Flowers of Edo

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Hokusai was the most famous print artist in 19th century Japan. He drew the iconic Great Wave Off Kanagawa, the Views of Mount Fuji and the Stations of the Tokaido Road. He celebrated the celebrities of the kabuki stage and even kicked off the beginnings of tentacle porn. In 1814, he published the first of a long-running series of “how-to-draw” manuals and art references, known as the Manga (Sketchbooks) and eventually lending their name to comics from Japan. And… he had help.

As Hokusai got older, there are stories that he suffered from palsy and infirmity. There are rumours in the Japanese art world that he was practically unable to hold a brush by his final years, and yet somehow kept churning out masterpieces. Word on the street, but rarely admitted in the auction houses, is that for the last years of his life, much of his work was ghosted by his daughter O-ei.

Keiichi Hara’s Miss Hokusai is not a biopic. There is far too little known about the historical O-ei for that to work, and barely a dozen of her acknowledged art pieces remaining. But this itself has inspired numerous fictional accounts, from Katherine Govier’s novel The Print-Maker’s Daughter to numerous untranslated Japanese novels, and an award-winning manga by Hinako Sugiura. It’s this latter work that is the basis for Hara’s film – the director is the world’s biggest Sugiura fan, and deeply in love with the creator’s unique perspective on life in 19th century Japan.

“I wanted to be fresh,” Hara told me at the UK premiere. “Sugiura wrote about the common people; about the townsfolk, artisans and prostitutes. Japanese media is full of depictions of the Edo period, but Sugiura’s manga told me things I had never seen anywhere else.” And his animated film is packed with incidental detail – the bumping of boats under the Sumida river bridge, the chaos caused by the fires that were poetically known as “the flowers of Edo”, even the sensation of stepping in a samurai-era dog turd.

“Of course, we wanted to use Hokusai’s prints as reference material,” notes Hara. “But 19th century prints were not intentionally realist. They play tricks with perspective and proportions. They aren’t blueprints for evoking the period. Sometimes, you still have to go with your imagination.”

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The same might easily be said of the other anime Edo-period piece recently released, Masayuki Miyaji’s Fuse: Memoirs of the Hunter Girl. Despite being demonstrably more irreverent and playing havoc with fantasy elements, false colours and bawdy backgrounds, Miyaji’s film is just as much a celebration of the same city that would be renamed Tokyo, “East Capital” in 1868. Miyaji’s movie is an Edo of the mind, conceived as a commemoration of the 90th anniversary of a famous Japanese literary magazine, and stumbling joyously through a number of different literary modes. It is a retelling and a re-imagining of The Hakkenden, a samurai serial novel first published in 1814, the same year as Hokusai’s infamous Manga, but the film is actually based on a modern “light novel” by Kazuki Sakuraba – one of the notoriously throwaway potboilers popular with modern commuter kids on their iPhones.

The Yoshiwara pleasure quarter looms large in both movies. In Miss Hokusai, it is a place of shadows, the inspiration for O-ei’s most famous surviving picture. In Fuse it is a vibrant, dingy ghetto, ringed by a sewer but aspiring to be a bawdy Disneyland. The historically faithful Hinako Sugiura would have had conniptions if she saw Miyaji’s centrepiece, an entirely unhistorical clock tower in the shape of a woman’s torso, with a skirt that spins and lifts as the chimes strike the hour. But it is arguably just as evocative of the Yoshiwara as Miss Hokusai’s studious recreation.

Fuse is a faithful retelling of the fantasies of the Edo period, when merchants and samurai sat down to read lurid novels about lycanthropic dog-warriors, wandering swordsmen, and geisha with hearts of gold. Its colours are eye-bogglingly vivid, its characters calculatedly larger than life, sometimes threatening to cotton on that they are ciphers in a story being written by an aging samurai trying to pay the bills. Or are they? There are suggestions in Fuse that the real story is being written by his bespectacled, geeky grand-daughter…

This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #6, 2016. Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of the Samurai.

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A New Wave?

h2_JP1847The idea of rekishi-gyaru (history girls) has come up before in a few Manga Snapshot columns – a supposed market sector of young, educated women who are as nerdy about historical drama as Naruto fans are about ninja. The latest anime from Production I.G seems squarely aimed at them, as well as a whole world of overseas anime lovers and Japanophiles.

9th May sees the Japanese premiere of Miss Hokusai, which charts the life and times of Oei, the artist who laboured tirelessly as an assistant and sometime replacement for her famous father. Hokusai père was the printmaker who created the iconic Great Wave Off Kanagawa as well as the tentacular picture usually known as The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (now gracing Peggy’s office in the final episodes of Mad Men), and the sketchbooks or doodlings that eventually lent their name to the entire medium we now call manga.

Based on an obscure 1980s comic by Hinako Sugiura, Miss Hokusai looms in on “her-story”, that ever-growing genre that highlights forgotten ladies. The question always remains just how much of Hokusai’s work was actually done by his daughter – letters remain extant in which he states his pricing policy, and notes that clients can have him for one fee, or Oei at a discount… not unlike the way that late-period Studio Ghibli started choosing its directors!

misshokusaiBut Miss Hokusai is also a clear entry in the new scramble for superiority left by the shuttering of that very same Ghibli. With Hayao Miyazaki retired (again) and Isao Takahata unlikely to ever make another film, the race is on for the anime high ground. Take my word for it, all around the world there are distributors who have made a tidy profit on Ghibli movies for the last decade, who have suddenly seen their cash cow put out to pasture. Where are they going to find their once-a-year classy film to draw in the twittering classes and pad out film festivals with something quirky and Japanese? Where’s their annual dip into the fan market and mainstream cross-over?

For those who thought the whole thing was a two-horse race between the consistently excellent Mamoru Hosoda and the randomly brilliant Makoto Shinkai, Miss Hokusai’s director Keiichi Hara has turned out to be a surprise contender – leaping out of journeyman work on Crayon Shin-chan with the acclaimed Colourful, and now this considered, self-consciously classy evocation of Tokugawa period glamour. Worthy and classy, Miss Hokusai is a dream come true for distributors and exhibitors, and hopefully for audiences, too. But this is going to be a long contest before the winner is declared.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #136, 2015.

2011: The Year in Anime Books

For the last few years, it has been my mission to read through as many Japanese books about anime as possible, with special concentration on personal testimonies from the animators themselves. And I have been annotating as I go. For some reason, many of the people who write books about anime are allergic to indices, so I have been writing my own, of dozens upon dozens of memoirs and biographies, in order to build up a picture of the way the anime business looks to the people who actually work in it. The concordance is currently at 230 typed pages, although I think it will hit 300 before I am done. The work has functioned as a sort of audit of what people think they know about the business they work in, and has allowed me to chart several memes and misconceptions from their birth through to their establishment as industry lore.

And so my neck-deep wade through Japanese-language books on anime has continued, most recently with the NTT collection of scholarly essays Anime in Transition (or Anime Across Borders? or Anime Transnational?). The book is something of a landmark, forming an entire volume of the eight-part Japanese Film is Alive series from Iwanami Shoten, and hence perhaps redeeming anime as just as reasonable a field of study as, say, documentary, performance or audience. Notably, however, five of the eleven chapters in the book are written by foreign authors, with the likes of Marc Steinberg, Thomas Lamarre and Hu Tze-yue providing commentary and perspectives that the Japanese seem unwilling or unable to provide themselves. Is Japanese academia on animation really that lacking in local heroes, or is this a form of auto-orientalism, with the Japanese lapping up foreign attention as a means of validating their own interests in such an unlikely, unloved field as animation studies?

I’d believe it if NTT Shuppan had not answered within the year with an all-Japanese collection. There is no question about the anime book of the year 2011 — that award surely goes to Anime Studies, edited by Mitsuteru Takahashi and the omnipresent Nobuyuki Tsugata. Anime Studies contains ten chapters of detailed commentary on many interesting areas in the anime field, including education, intellectual property and national animation policy. The authors include academics, but also producers and directors, most notably with a chunky section from Ryosuke Takahashi about Tezuka’s anime “revolution”. Anime Studies is the book to which I wish every Western scholar had access, laden with charts and diagrams explaining the way that modern anime works, but also with informed references to peripheral areas, and, that greatest rarity in books on anime, a functional index.

