The Shadow Line

It was a good day at Central Park Media. After several months of sneaking around and clandestine meetings, they sent in the heavies. A bunch of New York policemen and a lawyer from CPM kicked in the door of a warehouse to find thousands upon thousands of VHS tapes, stacked from floor to ceiling. Many were CPM anime products. All were pirated.

Quite by accident, I was talking to one of CPM’s staff back in 1999 when the news broke, which meant I got to hear the euphoria and excitement close at hand. Jeff the marketing guy confided to me that this was by no means the first time they had uncovered such a duplication ring. They just hadn’t told anyone. Following negative publicity in the late twentieth century, when any anime industry initiative to crack down on criminals was met with internet bleating and self-entitled trolling, the US anime business had, ironically, begun to conduct its piracy enforcement below the radar. The seizure of thousands of dollars’ worth of counterfeit tapes was a matter of private celebration, but it was not widely reported.

Piracy, as Ramon Lobato notes in his book Shadow Economies of Cinema, is as old as cinema itself, with Georges Melies’ Voyage to the Moon (1902) widely ripped off all over the world. But nobody has devoted quite the attention or academic rigour to piracy as Lobato. Lobato doesn’t merely rehash tired arguments of ownership and access, industry’s speculative (and to him “dubious”) logic of loss or fandom’s recurring doctrine of lapse; he provides hard data and persuasive models about those areas of the film world that are usually ignored. His interest is not merely in illegal activities in the film business, but in completely legal elements that rarely get any attention. He notes that 59% of the American film market alone is “straight-to-video”, arguing that while much of this material might be crap, it’s still relevant, and forms the “invisible bulk” of the global industry. As they might say on the street – traditional film distribution is the 1%, but that leaves 99% of other stuff, that doesn’t get the newspaper coverage or the academic examination. It doesn’t qualify for the Oscars and it doesn’t get reviewed in Sight & Sound. But its fans love it just the same. Or at least endure it.

In fact, as Lobato argues, “informal” networks (legal and illegal) can offer distribution of films and subjects outside the mainstream – for ethnic minorities otherwise unserved, for interests not quite mainstream enough, and… well, anime. Bleach and Naruto are heavy hitters in modern UK anime, but neither of them is actually on British television. The hundreds of thousands of discs they have shifted have been largely “invisible” to the TV-watchers of Britain, even though both were “television serials” in their native Japan. If you’re a British fan of these shows, you are watching another culture’s television below your own culture’s radar. You’re part of what Lobato calls “informal distribution.”

Statistics, of course, can be misleading. If we take just two films from the US market, we can soon see why. Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira did very nicely for itself on American cinema screens, generating a million dollars for Streamline Pictures. But Pixar’s Toy Story did a million dollars’ business every week, for six months. Lobato’s argument that something like Akira is just as important as Toy Story will be welcome news to anime fans, although straightforward financial statistics tell us that Akira’s footprint in the marketplace is nowhere as big as Toy Story’s. But sometimes that doesn’t matter. Of the cinema-goers who loved Akira. 100,000 of them came back and bought it on tape. And Carl Macek, who claimed that Akira was once one of the most pirated tapes ever, fought back against the thieves with added value, giving away a free cel with every purchase. Ironically, the cels had been earmarked for disposal by Akira’s production company – regarded as industrial waste in Japan, they were bonus assets in the American market.

Sometimes, the formal networks still have the big bucks, although not always, as the shadowy returns from pornography seem to suggest. Film scholars like to write about the legitimate institutions, at least in part because some of them, at least, can provide actual data. Pirates don’t pay tax or publish their sales figures, and legitimate media companies are not above massaging the figures, bigging up their sales to journalists and underplaying them to the taxman. All of which makes Lobato’s book a deeply helpful account of how the shadow economy of film actually works.

