“The book is a translation not only of Nagayama’s original 2006 book, but of its 2014 re-issue, which added an extra chapter on, among other things, the controversially restrictive Bill 156. Opposition to this 2010 piece of legislation was entertainingly diverse, as were its targets. In one incident that ably demonstrated the dangerously broad remit of its crusade against ‘harmful’ works, one Japanese politician tried to use it to ban Winnie the Pooh.”
Over at All the Anime, I review Kaoru Nagayama’s forthcoming Erotic Comics in Japan, with time out for bra engineering, censored canoes and vanilla smut.
I’ve just caught Mike Toole’s terrifying Dubs That Time Forgot panel at Cloud Matsuri (which everybody should definitely watch through their fingers), and discovered that he has been telling people all over Christendom that I was the ADR director of the UK version of KO Century Beast Warriors. Worse still, Anime News Network’s database seems to be backing up this claim! I have sent a message to correct them so that such slanders may cease.
Out now in Japanese, Yusuke Nakagawa’s book Foundation of the Anime Nation 1963–1973: The Pioneers Who Built TV Anime is a welcome narrative not only of the revolution in TV production that led to Astro Boy in 1963, but of the rise and fall of the industry in its first phase. Created under false pretences, with some hand-waving accountancy voodoo that was never going to stand up to harsh scrutiny, anime on television enjoyed a brief boom-time as the number of available channels expanded, but then settled into a lingering downward spiral of reduced advertising returns and shrinking budgets, before the onset of a recession caused some vital corrections in course and planning.
Nakagawa’s book helpfully breaks down the decade into annual segments, beginning each with a chart illustrating who exactly is doing what – which anime are on television at the same time, and which studios are at work on rival products.
Although the book’s title promises a tight focus on television between the years 1963 and 1973, Nakagawa begins with the black-and-white propaganda cartoons of the 1940s, and the gradual accretion of Japan’s animation community in the 1950s. Nor does he ignore the very real influence of feature film animation in the same period, such as the bragging about Toei’s first colour feature, Hakujaden (1958), and the “first Tezuka anime”, which is to say, the Toei feature Alakazam the Great, for which Tezuka was a storyboarder. The film studios are very much a part of the history of TV, in part because, as detailed at length by Nobuyuki Tsugata, they hoped to cash in on advertising contracts, but also because they trained many of the animators who would then defect to TV.
The story of how Tezuka was tempted by his Toei experience to go it alone in the anime world is already well-known, not only in Japanese but also in English. The real value of Nakagawa’s book comes from when he pulls focus away from Tezuka, and looks at the activities in context in the other start-up studios that try to compete with him, such as Studio Zero, a reconfiguration of the community from the manga creators’ dormitory, the Tokiwa-so, or Tokyo Movie, a bunch of puppeteers trying to retrain in animation as it becomes the Next Big Thing. He brings in unexpected influences, such as the coterie of young SF authors whose script workshop formed a major resource for TCJ, makers of Tetsujin 28-go, a.k.a. Gigantor.
Piece by piece, we see elements of modern anime forming – the first female protagonist; the first giant robot, the first anime not to be based on a pre-existing property. The first merchandising spin-offs… all arise in real-time, their potential and impact often unnoticed by the people around them. Nakagawa also zooms in on several moments of crisis, such as the “Midoro Swamp Incident”, when Tezuka gave his staff a week off, contracted an episode of Astro Boy out to the fledgling Studio Zero, and came back to discover they had produced work so bad that he wanted it destroyed. There’s the Toei Lock-in Incident, when managers tried to freeze out union agitators, and a discussion of Just What the Hell Happened between Tezuka and his business manager Yoshinobu Nishizaki in the 1970s – did Nishizaki rip Tezuka off, or was he the fall-guy for an intricate scheme to keep Tezuka’s properties afloat behind a shell company?
Frustratingly, there are no citations, merely a bibliography at the back which gives little indication of which source supplied which nugget of information. So when Nakagawa calls Tezuka’s apprentice piece Tales From a Street Corner “unanimated anime” (ugokanai anime), it’s not clear to me if he is (fairly) assessing it as a piece that looked far better in books and newspapers than on screen, or if he is appropriating Eiichi Yamamoto’s term from several years later, used to describe the low frame-count on Yamamoto’s own Tragedy of Belladonna, made on a shoestring after Tezuka had robbed the kitty to bolster financial shortfalls elsewhere.
