Pirating the Straw Hat Pirates

To Ghent, Belgium where conceptual artist and provocateur Ilan Manouach has thrown the cat among the pigeons with a new artwork that reprints 21,450 pages of Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece manga as a single, unreadable book in a slipcase, with the word “D’oh!” prominent in Japanese on its end.

“Online participatory culture and the medium’s new networked possibilities have intensified the nature of comics beyond the scope of professional, established expertise with new and disruptive forms of entrepreneurial fan culture,” writes Manouach on his website. “Readers now actively scan, translate and distribute online their favourite manga series. ONEPIECE is a product of this expanded digital production belt.”

I think what he means to say is that his artwork has been made in reference to the glorious world of scanlation, but if that’s his intention, he is walking right into a copyright minefield. Japanese publishers are unsurprisingly unsupportive of scanlations, since they amount to copyright theft. Nor can Manouach trot out the facetious old saw about “exposure”, because the worldwide bestseller One Piece does not require his help in finding readers.

In a thorny legal area, he implies that his artwork is safe because it is unreadable, and therefore not infringing anyone’s copyright. Except nothing has stopped manga publishers selling “unreadable” books before (don’t get me started…!), and Manouach is offering copies of his supposedly unreadable book for €1900 a throw, in a very limited print run of 50.

“The product you mentioned is not official,” said Keita Murano of the rights department at Shueisha, One Piece‘s publisher. “We don’t give permission to them.” Or in other words, if Manouach expects to coin in €95,000 from selling an unlicensed edition of One Piece, unreadable or not, Shueisha is going to come down on him like a manga hammer.

As a work of art, ONEPIECE is fantastically thought-provoking – a material evocation of what it means today for a single “story” to run on into multiple volumes, which either clutter up one’s bookshelves or sit, unnoticed on e-readers. Manouach, who recently earned a PhD in comics epistemology from Aalto University in Finland, adds it to a list of similar intellectual stunts, including his Topovoros books, which are designed, printed, bound and distributed exclusively within a single district of Athens, and Tintin akei Congo, an edition of Tintin in the Congo translated with anti-colonial verve into the Congolese language. You have not heard the last from him, I guarantee it, but he has not heard the last from Shueisha.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Blue Thermal

“I want animation to be something that enriches the lives of its audience,” he said. “In this work, I wanted to emphasise the value of having a positive attitude even if life throws you into situations you don’t like. Now I’m a grown-up, I can appreciate that some people go to the movies to escape things they don’t like about their lives, so I guess that what I really want is that you come to see this movie, and for a while afterwards, you feel good about yourself.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Masaki Tachibana’s Blue Thermal, the first of the movies in competition at next month’s Scotland Loves Anime.

Staged Data

Last month’s big news might have been about Crunchyroll shutting down free simulcasts, but there are other ructions in the streaming world that have drawn less comment from the anime world. In part, that’s because right now, it doesn’t seem to be anime’s problem.

Amid press speculation about a drop in subscriber numbers, Netflix has suddenly started cutting back on some of its animation projects in development. So, that isn’t like shutting down the live-action Cowboy Bebop after twenty days; that’s choosing not to make a bunch of shows at all, as if someone at Netflix woke up one morning and decided: “Wow, that Meghan Markle cartoon series was a bad idea. What was I thinking!?” So out goes Markle’s Pearl, along with an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Twits, Lauren Faust’s Toil and Trouble, and the actual head of animation development at Netflix, Phil Rynda, fired along with a bunch of his staff, before any of the projects can see the air.

Netflix is feeling the pinch, as its model of presumably infinite expansion starts to hit a wall. People are sharing accounts. People are not signing up by the million any more, because they already have. And that means that the money train risks coming off the tracks unless the channel stops throwing cash at everything and starts focussing on real money-spinners.