Lobato notes that the phenomenon we call “piracy” has many different flavours, and investigates the implications of them all: piracy as free enterprise, as theft, as authorship, as free speech, as resistance, and as access. All of these modes have come up over the last twenty years in discussion of anime, used as justifications by criminals and consumers alike. In the case of Central Park Media’s take-down, this wasn’t a couple of students with linked video recorders. The pirates they busted were a massive industrial operation that also extended to a shadow-line of distribution. Men hawking bogus wares would drive to remote service stations and video stores, representing themselves as the legal salesmen for a number of video companies. The mom-and-pop store owners would take them at their word and buy tapes to rent out locally, unaware that they were actually buying stolen goods. Criminal money was efficiently laundered in these hand-shake deals, with the store owners assuming that the tapes they were selling were entirely legitimate.

And so, when an ex-girlfriend gleefully reported that she found one of my anime translations on sale in Botswana, my first thought was not a happy one. Did they even speak English in Botswana? (Apparently, they did) Or was my name still visible on the box because a video pirate had copied the cover without understanding its meaning? Piracy is big business, but it’s only part of Lobato’s shadow economy, which also incorporates discussions of torrenting, downloads, cam copies, video hosting and cyberlockers. And jackrabbiting, which is apparently the term for what those travelling salesmen were doing – passing off illegal access as legal access, a practice that has also been prevalent in cinema since its earliest days. Back in olden times, it ran to outlying cinema owners putting on screenings of films without telling the distributors, and thereby relieving them of their legitimate cut.

During the Gulf War, two UK anime companies made a habit of sending free tapes out to army bases – Kiseki had ex-military men on staff who wanted to do their mates a favour; Manga Entertainment just wanted to do something for the troops. It tells you something about how good-intentioned this was that neither company ever tried to make marketing capital out of it. They just did it; once again, behind the scenes, below the radar, not part of the ongoing public conversation with fans. I have no idea what all the paratroopers and snipers made of Ghost in the Shell. The mind boggles. Anyway, inevitably, some of these cassettes ended up in the wrong hands, and contributed to a thriving piracy business in the Middle East. A couple of years later, a baffled producer from Manga Entertainment showed me the weirdest fan letter he’d ever seen, from a viewer in Iran asking where he could buy legitimate tapes, as the quality of the pirate videos he’d been watching was awful. It’s anecdotes like these that the industry largely avoids mentioning, because rhetorically, it suggests that a preview medium, even an illegal one, can help establish legitimate sales. However, current research suggests there is only a fractional, barely relevant increase in likely sales from free previews versus an unknown quantity of lost sales through theft, which means “free” media has to find some other means of getting its income — from toy tie-ins, or collector’s editions, or…. something. The flipside, of course, is that if consumers stop being consumers altogether, and just leech, it makes a product impossible to manufacture at a profit. As the late Noboru Ishiguro once noted, if absolutely nobody (fans, TV stations, video stores, whoever) will pay for anime, anime companies won’t make it any more.

Lobato places piracy as just part of “informal film distribution”, a model of the film world that cheekily and productively turns everything on its head. What if, Lobato asks, “traditional” cinema is the exception, and most of the film business might be said to operate in rental stores and on laptops? Not merely here, but in Mexican slums and Nigerian souks? Lobato argues that traditional institutions of film, such as cinema theatres and film studios are accorded a form of “epistemological authority”, but that there is no reason not to treat “informal” distribution networks with the same importance. After all, as one wag put it, if you’re going straight-to-video, you’re either on the way up or on the way down. That obscure 1980s “straight-to-video” cartoon, Warriors of the Wind, was a legal release, yet is treated like toxic waste by its director, who fashioned it as a bespoke, theatrical feature, only to see the informal economy turn it into bargain-bin junk. Then again, that director, Hayao Miyazaki, would eventually win an Oscar, so might arguably be said to have had the last laugh.

In a recent interview with Colony Drop, I said that Studio Ghibli’s absence from English video distribution for much of the 1990s might have been a blessing in disguise. Miyazaki was so incensed by the butchering of Nausicaa into Warriors of the Wind, that he made it impossible for anyone but a real film studio to afford the rights to his subsequent movies. As a result, his later films were arguably spared similar desultory treatment, and not permitted to wither and die in the hands of the “wrong” distributor. But that’s the kind of backwards reasoning that Lobato encourages. Can there be advantages to informal distribution, even if, as in the case of Miyazaki’s (entirely justifiable) decade-long strop, they are structuring absences that are only valuable in hindsight?

