The King Hippo

Japan’s “forgotten” anime mogul, Hiroshi Okawa

toei logoThe animator Yasuji Mori used to call Hiroshi Okawa (1896-1971) the King Hippo, describing him (albeit not to his face) as a distant, preoccupied man in a suit whose approach would strike fear into the hardest of section chiefs. If Okawa was coming to visit, even the boss would have a mop out.

“He was a pompous king,” wrote Mori in his memoirs, “and rarely spoke to us commoners. I did meet with him once when we’d finished work on Hakujaden. Me and [Akira] Daikuhara, who did the key art, were invited to his office, and he just said ‘thank you for your work’ in this high-pitched voice, like when a tape is played on fast-forward. And in the autumn of the year that Toei Animation was founded, there was a sports day for all the Toei employees and their families, and the animator team won first prize in the fancy dress. I went to collect the prize money, and he said to me ‘that was really funny’ in a way that showed he really didn’t think it was funny at all.”

07186_1Nobuyuki Tsugata’s new Japanese-language book, The Man Who Aimed For Disney – Hiroshi Okawa: The Forgotten Entrepreneur, labours under the weight of its two subtitles, both of them seemingly concocted less for the benefit of readers than to ensure that the right tags are in place for search engines. Tsugata regards such phrases as points to be considered rather than statements of fact, as well he might. I bristle, for example, at the suggestion that Okawa truly is “a forgotten entrepreneur.” Obscure he may be, but of the two English-language books that cover his era, Hu Tze-yue has five references to him in her index to Frames of Anime, and my own Anime: A History has eight. Moreover, Tsugata’s own publication record has made him the institutional memory of the anime industry – he’s pretty much the guy who decides who is forgotten and who is not, and if he’s written a book about you, it’s fair to say everyone in the field will know who you are.

Okawa certainly aimed to be the “Japanese Disney”, and it’s this element of his career that has proved the most problematic in historical memory. That’s because, of course, the Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka also wanted to be known as the Japanese Disney, and the Tezuka estate has been far better at pushing its case. We might scoff today at such fervent auto-orientalism, but as Tsugata has argued in earlier books, while Tezuka did a marvellous job with public relations, Okawa has a valid claim to the crown from a business point of view.

After many years chronicling the world of animators and artists, Tsugata drags himself far from his comfort zone to talk about the life and times of an avowed Suit. He has no qualms, for example, about describing Okawa as “a film studio boss who knew nothing about films.” Okawa arrived at Toei Animation by the oddest of routes, starting his career as an accountant at the Ministry of Railways (“There was no man better with an abacus”), before being head-hunted to work for the Tokyo Rapid Electric Railway (Tokyu) corporation in 1942. He entered the post-war period as a middle-ranking executive at a company that was swiftly diversifying, pouring infrastructure profits into developing the first of those fantastic shopping malls that can be found at Japanese train stations. Don’t just get on the train home, stay and have dinner in a nice restaurant; do your shopping in our department store; catch a movie!

In 1946, Okawa found himself shunted over to a new role as the manager of a baseball team that Tokyu had somehow acquired. This moved him inexorably into the world of commodified entertainment, as he worked to turn baseball into more than just a run around the local park, but a media event that demanded merchandise, fixed sites, novelty food, and season tickets… Okawa became instrumental in the funding of the Pacific League, in which his team competed against a bunch of others, dragging fans around the country (by train, of course) to witness more matches.

Groomed as a likely president, Okawa was shunted sideways yet again, put in charge of turning around a trio of media companies, merged as Tokyo-Yokohama Films, Oizumi Films, and their parent Tokyo Film Distribution. This unwieldy mess, described by Okawa himself as a lame three-legged racer, hobbled by its own ties and deep in hock to loan sharks, is known today by a contraction of the words for Tokyo and Film, as “Toei”. Among its holdings was a modest collection of 36 cinema theatres. In an epitome of integration, Okawa helped to make the films that were shown in the cinemas and watched by the passengers who had eaten at the restaurants… funnelling money back into Tokyu at every stage.