Elizabeth Ito, the director of City of Ghosts (pictured), griped that Netflix manipulated its own stats to prove whatever it wanted to, a phenomenon that she called “staged data.” I’ve noted in the past that it’s difficult to work out what Netflix means when they say something oddly worded like “at least one anime watched a year by every household in x territory.” Those are vague comments – one whole series of a Netflix exclusive, for example, is a bit more of a guarantor of blue-chip value then ten minutes of a Miyazaki film that someone didn’t finish. And “household” is a vague thing as well – it would mean that because my son inexplicably likes Moomins, my whole household, including its Moomin-hating Dad, would somehow be tagged as Moomin lovers.

But Ito’s complaint was that Netflix were similarly evasive behind the scenes, carefully labelling pie charts or cutting off graphs in order to tell people like her that their show wasn’t doing as well as they thought it was, and that hence they had to cut corners, even if someone was winning awards.

The irony is, however, that this news tells us one thing we couldn’t be sure of before. Anime really is doing well for Netflix. We know this because, so far, the anime shows on Netflix have been largely untouched by the long knives. For now, at least.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article appeared in NEO #221, 2022.

My Friend’s Sister…

“…even as the characters bumped into each other, stammered their true feelings, walked in on each other on the loo and obsessed about boobs, several of them were ready to pop their heads over the parapet and suggest that this was all nonsense.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Ghost Mikawa’s My Best Friend’s Little Sister Has it In For Me.

Japanese Food in America

“…the fatty parts of tuna, vital for high-class sashimi, were once discarded in the United States as only suitable for cat food, while the ‘bloody-red flesh’ of tuna was ‘considered too strong-tasting and smelly.'”

Over at All the Anime, I review Gil Asakawa’s breezy Tabemasho! Let’s Eat! A Tasty History of Japanese Food in America.

Cannon Fodder

Memories, released in the year of Windows 95, was made on a technological cusp of the expansion of computing power and the rise of digital processes. Some of the techniques included in the final print were literally impossible to achieve three years earlier when the film commenced production, throwing Otomo and his staff into a constant game of catch-up with new developments in processing and materials. In a sense, his celebrity in the anime world forced him into the role of an early adopter, tinkering with new technologies when they were still expensive and untried.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Cannon Fodder” in the Memories anthology.

Stink Bomb

“Revisiting the film in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s surprising how many resonances seem very much of our time. Stink Bomb begins in a doctor’s surgery, as the sniffling Tanaka gets his flu jab, and locals grumble about the virus that’s going around. He walks out into the snowy streets wearing a face mask – an entirely everyday sight in 2022, but something of an Asian peculiarity in 1995. The custom of wearing a medical mask when ill to protect others, was commonplace in Japan, China and South Korea, but had yet to spread around the world.”

Over at All the Anime, I cover “Stink Bomb”, the often-overlooked second story in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories anthology movie.

Bullet Train

“The original novel of Bullet Train was itself a distaff sequel to Isaka’s earlier Grasshopper (2004), which has only this year been translated into English as Three Assassins. The fact that the plot relied on incidents and connections in a separate work may have skewed some of its flashbacks in all-new directions, leading to stand-offs in South Africa, South America and Mexico, and further dragging its events away from the original.”

Over at All the Anime, I write about the stories behind the story of Bullet Train.

Heavenly Delusion

“There is an outside world, but they don’t get to see it. In fact, as one of their minders reveals, the outside world is awful. The outside world is hell. And if the kids know what’s good for them, they should stop wondering about what’s outside… even if some of them seem haunted by apparitions that seem to come from there.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Masakazu Ishiguro’s manga Heavenly Delusion.

The Characters Taught Me Everything

“…this is a book that not only gives the reader a fair impression of the world of voice acting, but also serves of something of a crash-course in being an actor-memorialist. Hayashibara excels at giving back, and her 258-page memoir is unexpectedly suffused with life advice, meditations on her career, and you-had-to-be-there anecdotes about the life of a recording artist.”

Over at All the Anime, I review the memoirs of voice actress Megumi Hayashibara.