Asei Kobayashi (1932-2021)

“The following year, he would win an award for his music for ‘From a Northern Inn’, a weepy tune about a girl knitting a sweater for a boy who will never wear it. The song twice entered the charts and also a later anime – in Isao Takahata’s film Chie the Brat (1981), the leading lady belts it out at her father, in a passive-aggressive way of accusing him of paternal neglect.”

Over at All the Anime, I write an obituary for Asei Kobayashi, an unlikely TV star, quiz-show champion and composer, most notably for Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Turn-A Gundam.

Nobody Knows Anything

On several occasions in recent months, I have been approached by journalists demanding to have the meteoric success of Demon Slayer explained to them. The film has, after all, become the highest-grossing movie ever in Japan, taking just under 40 billion yen (£266 million) beating not only Spirited Away and Your Name, but Titanic and Frozen.

However, I refused to comment, on the grounds that I didn’t really know. I had some guesses, certainly, particularly regarding unique pandemic conditions. One imagines a weary Dad, on the one day that a family can actually go somewhere together saying: “All right, we can all go out today, but we are not sitting through the last Evangelion movie, and your sister doesn’t want to see Josee and the Tiger and the Fish, and your mother has already seen Fate/Grand Order: Divine Realm of The Round Table: Camelot- Wandering; Agateram twice, and besides, it takes so long to say the title that by the time we get our tickets, the film will be half over…”

And then there are the otaku. When reporting Japanese box office, particularly for anime, it is disingenuous to talk about ticket sales as if each has gone to an individual, because some of those tickets are being bought by the same guy – once for the lucky gonk, once for the giveaway poster, once for the action figure he will keep in its box. And with limited choice in Japanese cinemas, such merch speculators are out in force with more money to spend on a single film.

There has been some talk among pundits of some sort of unique synergy among voice-acting talent (nope), or music (not really). There has been some mildly persuasive commentary on the fact that the manga itself is popular with Japanese readers (yes… but that popular?), hitting some sort of spirit of the age.

But as to why Demon Slayer is the top of the Japanese box office, my honest answer is “I don’t know”. As the months go by, I realise now that I should have said so, in public, much earlier on. Someone should have stuck their hand up in December and said: “No idea, sorry. If we knew how this worked, we’d all be millionaires.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #208 (2021).

Daijiro Morohoshi

“His influence upon Japanese fantastika cannot be overstated, and has been cited in multiple creators’ accounts of their inspiration… In particular, it is possible to discern visual and thematic borrowings from Mudmen in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997), and from Yōkai Hunter in Shinseiki Evangelion (1995-1996)…”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the manga creator Daijiro Morohoshi.

Branding Japanese Food

“Foods and local dishes can be a welcome window into history, attached to folklore or some sort of interesting bit of trivia. Staying at an old-fashioned inn in Shimabara, I was once served guzoni, a local dish said to replicate the grim, spartan broth that Christians under siege at Hara Castle scraped together from seaweed and shellfish. Outside the navy base at Yokosuka, I was nearly defeated by a military-grade curry, introduced, it was said, by the Royal Navy. Many such oddities, however, are more like ‘invented traditions’, recent initiatives designed to give local hawkers something to sell to tourists. The authors note, for example, that Atsumori Noodles might be named for a famous samurai killed at the battle of Ichinotani, but actually have sod-all to do with him, having been dreamt up by a couple of café owners near the battle site.”

Over at All the Anime, I review a new book about transformations in Japanese food, including a conspiracy that goes to the highest level… and involves soup.

Kentaro Miura (1966-2021)

“I used to have the final moves planned out, but lately I’ve been thinking I’d rather figure them out when I come to it, so now it’s hard to say what could happen. Being the sort of person I am, though, I actually don’t think I could let such a long grim story end with a grim ending – like, say, having him suddenly die. I don’t really like that kind of entertainment.”

My obituary for the manga artist Kentaro Miura, creator of Berserk, is now up on All the Anime.

