Robotic Angel

metropolis-7_zpsizomta1yDetective Shunsaku Ban and his nephew-assistant Kenichi arrive in Duke Red’s city of the future on the trail of an organ-trafficking doctor. But the city is coming apart, with Duke Red’s adopted son Rock leading a predatory police force, and the enslaved robot population scapegoated as the cause of all ills. Meanwhile, Tima, an android facsimile of the Duke’s dead daughter, goes on the run, unaware of her true nature.

The 2001 feature Metropolis was a who’s-who of big names from the Japanese animation business, including a superstar writer, a director at the top of his game, and an original story from the renowned “God of Manga.” It was also famously the last great clash of old and new animation techniques, using the traditional cel animation method in conjunction with conspicuous digital animation – thereafter, almost all Japanese animation would be entirely created within computers, whether it had a hand-drawn appearance or not. Such juxtapositions even carried across into the characters themselves, with a cast that faithfully mimicked the cartoonish look of Osamu Tezuka’s original comic, dwarfed and often upstaged by gleaming, realist steampunk backgrounds and machinery.

In Germany, the film is known as Robotic Angel, seemingly because nobody was going to get away with giving it the same name as Fritz Lang’s classic movie. Even in the new English-language release from Eureka Films, the movie is pointedly called Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis. But this only opens a whole new can of worms.

For starters, much of the film’s plotting and look owes more to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and its distaff descendant Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, both touchstones for the film’s famous scriptwriter, Akira-creator Katsuhiro Otomo. Yet neither of those works were known to Osamu Tezuka when he wrote the original Metropolis manga, which he began working on as a teenage boy in the 1930s. His inspiration was a magazine article about the Fritz Lang movie, which he had not seen at the time. In fact, Tezuka was once heard to claim that his sole true inspiration was a sighting merely of the poster for Lang’s film, and his teenage speculations as to what it might have been like. At best, Tezuka’s story and setting were inspired by a handful of stills and a bit of text, but were not as directly related to the Lang film as Otomo’s version could be said to be.

Moreover, it’s become commonplace in writing about movies to assign a possessive credit to the director. Films of all stripes are collaborative ventures, but although there are occasional complaints from the Writers Guild and other interested parties, it’s the directors who most often get to say that a film is “theirs”. But Osamu Tezuka didn’t direct Metropolis. In fact, he’d been dead for a generation when it was made, and left explicit instructions that it should never be filmed. Metropolis was actually helmed by Shigeyuki Hayashi, usually known by his pen-name Rintaro, an animator who got his big break in the 1960s working for Tezuka on the iconic Astro Boy.

Rintaro’s attitude towards Metropolis, although usually spun in the media as an hommage to his beloved mentor, doesn’t have quite the same reputation among many anime professionals. One bitterly observed to me that Tezuka had been crystal clear about his opposition to seeing the story animated. In championing the production, Rintaro was less tipping his hat to Tezuka than flipping him the finger. He even admitted in press interviews that Tezuka “would have hated the film and will probably haunt me as a ghost.” Otomo, too, was heard to say that while Tezuka had been an inspiration to him, he was sure that his cyberpunk stylings would not have found favour with Tezuka, were he to ever see them.

In mitigation, such decisions over literary estates are fraught with what-ifs. Tezuka’s heirs have been superbly adept at preserving his legacy with a number of modern remakes, so it should come as no surprise that Metropolis gets the same treatment as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. As with all estates, there is a question of whether the originator would have ever changed his mind. But the wrangles in the background over “Osamu Tezuka’s” Metropolis will always leave the audience guessing whose Metropolis it really is

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #18, 2017.

Kickstarted

Pity the poor anime pundit, busily making predictions about stuff that’s in the distant… I mean near… I mean tomorrow… I mean just happened. Only last month I was merrily giving an interview to Variety magazine, predicting crowd-sourced anime within the next two years. I was inspired by the sight of the Kickstarter funding for the manga of Osamu Tezuka’s Barbara, which swiftly rustled up the required ten grand. You could probably squeeze out a crappy anime video one-shot for $20,000, I mused, so what were the chances that someone decided to hit up forty wealthy fans for $500 each? It’s already what the Japanese charge for some DVD box sets, so why not?

Within a couple of weeks, San Francisco developer Double Fine announced that it had managed to scrape $480,000 to go into production on a new game, a “Double Fine Adventure”. That’s enough to make a 12-episode anime television series! If you really want to make an animated tentacle-invasion version of the Iron Lady, now all you need is to rustle up 10,000 like-minded friends.