Lobato’s book doesn’t mention anime all that much, but so much of what he has to say is directly relevant to countless fights and spats at conventions, in podcasts and online, between anime fans and the industry that wants their money. Lobato challenges people who write about film to think about films as objects of distribution, not merely as texts to be appreciated. In doing so, he opens up all sorts of cans of worms about the way that films get made. And he tells some fantastic stories; such as the tale of Spike Lee, who decided to take enforcement into his own hands after the release of Malcolm X, by wandering the streets of Harlem with a baseball bat, looking for pirate vendors.

Shadow Economies of Cinema is a fascinating book that will help place anime in its historical context, not only as part of a medium hidden in the shadows of the mainstream, but also as the innocent victim of a “black and grey” economy run by spivs, shysters and thieves. I don’t agree with everything Lobato says, but possibly he doesn’t either — he is honourably careful to present both sides of every story, however unpalatable. He makes some very good cases about copyright enclosures and the fact that there can be such a thing as “too much” formality, literally making it impossible for consumers to legally buy the products they want. It’s a fascinating distribution- and exhibition-led study of modern media, with much relevance to the anime world.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article originally appeared on the Manga Entertainment blog in March 2012, and is reprinted here after that site’s disappearance.

Raccoon City

There will, I am sure, be no change at all at NEO magazine, as the lunatics are already in charge of the asylum. But for much of the rest of the British press, the onset of summer sees the beginning of “silly season.” The media slows down, even more than it has in pandemic times. There are less product launches, less premieres, less new books. Half of the world goes on holiday, and the people covering for them might let a few things through that might not otherwise

All of which goes to say that the media might get even weirder for the next month, and you’ll have to do a double-take at some of the stranger sounding stories that make it past sub-editors. But June’s Guardian piece on the imminent danger prevented by “racoon-dogs” was not part of silly season at all, but another dire addition to our annus horribilis.

Native to China, Siberia and Japan, and better known to any anime fan as tanuki, the raccoon-dog is “an exotic member of the fox family,” and notoriously skillful at escaping from cages. Introduced to Soviet-era fur farms in eastern Europe, the species has been inexorably working its way across the continent, and constitute one of the most potentially dangerous “invasive non-native species.”

Now, zoologists are clutching their pearls in horror because one was caught in the wild in Wales last year. Another was seen near Lincoln, and another was reportedly stolen from an illegal back-garden cage in Oldham. The Mammal Society (of whom, I confess, I have not heard until today) is warning members of the British public to stay vigilant, because raccoon-dogs will eat anything, breed like, well, like raccoon-dogs, and pose a clear and present danger to voles, frogs, other small mammals and ground-nesting birds. Oh, and they are also riddled with a number of diseases that can be passed on to humans. Because the last year hasn’t been surreal enough already. Isao Takahata has passed away, so he’s not around to defend the loveable trickster tanuki made famous by his Ghibli feature Pom Poko. There was not a word in the Guardian of their shape-shifting powers, their ancient wisdom or their entertainingly magical testicles. They are, it turns out, bad news, as unwelcome as Japanese knotweed and murder-hornets, and not the least bit like the fun-loving furries depicted in the anime classic. Maybe it’s time to watch Pom Poko just once more, before the real world ruins the fantasy.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #210, 2021.

Sonny Chiba (1939-2021)

“In search of muscular realism, animators on Toei’s Arabian Nights’ Sindbad the Sailor brought Chiba in to generate footage of the actor running, jumping, fighting and rolling. The film was them rotoscoped to create some of Sindbad’s action scenes, although the role of Sindbad in the anime was credited only to his voice actor, Hideo Kinoshita.”

Pretty sure my obituary of Sonny Chiba over at All the Anime has a number of things in it you won’t see anywhere else, including his secret anime role and his pirate musical.