Okawa dragged Toei out of the hands of its gangster creditors and into the arms of legitimate banks. He scooped up new film talent among refugees from Man-Ei Studio, newly returned from Japan’s lost puppet state of Manchuria. He ducked and dived in the movie market in search of new niches, heading downmarket but with a promise of more bangs for the buck by offering double bills on the same ticket at Toei cinemas. He scored his first big hit mere months after the end of the US Occupation with The Tower of Himeyuri (1953), a weepy about a unit of nurses killed at the Battle of Okinawa. In pursuit of the children’s audience, and in anticipation of the rise of television, he also acquired the struggling animation studio Nichido, renaming it Toei Animation in 1956.

white-serpent

Nichido’s animators were punch-drunk after a decade of living hand-to-mouth, and reported that Okawa was “more enthusiastic than us” about the prospects for animation. And this is where Tsugata’s book comes into its own, as he investigates the degree to which the success of Toei Animation in the 20th century can be credited to the talents of its many famous animators, or to the stern money-man who pushed them on to greater things.

In animation terms in the 1950s, making a full-length feature film was an enterprise akin to breaking the sound barrier. It was not merely a  case of building up the talents, training and materials necessary to get a workflow going on a 70-minute movie, it was the pay-offs in exhibition when that movie could sell its own ticket. Until Japan could produce its own feature-length cartoon, its animation output was doomed to remain as filler. Okawa, however, conceived a plan to churn out animators in an on-site training exercise, until he had so many that he could make a film. He got his wish in 1958 with the release of Hakujaden, Legend of the White Snake, a film that conveniently filled the gap left in Japanese cinema bookings by the petering out of Disney movies postponed since the war. He also pinned his hopes on export, hoping to ship the Chinese-themed film out to other Asian markets, effectively playing the race card against Disney, and banking on “Asian” trumping “Japanese” in the eyes of foreign buyers.

A rift grew ever wider between Okawa and Tokyu after the death of the company founder, Keita Goto in 1959. Okawa, it was said, had once been told the corporation would one day be his, and was understandably at odds with Goto’s heir. Tokyu effectively cut Toei free in 1964, right in the middle of its labour struggles with disenchanted animators, and just as a TV boom led to start-ups poaching its staff. There is surprisingly little about this in Tsugata’s book, but if we’re prepared to assign credit to Okawa for some of Toei’s achievements, then surely we should also consider the degree to which he may have been responsible for the agitation, strikes, disputes and lock-ins that characterised the studio’s troubled years. Certainly, there were grumbles at Toei Animation about a brand of cronyism that favoured employees parachuted in from railway affiliates and sister companies, rather than the artists who did the actual work. One of the most infamous of the angry voices was one Hayao Miyazaki, a shop steward who pushed for workers to be paid for what they did, rather than which branch of the company they hailed from.

Okawa’s training scheme led to Toei’s nickname as “Toei University”, but by the late 1960s, his business model was hopelessly outmoded. He had funded the training of the bulk of the anime industry, including Miyazaki himself, but in doing so, he had paid for the mentoring of countless rivals. He remained adamant that television was not the enemy – it might have seemed like cinema was suffering at the hands of home viewing, but Toei Animation turned a pretty profit making hundreds of animated adverts. Shortly after Okawa’s death in 1971, Toei pivoted to a leaner model, becoming the centre of a diverse web of companies formed by its former employees, outsourcing many jobs and letting the subcontractors take the risks.

Tsugata finishes his book with a prolonged meditation on Okawa’s legacy, both visibly in terms of the modern output of the Toei studio, and invisibly, in terms of its competitors, many of whom owe their founders’ education to Okawa’s schemes. After all, Nerima ward in Tokyo is known today as the anime district because it is the location not only of Toei, but of Toei’s many satellites.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

Before the Dawn

Nobuyuki Tsugata has already published books on the careers of Osamu Tezuka and the pioneering animation of Seitaro Kitayama, as well as broader studies of anime history as a whole. Last year he co-edited Anime-gaku, the first truly successful attempt to discursively construct ‘anime studies’ as an object of knowledge, delineating Japanese animation as a field of academic enquiry in and of itself, rather than as a subset of film, business, culture, media or any other discipline. And while far too many of his international colleagues continue to fritter away their lives in endless studies of What Some Fans I Met Think of Some Anime They’ve Seen, Tsugata continues to soldier on in the dusty archives of anime history and biography, rescuing forgotten sectors of the business, and mounting persuasive arguments that expand the nature of anime as we know it.