Call the Sushi Police

I’ve long given up expecting decent oriental food in the small town where I live, but sometimes even I get riled about the low expectations of the customers and the cooks. Exhibit A: the monstrous abomination that shuffled into view at the local sushi buffet, when the mainland Chinese who used to run it sold out to a bunch of Thais, and within days they were putting processed cheese on the maki rolls and leaving out platters of tuna sandwiches!

There are limits, and if there was such a thing as the Sushi Police, I would definitely have called them. In the anime series directed by Tatsushi Momen, Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki are enforcers for the Japanese government, making sure that restaurants around the world are serving proper, traditional sushi, and none of these madcap overseas inventions. First screened in Japan in 2016, Sushi Police was commissioned amid a certain braggart mood in Japan that the Olympics were coming soon, and that the world was sure to become so obsessed with Japan that its far-flung corners would need an inspectorate to slap any slipping standards out of them.

One wonders, however, about where cultural policing disappears so far up itself that it becomes a cure that’s deadlier than the disease. Sushi started off as an utterly commonplace snack food in samurai-era Tokyo, slung together with fresh ingredients and a dash of sauce, no weirder than a hot dog… albeit usually not actually hot. And this wouldn’t be the first time that an “authentic” food had evolved abroad. As the name implies, one of my favourite varieties, the California Roll, has origins far away from bay-side Tokyo, and is all the better for it.

But in Japan there are super-high-end establishments for people much posher than you and me, which have a whole set of rules of their own. There are sushi bars that only run two sittings a night, where seats are booked months in advance, where you pay in advance and forfeit your money if you are five minutes late. There’s no reaching for the soy sauce here – the chef decides on the flavouring you need, not the flavouring you want. And in order to avoid offending the fine palates of your fellow diners, you are not allowed to wear any form of perfume.

Would the Sushi Police crack down on them, too, for being ridiculously snooty, or would they secretly approve of such white-collar crime?

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. This article first appeared in NEO #207, 2021.

The AIUEO Song

‘“The AIUEO Song” was one of several films screened in the Japanese empire to teach the Japanese writing system to schoolchildren, released close behind the tunes “Flower of Patriotism” and “Our Unity” – there are accounts of all three being screened repeatedly. Digging around in the archives, Takashi Kayama has uncovered another version of the song, released on vinyl by Nippon Columbia in November 1942, and recorded by schoolchildren in Singapore, seemingly native Chinese speakers struggling to get the sounds exactly right.’

Over at the All the Anime blog, I delve into new revelations about the singalong Japanese lesson that forms an early highlight of Momotaro, Sacred Sailors.

Terminal Boredom

‘Suzuki excels at unreliable narration. In the Bradbury-esque “Night Picnic” (translated by Sam Bett), four creatures that identify as human beings pore over a library of forgotten books, comically and ham-fistedly trying to reconstruct what it means to be an Earthling. In “That Old Seaside Club” (translated by Helen O’Horan), a possibly drug-addled glimpse of seafront nightlife turns out to be the hallucinatory refuge of a doleful housewife, reliving a replay of her twenties heyday. In much the same fashion, in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (translated by Aiko Masubuchi), a woman’s recounting of her night-club experiences carries a niggling, growing sense that time is not working in the way it should, and that her perception of the passing of the minutes and the passing of the years might be confused.’

Over at All the Anime, I review the new collection of science fiction stories by the late Izumi Suzuki.

How Do You Live?

“Copper is adept at finding out things for himself, and the reader shares in his joy as he uncovers such things as the supply chain that puts a mouthful of Australian dairy milk onto his Tokyo breakfast table – the cows and the milkers and the factory and the freight train and the steamship… Uncle is there to point out that what he is actually talking about is the ‘relations of production,’ and gently tries to inform him about the basic principles of Marxist economics.”

Over at All the Anime, I’ve been reading the book of Hayao Miyazaki’s next film.