Masami Suda (1943-2021)

“When I try to develop a character, the first thing I think about is the pose, how I’m going to represent it and how to get the most out of the character, it’s from this line that I start creating it.” Such a comment rather downplayed his own undeniable talent in animating his characters, too, but helps explain how he could be the figure behind so many icons whose physicality and character can be revealed in a single image.

Over at All the Anime, I write an obituary for the anime artist Masami Suda.

Schoolgirls, Money and Rebellion

I once sent a BBC researcher away with a flea in her ear, after she asked me if I’d like to appear on a documentary about SEX. Oh yes, she said, it’s all going to be very exciting. We’re going to talk about all those schoolgirls in Japan who’ll bang old men for money. Do you know anything about them?

No, I replied. Although I’m pretty sure that there are “schoolgirls” in Manchester who’ll bang old men for money as well, and I’m guessing that’s nowhere near as photogenic or titillating for you.

She wasn’t very happy to hear that, although I suggested that if she really wanted to find out all about schoolgirl prostitutes, she should give Sharon Kinsella a call, as she loved talking about them. That may have been the unkindest cut of all, as I’m sure if the Beeb did call Dr Kinsella, she would have given them a tongue-lashing that made mine look like a fireside chat with tea and cake.

It’s a truism widely acknowledged in the anime world that so many Japanese cartoons are obsessed with fantasy figures of fifteen-year-old schoolgirls because they are aimed at audience of desperate teenage boys. But Sharon Kinsella’s book, Schoolgirls, Money and Rebellion in Japan, points to a wider media malaise, rising to fever pitch during the 1990s, based on a fervid, prurient obsession on the part of newspapers and TV programmes, determined to uncover a nest of vice and corruption that, frankly, wasn’t there. Drawing on the media research of Stuart Hall, Kinsella points to hidden subtexts of patriarchy, ownership and control. “Our” women are being corrupted. What can “we” do about it? And can we watch…? How much do they charge…?

Drawing on articles, TV coverage, novels and films, but also a timeline of changes in law and demographics, Kinsella talks us through the rise and fall of the enjo kosai (“Compensated Dating”) furore, and sets it within the ongoing narrative of the media’s obsession with teenage girls, as models, muses and commodities.

Kinsella pokes around in the archives to work out just who was quoting whom in the original scare-mongering articles, and soon discovers that absolutely nobody had any firm data to go on. Foreign newspapers quoted posh-sounding statistics, themselves harvested from “academic” articles that, on closer examination, she finds to be grounded in a few vox-pop surveys conducted by gutter-press journalists in Shibuya. This is a little like standing in front of a row of drunken Black Sabbath fans at an Ozzy Osbourne concert and asking if anyone likes eating bats. The answer you receive will more reflect peer pressure and jollity than actual truth. And nobody in their right mind would expect a foreign newspaper to extrapolate such a response into a commentary on bat-eating habits in Birmingham. And yet, it seems, this is what happened with compensated dating.

Kinsella breaks the politics of such interviews right down to their bare bones, and paints a picture of bolshie, amped-up soubrettes, bragging that they’ll do anything for 50p and a bunch of grapes, as long as they are talking to dorky researchers who look shockable. No-nonsense female researchers got immensely more sensible and demure replies, and handsome male researchers got hardly any replies at all, because their interviewees were suddenly bashful and giggly. Meanwhile, an entire slew of schoolgirls, wandering through the middle of Tokyo, had never even heard about prostitution until a bunch of journalists rounded them up and asked them if they’d ever consider trying it.

Kinsella smartly relates all this to earlier media panics, such as the British obsession with Mods in the 1960s, which similarly saw a prominent thoroughfare (Piccadilly Circus) jammed with reporters on a Bank Holiday hoping to see something kick off, and eventually outnumbering their interviewees. But she is more interested in precedents for a male-run, male-focussed media getting worked up about the activities (or alleged activities) of women, such as Japan’s 1920s media kerfuffle over the scandalously short-skirted, bob-haired “modern girls” of the flapper era. She also offers an entertaining aside about the conniptions of feminists, wringing their hands and entirely unsure whether they should be tutting with the men or cheering from the sidelines about females who take control of their own fate.