As so often happens in the media, artistic heritage is often left in the hands of the people who made it in the first place – usually because nobody else really cares until it’s too late. Japanese animation history is dominated by the twin big-bangs of Toei Animation and Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Pro, in part because they resulted in works and workflows that can still be found today. What about all those other studios that fell by the wayside or didn’t have a publicity-hungry manager at the helm? What about all those studios that churned out work that never got collated on DVD or shown at film festivals?

As Tsugata notes in the introduction to his latest Japanese-language book, Before the Dawn of Television Anime, it’s like some areas on the map of anime history are still marked terra incognita. Many people have at least heard of TCJ (Television Corporation of Japan), mainly because this commercial animation company, since renamed Eiken, is still at work today, most famously as the production house that makes the TV series Sazae-san. But TCJ’s advertising past, usually dismissed in a single line before discussion of its TV programming output, was truly massive, amounting to more than 1400 cartoon adverts between 1954 and 1960 (and more than 2200 if you include those live ads for which TCJ provided animated diagrams or titles).

Tsugata’s focus is not merely on forgotten byways of anime history, but also on forgotten geography. Although it is widely known that the Japanese animation industry, along with many other forms of production, relocated to the Kansai region after the devastating Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, Tsugata argues that Kansai remained the centre of Japanese animation for the next three decades, only ceding primacy to Tokyo with the establishment of Toei Animation in 1956. His narrative picks delicately at the Tokyo-centred bias of other Japanese books, pointing out that many landmark events in Japanese media, including, for example, the irresistible rise of Osamu Tezuka, actually ‘happened’ in Kansai. He also notes that Toei’s own press and self-commemoration has largely overshadowed the achievements of Saga Studio, a Kansai start-up, also established in 1956, which played a highly influential role in the first decade of Japanese animated commercials.

Tsugata diligently chronicles the perils of anime historiography. The men and women who churned out thousands of cartoon commercials in Kansai were not part of the academic conversation about what anime was. Hardly anyone has bothered to remember their work, because their work was usually the bit that happened in between the TV shows, and before the main features that anime historians actually bother to write about. This is despite the fact that the Kansai area studios turned an impressive buck, undeniably formed a part of the 1950s zeitgeist, and displayed a mastery and economy of line that must have made animation in the 1950s look considerably less ‘Japanese’ than it did after 1963. Tsugata’s cover includes one such image from several dotted throughout his book: a charming, dynamic layout of a pilot scattering leaflets from his plane, drawn as part of an Osaka Eiga commercial for a local prefectural election.

Tsugata has never been afraid of doing the legwork, scraping information from wherever he can. In his biography of Seitaro Kitayama, he famously reconstructed part of Kitayama’s 1920s studio output in true Blade Runner style, by enlarging a staff photograph to read the schedule stuck to the wall in the background. For Before the Dawn of Television Anime, he diligently tracks down the surviving industry veterans, now with an average age of seventy, and gathers testimonials that restore much of the Kansai story to narratives of anime history.

These teams, often working out of pokey six-mat rooms and identifiable only by the occasional initials in the corners of their sketches, were responsible for the animation in some of the iconic Japanese adverts of the 20th century, including commercials for Nisshin Cup Noodles, Vick’s Cough Drops and Matsushita Electrics. Some of their works were 90-second narratives, others merely ten instructional seconds inside a commercial filed as “live action”, but with a little animated section explaining how cockroach spray works, or how menthol clears out your tubes. They were also responsible for the creation of iconic characters such as Yanbo and Mabo, the twin tykes who shilled for Yanma Diesel, ubiquitous in the 1960s but forgotten now because they didn’t appear in the kind of anime that gets archived or remembered.

Tsugata’s narrative also fills in a gap in accounts of “art” animation, revealing how art-house animators like the award-winning Renzo Kinoshita actually paid the bills while tinkering with their high-brow creations. Far too many researchers seem to assume that art-house animators spend all day sitting in garrets playing with sandtables, supported by some magical and secret government super-subsidy, whereas many of them, including the Oscar-winning Kunio Kato, have day-jobs that often get left off the resumés that are sent to film festivals. I wish such information was made available more frequently, as it might smack a degree of realism into the aspirations of some arts students. Tsugata does not shy away from it, and reveals that far from working in an adman vacuum, the animators of the Kansai set had strong and often reciprocal connections with big-name animators like Noburo Ofuji and Hakusan Kimura (himself the founder of Osaka Eiga in 1960).

