The End of Fantasia

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There have been some heartfelt eulogies in fandom for Studio Fantasia, which has declared bankruptcy after a generation in the anime business, most notoriously with its micro-skirted spies in Agent Aika and its panty-flashing operatives in Najica Blitz Tactics.

Fantasia itself was born under suspicious circumstances, by staff manning the lifeboats from the foundering Tsuchida Production in 1983. Tsuchida eventually sank in 1986, but to say it went down with all hands would be misleading – by the time it went, it was a name on a filing cabinet, without real estate, equipment or employees, while its former staff were already running Studios Comet and Fantasia.

It’s important when reporting the history of the anime business to understand the difference between a disaster and a simple change in circumstances. Studio Fantasia, from what I can see, appeared to shut down because it was little more than some signatures on paperwork that allowed a guy to get some bank loans. Tomohisa Iizuka, the man who led the exodus from Tsuchida all those years ago, set up a company that in its 2006 heyday was bringing in £2.7 million a year and had 43 employees. But if Iizuka wants to retire, and if there is nobody willing to take on the company and its liabilities… if the company itself has no intellectual property worth preserving, then Fantasia might as well cease to exist on the day that Iizuka puts on his golf shorts and heads out to the country club.

As the director Noboru Ishiguro put it in his memoirs: “It is so easy to create a TV animation subcontractor. That’s because 90% of the cost is labour and hardly any investment is needed. As long as you have money to rent a studio and to buy tables for animators, all you need is people. You could start an animation production company tomorrow. But they go bankrupt quickly, too – just like a pub. Because the production cost is cheap, subcontractors can never make large profits. You’re lucky if you are not making a loss. As soon as you start doing a different job and the efficiency level drops, or an animator quits, the business goes downhill.”

2006 wasn’t just a peak for Fantasia, it was a peak for the entire anime industry. The studio visibly slowed over the following decade, until it was just picking up a few bits of piece-work on a couple of recent shows. It was not, like Studio Ghibli, initiating and owning new content. But it was, like Studio Ghibli, very much the workplace for a group of guys who were looking forward to not having to work anymore. Except the guy who draws knickers, for whom it is still probably still a labour of love.

Then again, never say never. Who would have guessed at the beginning of last year that the “next Hayao Miyazaki” would turn out to be Hayao Miyazaki?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #159, 2017.

Nothing Like a Dane

9781472136466‘I had that Danish karate team in the back of my cab once,’ says the driver. He uses the cabbies’ definite article, as if I am supposed to know which Danish karate team he is talking about.

‘They were over for that tournament, and they went out on the town afterwards. They drink a lot, you know? I was surprised. I didn’t think kung fu people liked beer or whatever. But I picked them up at like two in the morning, in their red tracksuits, and I was driving them back to their hotel, and we was all south of the river. In Brixton. And one of them says: “You know what, I want some orange juice. Pull over a second.” And I says: no mate, you don’t want to stop the car in bloody Brixton, not now, not at kicking-out time round all the clubs. And he laughs and says just pull over. So I do. I stops the cab, and all three of them hop out and go into a Seven-Eleven.

‘I just know there’s going to be trouble, and sure enough, there’s three big blokes go in. And one of them is like: give me your money. Give me your money, he says, to this ginger Dane in a tracksuit. Give me your phone and all. And the Danish guy is like: no, leave me alone. And the bloke is like (and he’s a big feller, right?) and he’s like give it to me now or I will eff you up. And the Dane is like: “No. Step away, sir, please.” Polite as you like.

‘So the bloke pulls back to punch him, and POOF! He’s on the ground clutching his head. And the Dane says: really, I am warning you. But he’s like: “GET THE LADS!” And the other two run off to the club, and they are back in flash with half a dozen mates, and they all charge at these Danes.

‘And these are tired, right, but they train for this every day. They don’t even have to think. It’s like BOFF! BOFF! BOFF! Kung fu fighting and they knock them all down. A couple of berks try to get up again, and then it’s BOFF! Stay down. Then they go to pay for their orange juice, and the police turn up.

‘And what do the police see? They see eight or nine big thugs just lying on the ground moaning and hanging on to their arms and that. And these three little Danes having a packet of Wotsits. And the policeman says to me: “Did you see what happened here, sir?”

