The Ghosts of Dead Gods

Back from the Worldcon in Helsinki this August, a gathering of science fiction’s great and good. Japanese attendees maintained a strangely low profile at an event that often made me muse upon the thinning of the old guard, and the continuing onrush of the new. While a block of fifty Chinese fans paraded big-name authors, pushed their upcoming Asia-Pacific convention in Beijing and ran a riotous party, the Japanese huddled at a dealers’ table and rarely seemed to venture out. I found myself on two anime-related panels having to apologise for the lack of native speakers, with representatives from the homeland of anime and manga seemingly unwilling to volunteer to talk about it publically. Despite this, two awards were dished out with Japan connections, both sneaking in under Japanese fandom’s radar.

One was for Ada Palmer, sometime historical consultant for Funimation and the founder of the Tezuka in English website, although her accolade here was a John W. Campbell Best Newcomer award for her novel Too Like the Lightning. The other was the Best Graphic Novel Hugo, handed to writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda for their ongoing comic series Monstress.

Although drawn in Japan by a Japanese artist, and hence perfectly deserving of a manga tag, Monstress is far better imagined at the forefront of modern “woke” comics, intimately concerned with the powerlessness of slaves and chattels in a colonialist society – what it feels like to be an object in someone else’s world. Trawling through online reviews, I see many readers ascribing a manga sensibility to the artwork. This is news to me – Takeda’s imagery seems to strive to be as un-manga as possible, luxuriating in the availability of a colour palette, thin lines and a sedate panel progression – if it reminded me of anything it was Colleen Doran. One imagines that faced with visceral, violent imagery, some American readers are immediately prompted to pronounce something as “manga” – which is also ironic, considering the reputation that Image Comics already enjoys without any help from across the sea.

The cast are largely women, but Takeda refuses to objectify them. No fan service here – instead these are characters getting on with their various stories, showcasing a cast of widespread ages and grotesqueries, as if Orange is the New Black were suddenly invaded by a coven of steampunk cannibal witches. It’s Liu’s writing that imparts Monstress with its true chills – feral, fearful creatures with magical powers, locked in eternal conflict with predatory, flesh-eating ghouls, constantly fighting to gain control of their own destiny.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article previously appeared in NEO 169, 2017.

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The Allure of Gravure

agnes lum.jpgCommon to many Japanese magazines for the teenage male, Young Gangan features a “gravure” section – photo-sets of demure Japanese girls, posing in a sequence of fashions with occasional gormless texts.

As the name implies, gravure in Japan began with the conceit of amateur photography, giving new camera owners an excuse for titillating “research”. My recollections of early gravure are of rather sweet virtual dates, such as a pipe-smokers’ magazine from the mid-1970s that featured a photo-set of a rather prim, refreshingly plain young lady, sitting earnestly across a dinner table, perching on a couch, and lurking coquettishly near a lamp-post: the fantasy being simply that of her company, her attention, and presumably, her lack of complaint about the smell of smoke.

Later, racier magazines would go all the way, lurching from the public realm into the bedroom, with the virtual companion whipping off her clothes in a sealed bonus section. The game-changer for 1970s gravure, however, was the Hawaiian-born Agnes Lum (pictured), who parleyed her early appearances in Japanese magazines into a singing and modelling career. The fiercely attractive Lum was notable for her magnificent boobs, a feature less prominent in the Japanese girls of the day, which soon lured her photographers away from urban fashion shoots and into the realm of swimwear, all the better to show them off. This, in turn, incentivised beach locations, and it was not long before the expense and exoticism of teen photo-shoots began to spiral upwards. Wouldn’t you rather put a weekend in Hawaii on expenses? The male population’s panting obsession with a pneumatic, bikini-clad foreigner was soon satirised by manga creator Rumiko Takahashi in Urusei Yatsura and its iconic Lum-chan, a green-haired, sexually aggressive devil girl in a tiger-skin two-piece.

By the 1980s, a gravure appearance was commonplace for aspiring actress-model-whatevers, particularly among would-be idol singers. Such photo-sets are ten-a-penny in Japan, and have been largely unchanged for decades. One wishes, Viz-style, for a magazine that offers a little subversion – interfering passers-by, for example, a cameraman whose lack of ability becomes comically, rather than merely irritatingly incompetent, or a model who dresses like an Australian’s nightmare. Instead, they have merely limped along, sustained, one imagines, less from reader support than by the ever-present interest of music promoters in snatching page-space for their starlets, and by photographers’ desires to charge for weekend getaways with young soubrettes.

lumBut the U-rated images in Young Gangan are notable for how low-rent they seem: Rina Ikoma is pictured in someone’s back garden beneath a drab grey sky; Hinako Kitano has at least gone somewhere with a pool, although she oddly jumps in while keeping her clothes on. Then, she stands in the street and throws around a baseball. Don’t play in the street, Hinako! This is that most innocuous of “girlfriend experiences”, the simple presence of a female making eye contact, although also discreetly whispering that her new album is in shops now. It’s all about the male gaze, although the gaze one can’t help imagining is usually that of Alan Partridge, fumbling ineptly with a Canon 5D.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #156, 2016, as a sidebar to a Manga Snapshot article on Young Gangan magazine.

Under the Hammer

Tezuka_Sothebys1To Paris in June, where the local branch of the auction house Sotheby’s held a sale of 260 pieces of comics artwork, including samples from the likes of Jim Lee, Hugo Pratt and Uderzo, with a total sale value of €1.3 million.

The manga component was only a small fraction – largely from Osamu Tezuka. Notably, the Tezuka pieces sold at the low end of their expected price, suggesting that Sotheby’s assessors, whoever they were, had rightly predicted their likely value. Your mileage may vary – none of them looked particularly interesting to me. Astro Boy et Autres Personnages, for example, which went for a posh-sounding €3,625, was a scrappy little pen-and-ink study of five unrelated Tezuka characters. What you were paying for was largely its provenance, which is to say that value of knowing that these images were drawn by Tezuka himself, who is too dead to draw any more.

toriyama.jpgMost surprising was a single head-shot of Dragon Ball’s Son Goku, drawn by Akira Toriyama, which went for €15,000, five times the estimated price. Toriyama is still happily alive, and is presumably cackling to himself in his studio as he knocks out another hundred such sketches to put on eBay. One suspects that Chinese capital is at work here, bidding up the value among people who have read the manga in Mandarin.

In the meantime, here are my top tips for anyone seeking manga artwork as an investment.

Make sure it’s signed clearly, and preferably not to you. Future buyers will want the artist’s signature, not the fact that it includes the message “GEMMA YOU ARE TOPS!” Not unless their name is Gemma – a limited crowd.

Try to get a single study (a bust, full-length shot or face), not a random collection of heads; it’s worth more if it’s hangable as a portrait.

Beware of gimmicks – Motoko Kusanagi depicted as your girlfriend might feel like a giggle today, but only if you become as famous as she is.

Do think, too, about the capital you are already investing. If you’re spending £10 for the sketch, and giving up two hours in a line, and a weekend at the convention, and the train that got you there, the incidentals do mount up. Has it really cost you £10, or has it already left you £200 out of pocket? Because not every queue is going to be worth standing in.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #153, 2016.

The End of Cool Japan…?

41OlrO2WKWL._SX331_BO1204203200_Over at the All the Anime blog, I review the new collection of academic essays The End of Cool Japan: Ethical, legal and cultural challenges to Japanese popular culture.


“Thanks in particular to the rise of Fan Studies, it has become all too easy for the Western pundit to lock themselves in a convention-centred hugbox in which ‘everybody they know’ thinks that anime and manga are the bee’s knees. Then, someone ruins their day by giving them the actual sales figures. Not that sales figures should be the sole determinant for avenues of academic enquiry, but if someone is setting themselves up as an expert in what is ‘popular’, they’d better have some idea what that actually means.”

