Cyberpunk Peach John

“Even Rootport’s afterword account of working with Midjourney is now a historical document in the rapid pace of AI development. His experience, his achievements and his complaints all relate to a version of Midjourney that was superseded last autumn. In the time it has taken his book to make it to the bookstores, the AI has evolved another generation.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Cyberpunk Peach John, the “first manga drawn by an A.I.”

Rice Rice Baby

Two years after Japan seized Taiwan from imperial China in 1895, the government in Tokyo had started to wonder if it was worth the hassle. The local people were notoriously difficult to control; the anti-Japanese resistance continued to bubble away in the hinterland, and the infrastructure was a mess. Some wag in the Japanese parliament even made the modest proposal that, all things considered, Japan had been sold a lemon, and should probably consider off-loading the whole thing for a bargain price on the first mug to come along… probably France.

Toshio Watanabe’s The Meiji Japanese Who Made Modern Taiwan is a study of those Japanese engineers, politicians and scientists who refused to give up, turning Japan’s newly acquired colony into a testing ground for some of the grand schemes that would later be unrolled all across the Japanese empire.

Watanabe zooms in on Shinpei Goto, the administrator whose thoughtful approach to researching his new posting led to the commissioning of invaluable, multi-part scientific surveys, including a 4000-page report on tribal traditions among the indigenous inhabitants – often the first time such matters had been documented. It was Goto who dragged the island out of almost a decade of infrastructural decay, setting up the Bank of Taiwan to disburse investment funds for roads and railways, and declaring a Twenty-Year Plan to make the island a net contributor to the imperial Japanese economy.

Watanabe focuses on several linked elements of Japanese colonial development in Taiwan, particular­­­ly the creation of a new strain of rice, optimised not only for local conditions, but also for the Japanese palate. The result was a strain named for the ancient Chinese isles of the immortals, Penglai Rice (a.k.a. Horai Rice or Ponrai Rice), and Watanabe takes the story of this miracle crop out of both Taiwan and the Meiji era, to demonstrate its wide-ranging impact overseas, particularly in India in the 1950s. Even today, it and its descendants represent up to 93% of all the rice grown in Taiwan – Watanabe’s chapter on Horai Rice scales way, way out, making a bold claim to it as the saviour of millions of twentieth-century lives. This has, however, done some damage to crop diversity on the island – a fact alluded to in Crook and Heng’s Culinary History of Taipei, which notes the extinction of certain other rice strains in the wild.

But the crop was only half the story. Watanabe also delves into the history of the fields where it grew, particularly the plains between Chiayi and Tainan, the agricultural capabilities of which were multiplied a hundred-fold during the Japanese colonial era. For this, we have to thank a Japanese hydraulic engineer, Yoichi Hatta, who designed an irrigation system covering hundreds of square miles, holding back floodwaters and saving them to re-use in dry spells, to turn the Chia-Nan plain from a farming disaster-area into a rice-producing power-house with three crops a year.

Hatta was justly celebrated as one of the icons of Japanese Taiwan, and enjoyed a vibrant afterlife, particularly at the turn of the the 21st century, when a Japanese prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, turned out to come from the same part of Japan. The result was a veritable Taiwan-Japan love-in, with diplomatic visits, high-level glad-handing, and even the release of a worthy-minded dramatization of his life, Noboru Ishiguro’s animated film Batian Lai – well, Batian Lai (“Here Comes Hatta”), is how I translated the title in the Anime Encyclopedia, but the Japanese original Patten Rai, has a stab at replicating the way his name would have been pronounced by the actual Hokkien-speaking locals. The anime film concentrates on Hatta’s obsession with the irrigation system, and his pride and joy, the Wushantou Dam, which for six years in the 1930s was the largest in the world. Hatta’s most recent appearance in the media was in 2017, when a crazed politician in search of clickbait decapitated his commemorative statue at his gravesite beside the dam.