A common criticism of modern, Foucauldian discourse is that it chases its own tail for so long that it forgets about the issue at hand. But this is one of Kinsella’s points, that the entire media “issue” of Japanese schoolgirl prostitutes was built on phantom foundations, and amounted to a man in the pub fulminating to the Japanese equivalent of the Daily Mail that girls today were a bunch of slappers, dressed like hookers, and would probably sit on his lap for a fiver. Three or four repetitions of the story, and some random chats with passing teenagers, and suddenly respectable foreign newspapers like the Guardian are reporting schoolgirl prostitutes as an empirical reality, despite no actual evidence. Kinsella doesn’t say that there is no such thing as a teenage prostitute in Japan, but she challenges anyone who wants to talk about them to actually stump up some meaningful data.

I’ve got nothing. In twenty years dealing with Japan and the Japanese, the only time I have ever knowingly encountered a prostitute was at a London convention in the late nineties, when a large Welsh woman in a micro-skirt landed on top of some producers from Pioneer in the hotel bar, was mistaken for an Armitage III cosplayer, and plied with drinks until she revealed her true colours and scared them all away. And there are anecdotes, of course, most memorably the encounter recorded in Donald Richie’s memoirs, when he runs into two schoolgirls who offer to fellate him for “pocket money.” Barking up the wrong tree, there, dears.

Kinsella notes that for certain listless teens lurking around Tokyo, the easiest source of income was not “pocket money” from sugar-daddies and aging film critics, but appearance fees and consultation bonuses from over-eager journalists, who inadvertently created a new class of “professional schoolgirls,” who would show up at teen magazines armed with stories of scandal. If their lives were disappointingly secure and middle-class, they’d simply make something up.

True to her title, Kinsella also follows the money, coming up with some interesting statistics about the way that the girl-focused industry rakes in its cash. She supplies, for example, the magic sales figure, above which a manga magazine is regarded as “popular” enough to be stocked in convenience stores (25,000), as well as the real reason that Sega made so much money out of photo booths (they’re also the sole supplier for the printing paper, and hence have operators over a barrel).

As part of an industry that glamorises and fetishes young girls, anime is, of course, part of this. Kinsella’s grasp of the medium is second-hand and wonky – she confuses Wicked City with Twin Dolls, and at one point appears to be suggesting that San in Princess Mononoke wears half a school uniform – but hits the crucial points where relevant. She alludes to the brothel subtext in Spirited Away – once a controversial assertion, now widely accepted – and to the psychosocial moratorium of modern otaku, drawing on her own earlier research into infantilism in Japanese media. Which is to say that nobody is all that surprised if a fifteen-year-old boy thinks that a fifteen-year-old girl is the most exciting thing in the world; it’s just a bit creepy if a thirty-year-old man agrees.

Unlike the hack journalism it uncovers, Schoolgirls, Money and Rebellion is richly referenced and meticulously cited, and will form a strong, robust foundation for further research into Japanese media, gender and issues of race. Race? Oh yes, for Kinsella’s closing chapters outline the various ways in which Japanese teenage girls respond to their characterisation in the media, including the grotesque blackface make-up that came into vogue at the turn of the century. It is, to be sure, no weirder than the young ladies of my native Essex painting themselves so orange that they look like they have been rolled in Wotsits. But it has become iconic of modern Japanese youth, and that’s what Kinsella has always pursued and analysed, to our great edification.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article originally appeared on the now-defunct Manga Entertainment website in March 2014.

The Likely Ladd

Like its title, Astro Boy and Anime Come to the Americas: An Insider’s View of a Pop Culture Phenomenon is a game of two halves. The first is a riveting first-hand account of life in the broadcast media by the producer who stumbled from radio into television just in time to be part of the scramble for syndicated content in the 1960s. Fred Ladd (1927-2021) was a man with many irons in the fire, hacking together Eastern bloc hokum to make throwaway six-minute sci-fi serials, tinting monochrome movies to meet the demands of the gaping maw of colour television, and repurposing old wildlife documentaries to make cheapo jungle stories. He also carefully rewrote and cut up a black-and-white cartoon show from Japan, inadvertently becoming one of the pioneers of the modern anime business. This book is the closest thing we will get to his autobiography, and presents a gripping account of forgotten technologies and faded films.