Anime directors continued to be feted with studies and analysis, notably in books about Kenji Kamiyama and the journeyman director Keiichi Hara, now enjoying a new-found fame thanks to his breakout feature Colorful. This has also been a good year for books that analyse anime from the perspective of a producer or manager. Six years after he penned a guide to the anime business, Hiromichi Masuda writes an all-new account of the same subject, incorporating the wild ride of changes since the 2006 production peak. Meanwhile, Kinema Junpo jumps on the bandwagon with books on the below-the-line squabbles that get anime made in the first place including How to Make a Hit “Mundane” Anime and On the Job of the Anime Producer. Meanwhile, Yuichiro Oguro publishes the long-awaited second volume of his Anime Creator Interviews, collating material originally run in Animage at the beginning of the last decade.

You’ll notice, perhaps, that many of the books have dully typographical covers. In a country where Japanese studios will often charge magazines even for illustrations used to accompany rave reviews, the studios are often their own worst enemies when it comes to picture sourcing. I am pleased to note that the current crop of Japanese academics and scholars have simply given up playing the studios’ game, and instead published the texts that they want to publish, without bending over for outrageous fees or assenting to textual tampering — here’s a hello to the idiot who tried to get us to lie about the production details of his company’s movie in the Anime Encyclopedia, and who tried to use image access as the lure to make us cooperate. Anime is, assuredly, a visual medium, but I would much rather have good books published without pictures than see compromised picture-books, defanged of all their interesting content.

There is still a good deal of pretension awash in the anime field. Ani Kuri 15 DVD x Material is an infuriatingly packaged book of interviews and storyboards from the short series of NHK commercials made to order by creatives including the late Satoshi Kon, as well as Yasufumi Soejima and Shinji Kimura. Which is all very well, but it comes with a tight yet flimsy paper wraparound that is sure to tear after a single use, and includes an origami robot by way of apology.

Other books I’ve read this year have included Yuka Minakawa’s two-volume account of the “rise and fall” of Tezuka’s Mushi Production, although the fall is bundled into the final few pages. Like Eiichi Yamamoto’s much-cited 1989 Rise & Fall of Mushi Pro, the book is presented in fictionalised form, although Minakawa presents detailed references, usually to DVD sleeve-note interviews and other ephemera that might elude the more traditional scholar. I also found much of interest in Makoto Misono’s 1999 Complete Book of TV Animation, a forerunner of the Anime Studies collection that diligently attempted to create an institutional memory for television cartoons more than a decade ago. I think I bought it when working on the first edition of the Anime Encyclopedia, but I haven’t properly gone through it till now. I also stumbled across Masaki Tsuji’s long out-of-print The Youth of TV Anime, a memoir of the 1960s and 1970s by the scriptwriter of, among other things, Astro Boy, Star of the Giants and Sazae-san. It’s the last that interests me in particular, since the studio that made Sazae-san has never really had to try since. Go on: see if you can name it without opening a book or another window. It’s not all that famous, despite making Japan’s highest-rated and longest-running cartoon. Whereas other studios have to push and flash and bluster to get attention, the studio that makes Sazae-san just motors along on a job that is essentially below-the-line… certainly below the notice of many foreign fans.

In this periodic round-up, which I have previously run in 2010 and 2009, it’s usually my habit to talk about the English-language books on anime that come my way. In many cases this year, I have already reviewed them elsewhere, such as this piece on the excellent Ladd and Deneroff memoir of early anime in America. I’ve also written a glowing review of Iwao Takamoto’s autobiography, but that won’t appear until later in 2012. In others, I simply haven’t got round to them, since the Japanese-language books are prioritised ahead of them. In a couple of others, I have read them, although they were so awful that I cannot bring myself to even name them. One was an academic account so up itself as to be entirely impenetrable, including an interview with a Japanese creator who actually tells the author to piss off and talk to someone else. The other was a seemingly self-published witter about divinity in anime, by a man who couldn’t even spell Wikipedia, even as he cited it.