We Will Mock You

Perched above London’s Tottenham Court Road like a misplaced effigy of Saddam Hussein is the 20-foot fake-bronze statue of Freddie Mercury, late moustachioed lead singer of Queen. His image adorns the front of the Dominion Theater, where the sci-fi musical We Will Rock You plays to a packed house every night. The second act begins with a rendition of the group’s 1980s hit “One Vision,” used here as an ironic attack on homogenized, dull, global media culture. In the midst of the fast food, inane branding and Newspeak on the multiple screens, We Will Rock You permits its audience a glimpse of the kind of garbage that will infect the world’s television broadcasts in the 24th century. It has bright colors, spiky hair, and big eyes. It is all anime.

Britain’s Sci-Fi channel must have missed that particular memo. If you want to see anime on the nation’s bastion of future-TV, you have to look very hard indeed. Stay up until five in the morning and insomniac viewers may be rewarded with episodes of Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040. An audience of highly baffled nightwatchmen will also be spitting out their cornflakes in surprise at Excel Saga. Of all the things to hit your brain that early in the day…! The Sci Fi channel has ‘de-prioritised’ anime for now, a decision that should amuse all long-term industry watchers, because we’ve heard it all before, at least twice. Give it another few months, the staff will change once more, and some bright spark will opine that these here Japanese cartoons are the Next Big Thing. Again.

We Will Rock You lampoons the crass commercalisation of entertainment on a nightly basis. My ticket cost me $70. A packet of mints in the foyer was five bucks.

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA magazine, April 2004).

Pure of Heart

Sachiko (Ryoko Shinohara) has a problem child. Her son Hikaru (Ryusei Saito) never seems to pay attention. Whereas his kindergarten classmates can’t stop talking, he sits in silence. He develops strange obsessions with drawers and closets, and delights in creating a mess. If she tries to stop him, he throws a tantrum, and when she scolds him, he stares idly into the distance, not even acknowledging her presence. Sachiko simply doesn’t know where to turn…

NTV’s Wednesday-night drama In the Light: Living with Autism might have seemed to be an unlikely choice for the 2004 schedules. It lacked both the tacky high-concept of TV Tokyo’s Vampire Gigolo, or indeed the slavish fad-following of the spring season’s two (count ’em!) unrelated fire-fighter dramas. But it was also the latest in a long line that stretched back almost 20 years to a distant Hollywood ancestor.

Barry Levinson’s 1988 road movie Rain Man featured Tom Cruise as a car-trader who discovers that he has a long-lost relative, and Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Cruise’s autistic brother. Rain Man’s plaudits helped usher in a new age of worthy disability-centred dramas in Japan, starting with a wheelchair-bound cast member in Under One Roof. Before long, the “rain man” element had been taken perhaps a little too literally, with the release of From the Heart, the tale of an autistic weather girl. From there it was a short while until 2000’s Pure, the show by which all other subsequent disability dramas are judged. The tale of down-at-heel photographer who falls for an autistic artist, Pure was such a success, that it even lent its name to the genre. When producers say their next show is going to be “Pure”, they mean that it will hinge on a handicap – blindness, deafness, personality disorder, you name it, it’s been the subject of a drama series.

Considering the number of disability dramas on Japanese TV, In the Light requires considerable suspension of disbelief – has Sachiko really never heard of autism before? Unfamiliar with the term, Sachiko first assumes it is some form of disease from which her son can eventually be cured. When she is told this is not possible, she enters a state of desperate denial, trying to convince herself and others that Hikaru’s behavior is completely normal. Her family are little help. True to Japanese TV tradition, her mother-in-law is a heartless harridan who blames Sachiko for Hikaru’s condition. She turns to her husband for comfort, but eventually he admits that he, too, regards Hikaru’s handicap as her fault. It’s only when she meets a kindly therapist that she finds some solace… and hope.

Sachiko’s ignorance, however, is a benign trait. It was designed from the very beginning to create a character who would ask questions on behalf of an audience, because In the Light began life as an educational manga.

