, he seems to have spoken up again, appending several other verses as closing remarks. The guests had tried to keep things light, but Tabito’s final words alluded to his advancing years, and his annoyance at a career that had seen him promoted away from life in Nara to a provincial posting. You could keep your wine, he said. You can keep your thoughts of Daoist immortality treatments. No booze or magic potion will make me feel young again. Only seeing the capital will do that for me. “To see [the capital] / That will cure this villainous old age / And give me my youth again.”
Otomo no Tabito died the following year, in his mid-sixties. The cycle of verse from his big party was preserved for long enough to end up a generation later in one of the poetry selections in the Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves). It came accompanied by a preface written in literary Chinese, which set the scene with the fateful line (taken here from Edwin Cranston’s translation in A Waka Anthology: “It is now the choice month of early spring; the weather is fine, the wind is soft.” One thousand, two hundred and eighty-nine years later, the two characters rei and wa would be lifted from that phrase, and used to name the reign of the new Japanese emperor, Naruhito, in 2019.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan.