Things Unheard

I would very much like to be enjoying A Silent Voice, but I have a bunch of other things to worry about. Just before the lights go down in the cinema, I get the word that the promised 40-minute post-film Q&A had suddenly dropped to 20 minutes – shoving an extra half-hour onto a slot’s running time often disappears in the cracks between schedulers, projectionists, front-of-house and cleaners. The woman who tells me this also warns me that we are starting 15 minutes late, because someone who shall remain nameless went off to the bogs, and we couldn’t start the film without them.

Anime Limited want to film the Q&A event for a DVD extra. Kyoto Animation are in the house with their own camera. The director, Naoko Yamada, is sitting next to me and has no idea about the blind panic unfolding in my mind over the next two hours. She’s already sat through a 40-minute meeting where we talk over the likely questions, and her minders steer me towards the areas they most want to discuss. But now I am feverishly calculating and re-calculating the logistics.

How much time do I actually have? Assuming that I am not thrown out the moment I take the stage, is there enough time for audience questions at all? If I drop audience questions (and risk the wrath of fans), will there be still time to talk about the staff at Kyoto Animation, as I have been requested to do, or do we now have to make this all-Naoko, all the time? Maybe if I rush. Maybe if I just fire questions at her like an interrogator. Maybe if I drop all questions about the manga and pre-production and just get her talking about her work, I can salvage something.

The lights go up. I take to the stage and introduce the director of A Silent Voice, and catch myself glancing at my watch when the applause goes on too long. Too much applause will cost me another question.

The cameras are running, the audience are laughing. I even relax the interrogation a little and we seem to have time for audience questions. Later on, I find out why – the person tasked with signalling me that we are out of time has decided to simply lie about it. We run over, which means that cinema-goers two films behind us might find themselves hard-pressed to make it for the last bus. Someone is going to get into trouble over this, but it’s a judgement call that saves the event. For the half-hour that the event lasts, it all looks smooth. Nobody saw the negotiations beforehand, the fretting throughout the film, or the slap on the wrist that the distributor got from the Glasgow Film Festival authorities for playing havoc with their schedule. It’s our job to make this all look easy, but sometimes it really isn’t.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #162, 2017.

Age of Shadows

In 1910, after decades of intrigues, provocations and double-crosses, Japan formally annexed Korea. For the next 35 years, Korea showed up on maps as part of Japan, its capital Seoul renamed Keijo, its royal family whisked away to Tokyo as hostages, its people force-fed a diet of Japanese nationalism.

Detective inspector Lee (Song Kang-ho) is a good-hearted cop, who finds his loyalties tested when his Japanese masters task him with hunting down the resistance. Rebel mastermind Che-san (Lee Byung-hun) senses that Lee is on the verge of switching sides, and lures him ever closer to an explosives-smuggling ring that uses an antique shop as a front. But will Lee wake up to the cause and join the rebels, or will he hand over his countrymen to his dastardly Japanese bosses?

Director Kim Jee-woon returns to his native land, after helming Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand, for a gory, uncompromising glimpse of the rise of the Japanese war machine and the fires of the Korean resistance. Known simply as “Spy” (Miljeong) in its homeland, his beautifully grim, smoky vision of 1920s occupation has been released abroad with a far more evocative title, reflecting both its look and its loyalties: Age of Shadows.

“I’m drawn towards double agents,” comments Kim, pointing to people with divided loyalties who “act in secret while surrounded by enemies, standing at the borders of their turbulent age.” His film is all the more remarkable for being inspired by history, most notably the rise of the “Heroic Corps” (Uiyoldan). With dynasties collapsing in both Korea and China, and the Japanese plundering treasures from both, the real-life Heroic Corps did indeed use the antiques trade as a means of importing weapons from across the border. They carried out targeted assassinations of Japanese troops, high-level collaborators and a vaguely-defined subset of “traitors”.

Several schemes were thwarted by the authorities, but their first success came in 1923, with the bombing of the prominent Bell Street police station in central Seoul. The bomber, Kim Sang-ok, fought his way through a police cordon around his home, and committed suicide after a costly gun battle on the slopes of Mount Namsan. This all adds a touch of gritty realism to the film’s depiction of revolutionary intrigues, most notably a prolonged set-piece as agents desperately try track the glamorous but iron-willed arms smuggler, Gye-Soon (Han Ji-Min), on the Shanghai train.

“I wanted to capture the image of people navigating a tightrope between supporting or resisting Japanese colonial rule,” says Kim, “and being swept up in the consequences of setting one’s foot down on either side of the line.” Although it’s pretty clear which side of the line he is on – the Japanese are presented as unrelentingly cruel, old-school baddies. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Age of Shadows is a Korean initiative, rather than a Japanese one. For a former coloniser to depict the period for entertainment purposes would seem gauche and indiscreet – how many English films have glorified the Irish War of Independence?

Far too many Korean movies are obsessed with a fratricidal, traitorous motif seemingly inspired by today’s North-South divide. But Age of Shadows makes it clear that Korean allegiances have been split for far longer, with the colonial regime struggling to hang onto its collaborators and root out its rebels. Antique dealer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) is a Lovejoy charmer, trying to win over his police tail with honeyed words, dressing to impress in another historical touch – “I was fascinated to hear that real-life members of the resistance, never knowing which day might be their last, dressed each day with style,” the actor reveals.

For director Kim, the film was a chance to capture not only the atmosphere of the era, but also the lives of the founders of modern South Korea. “On the day before we started shooting, I visited the former office of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai,” he recalls. “It was so small that the bathroom was located right next to the dinner table. I wanted to suffuse the film with the emotion I felt, learning about the struggles of independence fighters who endeavoured to reclaim the spirit of a people who had lost their country.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #20, 2017.

Enemies Reunited

Over at the All the Anime blog, I write an article about Naoko Yamada’s acclaimed film A Silent Voice.

A Silent Voice had a rollercoaster ride to success. Despite winning a Kodansha comics competition in 2008, it sat unpublished for three years as editors and lawyers debated its provocative stance. Disability drama is a recognised sub-genre in the Japanese media, but usually strives for a worthy, didactic message. The implied audience is all too often an ignoramus who needs to be educated about specific conditions. Such stories are often termed Pure dramas, deriving their name from the autism-related 1996 TV series of the same name. But A Silent Voice often focussed not on the saintly deaf girl but on the young thug who bullied her, along with his classmates’ casual disinterest. When it finally saw print in 2011, it did so with a ringing endorsement from the Japanese Federation of the Deaf: ‘Please publish it as it is and do not change a thing.'”

For Honor: Samurai vs Everyone

Over at Samuel Steele’s YouTube page, he interviews me about the technology and culture of the samurai. It’s “just a bit of fun” as the TV historians like to say, designed to think through some of the implications of the ideas behind the computer game For Honor, in which samurai, Vikings and knights duel for control of thinning resources. The interview is split into three parts, the first, largely on weapons and armour, the second, largely on “the warrior code” and the existence of the ninja, and the third on archery, women, and who would win in a stand-up fight.

The Day Heidi was Born

Over at the All the Anime website, I review Kaori Chiba’s new Japanese-language book on Heidi, Girl of the Alps, the landmark anime series that carved out an entire niche in evening programming.

“Chiba deals with the anime’s planning, the shooting of its pilot, and the crew’s location hunt in Switzerland, wherein Miyazaki, Takahata and their long-term collaborator Yoichi Kotabe descend like dervishes on the farmhouse of a baffled local family, demanding to photograph their kitchen table and their cows. From Maienfeld, they head up to Ulm and Frankfurt, soaking up the metropolitan imagery for Heidi’s later adventures in Germany.

“Chiba devotes ample space to the production of the first episode – the scoring of the music, the theme song, and the auditions for the voice actors, the character designs and the backgrounds. It’s only towards the end of the book that her account takes a darker tone, drawing on the complaints of the staff, particularly Miyazaki himself in many later articles and interviews, that television animation was a brutal, relentless, unending task, gobbling up talent and time. The animators put their all into Heidi, only to find that television networks greet its manifest quality with an indifferent shrug.”

The Phantom Pippi Longstocking

Up on the All the Anime blog, my article on the aborted Pippi Longstocking anime project that caused Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Yoshio Kotabe to walk off their jobs at Toei and jump feet-first into the world of television.

“There is no real evidence for [Astrid] Lindgren’s reluctance at the Japanese end, apart from a cryptic comment from Tokyo Movie’s Keishi Yamazaki, who thought that she had once said in a TV programme that Japanese animation was ‘too violent’. Where on Earth she got that idea from in 1971 is anyone’s guess — I like to imagine a Stockholm tea-time coven of famous children’s authors, complaining about foreign cartoons.”