Creator Keiko Tobe graduated in economics, and first found herself a job in public relations. She moved to Tokyo when she got married, and discovered that the capital city offered her opportunities to turn her manga hobby into a job. In 1985, after working as an art assistant in girls’ comics, she enrolled on Princess magazine’s annual Manga School program. . A year later, Princess Gold published the result, the marathon-runner story Aki’s Goal. Tobe stayed in girls’ comics through the late 1980s, following a contemporary fad by writing a story set in the world of women’s wrestling. The same era that saw the Dirty Pair parodying lady wrestlers also saw Tobe’s Dream Warrior Shadow appear in several instalments in Princess Special.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Tobe began writing titles such as Glass Staircase and Mystery Theater, and her most prominent early work Bakumatsu Sorcery. Set at the end of the samurai era, it told the story of a surgeon trained in ‘Dutch’ (i.e. Western) medicine, who becomes involved in lifting curses from unlucky people. But she followed it with a very different form of affliction – she turned from girls’ comics to women’s comics, and picked a new way of haunting her lead character.

In the Light began running in For Mrs magazine, a title aimed at young mothers. The manga aimed to educate its readers with steely fervor, regularly running additional features on real-life mothers whose children suffer from autism, tracking their progress from birth, through school, and into the workplace. In Japan, of course, getting a day-job is a happy ending. The TV version, however, sticks resolutely to Hikaru’s early years, as Sachiko fights to put her son into a normal school, deals with the prejudices of the people around her, and observes his separation from the everyday world. It doesn’t take long before her son goes missing, and she is forced to deal with the worry of how a boy who can barely talk can somehow navigate his way back home. In regularly returning to the concerns of every parent, Tobe’s story skillfully reminds viewers that Hikaru is not all that different from other children after all. It’s an unusual addition to the world of Living Manga, but its motives are pure of heart.

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA magazine, August 2004, and was subsequently reprinted in the collection Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. Keiko Tobe died last Thursday, aged 52).

Summer Shivers

It was the most scandalous media event of its day – rehearsals plagued by arguments, a big-name star determined to rewrite the script, and a story ripped from gory urban myths. Even the marketing provoked controversy, with a giant kite-shaped billboard, depicting a woman’s severed head, holding the edges of a kimono in its mouth. But audiences loved it, and it became the most famous story of its kind. It was remade eight times with different casts, then turned into over a dozen movies, several TV series, and, of course, an anime. This month, it is 179 years old.
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Settling Down

In Hotman, a former gang member tries to put his life in order to raise his four younger siblings – no surprise that the leading role of Enzo Takaya is taken by Takashi Sorimachi, still widely known for his role as a gangster-made-good in GTO. But Enzo doesn’t merely have to teach classes in fine art and chase around after his surrogate family, he also opens his door to find five-year-old Nanami (Nana Yamauchi). Her absent mother has left a note informing Enzo that he is the father. Enzo now has to contend with a fifth hungry mouth to feed, and one with a series of allergies and intolerances that force him to become an instant expert on organic produce and health food. It could only be based on a manga…
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Kung Fu Schoolgirls

Anime schoolgirls are a distinctive breed. Lithe and long-limbed, these sailor-suited sirens are prone to demonic possession, often found with magical powers, and quite likely to be martial artists. Any resemblance to real-Japanese teenagers is purely coincidental. But then again, once in a while someone in the live-action world will wonder – just how difficult would it be to try this kind of story with real girls…?

Ever since she was bullied as a child, Mann (Jun Matsuda) has nurtured her own natural abilities in the martial arts. A few years of living abroad in Hong Kong and Thailand have allowed her to hone her skills in kickboxing, which come in handy on the tough streets of Shinjuku. Well, there’s tough and there’s tough. The bars and accessory shops are hardly mean streets, but it’s still the home turf of gangs of sailor-suited schoolgirls, and they’re fighting over their territory.

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The Notenki Memoirs

It’s hard not to like Yasuhiro Takeda, the hapless nuclear physics student who repeated his second year at university five times before giving up. His reason, the passion for sci-fi that led him to run conventions, sell model kits, and eventually become General Manager and Producer for the Gainax company. This textual autobiography takes him from his failed student days, through his time as fanboy and amateur actor, right through the tax evasion calamity that dogged Gainax in the wake of Evangelion.

