Cowboy Bebop

Up on the All the Anime blog, I write a piece on Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, and its place in exhibition history.

“When finally released, it was slated to hit American cinemas slap-bang in the middle of hysteria about 9-11. Its concentration on the motives of a terrorist turned into a sudden spell of cold feet on the part of its distributors, and it was consigned to the movie sin-bin for a while, along with Rintaro’s Metropolis, which featured a disturbingly familiar sight of a large building crumbling into dust. And when it first hit the UK with a 15-week run at the prestigious ICA cinema on Pall Mall in 2003, its coughing, plague-ridden characters evoked unpleasant reminders of SARS, a different kind of terror then threatening the Far East.”

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Debating Otaku

Over at the All the Anime blog, I publish a review of Galbraith et al’s Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan.

“Eiji Otsuka, a man complicit in the coinage and dissemination of the term otaku in the first place, is furious that it has become such a thing, and regards the attention of researchers and the vainglorious bragging of the Japanese government as an air-brushing of history…. He is so angry, in fact, that his foreword to this book comes with a prolonged translator’s note pleading mitigation and indulgence, like some apologetic youth dragging a drunken uncle away from a bar fight.”

The Disc-covered Country

It was Sentai Filmworks’ Matt Greenfield, then at ADV Films, who uttered the magic words to me at a party in 2001: “The next format is no format.” And for many of you, watching anime on a laptop screen in your bedroom, streaming it straight from the interwebs, that prophecy has come to pass. What surprises me 17 years later is that it’s still not true for so many of us – the anime market remains a healthy niche in the entertainment business, possibly because anime fans were some of the first to notice that online streaming sites were anything but permanent archives.

But anime fans without a Blu-ray player may soon have little choice except to knuckle up and buy one. Companies all over the globe are giving up on DVD, and with the likes of Sentai Filmworks in the USA, and Madman in Australia not even bothering to burn DVD masters any more, this inevitably affects those companies that rely on them for materials. Now, in Britain, MVM’s Tony Allen announces that his company is releasing Flip Flappers only on Blu-ray, because DVD masters were not forthcoming from his overseas partners.

This column reported way back in NEO #95 on the decision by Bandai America to give up on DVD. If it’s taken another six years for everybody else to catch up, it’s because Bandai trusted other companies to take up the slack by licensing the products for DVD themselves. This latest round of cancellations reflects the fact they have stopped bothering.

Even though only 15% of the UK public seemingly owns a Blu-ray player, roughly 60% of anime sales are on Blu-ray. It well be that the true figure is significantly higher, and that many of the DVDs “sold” in dual-format packs are little more than throwaway coasters to purchasers who don’t need them – we can’t say for sure.

But American Blu-ray sales peaked in 2013 and have been plummeting ever since. Last year, Den of Geek observed that Cameron Crow’s Aloha (2014) didn’t even go “straight to DVD” in the UK, but went straight-to-streaming. Could it be curtains for all discs…

“Packaged goods”, as they’re known, still form a crucial part of the anime market, because without a physical disc containing the film, it’s impossible for a distributor to sell you the box that it comes in, with the foil on the box, and the special foldy-out thing, and the liner notes, and all the other things that create value in a collector’s edition. So Blu-ray is here to stay, at least in anime, at least for the immediate future. There can be no flip flapping on that.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #179, 2018.

Troubles ANEW

I don’t imagine that this will be the last time this column talks about Cool Japan film financing boondoggles. It certainly isn’t the first – way back in NEO #60 we discussed the likelihood of bail-out packages; then in NEO #63 there was all that hoo-hah over the proposed Media Arts Centre. We’ve followed Japanese studios as they tentatively embraced not only crowd-funding but also charity for their underpaid staff, and the gravy train of J-LOP funding for copyright holders.

But producer Hironori Masuda has just behaved in a decidedly un-Japanese way by blowing the whistle on what he calls the “institutional corruption” of Cool Japan. The subject of his ire is ANEW, a film fund announced with great fanfare in 2011, promising $80 million for new projects. Recently rebuffed for a film funding application, Masuda followed the money trail, and discovered that there wasn’t any cash to be found. ANEW had been sold off in 2017 to venture capitalists for just $311,000, while all those millions injected into it to pay for movies had frittered away on administrative salaries and dead-ends.

ANEW had five or six film projects under its aegis, including a putative live-action adaptation of the anime Tiger & Bunny, but none of them have come to fruition. Then again, isn’t this precisely what you expect to happen when government quangos dabble in media manipulation? Cool Japan has always been a marketing-focussed, image-obsessed concept, in which officialdom has lumbered far beyond the real achievers, trying to reverse-engineer their success. You can’t just make a new Pokémon happen. If you could, Bandai would have already done it. Nor does Japan go for those tax-break film initiatives that so many countries have successfully parleyed into movie success. There’s a reason The Walking Dead films in Atlanta – they get massive tax breaks, as long as they come to Georgia to spend their money. But that doesn’t work in Japan, where a tax break won’t take away the language barrier or the red tape. Instead, the Cool Japan policy wonks tried to make Cool Japan happen by starting their own movie projects.

Some might say that Masuda is just sulking because he didn’t get a piece of the pie, or that it was unrealistic all around for anyone to think that a mere handful of movie ideas might generate the next blockbuster. Regardless, after seven years, it seems that ANEW has absolutely nothing to show for all its investment, an amount of money that if spent more judiciously, could have paid for four Spirited Aways! Not even the Japanese government can create its own luck.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #178, 2018.

