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.”

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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.

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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.

Manga in America

50375324Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Casey Brienza’s Manga in America, a detailed and beautifully researched account of the last decade of Japanese comics in translation.

“Brienza acknowledges the awful poison at the heart of the American manga industry, which is that it was colonised some 15 years ago by snake-oil salesmen and carpet-baggers determined to slap the word manga on anything that they did, out of a cynical desire to clamber aboard a bandwagon that promised, at the time, ‘double-digit growth.’ As I have pointed out on many previous occasions, this didn’t just confuse everybody as to what manga actually was, but also corrupted much of the available data. A manga is a Japanese comic, anybody who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.”

Manga & Anime Go To Hollywood

51qMWVRg1SL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Up now on the All the Anime blog, my review of Northrop Davis’ new book Manga & Anime Go To Hollywood, which was something of a disappointment from an academic press. Where were the peer-reviewers?

“There are a lot of quotes from contemporary internet reportage but far too much of the book simply rehashes earlier publications, pouring in excerpts from works that any serious researcher will already own.”