J-Pod

Try to control your excitement, for I am on a podcast, talking with Jeremy Graves and Jerome Mazandarani on the pilot edition of Manga UK’s new periodical audio chatfest. They wanted me there for behind-the-scenes gossip, or possibly just because they wanted everyone to have a name that began with “J”.

00:00 Introductions and new releases.

11:52 Discussion on how the disaster in Japan last year affected Manga UK and anime in general. Also Chinese works and Asian music.

37:03 News. Topics include the approaching end of the Bleach anime, new licenses to be announced at Birmingham MCM Expo, details on why the release date for Angel Beats was pushed back and an exclusive announcement.

1:02:27 The Manga UK Community segment. Answering your questions submitted via Facebook and Twitter on a variety of subjects. Not all of them sensible.

You can download it here.

Indian Giving

Mark Schilling’s latest article in Variety discusses some of the issues facing modern anime, including the ever-growing rush to outsource, plummeting demographics and hybrid contents. Yours truly is briefly quoted with a very conservative estimate of the size of the foreign labour pool — Ryosuke Takahashi puts it a lot higher. Schilling suggests that declining numbers of children are responsible for declining numbers of anime, but I do not entirely agree with this, or at least, not with the way that the data is presented here. The peak of production in 2006 was generated by an insanely high investment interest from abroad, which is still playing out today as all the investors sue each other over what went wrong.

Another Manchuria

I have to spend a lot of money on Amazon Japan – sometimes I remember to write down my better discoveries, so that other researchers don’t have to take pot luck with cripplingly expensive postage.

For the last five years or so, I have been eschewing English-language guidebooks and relying on Japanese ones, not only in Japan, but also in parts of China. My favourite are the beautifully comprehensive Rurubu magazine-format tourist guides, that have helped me navigate the wilds of Amakusa and Hokkaido, Shanghai and Taiwan. But sometimes, you need something a little more specialised…

Manchuria Off the Tourist Track, by Keiji Kobayashi is a marvellous idea – a travel guide to Manchuria that highlights the region’s past as a Japanese puppet state. Kobayashi mooches about the modern-day Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin, poking around odd monuments, and old buildings that are leftovers from the days when Manchuria was Japan’s own little exercise in imperialist expansion. This is where Mannerheim led a cavalry charge through the city centre of Mukden, against Japanese gunners, although Kobayashi also has time for the obscurer historical individuals, such as the grave of Verda Majo (1912-1947), the Japanese revolutionary who wrote books in Esperanto arguing for the freedom of China.

Some relics are long gone. The Japanese who remained behind have largely faded into the local population, and three generations of Chinese history have added their own artefacts. Shenyang train station is still there, but the nearby memorial to the fallen of the Russo-Japanese War has now been replaced by one of the ubiquitous statues of Chairman Mao. Kobayashi, ably aided by his photographer Ribun Fukui, chronicles the ghosts of Manchuria’s Japanese past, including the brutalist monuments to Japanese aggression, and carefully preserved sites of Japanese atrocities, some of the skeletons left in piles where they were found.

Manchuria is such a fascinating place, and includes the former capital of the Manchu dynastic founder Nurhachi; the great monumental tower built by General Nogi and Admiral Togo to honour their fallen men; Harbin, a Russian city on Chinese territory. They even dig up the old Man’ei Studios, once the largest film studio in Asia, that cranked out films in Japanese for the local population, now largely forgotten in film archives. Once the “cockpit of Asia”, Manchuria is now far off the tourist trail, but seems like one of the most exciting places for anyone in search of a glimpse of yesterday’s tomorrow. It is a sci-fi future that failed, and all the more interesting for it.

My Book of the Year

And so we come to the Book of the Year round-up. I’m not waiting till the holiday season this time, as I realise that many readers would prefer to hear my thoughts now, just in case it inspires their Christmas shopping. And why not? Buy someone a book for Christmas this year. It’s more fun than socks.

Well, your mileage may vary. Runners-up from my reading this year include the utterly filthy Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Edmund Trelawney Backhouse, rescued from obscurity by Derek Sandhaus in a beautiful hardback edition by Hong Kong’s Earnshaw Books. I was left thoroughly depressed by Paradise Found, an informative account of the American ecology on the eve of the arrival of European colonists. Also, sped to me on the day of its publication, Matthew Sweet’s West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels.

