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.'”

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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.”

Harem Scare ‘Em

32243-ComicArtAsst_3Yuki Aito is living the dream… in a way. His comic Haji Café has become a hit, dragging his art career from a hobby into a full-on profession. Like many a manga artist before him, he’s discovering the hard way that a weekly schedule never lets up, taking on a bunch of assistants to help him grind out the pages. But because he’s a self-acknowledged pervert, obsessed with knickers, he has only hired pretty teenage girls.

Even if you’re not an anime or manga fan, you’re probably familiar with the look of the “harem show” – a romantic comedy that places a single hapless boy in the company of a whole gang of pretty women, every one of them girlfriend material. The genre has been visible in Japan for the last 20 years, serving the anyone-will-do desperation of horny teenage boys, with just a dash of wish fulfilment. These fantasy women aren’t just beautiful and theoretically available for Yuki, they are also comics fans like him.

Should he plump for Sahoto, the hard-working artist who cherishes a dream of being a comics creator all on her own? Or should he go for Rinna, the talentless assistant hired only for her looks, and the fact that she is a fan of his work? Maybe he should chance his arm with Sena, the pathologically childish teenager who nurses a hidden sadistic streak? Or perhaps he should return to his past with his old schoolmate Mihari, once a childhood crush, now a hard-nosed editor at his manga publisher?

The Comic Artist and His Assistants is based on a manga about creating manga, one of a burgeoning sub-genre of self-referential titles that have also seen tales of wacky sci-fi shop-owners, convention costumers as the heroes of their own show, and a chronicle of behind-the-scenes shenanigans at an animation studio. For everyone who keeps hearing that anime and manga are taking the world by storm, it’s a gentle reminder that some of anime’s appeal actually stems from its ability to go small: narrow-casting to niche audiences such as, in this case, boys who like drawing comics and ogling girls, and who don’t see anything creepy in the very obvious exploitation of workplace power. Original creator “Hiroyuki” first found fame with a manga about creating amateur manga, and now he’s gone pro in every sense.

As you may have noticed, it’s all about Yuki’s choice, his options and his desires. The women in The Comic Artist and His Assistants are less characters than they are gaming objects, clusters of attributes and quirks – this one’s got small tits, that one’s got blonde hair, that one’s too weak to open an ink pot. There are plenty of anime and manga for a female audience (and this column will get to them soon enough), but this month’s offering is resolutely chauvinist, deriving much of its humour from putting the girls in embarrassing situations and subjecting them to sexual harassment (boob-grabbing now counts as “research”).

Takeshi Furuta’s animated adaptation seems to instinctively know that its one-note perving is going to be difficult to sustain. Consequently, its episodes clock in at a quick 15 minutes each, just long enough to set up a pantomime situation of ooer-missus innuendo, and to slap our priapic protagonist with some sort of half-hearted retribution. One typical episode focuses creepily on Yuki stuck in an elevator with the childlike Sena, as she reveals that she is desperate to go to the toilet. The show takes evident pleasure, like Yuki himself, in the prospect of her humiliation, turning their dilemma into a comedy of manners when he offers her an empty bottle to piss in.

This isn’t a show with morals as such, although every now and then it pays lip service to the idea that Yuki needs to grow up before he can achieve his true potential, and, it is implied, bag himself a girlfriend for real. But personal growth was not the message of Hiroyuki’s original, nor should we expect it to be. This is an anime show about wobbly bits and cat-calls, pulling girls’ pigtails and peering down their dresses. You will also learn the Japanese for knickers, which is pantsu.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters.This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #1, 2015.

Holy Ghosts

suterMy review of Rebecca Suter’s Holy Ghosts: The Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction, is up now on the All the Anime blog.

“[The book] does not shy away from Endo and his ilk, but as her beautiful and striking choice of cover image makes plain, she is not afraid of digging around in the maze of manga and anime in search of new and exciting comparisons.”