More than aware of the cheap nature of the visuals, Ladd deliberately pepped up the soundscape on Astro Boy with traffic noises and offstage business in order to create a busier illusion of action – I don’t doubt this claim for a moment, but note that Astro Boy’s creator, Osamu Tezuka, said that he did similar things at the Japanese end: was this something that Tezuka learned from Ladd, like the idea to have lyrics to the Astro Boy theme? With a budget of $1800 per episode for dubbing, Ladd hothoused his staff until they could do an episode a day, running two projectors in tandem in order to scrape vital minutes when film would otherwise be loaded by union jobsworths while the actors wait. Ladd also saw Tokyo and Seoul for himself, delivering invaluable slice-of-life accounts of the Asian animation industry at home.

This was the age when foreign cartoons were so much ballast – often literally, since they were bartered in lieu of hard currency, which some foreign countries were unable to export, in return for American TV programming. We get Ladd’s first-hand perspectives of the birth of Gigantor, Battle of the Planets, Kimba the White Lion, and Marine Boy, each arriving in a chaotic whirl of meetings and negotiations, compromises and disasters, skulduggery and gazumping. Although modern anime fans might reel in horror at Ladd’s attitude towards the original Japanese, he was still a master of his craft, and a loving shepherd of these shows into their English-language forms. Like Carl Macek in the generation that followed, his invasive rewrites are what made the broadcast of the English versions even possible in the first place. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ladd’s face-to-face crisis meeting with Osamu Tezuka himself, where he talks Astro Boy’s creator through the changes that have to be made in dubbing and editing in order to get around the American censor. Here we hear not only of the notorious unbroadcast episodes, but of several others that would have been banned without Ladd’s careful attention.

It’s fascinating to see Astro Boy’s story told from the American end of production, particularly in the form of US issues over censorship and technology, which would end up steering Tezuka’s production thousands of miles away. Ladd is a witty and lucid memorialist of anime’s first steps into foreign broadcast media, aided by his amanuensis Harvey Deneroff, who pops up occasionally to offer crucial notes on context. It’s Deneroff, one presumes, that we have to thank for many of the incisive asides that correct common fallacies about the international animation business, including the vital semantic distinction between Astro Boy’s widely reported sale to NBC, and its actual sale to the very different entity NBC Enterprises. Sometimes, however, one gets the feeling that genuine recollections have been spruced up with unwelcome trivia from doubtful sources. Someone, for example, has added the notion that Nippon Sunrise sprang up in the 1960s amid the first flush of Astro Boy’s success, which Ladd cannot possibly remember, since Sunrise wasn’t founded until 1972, after the collapse of Tezuka’s studio. Similarly, entertainingly lively accounts of certain events come with problematic dates – why does Ladd claim to be sorting out the first 12 episodes of Astro Boy in Japan in mid-1964, when they had surely already been broadcast in America almost a year earlier? And although there is much information in this book that will surprise readers even in Japan, the authors’ linguistic knowledge is wanting – throughout the text, they consistently fail to spell Astro Boy’s Japanese title correctly.

The book is published by McFarland & Company – an outfit with academic aspirations that even extend to the paperback cover price. But Ladd’s reminiscences are so essential to understanding the 1960s anime business, it is well worth it for those alone. Unfortunately, Ladd’s contribution appears to comprise a novella-length 100 pages, and Deneroff’s additions, while genuinely useful as a focus for Ladd’s early testimony, also bulk it out with pointless padding for the latter half of the book, seemingly salvaged from a bunch of old articles. Far from presenting an “insider’s view of a pop culture phenomenon”, the back-end is more like a baffled description from the sidelines, reeling off names and brief synopses of dozens of newer shows simply, it seems, because they are there. Present-day errors reach far greater proportions: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is inexplicably included in a run-down of Korean films, and the outrageous claim is made that animation in Japan was “virtually dormant for almost half a century” after 1918. But this should not detract from the undeniable value of Ladd’s horse’s-mouth reminiscences, or Deneroff’s efforts in guiding them into print: an irreplaceable narrative of anime in the 1960s.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article originally appeared on the now-defunct Manga Entertainment website in November 2011, and is reprinted here following the news of Ladd’s death, aged 94.