‘And I says: “Them three blokes are the Danish karate team. And them others just found out what that means!”’

I’ll save you the trouble, dear reader. I Googled this one. I Googled every possible permutation of Brixton and Denmark and karate. When I came up blank, I tried every other Scandinavian country, as well as the Netherlands, on a hunch. I switched the martial arts, just in case it was kung fu or aikido or judo. But despite such an epic account from my story-teller, despite a midnight riot that was sure to have entered the folklore of south London, despite the implied eye-witness experience of the narrator himself, down to the tracksuit colours and omnipotent view of what was said and done a hundred feet away while he was still in his car, there is not a scrap of evidence online of this supposed event. No court hearing, no police report, not even a snickering comment in the local newspaper.

I Googled it in Danish, too, just to be sure.

Nothing.

But that’s the story I heard, word for word. Straight up.

Excerpted from A Brief History of the Martial Arts, by Jonathan Clements.

Getting Away With It

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Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (Yu Aoi) is a writer’s daughter, cursed with an over-active imagination. Shunted into a new school by her parents’ divorce, she finds the perfect foil in local truant Hana Arai (Anne Suzuki), a pathological liar who eggs her on into wild conspiracy theories, breathless scandal-mongering and a series of misadventures that grow hilariously out of hand.

A decade after his early success with Hana & Alice, a live-action comedy about two hyper-active schoolgirls who dupe a boy with amnesia, director Shunji Iwai decided to revisit his characters with a prequel about a fateful day that saw them stranded in Tokyo and inadvertently starting a missing-persons hunt. The film’s title, The Case of Hana & Alice, makes it sound like some bloodthirsty murder investigation, a fitting evocation of the leads’ compulsion to read melodrama into everyday situations.

“The thing is,” Iwai laughs, “you can get away with a lot more when you’re a girl. Look at Hana and Alice and the way they behave. In the first movie, they were basically stalkers, telling that poor boy that they had a past together. In this prequel, they are causing all this trouble around the city. They’re kind of… how can I put this? They’re perverts. If I made that story about a man, if I made it about you, for instance, then you’d be locked up.”

It would also have been impossibly expensive as live-action. It wasn’t just a case of redressing Tokyo to look like it was 2004 – the film’s plot demands an absence of social media, as many of its escalating misunderstandings could be halted today by 20 seconds’ Googling. But the original film made stars of its leading ladies, who were not only now out of Iwai’s price range, but pushing 30 and unconvincing as middle-schoolers. Iwai hit on a solution inspired by the films of Ralph Bakshi. He shot the entire film on the run in 30 days, using teenage stand-ins for the stars, and then painting over every frame to make it look like an animated film.

After the guerrilla film-making was done, the touch-up was outsourced to 150 freelancers all around Japan. Iwai denies that he ran the whole post-production process without having to get out of bed, but one can easily imagine him pottering around his living room in a dressing gown, watching as digitised packets flow in and out of his server. The expensive leads were lured back for a single day to record just the voices; their younger onscreen selves moved and emoted like the teens they really were, and digital effects fixed the lighting and scrubbed out buildings and technology that did not exist a decade ago. The result might look on the surface like an animated film, but the use of live actors delivers huge amounts of nuanced data – flinches, tics and micro-expressions that would simply never happen in a cartoon.

The real charm of The Case of Hana & Alice is the compassion that suffuses the film. Two clueless kids, poised on the cusp of adulthood, go AWOL overnight in a big city, but are kept safe by the good deeds of the people they meet, from the taxi driver who waives an unaffordable fare, to the indulgent strangers who put up with their histrionics. There’s not a dark moment in a film that is as confident about its leads’ right to be silly as it is about the surety that all will be well in the end. The Japanese, unsurprisingly, have a word for it: omotenashi, or kindness for the sake of kindness.

The Case of Hana & Alice is also a winning portrayal of the slippery relationship that teens have with the truth, although Iwai himself says the original inspiration came from somewhere much closer to home. “When I started working in the film industry, I was astonished at how many of the people there were bare-faced liars. There are an awful lot of them, like half! It’s very surreal, and that provided a lot of material for Hana.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A HistoryThis article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #16, 2016.