Sweet’s previous books changed the way I wrote history; I have come to love his persistence in tracking down testimonials rather than memoirs, a dogged quest that often seems to find him sipping tea in old people’s home while the spivs, movie stars and spies of yesteryear struggle to recall their glory days. West End Front is a carnival of (largely) ghastly people, often described with Wodehousian glee, and Sweet presents a superb angle on the culture of WW2, from the switchboard operator who overheard of the war’s arrival before the rest of the country, to the huddle of ousted politicians listening on a hotel radio to the news of Japan’s surrender. Kings in exile, hookers on the make, and Marxists in search of a bespoke bomb shelter all rub shoulders in Sweet’s vivid account, some under the mistaken impression that the solidly built hotels of London were “bomb-proof.” I would say more, but Simon Guerrier already has.

For the second year running, my fortnight at Scotland Loves Anime found me raiding the Glasgow Waterstone’s, coming away with the wonderful Lore of Scotland and The Faded Map, a run-down of the various kingdoms once found in Caledonia. The focussed, localised Faded Map has been overshadowed somewhat by Norman Davies’ sprawling Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, which offers potted histories of continental also-rans such as the Byzantine Empire, Aragon, Burgundy and Tolosa. But through no fault of Davies, I was left slightly more satisfied by The Faded Map, partly because it set its sights very small, on Scotland, and hence was able to be far more comprehensive. There is a picky, ungrateful sense of entitlement that comes over the reader of Davies’ larger work, as one starts to wonder about all the vanished realms he’s left out – what about al-Andalus? The Danelaw? The Austro-Hungarian Empire…? His book is popular enough and has made it onto many other best-of lists this winter, so perhaps it will soon gain a companion volume. If it does, may I plead with his publishers to make a better book. For £30, I would prefer one that doesn’t start shedding its pages before I’ve even got halfway in. By the time I finished, it was less of a book than a sheaf of papers.

Lost Colony by Tonio Andrade is an impeccably researched account of the fall of Fort Zeelandia in Taiwan to the “pirate king” Koxinga, a.k.a. Zheng Chenggong, Coxinga, the Knight of the Imperial Surname, etc. Barnacled with grants and fellowships, and aided by four research assistants, Andrade reframes the story of Fort Zeelandia in terms of the popularly-held idea of the inherent superiority of the modern west. He points out that when the Chinese first met with European military might, the Chinese won, and ponders if the victimhood of the 19th century was an anomaly. Entertainingly, Andrade is not above arch comments about the Dutch disaster as it unfolds, and has the odd achievement of including a chart that made me laugh out loud. It’s a list of defectors in each direction between the Dutch and the Chinese, but is set up with such mathematical precision that it allows for the possibility of half a defector. A lower torso, perhaps? For reasons I don’t quite follow, this playfulness also extends to the book’s cover, which shows a picture of Batavia, not Taiwan at all.

When I clicked a copy of Andrade’s book into my shopping basket, Amazon kindly informed me that “people who bought Lost Colony also bought Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty by Jonathan Clements”. This is somewhat ironic, since Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty is entirely unmentioned in Lost Colony, which has the gumption to bill itself as an “untold story.” There’s some half-hearted hand-wringing in Andrade’s acknowledgements about his “scholar’s discomfort” with this claim, but it apparently didn’t bother him enough to actually do anything about it. Which is a shame, because Lost Colony is an excellent book, and now many would-be readers will be confronted its spurious “untold” assertion every time they browse an online bookseller.

It is, one presumes, because academic presses do not wish to dirty themselves with citations from the garish world of commercial publishing, a reluctance which, to some extent, I do understand, particularly if someone has inconveniently told your “untold” story eight years previously – and I, of course, was not even the first. But if you are going to dismiss popular predecessors as beneath your notice, please don’t succumb to the hucksterish allure of misleading, grandstanding titles. Untold, my arse.

Which brings me to my actual book of the year, which I doubt very much you could buy even if you wanted to: China on the Western Front, by Michael Summerskill. Untold? No. Unread? Seemingly. Unloved? Absolutely not. It’s an amazing book about the Chinese Labour Corps, nearly 100,000 men who came from China to dig trenches and unload ships in a Europe starved of manpower during WW1. Eight hundred of them died, mainly from the influenza of 1918, although several dozen died in bombing raids and German attacks. It was published in 1982, and is so obscure that the School of Oriental and African Studies library doesn’t have a copy. It’s a paperback of less than 250 pages, acquired for the princely sum of £85 from a second-hand bookseller who knew exactly how much it was worth to me. I bought it because I’m considering writing a book of my own about WW1 in the Far East, and the fact that 100,000 Chinese put a girdle round the Earth in order to drag corpses from the trenches at Verdun is simply fascinating. Summerskill plainly found his obsession so odd, so unique, that no publisher would touch it. He published it himself, in numbers so tiny that I doubt there are three copies left in Europe. But nevertheless, thanks to the interwebs, I was able to find a copy. And if Summerskill’s family ever want to republish it, they could have it available on the Kindle in days. Has its time come? I hope so.