Tsugata finishes with an outline of the vestiges of the old Kansai anime tradition, as kept alive by such companies as today’s Kyoto Animation. He also returns to a subject familiar from some of his earlier books: the little-discussed admission that even the big names in Tokyo were keen on ad revenue to pay the bills. Tsugata has argued before that Toei Animation itself was set up partly in anticipation of the money that could be made from the expansion of commercial Japanese television in the 1950s, and staff from Mushi Pro have admitted that they used to get paid a lot better making adverts with Astro Boy in them, than they did making Astro Boy itself.

His conclusion recalled a passage I had read elsewhere, in the posthumously published memoirs of the animator Soji Ushio, who had once decided to visit the famous canal-side studio building where the renowned Iwao Ashida had made many of the big animated splashes of the 1950s. Instead, when he arrived at the address, the canal had been filled in, the studio itself had been turned into a tatami shop, and there was no sign of the man whose company Ashida Manga Eiga had once been the biggest name in the Japanese animation medium. How soon they forget.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade.

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.

2010: The Year in Anime Books

After so many positive responses to the round-up of anime reading last year, I thought I would continue with a brief precis of some of the anime books I have encountered in the ensuing twelve months.

Largely overlooked in Anglophone anime studies was Hu Tze-yue’s Frames of Anime: Culture and Image-Building from Hong Kong University Press. For those who have read Hu’s essay on Hakujaden in the journal Animation, this is more of the same, extending her conclusions out of the Toei era and into the careers of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Meanwhile, Toshie Takahashi made a valuable contribution to studies of TV in general with Audience Studies: A Japanese Perspective, which has given me some great ideas about the history of early anime on television. Andrew Osmond placed anime in an international context with his 100 Animated Feature Films for the British Film Insititute. Phaidon’s Manga Impact was actually a book about anime, which says it all.

There were two excellent articles on Grave of the Fireflies and Space Cruiser Yamato, to be found in Stahl and Williams’ Imag(in)ing the War in Japan: Representing and Responding to Trauma in Postwar Literature and Film. This year I also caught up with Ian Condry’s 2009 essay ‘Anime Creativity: Characters and Premises in the Quest for Cool Japan’ in Theory, Culture & Society, worth noting here because it seems to be a fragment of a book-length work in progress. The same issue included Marc Steinberg’s ‘Anytime, Anywhere: Tetsuwan Atomu Stickers and the Emergence of Character Merchandizing,’ continuing to ensure that the Astro Boy era is one of the best documented in anime studies. Mechademia put out another strong volume. Oh, and Schoolgirl Milky Crisis came out on the Kindle.

The 2006 Clements and McCarthy Anime Encyclopedia remains the largest and most comprehensive book in English about Japanese animation. However, if you can read Japanese, there is now an even bigger tome to bend your shelves, the 1000-page Stingray/Nichigai Associates Dictionary of Animation Works: the biggest book ever written on the subject. It’s an odd work with rather short entries, omitting running times, for example, and concentrating instead on the origins of the anime discussed. This makes it an indispensable resource for anyone documenting the source material from which anime is made, as it lists the Japanese editions of Moomin books, the Bible and obscure children’s classics. It also covers non-Japanese animation, with a total of over 6000 little entries. But I can’t help wishing that it spent more time discussing the anime themselves, rather than vast bibliographies of the books related to them — a massive multi-volume list, for example, of Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights translation, in order to point to the origins of Tezuka’s 1001 Nights. Still, very handy, even at the astronomical cover price of $175.