Cat-astrophe

At Tonghuamen station in the Chinese city of Xi’an, a man is dressed as Doraemon, the big, fluffy blue cat, hero of many a manga series, and known in China as Ding-Dang, the Time Travelling Cat.

“DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” he yells at me through the mouth of his costume.

“Indeed I do,” I say, not stopping. He starts to scurry after me, his big clown-cat-feet flopping on the dusty pavement.

“SAY MY NAME, THEN! WHAT’S MY NAME?”

“Ding-Dang, the Time Travelling Cat.” I resist the urge to add that the Chinese media have recently outed Ding-Dang as an agent of Japanese oppression, with an insidious soft-power message designed to distract them from the ongoing dispute over the Senkaku Islands. Mainly because I don’t know the Chinese for soft power (it is ruan shili, for next time).

“NOT BAD! AND LET ME TELL YOU, LARGE FOREIGN FRIEND, YOU’LL WISH YOU HAD A TIME MACHINE IF YOU DON’T SIGN UP RIGHT NOW FOR ONE OF THE UNITS ON OFFER AT THE RENWEI TOWERS CITY DEVELOPMENT, COMING SOON RIGHT NEAR HERE.”

He has to shout because he is wearing an all-over velour suit designed to make him look like a giant blue cat. The thermometer is climbing towards 30 degrees today, so I think the heat might have driven him a little bit loopy.

“I’m not interested,” I say.

“TIME MACHINES AREN’T REALLY REAL, YOU KNOW. YOU CAN’T ACTUALLY GO BACK IN TIME AND SIGN UP FOR THIS OFFER LATER ON.”

“In which case, how did you get here, Ding-Dang?”

There is a pause, while Ding-Dang the Time Travelling Cat thinks about this.

“TO TELL THE TRUTH, I AM STUDYING FOR A DEGREE IN MARKETING. I AM REALLY HUMAN.”

“And if were you, Ding-Dang,” I add, “I’d be more worried about if you were legal.”

“OF COURSE I’M LEGAL—!”

“Because a Chinese court has just ruled that Robot Cat [Jiqimao], a trademark registered by a Fujian sportswear firm, is a blatant copy of Doraemon, so their right to use the image has been revoked, four years after they tried to register it.”

“Wow,” says Ding-Dang, his voice suddenly low and muffled. “They really did that…?”

“Yeah. Like nobody would notice!”

“Well, apparently nobody noticed for four years,” he observes.

“You got that right, Ding-Dang. I bet they wish they had a time machine now!”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #177, 2018.

Remembering Paku-san

Look for the term Paku-san (“Mr Munchy”) – an affectionate nickname born of the late Isao Takahata’s habit of scoffing his toast on his early-morning studio rounds. It’s a common occurrence in Japanese-language reminiscences and studio memoirs. And reference to it often separated the wheat from the chaff in last month’s rondo of Takahata obituaries.

You’re in safe hands with NEO magazine, for which Andrew Osmond has fashioned a loving tribute this issue, but the coverage of Takahata in other publications has been of variable quality. It’s an interesting sampler not only of how far we’ve come (a lovely Guardian piece by Jasper Sharp, I see!), but of how far we haven’t – far too many clueless paste jobs from Wikipedia. Sadly, they don’t know who they are. Few obituarists, for example, noted that Takahata worked as a producer on both Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky, many accounts of his box-office “failure” Little Norse Prince, made under hostile studio conditions and effectively buried by its own distributors, were hopelessly garbled, seemingly by writers who thought it would be easy to cram such a full life of achievements into a simple list of films he directed.

One news-hound from a well-known British broadcaster inadvisably spammed anyone on Twitter who had mentioned Takahata, asking them if they wanted to come in for an interview. Unfortunately for him, this was all publicly visible, so would-be pundits could see him sucking up to Some Guy With a Blog with precisely the same enthusiasm as he was to Respected Filmmaker. In a marvellous gaffe, he also tried to get an interview with Roger Ebert, who has been dead for five years.

In obituary terms, Takahata might look like an easy grade. There is, after all, a lot of secondary material about him. It’s not like Akira Daikuhara, who died without half of the anime industry even knowing how to pronounce his name. But Takahata is still oddly under-represented in English-language interviews and books. At least one attempt to write a book-length study of Takahata’s work was thwarted in the early noughties by studio recalcitrance – it is not necessarily the fault of English-language authors that some figures are under-represented. Whatever the reason, there’s no BFI classic on Grave of the Fireflies or Princess Kaguya. There’s no translation (yet) of his collected essays, Things I Thought While Making Films. In criticism, as in life, Miyazaki got the attention first, and his friend and mentor was all too often tabled for later.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #176, 2018.

Civilisation

“Aboard the Dingyuan, the wounded, half-blind William Tyler stumbled through the carnage. His ears were still ringing from the blast, and would continue to do so for the rest of his life. Up ahead, he saw a friend of his, Lieutenant Wu. Even as they exchanged greetings, a man standing nearby was torn apart by an enemy shell, smearing gore and entrails across the deck.

“‘So this is civilisation,’ said Wu. ‘This is what you foreigners are so keen to teach us.’”

From Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, by Jonathan Clements.