Instead, the most accessible book on the subject is another product of the modern age, an obscure 1919 account by a white officer in the Chinese Labour Corps, brought back into print by the Imperial War Museum, and maintaining its cheerily racist original title: With the Chinks. It doesn’t hold a candle to Summerskill, but was a fun read. [Time Travel Footnote: John Watson points out that this book came out this year.]

We stand on the verge of a sea-change in publishing. Summerskill’s book, still a great rarity in 2011, might easily be a similar print-on-demand or e-Book commonplace by this time next year, easily rushed to your door or to your tablet. I have two books coming out in 2012, and for what is for me the first time, both will be in dual paper and electronic versions as my publishers wake up to the potential of new media. My reading this year has been skewed more than ever by the technology that delivers it to me. Amazon, in particular, reminds me to put money down on books I forgot I once wanted, or hunt down obscurities that might have eluded me in a bookshop. I have also noticed with increasing regularity, the number of books from academic presses that have clearly been printed on demand, to meet my order and not in anticipation of it. Nothing, however, quite competes with the joy of poking around a real-world Foyle’s or a Waterstone’s, where acres of new worlds are waiting to be discovered, analogue style.

I’m not one of the publishing doomsayers. There is certainly a paradigm shift in the way that books are sold and consumed, but if anything it makes the field more financially rewarding for writers, not less so. I have certainly benefited from both paper and e-sales this year. I suspect that within the decade, the default condition of all books will be electronic, and that old-fashioned people like me who want it on paper can pay to have their digibook made real, much as 18th century bibliophiles popped down to the printer to have their papers bound. But there will be a transitional phase when electronica dominates, and when that comes, you’ll have a lot more trouble putting a ribbon around it and giving it to your dad.

So buy someone a book for Christmas this year. Next year you might have nothing to give but electrons.

Primul împărat al Chinei

My book, The First Emperor of China, is now available in Romanian, which I am sure is a great relief to all of you. It’s been published by Editura All in Bucharest with a nicely understated cover and has already got a glowing review from the film website Filme Carti, which clearly appreciates my appendix on the First Emperor’s screen appearances. Since Editura All also translated my biography of Confucius, I can only hope they are now moving on to Empress Wu.

Party Like It's 1889

Over on his blog, Andy Frankham interviews John Ainsworth and me about our work on the Space 1889 audio dramas. I can’t believe it’s already been six years since they came out.

Doing this reminds me I must write up my discoveries on Japanese steampunk soon. There are some really amazing stories I uncovered while working on the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, including Rhett Butler vs samurai and Byron’s daughter in space.

Get Lost…

Although the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is only partly complete, interested readers can access the working text now at the website. I warn you now, with 3.2 million words up online already, it is a time-wasting machine. I’ve been writing entries on a number of Asian subjects, including a new contender for Japan’s first science fiction anime, a forgotten master of pre-manga art, and an ongoing effort to write entries for everybody who’s won a Seiun Award. Plus entries on all sorts of fun things, from Korean costume dramas to Chinese feminists, the science fiction of Yukio Mishima and the steampunk of Hitoshi Yoshioka. Since the Encyclopedia focusses on authorship, there are entries on the original creators of Sky Crawlers and Akira, 2001 Nights and Star Blazers. There are details of the Japanese variants of Flowers for Algernon and the translation of Neuromancer, Japanese experts on Jack the Ripper and the big names in yaoi.

And how much does this all cost you? Nothing. It’s all free. It won’t be finished for a year or so, but it’s being hosted and paid for by Gollancz as part of their SF Gateway. But I’m warning you: it’s a time hoover. Do not click on any of the above links if you haven’t got an hour or so to spare getting lost in the labyrinth.

Scotland Loves…

Today I’m packing for Scotland Loves Anime, two weekends of Japanese cartoonery held in Glasgow and Edinburgh. This year’s line-up has four, count ’em, four Japanese guests, which means I have my work cut out for me interviewing Yumi Sato (Brains Base) and Shuko Yokoyama (Aniplex) about Hotarubi, and Shunsuke Oiji about Colourful. And the cherry on the cake is the legendary Ryosuke Takahashi (that’s him in the picture), father of “real mecha”, and show-runner on Armoured Trooper Votoms, who will be in Edinburgh to show off his new Pailsen Files, and answering questions after the premiere.

I’ll also be talking to him on Sunday 16th about his long career in the Japanese animation business, beginning with his early days at the famous Mushi Production. I might also bring up his segment of The Cockpit anime, since I translated it 16 years ago.