Sleeping with Tezuka

Ryosuke Takahashi, in his own words.

“Osamu Tezuka was… well, ninety-nine percent of the time he was a nice guy. At Mushi Production he’d say to us: ‘You’re creatives! Go and create, draw your hearts’ desire.’ So we’d draw whatever we wanted and we’d be nearly finished, and then he’d say: ‘No! Do it again!

“We worked so hard. There would be times when we wouldn’t even go home. But we all had footrests under our desks, and you could put your coat on it and use it as a pillow. There was one time when I crawled under my table, just to get a little nap. I opened my eyes, and saw that Tezuka was sleeping under the next desk.

“Tezuka was the life and soul of Mushi. Mushi without Tezuka was like North Korea without Kim Jong-il. It fell apart.

“I wasn’t there, though, not then. I’d fallen in with Juro Kara, a playwright who’d briefly worked at Mushi Production as a scriptwriter. But whenever Tezuka asked him to change something, he would just glare back at him, and after a while, I think Tezuka was scared of him.

“Anyway, Kara and his wife were also avant-garde theatre performers, and they would be onstage with a bunch of dancers, painted gold. After the show, they would all jump in the bath together and scrub each other down naked, to get all the paint off. I realised that if I joined the troupe, I would have to jump in the bath with all the actresses. So I volunteered for that and ended up on a European tour, although nothing came of it. By the time I got back to Japan, Mushi Production had collapsed.

“But it wasn’t long before other companies started up using people from the old studios. Most of the managers at the newly established Sunrise had been lower down the pecking order at Mushi. This meant they could learn from their former bosses’ mistakes.

“The Sunrise studio was founded by people who had been middle managers at Mushi, who’d seen what went wrong. At Mushi Production, the animators were on a salary; in a sense, it didn’t matter if they worked or not and many abused that system. A lot of them had no sense of loyalty; they’d be freelancing for Toei under the desks, and at Toei, they’d be freelancing for Mushi! At Sunrise, everyone got paid for what they did.

“You ask me what the difference was between Mushi and Sunrise. Largely, it was that Tezuka wasn’t there. He had a real faith in artists and animators. The trouble with artists and animators, is that they often don’t like to work! Artists weren’t salaried at Sunrise. They had to produce work in order to get paid, and that made a big difference. All the companies in the 1970s were set up, to some extent, in reaction to the failure of Mushi, but it was only Sunrise that perfected it.

“Toy tie-ins were important to them. They had Yoshiyuki Tomino working on Gundam. If Tomino is a star, then I’m… well, I guess I’m just a street lamp! They said to me: ‘Gundam has done well for us; we want something like Gundam, but different. We don’t much care what it’s about, just make sure there are robots in it!’

Gundam had robots fighting, but they were in space. They didn’t really have to touch the ground. My earlier Fang of the Sun Dougram had robots fighting on the ground, but they were big, stompy, slow machines. For Armored Trooper Votoms, I wanted something faster. I made them smaller. I put skates on their feet. That wasn’t about budget; that was so they could really zip around. Then one of my animators suggested that we could get them to slalom, like they were skiing… and we were off!

“Of course, toys became even more important. In the 1990s, a lot of the founders of Sunrise were approaching retirement. In order to protect their staff, they sold their interests in the company to one of their clients: Bandai. It kept everyone out of trouble.