After Japan lost Taiwan in 1945, the new Kuomintang government adopted a scorched-earth policy towards the fifty years of Japanese rule. They played up colonial atrocities (of which there were many), deported thousands of Taiwan-born “Japanese”, banned the Japanese language from public life, and did everything they could to wipe out the Japanese colonial legacy. Watanabe’s book is a celebration of the oft-forgotten achievements of Taiwan’s Japanese era, although in pushing to recognise the achievements of the Japanese, he might occasionally have forgotten the Taiwanese who did much of the hard labour, and the occasional European who might have helped a little bit, such as William Kinnimond Burton, the Scottish engineer who designed many of the island’s Meiji-era sanitation systems.

But Watanabe’s book is more interested, naturally, in the Japanese, whose lives he describes with empathy and occasional melodrama. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the tragic end to Hatta’s story, when he dies aboard the Taiyo Maru, a ship torpedoed by an American submarine. His body lies in the water for a week, in which time the flesh is so picked clean by marine scavengers that he can only be identified by his clothes and personal effects.

His wife, Toyoki Hatta, held on until the 15th August 1945. On hearing the news of Japan’s surrender on the radio, she calmly walked through the rain to the Wushantou Dam, took off her shoes, and threw herself into the waters.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. The Meiji Japanese Who Made Modern Taiwan is published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Human Fallback

It’s been more than twenty years since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy used the newly made Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment (MASSIVE) software to create and animated armies of orcs and elves. MASSIVE famously took much of the misery out of big battle scenes, generating thousands of sprites that would battle among themselves. Well, they were supposed to. Early prototypes had trouble getting the sprites to fight each other – they had to literally make them more stupid and foolhardy before they’d get into it.

Regardless, MASSIVE had plenty of other obvious uses, and as processing power ramped up, would be purloined by Mamoru Hosoda to generate schools of self-aware fish in Mirai. Soon after, Yuhei Sakuragi would use similar “deep learning” algorithms to get the crowd scenes in his Relative Worlds to effectively animate themselves.

Such applications were just the tip of the iceberg. As demonstrated recently by Dwango’s Yuichi Yagi, now we have A.I. software packages that can be trusted to generate the in-between animation that goes between key frames, putting a big chunk of the animation business out of work. A.I. software like DALL·E 2 can now take a photograph and turn it into a 3D environment, or take a portrait and make it come to life. It can even guess what might be off-screen or out of frame, like predictive text, but for images. When faced with such leaps in abilities, it’s not hard to see that the next generation of animation labourers could be reduced to “human fallback” – the supervisor minions who pop their heads in every now and then to click an approval or reject a bodged model, based on a Stable Diffusion scraping of Every Anime Ever Made.

But how long will we have to wait before A.I. worms its way into other areas? Surely there’s already enough content to process, and expectations low enough in certain genres, for an A.I script writer to plot out an entire anime show? Feed a hundred light novels into a hopper, and see if the Plototron 3000 comes up with a world-beating idea for… I don’t know, a teenager in another world with a sentient smartphone.

I’m not one of the doomsayers, yet. Yuhei Sakuragi estimated that human fallback was required on almost half the working hours of his deep-learning scenes. “The conclusion was that you should probably aim for 50 or 60 per cent of completion, then shape it with human hands afterwards,” he said. Computer animation itself was once decried as a poison that would destroy anime… instead it made it anew, and gave us unexpected talents like Makoto Shinkai.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #227, 2023. A month after this article first appeared Rootport’s Cyberpunk Peach John was hailed as the first manga drawn by an A.I.”

Takahiro Kimura (1964-2023)

“Basically, if you’re just drawing stuff, there’s no particular inconvenience. I could have a meeting on the phone and send stuff off by courier. There was no producer to worry about because all we had to do was draw. It was fine. But once you start working as a character designer, suddenly you find that you can’t just ask: ‘What about this?” So after I’d finished GaoGaiGar, Betterman and Brigadoon, I thought it was time to go to the source and actually move to Tokyo. So that’s what I did.”