Scotland Loves Anime is actually part of a broader remit called “Scotland Loves Animation”. This is reflected in the education day on Friday 14th which sees a number of animators, directors and producers from the global animation community talking about their work. Also, the Polish animation house Platiges Images are sending Daniel Nenow to talk about his superb dogfight animation Paths of Hate. And all the while, Jonathan Clements, author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis (that’s me), will be darting about on stage imparting Quite Interesting facts and odd anime trivia. At some point, I think that festival organiser Andrew Partridge is interviewing me… or I am interviewing him. We will probably end up interviewing each other, and as per usual it will turn into a stand-up routine about Bonkers Things the Japanese Studios Have Done This Year.

New Finnish Grammar

One day, I asked my Finnish teacher if it was true that her language had 30 different words for snow. She fixed me with her big, blinky eyes.

“No, you poor deluded fool,” she sighed. “We Finns only have one word for ‘snow’. The trouble is, you English think that everything white that falls out of the sky is ‘snow’.”

Finnish actually has more than thirty words for frozen precipitation in a variety of forms, including a word for “powdery snow that’s melted just a little bit” (nuoska), a “thin bit of snow on top of ice” (iljanne), and even “the grey lumpy stuff that turns up when slush refreezes” (kohva). Finns have a similarly large number of words for “reindeer”, and an oddly precise verbal toolkit for describing cupboards. However, their language doesn’t distinguish between sponges and mushrooms, and a single vowel sound separates the differing semantics of “My shelves are nearly full” from “My madness is soon to end.”

Of course, there is nothing “special” about Finnish. Every language has its little peculiarities, evolved in reaction to particular situations. The Navajo don’t distinguish between pilots, insects or helicopters, while the Chinese have over a dozen shades of red. And Japanese has 1194 ways to say “I love you”, along with a culture that refuses to use any of them. Having studied many languages and mastered none, I always return with joyous appreciation to English because it is such a catastrophic car-crash of Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French and Viking Danish, with grammar rules deriving from several different countries, and a veritable multicultural bar-fight of contending nuances, much of which comes down not only to class, but to what someone’s great-great-great grandfather did for a living.

In his novel New Finnish Grammar, Diego Marani latches upon Finnish as a test subject for the human condition. In 1940s Italy, an expat Finnish doctor finds a patient with amnesia so severe that he cannot even remember how to speak. Finding evidence on the man’s person that he is a Finn, the doctor begins to teach him Finnish from scratch. As Sapir and Whorf once argued with their Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, the language in which one thinks affects the thoughts that one can have. What if this man isn’t Finnish at all? What will this re-programming do to him?

And if he isn’t a Finn called Sampo Karjalainen, who is he? And who will he be when his brain is wired with thirty words for white stuff that falls out of the sky? There are numerous precedents in fiction, most notably the Kaurismäki film Man Without A Past, and many science fiction novels that deal with the power of language to shape thought. But Marani, a professional linguist, latches onto Finland and Finnishness itself for an extended meditation on human nature, patriotism and the soul.

Finnish has vowel harmonies and consonantal mutations like Turkish, and a cavalcade of odd little cases that make it infuriatingly precise. Most languages have basic items like singular and plural, nominative and genitive. Finnish has its own bonkers additions, like the abessive, which is the case you use for things that are nothing to do with you, and the partitive, which is a sort of superglue case to fix all the others.

Marani’s book returns to the age old tug-of-war between nature and nurture. Is Finnish the way it is because of Finland, or are Finns the way they are because of Finnish? He delves into the Kalevala, that crazy national myth of mighty duels over a sci-fi McGuffin, itself was knocked up as an exercise in bootstrap nationalism in the 19th century. He points to the savage rending of Finland into Reds and Whites during the Russian Revolution, an apocalyptic shattering of social cohesion that is still largely unspoken-of today, and yet which, only recently, I have still seen erupt into a bar-room brawl around me.

Talking to a Finnish history teacher this year, I heard the tale of her grandmother’s funeral, to which only a single cousin came. The reason: sixty years ago, grandma married someone of “the wrong colour”. Tellingly, I was not told which colour, Red or White, was wrong. It only mattered that the twain could never meet.

And, of course, there is Mannerheim, that national demigod – a former spy and orientalist, catapulted out of a dead-end military career into a role as the country’s leader in the unwinnable Winter War. Mannerheim, too, was a reluctant student of Finnish, living for most of his life with only a smattering sufficient to deal with the servants. It was only in middle age, called upon to deliver speeches to his public, that he swotted up sufficiently. Extant speeches show his Finnish to be halting and strangely accented – a sign that this hero of “Finnish” nationalism was a native speaker of Swedish, who had spent 30 years in the Russian army.