Except! You don’t need to be a genius mathematician here to see that some of the Double Fine investors were putting in a lot more than the minimum $15. In fact, if there were 10,000 of them, their average investment was the price of a posh car, each! So this isn’t quite the grass roots investment funded solely by potential end-users that some are pretending it to be. There are still some big investors behind the scenes, but not many! Just think, what if you could write off the cost of a convention weekend and put it towards actually making an anime? And since there are stepped levels of involvement, you’d also be likely to score some exclusive, personalised merchandise, too, and your name on the credits. Beats standing around a car park dressed as an elf!

So, for now, my prediction still stands. I still see a crowd-funded anime production happening within the next two years [Time Travel Footnote: there was a wait of only eight months or so before this happened]. Probably a crowd-funded anime translation substantially sooner than that. But if you had a personal say in which new anime actually got made, which would you choose?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #97, 2012.

Tartar Source

Determined to make a trip to the dairy more fun for all the kiddies, the Snow Brand Milk Products company decided it needed a cartoon. The result was Tengri the Boy of the Steppes (1977), a 21-minute promotional film pointing out to people just how tough dairy production was in the bad old days. Set on the plains of Central Asia, it showed scenes in the troubled life of Tengri, a hunter boy who develops a brotherly relationship with Tartar, a young calf. We learn all about life on the steppes, until a fateful winter when Tengri is ordered to kill the calves for food. Unable to bring himself to off his bovine best friend, Tengri “loses” Tartar in the snow.

Years later, a grown-up Tartar somehow saves the village, and the previously unknown Recipe for Cheese allows Tengri’s fellow villagers to bring aid to the starving. Cheese is the saviour of the steppes, as it allows milk to be preserved long past the date it is extracted from a cow. Consequently, the villagers have food all through the winter, and don’t need to kill cattle for meat.

This odd story, seemingly not mentioning that all dairy cattle end up slaughtered for meat, was dashed off by Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka at Snow Brand’s request. His contribution, described as “a character sketch and a four-page story outline,” was thrown at the animation company Group Tac, which sat on it for two years. They were, it seems, rather busy at the time on Manga Fairy Tales and the animated Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. With time ticking away, the project landed at Shin-Ei animation, where animator Yasuo Otsuka finally took it on in what would be his sole directing credit, obliged to crank it out on a 45-day production schedule.

Otsuka was plainly not a fan of Tezuka, a man whom he regarded as largely responsible for the collapse in the quality of Japanese animation. To put things bluntly, while Tezuka readily lapped up any praise that called him “the Japanese Disney”, he owed much more in his working practices to the extremely limited animation practices of Hanna-Barbera. Tezuka’s production-line system and cost-cutting measures might have made it possible to make anime on weekly television schedules, but they also irredeemably cheapened animation, Otsuka thought. Animators worked hard before Tezuka, but after Tezuka they worked like dogs, in an industry notorious for chewing up its practitioners and spitting them out.

Otsuka was hence not all that impressed with Tezuka’s tales of “Tartar source”, particularly since he got the impression Tezuka had dashed off a vague story in less time than it took to smoke a fag. Otsuka also had problems with Tezuka’s outline, particularly the original Shane-inspired ending where Tengri heads off towards the west, a lone drifter, with the implication being that he takes cheese to Europe, like a dairy Prometheus.

Otsuka began planning a rewrite, only to be told by the producer Eiji Murayama that the ending was “suffused with poetic sentiment” in depicting a hero who “leaves the trifling human world” in order to journey to Europe. Which is, presumably, not populated by humans.

But this was supposed to be a cow + boy story, not a cowboy story. Otsuka understood the elegiac quality, but he thought that a children’s film should end with its protagonist welcomed back by the village. Risking the ire of Tezuka and the dairy, he changed the ending by hiding the horizon behind a bunch of cows, so that it wasn’t immediately plain to see where Tengri was heading. If you wanted to believe he came home at the end, you could now believe that.

Not that the horizon needed much hiding, as Otsuka had to use standard-sized cels. Despite a setting on the rolling grasslands of Asia, a union rep had told Otsuka there would be no great vistas in the background, as that was too much work for the colorists. Otsuka protested that even staunch union men in the animation business took enough pride in their work to draw a wide plain if a wide plain was called for, but he was overruled. What really wound Otsuka up was that the union had accepted the job, claimed they could do it, and then threatened to walk out when it proved impossible. He’d have preferred it if they’d refused from the outset, so he could have gone back and asked for a budget increase to do a better job.