The God of Manga

The Osamu Tezuka Story - A Life in Manga and Anime by Toshio Ban and Tezuka Productions Translated by Frederick L. SchodtToshio Ban’s The Osamu Tezuka Story: A Life in Anime and Manga is a ground-breaking manga biography of one of Japan’s best-loved and best-selling creators, the creator of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. At 900 pages, it is a breathtakingly thorough sweep through Tezuka’s post-war struggles to become a comics artist, his misplaced faith in the financial returns of animation, and his pioneering efforts in setting up the studio Mushi Production.

Ban’s approach often has the relentless, linear plod of a TV movie, beginning with his leading man’s infancy, and working all the way through to his death. But in doing so, he draws deeply on Tezuka’s own memoirs, citing childhood incidents as crucial inspirations in his later work, such as the sticky-up hair that inspired the coiffure of his iconic Astro Boy. Most subjects would not warrant this intensive focus, but Tezuka is such a fundamental figure for understanding modern Japanese media that there is sure to be plenty of interest here for fans and scholars.

Ban’s artwork is deceptively simple. At first glance, it looks like the journeyman drafting of an educational comic, but actually goes much further. His depictions of many scenes are photo-real, deriving directly from documents, photographs and location hunts in the places under discussion. When Ban writes about the arrival of a letter from Stanley Kubrick, offering Tezuka the production designer’s job on 2001: A Space Odyssey, he doesn’t just tell you about it. He shows you the envelope it came in, complete with Kubrick’s return address. Translator Frederik L. Schodt almost fell off his chair in surprise when he got to a page recounting a visit by Tezuka to America, realising that the youthful hipster in one panel was himself as Tezuka’s interpreter, faithfully recreated from a forgotten photo.

fred and tez

Here we see the formative years of a young comics artist: the temptations of a career in medicine; the irresistible but risky pull of animation; the struggles of a young studio, and the confusing whirl of international attention. Tezuka is propelled to the height of the manga profession, only to risk it all with a blind-faith bet on animation. Much of the dialogue is taken, word-for-word, from his own books and speeches, including a wistful farewell in which he speculates about how the children of the future might regard the Earth from space. Cue Ban’s artwork running with Tezuka’s ideas to present a slingshot, sci-fi ending, as Tezuka’s work forges on into the future without him.

Ban also injects some subtle artistic elements. As Tezuka’s long-term assistant, he has mastered his boss’s style, drawing much of the manga in a direct pastiche of the original. Clearly channelling the idea of how Tezuka himself might have approached the project if he had been able to draw his life-story from beyond the grave, Ban presents the whole thing as a fantastical documentary, narrated by characters from Tezuka’s own works. The art-style degenerates into more amateurish cartooning when the young Tezuka is telling a story to an indulgent audience of relatives, but blossoms into richly toned artwork when recreating adult memories.

The Osamu Tezuka Story is an unparalleled gateway to Tezuka’s life and work. Many critics, myself included, warn that Tezuka and his estate have been expert curators of his memory, and that Ban’s work typically shines a spotlight so brightly on its subject that many of his contemporaries are confined to the shadows. But that doesn’t stop Ban from noting some of the low points, including Tezuka’s resignation from his own studio and his flirtation with depression. Unless you can read Japanese, this is the closest thing you’ll get to a warts-and-all portrayal, and undoubtedly the most informative, detailed and illuminating work on manga and anime to be published in English this year.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #10, 2016.

Warning! Chatterley

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Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Kirsten Cather’s Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan, which chronicles several landmark cases, including dodgy films, suspicious books, and tawdry manga.

“Cather’s book tracks censorship in Japan from the landmark Chatterley case, through several key cinema and literary rulings, all the way to the present day and the first manga to have its merits debated in court. Her wit and irreverence takes its cue from VS Naipaul, who quipped on the issuing of a fatwa against Salman Rushdie that the Ayatollah of Iran was offering a somewhat extreme form of literary criticism. She moves into film in the 1960s, revealing that Tetsuzo Watanabe, last seen in Anime: A History leading a group of tanks against striking special effects technicians at Toho, went on to find an even more bonkers job working for the censorship authority Eirin. Eirin saw themselves as defenders of public morals, surrounded by an ever-rising tide as erotica as Japanese cinemas increasingly chased the blue-movie market. The statistics do not lie; Cather uses big data to point to the transformation of Japanese cinema. ‘In 1963, only 37 of the 370 films checked by Eirin warranted adult ratings, whereas by 1965 the number had reached 233 of the total 503.'”

The Shoulders of Giants

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It has been a hundred years since humanity was first devastated by the Titans, hulking, occasionally skinless man-eating giants. What remains of the human race huddles behind a series of concentric walls under martial law, the best and brightest co-opted into one of several military organisations that use repurposed climbing equipment to scale the enemy attackers in search of their hard-to-find weak spot. Teenage brawler Eren Yaeger swears to avenge his mother’s death at the hands of the Titans, and joins up along with a group of his friends, only to discover that the mystery of the Titans’ appearance and motivations runs far deeper, and closer to home, than he previously imagined.

With more than 30 million copies in print worldwide, Attack on Titan is one of those manga that has truly escaped from the ghetto. Its US sales run rings around many supposedly popular superhero comics, and its fans are a rabid, visible costumed presence wherever geeks gather. Hajime Isayama’s original manga has been adapted into an animated series, novels and a computer game, which is pretty good going for something that looks on the surface like the fever-dream of someone off his face at a Bodyworks exhibit.

Attack on Titan has truly caught the zeitgeist both in Japan and abroad. Local audiences warmed to its allegorical Wall of Fear, as a symbol of the social and cultural barriers that often continue to shut Japan off from the troubles of the real world… at least temporarily. Similar symbolism can be found in recent anime like Summer Wars and Howl’s Moving Castle, both of which dealt obliquely with modern Japan’s reliance on the pursuance of faraway conflicts, and the revelation that terror could still hit close to home. Viewers in Hong Kong praised it as an inadvertent metaphor for the influence of the overbearing colossus of mainland China on their lives. Newspapers in South Korea touted the whole enterprise as a propaganda exercise in encouraging young Japanese to support military expansion. The story is so surreal that it lends itself to any number of political messages, not the least a winner with young teens who feel that the perils of the world are all coming to get them. It is a zombie apocalypse and a monster-of-the-week disaster movie all in one, leavened with a healthy scepticism about the lies that the authorities might tell to hang onto power. Plus big fights.

The Attack on Titan live-action movies are an intriguing confection. They seemingly went into production for the same reason as any other comics or media adaptation – out of a managerial confidence that high sales in one medium would translate into another. But the original choice as director, Tetsuya Nakashima, dropped out in 2012 over unspecified conflicts regarding the script. His replacement, Shinji Higuchi, must have looked like an all-round jackpot, not only for his track record in the liminal area of modern sci-fi and cross-media ties, but for his highly regarded work in tokusatsu movies – special effects epics about big monsters stomping on buildings.

Higuchi has always been very good at “quoting” elements of a much-loved original. Over-emoting is common in anime that lack the resources to convey visual expressions, but in the live-action Attack on Titan, the characters routinely strike ludicrous poses and spout gung-ho dialogue that seems, well, cartoony. Meanwhile, whereas the original is set in a European dreamtime, all the actors in the movies are understandably Asian, which makes a mockery of a particular subplot about the “last” Japanese girl in the world.

I was recently taken to task by a viewer at the Scotland Loves Anime film festival for not introducing the live-action movies with sufficient respect. Apparently it was my fault that the audience was laughing at the hokier moments and protesting at some of the switches in plot and character. Then again, another punter commented that the live-action movies were a fantastically enjoyable, funny parody of the anime, although nobody seemed to have told the cast and crew. So the live-action movies aren’t quite the re-up that fans were hoping for. They take themselves seriously in all the wrong ways, seemingly unaware that, ironically, it’s the earlier cartoon incarnation that really hits the right note.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #4, 2016.