Marani is a good linguist, with a fine ability to romanticise issues that most people would find dull. He describes the construction of a Finnish sentence with allusions to orbits and trajectories in an imaginary solar system. He delves into the etymology of the simplest words with a verve that conjures wizards in primeval forests and witches chanting spells over swamps. He also writes himself a get-out-of-jail-free card, using his narrator’s student status as an excuse for numerous typographical and grammatical errors – annoyingly, even in a book that sings of the joys of vowel harmony, there are misplaced umlauts and errant letters.

One day, New Finnish Grammar is going to be a great movie. Some worthy agglutination of government funding bodies will knock up a Europudding that shoots in Trieste and Helsinki, starring a great Finnish actor like Mikko Kouki as the amnesiac Sampo. There is just enough plot in Marani’s narrative to sustain a movie, with cutaways to the essence of Finnishness, and fight scenes on the Eastern front against the Russians, perhaps even with magic-realist scenes that illustrate the wonder of Finnish grammar with Marani’s warlocks and witches, paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela come to life, or symbolic representations of what happens when a subject switches from accusative to partitive.

Well, maybe not the last. Three years into my Finnish lessons at the London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, mere weeks away from attaining my Lower Intermediate diploma, my teacher coughed nervously, and told the class to prepare themselves for a Finnish bombshell.

“The thing is,” she said, “Finnish doesn’t really have an accusative case. Don’t panic, we can use the genitive or partitive just fine, but everything I have told you so far about the accusative has been a convenient lie.”

She patted the arm of one of my fellow classmates, who had started to sob.

“Don’t cry,” she said. “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Eating Chinese

There are many apocryphal stories about Chinese food, dating back to the dual fallacy that Marco Polo introduced ice cream and pasta to Europe – he didn’t. According to Lily Cho, the story of Chinese food is also the story of those moments where modernity stumbles, pausing for a moment to glance into a parallel world, not only of alien foodstuffs, but also of the great diaspora of Chinese emigrants. In a cheeky sense, her book Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada presents it as the story of the Chinese discovery of the rest of the world, as coolies on the trans-Canadian railroad set up shop in obscure one-horse towns, serving food at first to their co-workers, and then to locals when the construction work carries on its way.

Amazon has an aggressively negative review of Cho’s book, from a reader who seems to have been expecting a cookbook or a set of breathless anecdotes, and who balks at the level of high-falutin’ big words. But this is a disservice to Cho, whose book is actually far more approachable than the work of many other cultural theorists, offering a witty, perceptive analysis of a distinctly odd corner of Western culture – the seemingly ubiquitous small-town Chinese restaurant. In the process, she offers some illuminating stories about the history of Chinese food abroad, particularly such foreign interpolations as lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork, and chop suey.

Cho is interested in the menus themselves, and what they tell Canadians about their own cuisine. There is, in a sense, no such thing as “Canadian” cuisine, until the day that a Chinese restaurateur added some Western dishes at the end of his menu for those diners who were afraid of “foreign food”. Cho uses the Chinese menu as a window into what was thought to be “Canadian” food over the last century.

Her cover speaks volumes to the oriental linguist. Its image addresses two different audiences, depending on the language they can read. To Anglophone readers, it shows a shabby café with kitsch bamboo lettering proclaiming it to be “Shangri-La”. The restaurant’s name in Chinese is “Peach Garden” – an identity rooted in much deeper, classier classical resonances. This dual identity is repeated throughout the Chinese restaurant world. One of my favourite London eateries, a diner near King’s Cross, has the awful English name Chilli Cool, and the classier Chinese name Lao Chengdu. It is the latter that identifies it for Sinophone customers as an authentic Sichuan restaurant, and not just another dive. I have seen this pattern repeated throughout the world, from Australia to Aberdeen, with twee, middle-brow English names balanced by far more meaningful, resonant titles in the proprietors’ native language. Sometimes, the pun is much cleverer: Bar Shu, in London’s Soho, is both an oriental-sounding establishment, and an evocation of the two ancient names of Sichuan: Ba and Shu. However, even then it has a “secret” Chinese name: Shuiyue Bashan, or “Moon on the Waters and Mountains of Ba.”

There is one odd mis-step, in which Cho dismisses as “urban myths” rumours of restaurants with one menu for Westerners and another for Chinese (p.36). This makes me wonder if her experience is not entirely limited to small-town Canada, as I have regularly asked for, received, and ordered from Chinese-only menus all over the world. In my experience, most restaurants have special menus for the use of Chinese patrons, although they are happy to provide them for anyone else who can read them.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.