The Mouths of Hell

silence2“Two Leagues from Nagasaki there’s a High towering Mountain called Unzen, and on the Top three or four vast Lakes with boiling sulphurous Waters, heated by subterraneous Fires. These Waters break out sometimes in wide Openings and Gapings of the Earth, with whole Mountains of Flames, called by the Japanese the Mouths of Hell… or Infernal Waters. These wide Openings happen only once in Eighteen Years, but then it overflows like a Deluge, with whole Torrents of stinking Waters, mixed with Sulphur and Brimstone, insomuch as one can’t look upon them without Horror. The Waters smoke and boil as if they stood upon a hot Fire, and make so hideous a Noise that we may properly compare them with the Lakes of Brimstone and Fire mentioned in the Apocalypse. For the rest, the Waters are so hot… that the least Drop penetrates to the Bone.”

Crasset — History of the Church of Japan, 1707.

Eighteen Christians, four of them found among the local baron Matsukura’s own subordinates, were taken in procession up the slopes of Unzen to the boiling lakes. One, gazing upon a Mouth of Hell, brightly opined that for him it would be the Gateway into Paradise. Another shouted praises to Jesu Cristo and hurled himself into the lake, much to the annoyance of another Christian, Paul Uchibori, who warned the others that they were there to be martyred, not to commit the sin of suicide. Thereafter, the Christians were thrown one-by-one into the waters of Unzen, all except Paul, who was vengefully dipped headfirst several times.

It was not the last time that Old Matsukura’s men would climb Unzen with a party of martyrs. One of Matsukura’s own officers turned himself in at Shimabara, claiming that he had gone into hiding in Fukae, but had realised that his lord would get into trouble with the Shogun if it was found out that he had allowed a Christian to escape. After making this incredible confession, he was duly sent up the mountain with another group of Christians, whereupon Old Matsukura’s men attempted to get some better results.

Simply killing the Christians had been proven unproductive, particularly since so many of them went uncomplaining or even gratefully to their deaths. Instead, Matsukura’s men tried to prolong their agony, dipping them in and out of the lakes, splashing them repeatedly with scalding water, and even slicing gashes into their flesh, to increase the pain. When none of this had any appreciable affect, they resorted to a far crueller method. They separated one John Chizaburo from the survivors, and allowed him to sit down and rest for a while. They then told the survivors that the man had been allowed to sit down because he had agreed to cast aside his Christian faith.

Christ's Samurai coverIt was calculated to wound the believers at a spiritual level and almost worked, but for John Chizaburo unhelpfully bellowing: ‘I declare before you all, that I live and die a Christian.’

Eventually, the torturers gave up, tied the survivors together and doused them in scalding water until they died. The pitiful corpses, which ‘appeared as if they had been flayed alive,’ were then weighted with stones and dumped in the lake, in an attempt to discourage other Christians from filching holy relics.

Excerpted from Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion by Jonathan Clements.

Excess Baggage

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October’s cause celebre, as reported by Justin McCurry in The Guardian, involved a Japanese train conductor announcing to his passengers that their travel was being inconvenienced due to an excess number of foreigners on his train. He was reported by a Japanese passenger and swiftly reprimanded, but there’s more to this particular story than meets the eye. The clues can be found in the timing of the incident, Monday morning, and the location: on the Nankai express to Kansai International Airport.

The conductor had heard a Japanese passenger at an earlier station effing and blinding about the trouble being caused by “foreigners”, and sought to explain to the rest of the train what was going on. It’s clear to me that the problem was not the foreigners per se, but their luggage.

Japanese trains don’t have a whole lot of space. There’s the usual overhead shelf big enough for a rucksack or a carry-on, but extremely limited space for the kind of trunk-with-wheels favoured by the average foreign tourist. The reason for this is that no sane Japanese person carries their luggage any further than they have to. Ever since the 1970s, they have used a takuhaibin service, which picks up your luggage from your hotel or home and spirits it away to your next destination by the next morning. If I’m shuttling from Tokyo to Kyoto, say, then the freight cost is about £10, and my suitcase is waiting for me at the next hotel. I save more than that by not having to get a taxi to the train station, and I don’t end up clogging an entire carriage of angry commuters. The only place I expect to see big luggage is on the dedicated Kansai airport train, the Haruka.