If you are a researcher hoping to delve deeper into such industrial matters, Nakagawa’s book offers a handy precis of particular moments in history, and a useful overview of how the landscape looked on a year-by-year basis. Its bibliography functions as a useful checklist of particular topics in the history of anime, but only for those scholars ticking through it to make sure they already have the sources themselves. Nor does Nakagawa’s reading seem to have included anything not in Japanese – Fred Ladd’s own account of the localisation of Astro Boy, for example, might have added a few more details and an additional perspective.
“Saaler is resistant to propaganda and the official record – noting that public interest in the funeral of the Meiji Emperor was so low that his mourners were outnumbered by his honour guard. He ends by tying the choices of statues in public places to a related issue – school textbooks that get to rule on who the great people of history are, itself a subject of some controversy in Japan. He points out, for example, that a statue of the legendary Yamato Takeru is one thing, but including him in a children’s book of ‘great Japanese’ is tantamount to suggesting that the imperial family really were sent from space by the Sun Goddess.”
Over at All the Anime, I review Sven Saaler’s fascinating new book about Japanese statues.
“And thereby hangs a tale, not least the Festival Jury Chairman wondering if he is going to be dropped through the trap door into the piranha tank, after the odds-on favourite, Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You, was consigned to second place at Scotland Loves Anime 2019, pipped at the post by an outside contender about a surfer girl and her lost love.”
Over at All the Anime, I discuss the perils and pitfalls of festival jury voting.
There has never been a better time to write about film. In the twenty years since the coming of the DVD, there have been some truly marvellous opportunities for the critic, largely caused by the presence of all that memory space on the disc, and the search for added value. The commentary track is not a recent invention. They were available on laser discs beforehand, and sometimes transferred to VHS. Somewhere in my office I still have a “collector’s” VHS of The Usual Suspects that dials down the audio and replaces it with the director and writer talking about their film.
There have been occasions, hand on heart, when I have bought a film on DVD and simply watched it for the commentary. If I have already seen it at the cinema, maybe I don’t actually want to see it again. But I’ll pay £20 to hear a two-hour lecture from its writer or director. Probably not from the voice actors, though.
And I’ve even done some commentaries myself, sometimes known in anime fandom as Clementaries. Unique selling points or wastes of bandwidth… you decide!
Appleseed: An odd beginning, with the film company only discovering on the day that they didn’t have the facilities in-house, and having to move me and my fellow commentator to another studio. By the time we started recording, I’d been kicking my heels for six or seven hours. My fellow performer wasn’t feeling that talkative, either — for a bunch of reasons, including some personal stuff that she was keeping from everyone, but amounted to (as far as I could tell), her having to move house on the day that she was also recording a commentary track. None of these things is a welcome discovery to make when you are recording LIVE and can’t really backtrack, but we managed. I talked for England, only to have some reviewers complain that (a) I was drowning her out, or that (b) my attempts to elicit anything more than monosyllabic answers from her about a day’s work she’d done nine years earlier were some sort of convoluted attempt to chat her up. It taught me a valuable lesson about any commentary. It’s a live performance, but it is recorded, warts and all, for posterity. Anyone can have a few stumbles and fluffs, but you’re basically on your own. Since then, I have insisted on being just that.
A.Li.Ce and Blue Remains. A year on, and I’m back on the commentary trail, recording A.Li.Ce and the next anime on the same day on a remote Welsh industrial estate. I took great pleasure in talking about the development of digital animation, and the fact that one was recorded right after the other makes A.Li.Ce and Blue Remains a sort of two-parter on the development of CG in anime.
Detonator Orgun. Notable for my invention of the Detonator Orgun drinking game. At least, that’s all I can remember about this one.
Vampire Hunter D. Partway through this DVD, while I talk about various culture’s vampire traditions, you can hear me having an idea for a script that would eventually become Snake Head.
Spriggan. My favourite, if not only that for the first time I was hired to talk about a film that I had genuinely followed from its very inception, having been formerly hired to translate the pre-production script by a company that was considering investing in it. So I actually had some genuine behind-the-scenes information about the production that nobody else could have supplied. And I also took the opportunity to ask why the people who build secret underground hideouts are always on time and on budget, unlike the people fixing my bathroom.