In the end, Otsuka was forced to sit with his arms folded, sulking bitterly, at the preview screening, as his under-funded anime rolled out to a largely unappreciative audience. People filed out saying that it would “do”, and Otsuka – one of the greatest animators in 20th century anime – never directed a film again.

Although some online reviewers on Amazon Japan claim to have seen Tengri the Boy of the Steppes on TV, for thirty years it was officially only available to people who either visited the Snow Brand factory showroom, or rented it out from the dairy as a 16mm film print. But then, a series of events propelled Otsuka’s obscure cartoon back into the media.

In 2000, Snow Brand Milk Products achieved a different kind of notoriety when over 14,000 Japanese reported unpleasant side effects of consuming “old milk”, past its sell-by date.

The following year, Yasuo Otsuka discussed the film’s production history in his autobiography. In the process, he mentioned something that revealed to Snow Brand they were sitting on a dairy anime goldmine that could help dispel their media milky crisis. As a result, Snow Brand authorised the release of Tengri the Boy of the Steppes as a deluxe DVD in 2007, bringing this forgotten anime back into the limelight once more.

Of course, it probably helped that the new credits acknowledged the contribution of Yasuo Otsuka’s young layouts assistant, a previously uncredited young animator called Hayao Miyazaki.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in the SFX Ultimate Guide to Anime, 2011.

The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga

The creator of Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion and… er… Cleopatra: Queen of Sex comes to life in this superb showcase and biography. Helen McCarthy pushes beyond the odious “Walt Disney of anime” label used by lazier writers, boldly stating that if we really must draw condescending cultural comparisons, Osamu Tezuka was also the Stan Lee, Tim Burton and Carl Sagan of his day. Similar challenging argument enlivens her in-depth account of Tezuka’s youth, his fascinating “star system” of recurring characters, and his transformation of the Japanese animation business with Astro Boy.

McCarthy artfully synthesises the work of earlier researchers who lack her populist splash and dash. Natsu Onoda Power might have more scandal, and Ada Palmer might have more rigour, but McCarthy has true passion for her subject, and is backed by a design team working with the full cooperation of the Tezuka estate. The result is a joy to behold – a large format, coffee table book with a glossy cover, a bound-in DVD, and pages that couldn’t be more lovingly engineered if they were pop-up. When discussing a creator whom everybody has heard of, but few really know, such illustration is crucial to appreciating just how important Tezuka was in the history of comics and cartoons. McCarthy keeps it up all the way to her provocative conclusion, in which she acknowledges Tezuka’s place in history, but also that the brightness of his achievement has exiled many other manga artists to the shadows.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade (now also available on Kindle). This review first appeared in SFX Total Anime #3, 2010.

Girlfriend in a Coma

Sleeping Bride is an oft-overlooked entry in the filmography of the director Hideo Nakata. Made after his two world-famous Ring movies, and two years before his acclaimed Dark Water, it seems to have been ignored by many critics because Nakata was heralded at the time as the new face of Japanese horror, and Sleeping Bride did not fit that category. It is not a horror film. It is a quirky, some might say, perversely one-sided romance, between a boy and the comatose girl with whom he falls in love. It is also based on a 1971 manga story written for a teen magazine by the creator of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka.


In 1971, Tezuka was in his early forties, and clinging anxiously to his celebrity status. In February of that year, he became the chairman of the Tezuka Award committee, which handed out prizes to the best new artists at Shonen Jump magazine. In May, we see him signing books at a department store, and in August at another department store, he opened an exhibition of his work. But all this activity concealed desperate times. Most critically for understanding Tezuka in this period, in September 1971 he stepped down as the Managing Director of his own studio, Mushi Production. In hindsight, we know that this was a sign of great financial turmoil, and that the beleaguered Tezuka had taken all the company’s debts upon himself. Mushi Production, the child of his creative genius, was hanging by a thread, and the onset of a recession in 1973 would completely wreck it, along with much of the Japanese animation business. It is tempting to see Tezuka himself in the absent father of the Sleeping Bride, who disappears, disconsolate, from the story while waiting for a magical cure to rescue his pride and joy.


Tezuka kept a feverish working pace, determined to drag his company out of debt. In the list of Tezuka’s actual publications that year, we see a large number of occurrences of the word yomikiri: one-shot. Amid ongoing arguments with the remaining Mushi staff over how his work should be treated, he was largely avoiding new, large-scale serials. Instead, he threw his efforts into an incredibly prolific scattershot approach. He wrote comics for any magazine that would take him, and he churned them out as fast as he could think them up.