Over at All the Anime, I write an obituary for Code Geass designer Takahiro Kimura.

Hello World

“Kyoto has been successfully digitised; 2027 has been ingested to such a degree that it can be run in Naomi’s own future as a simulation indistinguishable from the real world itself. In effect, his whole world has been carefully saved and archived, which is good news for his future self, because Ruri Ichigyo, the girl he fancies, is fated to be put in a life-threatening coma in just a few weeks.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Tomohiko Ito’s Hello World.

Junk Head

“In a medium notorious for shots and beauty-passes that go on for way too long in order to amortise the costs of set construction, Hori’s camerawork is brisk and choppy, never outstaying his welcome in any particular scene, deftly creating the illusion that he is snatching his footage on the fly, not painstakingly building it one frame at a time, paltry seconds of motion taking hours to create.”

Over at All the Anime, I watch Takahide Hori’s stop-motion future feature Junk Head.

Studio Ghibli: An Industrial History

“Denison devotes entire sections to Ghibli’s short films and advertising contracts, many of which will be completely new to some self-proclaimed fans, despite a cumulative running-time equivalent to that of a whole other movie. These include, for example, Hayao Miyazaki’s nostalgic advert for House Foods, made in 2003 and unseen abroad.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Rayna Denison’s new book, Studio Ghibli: An Industrial History.

Rebuild World

“It’s not quite some teenager’s fan fiction thrown up online and then stuck between covers as IP bait to lure in an anime company, but that’s largely because I can see that an editor has been near this: the first chapter is the work of a much better author than the second, as if the experience of writing the book has already taught Nahuse some tricks of the trade, and he snuck back to write a better opening. Either that, or he had his whole life to write chapter one, but chapter two came swiftly afterwards, against a deadline.”

Over at All the Anime, I review the first volume of Nahuse’s Rebuild World.

Jason David Frank (1973-2022)

When I met Jason David Frank for the first and only time, I was a 24-year-old newshound for a children’s magazine, and he’d drawn the short straw, dispatched on a press tour of Europe to promote Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie.

It was driving him slowly crazy. He was holed up in a west London hotel suite, with only an old school buddy of his to keep him company. The publicity people, usually hands-on and clock-watching, were nowhere to be seen.

I introduced myself and showed him our magazine, and he laughed heartily at our electric rotating lollipop cover-mount, which everybody agreed looked like a sex toy.

“The thing is,” I said to him as we sat down to talk, “when I watched the film–”

“You watched it!?” he said. “Dude, nobody who’s come through here today has seen anything more than the trailer.”

“Well, I thought it would be smart to watch it.”

“D’ya think?” he laughed around the rotating electric lollipop in his mouth. “Go on, man.”

“I saw that some of the actors were under-cranked so they looked like they moved faster. But you– ”

“Yeah! Right!” Suddenly he sat bolt upright, flinging the electric lollipop onto a coffee table, looking at me with intense focus. “They don’t have to speed me up. Sometimes I think they want to slow me down. It’s because we’ve all got our skill sets, you know, like one’s a dancer and one’s a gymnast and so on, but I’m a martial artist. This is what I do.”

We talked about the martial arts, about how he’d taken the job as the Green Ranger and been so overwhelmed by the love of his fans – an entire generation of children who thrilled to have him back in successive iterations of the franchise, as the White Ranger. In later years, he would be a Red Ranger, a Black Ranger and a Green Ranger again. He boasted that he was throwing all the money he could spare from his starring role into real estate, because this might be the only chance he got to make proper money. I don’t think it ever registered with me that he was still only 22 – he had a presence about him that made him seem much older.

The next journalist in line had been kept waiting for almost half an hour as we ran over. But Frank didn’t want me to go. “A lot of these guys,” he confided. “They don’t care. It’s just great that someone appreciates the work, you know.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of the Martial Arts. This article first appeared in NEO #226, 2022.