Spirited Away. The commentary that never happened. I spent a week writing 25,000 words of notes, ready for the ultimate, super-duper commentary on the production and mythical background of an Oscar winning movie. This was to make a rashly-advertised Special Edition actually Special. Except the distributor didn’t have the right to actually add content to one of Studio Ghibli’s DVDs, and were slow to realise this. Eventually, they cancelled the recording the day before it was scheduled, and sheepishly paid me off.
Robot Hunter Casshan. In an elaborate sting operation, an agent from ADV Films attempted to poison me an hour before I went in to record this for Manga Entertainment. An innocent lunch beforehand with Hugh David had a series of unpleasant after-effects in the studio, and left me drooling and… well, probably too much information. But we recorded it anyway, with a brief pause for 20 minutes about halfway through while I writhed in agony.
Golgo 13. I sat down in the booth and started wittering confidently about missing footage from this movie, only to discover it had all been put back in. While the producer pointed at me through the window and laughed, I had to spin on a dime and re-tool my thoughts. We could have gone back to re-record, but Manga Entertainment quite liked the sound of me discovering, live, that long-lost material had been restored, and rather enjoyed the sudden enthusiasm I apparently developed. Actually, I think they just liked hearing me sputter with surprise.
Vexille. An interesting dilemma, with an intensely political film but a director who insisted (largely, I suspect, out of misconstrued Japanese modesty) that it’s just mindless entertainment. “Jonathan Clements is having none of that!” commented one reviewer, as I proceeded to draw a whole bunch of political parallels, as well as commenting on further developments in digital animation. A nice commentary, and eventually situated on the disc with a bunch of other material in which the director and I inadvertently end up wholly agreeing with each other. We’d both been misrepresented, it turned out.
Weathering with You. A first for Anime Limited and for me — a commentary track not for the Blu-ray or DVD, but for an online film festival, available exclusively through Screen Anime as part of the 2020 Scotland Loves Anime festival. Wonderful fun for me, and hopefully something that will grow into more commentary opportunities in future.
So the brochure for Scotland Loves Anime 2020 is live online, and includes Works-in-Progress pieces on anime in production, online screenings of Japanese films, two actual screenings in real cinemas (remember them?), as well as me delivering an exclusive feature-length commentary track on Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You, not available on the Blu-ray.
The festival is included in the package for anyone who already subscribes to Screen Anime, but there’s still time to sign up for some of the extras available to crowdfund backers, including a full-sized festival poster, a hard copy of the festival brochure, and a package of posh films to watch at home. Note, as well, that two third of the money from the crowd-fund is being donated directly to the cinemas in Glasgow and Edinburgh that would have screened these films for paying audiences if circumstances had allowed.
“…between the years 1941 and 1945, foreign music was actually illegal in Japan. Entertainingly, the people of Japan kept listening to it anyway, prompting the Intelligence Division in 1943 to start grumpily listing banned songs that were “a disclosure of nationalities characterized by frivolity, materialism, and high regard to sensuality.” Among such filth, threats to the national spirit to be purged like toxic waste, were Home on the Range and Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
Over at All the Anime, I review Toru Mitsui’s new book on Japanese popular music.
“Not since Makoto Shinkai’s debut has there been quite such an emphasis on self-starting, go-getting amateurs. The original manga on which the film is based was a 2005 self-published work by Hiroyuki Ohashi – in fact, the ‘complete’ edition, on which this film is supposedly based, was not released until the film itself was finished last autumn. The creator started a crowd-funding campaign to adapt the work into an animated film, on which director Iwaisawa toiled, often solo, for seven years. Of the 40,000 drawings that span the film’s 71-minute running time, most are Iwaisawa’s work – he is billed as director, animation director, screenwriter and editor, and presumably also made the tea and took out the bins.”
Over at All the Anime, I write up Takashi Yamazaki’s CG feature Lupin III the First, which will be having its UK premiere at Scotland Loves Anime next month.
“With its unlikely caper, in which a feisty archaeologist outwits comedy Nazis, Lupin the First owes a strong debt to the Indiana Jones films, particularly The Last Crusade, which similarly finishes with a mismatched team of raiders trying to break into a trap-ridden site with the aid of a cryptic diary, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which also features a booby-trapped American McGuffin…. But Lupin the First remains an incredibly accomplished work of computer animation, prancing along a tense tightrope between live-action and cartoon, and largely succeeding in propelling Lupin III into the 21st century, even as it clings so firmly to the look and feel of the 20th.”