More popularly, takuhaibin is known as takkyubin, but this latter term is actually a trademark of the Yamato Transport service, recognisable by its iconic logo of a black cat carrying a kitten, and best known to anime fans by the co-option of its name in the Japanese title of Kiki’s Delivery Service – the company was even a sponsor of Studio Ghibli’s charming film about a witch who goes into haulage. So if you are going to Japan any time soon, do look into takuhaibin services at the airport or your hotel, you’ll save yourself lugging a suitcase across town, and buy into a bit of anime history into the bargain.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 157, 2016.

A New Type of Bomb

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It always began on the day after tomorrow. In the original manga, in its translations, and even in the film itself, the opening sequence of “a new type of bomb” wrecking central Tokyo was assigned the date at which the audience was supposedly sitting down to watch it. And then it would leap ahead a generation. The kids have run wild on the streets. The government is secretly funding the terrorists. New religious cults have sprung to life. There are riots, and in a gang fight out in the old town, a bunch of rude boy-racers accidentally run into an escaped guinea pig from a secret military project.

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira came heavily loaded with local allusions which flew over the heads of many English-speaking fans. The very words “new type of bomb” recalled those of Emperor Hirohito in his infamous surrender speech from 1945. But Akira’s Japan was most strongly rooted in Otomo’s youth, when the wide-eyed country boy came to the big city of Tokyo to earn his fortune. He found a city struggling to recover from the aftermath of an apocalyptic war yet still mired in scandals, war-crime revelations and revolutionary fervour. A giant crater sits at the heart of Otomo’s Tokyo, like the suppurating cesspool that forms the structuring absence of Akira Kurosawa’s break-out movie Drunken Angel (1948). The children of Otomo’s Japan have been transformed by the war’s aftermath – brash, irresolute and feckless, cruising the city on motorbikes and spouting an unintelligible argot thick with ze’s and zo’s, two emphatic particles unknown outside Tokyo gangs. I fondly remember showing Akira to a Japanese class at Leeds University in 1991, and Dr Penny Francks sticking her head around the door, listening for a few moments, and observing: “I can’t understand a word!”

The anti-hero Kaneda is all mouth and trousers, a street thug whose passing interest in revolution is soon deconstructed as merely an excuse to pick up girls. But it’s he and his outlaw bikers who inadvertently stumble upon (in fact, crash into) a secret plot to restore pre-war weapons programmes and human experimentation – the Akira project that attempts to harness and release the creative energy of the universe. In Japanese, it is written with katakana, a writing system that makes it sound like a foreign acronym – A.K.I.R.A.

Behind the scenes, Akira was an awful albatross of a movie project, with spiralling budgets and onscreen experimentation that left its producers panicking about the likelihood of it ever earning its money back. But the result was an apprentice piece of enduring power – a post-holocaust sci-fi epic that featured discordant gamelan music and Noh-influenced chanting, a cartoon that featured biker gangs throwing hand grenades and arguing about the origin of the universe, an animation that featured naturalist afterimages from passing headlights, and realistically curling smoke from cigarettes. To put matters in perspective, in 1989, the Hugo Award shortlist for Best Dramatic Presentation included Willow, Big and Alien Nation, and the winner was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? For a substantial subset of avant-garde science fiction fandom, Akira was a harbinger of a radical new sub-genre. For an audience that luxuriated in the “Japanesquerie” of the cyberpunk movement, the arrival of science fiction from Japan itself had a markedly alien frisson.

One of the unsung heroes in bringing Akira to the West was the curator and producer Carl Macek, who persuaded the Japanese to hand over all their art materials. An entire shipping container of cels and backgrounds, regarded by the film-makers as industrial waste, was sent to America, where Macek turned it into an asset. He framed iconic moments to sell as art, and headed off video pirates by offering a free piece of the original film to anyone who bought a legitimate copy.

As the film approaches its 30th anniversary, and indeed, the year in which both it and Blade Runner were set, it has become a standard bearer for Japanese animation. It may be difficult to remember in an age where Hayao Miyazaki dominates so much of the discourse of animation, but there was a time when Akira was the benchmark for everything that made anime cool. 28 years after its premiere, shined up for Blu-ray, it’s still pretty damn good-looking.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Akira is released on Blu-ray by Manga Entertainment/Animatsu. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #15, 2016.