In Japan, this year has been quiet in terms of big new books on the anime industry, although Toshio Okada got in just under the wire with his new warts-and-all memoir, Testament. This year, I have instead been reading many older books on anime history, including memoirs by Shinichi Suzuki, Yasuo Otsuka, Ryuichi Yokoyama, Tadahito Mochinaga, and Yoshiyuki Tomino. Meatiest among them was Eiichi Yamamoto’s tell-all confessional, The Rise and Fall of Mushi Pro (1989). Written as Tezuka lay dying, it is a detailed analysis of the period from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, from the beginning of production on Tales from a Street Corner, up to the collapse of the studio in the wake of Tragedy of Belladonna. One wonders, perhaps, if now that Yoshinobu Nishizaki is dead, Yamamoto will write a sequel about the troubled 1970s in the anime world, during which he worked for Nishizaki on the Yamato series.

I also found much of interest in Nobuyuki Tsugata’s 2007 study Japan’s First Animation Creator: Kitayama Seitar?, a book which pieces together vital pieces of the anime puzzle from the 1920s and 1930s. Tsugata is the best author in the world on anime history matters, and this book is an amazing detective story. So little early animation survives that Tsugata has to piece together Kitayama’s career from old magazine articles, wall charts enhanced and enlarged from the background of staff photographs, and odd sources such as the proceedings of the Federation of Japanese Dentists.

In the interests of leaving better testimonials for the Tsugatas of the future, the Madhouse studio continues to preserve production details and interviews of its newest films in its own rather pricey series. The Plus Madhouse series of creator-specific books have proved to be a mixed bag. Some, such as the volume on Rintaro (Shigeyuki Hayashi), fill in vital historical and personal gaps in our knowledge of the industry. Others… don’t, and risk diluting the brand by becoming little more than puff pieces for someone’s latest film.

The Imperfect Storm

There was a time when the $17,000 budget for an episode of Getbackers was considered obscenely low. Now industry figures claim that allocations of anime budgets have sunk to a shocking $14,000. That’s less than ten thousand pounds, divided among every sketch artist, colourist, animator and designer on an episode of TV anime. It means that there are some anime that cost less to make than this issue of NEO! Terrifyingly, it suggests that it can now cost more to dub certain anime into English than it does to make them in the first place. Unsurprisingly, some insiders are already questioning the figures, and asking if this is not perhaps an attempt by anime’s notoriously cunning accountants to squeeze taxpayers’ money to pay for the likes of Naruto, which, let’s face it, is hardly begging on the street corner with a tin cup and an eyepatch.

Meanwhile, of course, self-styled otaku prime minister Taro Aso (you’ll miss him when he’s gone!) wants a National Media Arts Centre in Tokyo Bay, a $120 million boondoggle where people can go and… well, nobody really knows yet. Watch anime. Read books. Look at someone’s colouring-in.

“If there really is money for this Centre,” notes Junichi Takagi, the producer of Red Garden, “I’d rather see it going to renewing the Japanese animation business and hence our national industry.” The pundits agree. Nobuyuki Tsugata, a noted historian of Japanese animation at Kyoto Seika University, is precisely the sort of person to benefit from a big boondoggle like the Centre, as it would sure to require talking heads, sign-writers, catalogue writers and speakers. But Tsugata isn’t in it for the money, he’s in it for anime, and he can see what’s happening.

“It is vital,” he told the Mainichi, “that we help medium- and small-scale anime productions.” Otherwise, there won’t be anything to look at, and after that I guess it’ll be nothing but cosplayers looking at each other.

Anime has been heading this way for 20 years. The demographic decline in juvenile audiences (who are, whatever way you cut it, still a big part of the revenue stream), and the aging otaku sector have created an industry that is increasingly self-referential. Aso’s white elephant isn’t even the first of its type; it is merely the largest. There is already an “Anime Centre” in Tokyo that offers visitors the chance to watch certain aspects of the production process. Anime’s publicity relies on the hoary cliché that it is taking the world by storm… and yet what kind of storm is it if it has to go cap in hand to the government? What kind of storm is it if the average monthly salary is $700? The public already subsidise anime by buying it in the first place, now we must pay to watch it getting made, merely so that it is made at all!?

Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, famous anime hyphenate, is having none of it. “Anime has the vitality of a weed. I want it to be left alone,” he told the Mainichi. “And with government support, I worry about potential restrictions being placed on freedom of expression.” Because nobody has yet asked if the Centre will be showing the Right Sort of anime. Or will Urotsukidoji be getting a subsidy, too…?

(This article first appeared in NEO Magazine #63, 2009)