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Meet the Parents

In the movies, life is planned out for you. You meet someone special, you fall in love, and then you live happily ever after. But while you might be able to choose the love of your life, you don’t have so much luck with their family. And in Japan, there’s less likelihood that you’ll be sharing a love-nest for two than moving in with your new in-laws. In manga and live-action drama, the Cinderella story often does not begin until after the wedding, when our pretty young heroine gets the man of her dreams, only to find herself an unpaid slave to a vindictive mother-in-law. This is the ever-growing dramatic genre of “in-law appeasement,” likely to expand further as Japan’s population grows and house prices soar ever higher – and The Curse is one of its more famous examples.
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Nebulous Achievements

It’s sweet of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) to award a Best Script Nebula to Howl’s Moving Castle, but hopefully the anime community will take it for what it is – a very belated recognition of a supreme talent. In my opinion, Howl is nowhere near Miyazaki at his best; it often plays like a committee’s attempt to reverse-engineer his greatest achievements. It’s more likely that Howl gets its award for being cosily familiar to the voters – one of those weird Japanese cartoons, but based on a book by an English-speaking author, and directed by that nice old man who made all those great movies in the 1990s that the voters mainly ignored. It is notable that the only anime to previously get a nomination from the SFWA were Princess Mononoke, which had Neil Gaiman credited for the script adaptation, and the subsequent Spirited Away, whose Oscar victory was inescapable. It is also notable that a large number of the SFWA voters are in Japan this month at the Yokohama Worldcon – perhaps they were booking their flights at the same time as they filled their ballots, and figured it couldn’t hurt.
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One to Tango

The Big Name Toy Company designed everything from the ground up, creating toys and cartoons in tandem. They had me working on six concepts for a TV series, that would be whittled down to three, then two, then one single idea that would be taken to the central office. There, it would compete with ideas from six other offices around the world, until the company put maybe a billion dollars factory time, animation, and advertising behind a single winning concept. They planned four years ahead. The toys in your stores this Christmas? They were decided in 2002.

I got to see The Book, a giant tome of psychology reports some six inches thick, containing what amounted to racial profiling of children around the world. Children in South America were more likely to play outside, German kids liked mechanical things earlier, and so on. When I turned to the Japanese section, two words jumped out at me: “Solitary Play”.

I started hearing a strange little tango song in my head, a Japanese novelty hit from 1999 about three dumplings on a stick. It began as a joke by commercial director Masahiko Sato, but for some reason it took off. Kids liked the catchy tune, but the main audience for it was the parents. The single sold more than three million copies in Japan, and before long, an anime followed. It, too, was only little — three-minute inserts as part of the series Watch With Mother. But The Dumpling Brothers anime ran for five years, only coming to an end in 2004. Let’s put that in perspective — an anime for the fan audience is considered a roaring success if it lasts for five months.

The Dumpling Brothers caught the mood of the time. Japan doesn’t have a draconian one-child policy, but sometimes capitalism can exercise its own constraints. Single offspring are increasingly common, and that severely limits family dynamics. After two generations of belt-tightening and downsizing, fewer Japanese children have brothers or sisters. Moreover, they are increasingly less likely to have any uncles, aunts or cousins. Much of the interest in The Dumpling Brothers seemed born of parental nostalgia, looking back to when they had siblings to play with, and with a sense of regret that their own children would never have the same experience.

The same period saw I Love Bubu Chacha, an anime series about a boy who discovers that dead pets and circus animals have been reincarnated as his toys. The only ‘human’ friend he has is a neighborhood girl who pretends to be his sister, although she is actually a ghost. The viewers who watched these shows as children are now old enough to buy Angel Tales.

Some modern anime seem made specifically for viewers that are not part of any community; solitary shut-ins with few if any friends. But anime toys have always been ready to fill the breach, and to exert pester-power on a workaday dad returning home to his nuclear family, and searching for a way to buy his kid’s affections. You hear it several times a day in anime for children.

“My father gave me a robot. My father gave me a robot. My father gave me a robot.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in Newtype USA in 2006.