“The ‘Japanese’ animation business today sustains maybe seven thousand employees in Japan, but maybe another fourteen thousand outside it, in Vietnam, Taiwan, China and other places. I teach three days a week, at the Osaka University of Arts. I teach the students how to make entertainment animation. By which I mean commercial stuff. Not art-house cartoons, but animation that they can actually make a living on: anime that can actually help them survive! I don’t have time to write a book. I am sixty-eight years old and professors retire at seventy. Maybe then I’ll write down my experiences in the industry. Maybe…

“I’ve got a place in the countryside. It’s a little house out in the middle of nature. What do I do there? Absolutely nothing! Drink a little whisky, walk around dressed like a British gentleman… Play golf. I look out in the garden, and I think it could do with a little statuette of a nature spirit. A Moomin or something like that. Yes, I worked on The Moomins, too.

“Why did I do it? I did it to survive!”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article originally appeared on the now-defunct Manga Entertainment website in January 2012, and was based on Takahashi’s onstage interview at Scotland Loves Anime 2011.

30 Years of Celsys

This year sees the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most influential companies in the history of Japanese animation. Despite being a fundamental part of modern Japanese media, the name Celsys is largely unspoken among anime fans, unless those anime fans happen to be historians or professional animators.

Celsys was founded in May 1991 to make the digital animation software package that would come to be known as RETAS Pro. Within a year, timid animators working on a Fist of the North Star game at Toei would try out this “Revolutionary Engineering Total Animation System,” a basket of programs including Stylos, for creating digital “pencil” images, Traceman for in-betweening, Paintman for colouring and Core RETAS for integrating all the other elements. The Windows version also added Movie Edit Pro, which allowed for the addition of limited special effects.

RETAS was released at a watershed moment in the history of computing, as the falling costs of hardware made mass adoption of software a possibility. By 1997, Toei had begun phasing out its analogue animation units – Dr Slump and Spooky Kitaro, despite continuing to look like analogue animation, were soon created solely inside computers. As the Pokémon boom led to a surge in animation contracts, overseas studios were increasingly able to integrate their work down a phoneline, and multimedia operations were thrilled at the chance to have all their assets digitised from the outset.

Celsys’ own publicity has boasted that up to 90% of all modern anime “use RETAS Pro” in their production, although I suspect what that means is that they use RETAS Pro in part of their production. Some companies may work solely in RETAS, but others still just use it for Paintman these days. Regardless, the Celsys name is something you will find associated with vast numbers of modern anime, and as the price of the software dropped during the noughties from £4,000 to £240, suddenly the world was full of have-a-go-heroes like Makoto Shinkai, who’d worked out that you didn’t need a studio of 200 people anymore, you just needed a big desktop machine and lots of time. In 2013, even Sazae-san, the last anime to be made in the old-fashioned way, gave up and became an all-digital operation.

Celsys went on to be similarly ubiquitous in the worlds of e-book readers (CLIP STUDIO READER) and digital manga production (Manga Studio). In other words, their engine is chugging away behind almost all the electronic, streaming or downloadable light novels, cartoons and comics consumed in modern Japan. Happy birthday to them.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #209, 2021.

The Deer King

Mittsual, or Black Wolf Fever, is a deadly affliction passed on by canines. In Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji’s anime feature, it is presented as something that is both magical and physical, a rising storm of black vapours that cloaks an onrush of rabid dogs. For two generations, it has broken out in repeated waves, leading to swift but largely palliative advances in medical knowledge among Zolian doctors. We see them at work, masked up and socially distanced, among the mass funeral pyres of a salt mine, where a mittsual outbreak has killed workers and guards alike.

“Entirely? No, not entirely. Someone has made it out alive, and in an impressive series of deductions like something out of Black Death CSI, Sae the tracker works out that it was a prisoner, who broke out of his cell and somehow clambered to freedom, despite suffering from an animal bite. A man is on the run, and if he is asymptomatic, his blood might form the basis for the long-hoped-for mittsual vaccine… all they have to do is find him.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up The Deer King, which has its UK premiere in Edinburgh this month.


“Aiyar is a professional outsider, adept at dropping into an entirely alien culture, and ready to grab hold of it with both hands. She is not some listless plus-one, wearing out a groove between Starbucks and the diplomatic compound, she is an accomplished flaneur and enthusiastic student, flinging herself into cultural pursuits and research.”

Over at All the Anime, I reveal Pallavi Aiyar’s just-published Orienting: An Indian in Japan.