Published in Shonen Sunday magazine on 21st February 1971, Garasu no Noh or The Glass Brain, sometimes known as the Transparent Brain, was a one-shot tale that would become the basis of Sleeping Bride. The central narrative remains unchanged in the movie – a sleeping girl, her very name a pun on “yume” (Jpn: dream), is the passive prize sought by a boy who comes to regard her as the living manifestation of Sleeping Beauty. But Yuichi is not the only man in Yumi’s life. Her father is noticeable by his absence, fleeing his responsibilities only to fret repeatedly about his daughter’s fate – an unkind twist, perhaps, on the many absent benefactors who lurk in the background of stories for Japanese girls. In her father’s place is Yumi’s physician, an uncompromising figure representing the arrogance and corruption of the adult world.


Chiaki Konaka’s film script sticks closely to Tezuka’s original, usually repeating it panel for panel. Yumi’s mother, in the comic, dies in a train crash, unlike the plane crash whose eerily quiet aftermath marks the film’s opening shots. Konaka’s only noteworthy addition is a glimpse of the world Yuichi is leaving behind, framing his trips to the hospital with snatches of a mundane high-school romance. In terms of Japanese drama, particularly on TV and in manga, it is clear for all to see who Yuichi’s sweetheart should be, and it’s not the unknown princess in a coma. In returning repeatedly to the hospital, Yuichi repudiates the life that fate seems to have in store for him, in favour of the responsibilities of life with Yumi.


In introducing the concept of a pure, innocent love between children, blossoming when they are finally united in their teens, Tezuka prefigures a common trope in modern manga, known as osana najimi, or childhood friends. Anime and manga are riddled with mawkish romances between teenagers who last met when they were toddlers. But here we see an early prefiguring, not of the girl next door, so much as the girl in the next hospital ward.


It is worth mentioning that Charly, the film based on Daniel Keyes’s Hugo award-winning Flowers for Algernon, similarly depicted a hospital patient who comes alive and flourishes very briefly, before fate intervenes. Released in America in 1968, Charly reached Japan shortly afterwards, and remains a popular staple with local audiences – it has even been remade as two stage plays, a radio play, and as a Japanese TV series, and was even referenced in the film End of Evangelion. If Charly were an influence, it certainly would not be the first time that Tezuka had lifted the bare bones of a Hollywood story pitch and made it uniquely his own – his early Metropolis was based on his reading of a magazine article about the Fritz Lang original.


Both the Sleeping Bride manga and film focus their interest on the nature of Yumi – a girl with the mind of a child, but the body of a woman. In the last 20 years, in the anime and manga world, this has been reversed, eroticised, and put to rather creepy use, in a succession of images of females with the bodies of children but the desires of adults. But the concept of the ingénue in manga is something that Tezuka was very interested in exploring, and indeed, at the time he was writing Sleeping Bride, he was also writing a single ongoing series, with a similar protagonist. Like many schoolgirl superheroines, the titular Marvellous Melmo was able to transform into an older, more glamorous version of herself. She could right wrongs and rescue her siblings in this adult form, but also learned about the changes undergone by the human body in puberty. Melmo, perhaps, was already on Tezuka’s mind when he tried a different take on the idea of a child in a woman’s body: The Sleeping Bride.


In the form of screenwriter Chiaki Konaka, Sleeping Bride had a perfect shepherd to the screen. A writer for many anime and live-action shows, Konaka has demonstrated a recurring interest in the position of women in modern society. As the creator of the anime Armitage III, he experimented with the implications of technology that made it possible for android women to give birth. In his remake of Bubblegum Crisis, he accentuated the fetishised nature of the heroines’ special armoured suits, showing how they confined and imprisoned, even as they supposedly empowered. Perhaps most notably, Konaka also wrote the obscure early digital anime, Malice Doll, a surreal tale about inanimate sex dolls coming to life.


Japanese popular culture often seems obsessed with dolls, with passive women, with spousal blank slates upon whom a man writes character and desire. Many Japanese shopgirls are still trained to pitch their voices to infantile heights. Many celebrity role models continue to act in a relentlessly childish manner. The late psychologist Takeo Doi identified an element of the Japanese character which he called “the anatomy of dependence”, whereby power roles in Japan are defined by every relationship requiring a parent-role in charge, and a child-role seeking support and indulgence.


Doi’s 1986 book The Anatomy of Dependence, was regarded on its publication as a significant contribution to the psychiatry of the Japanese character. But notably, it was published fifteen years after Tezuka wrote this story about a woman with the mind of a child. Nor, for Tezuka, was there the quick easy fix of happy ending or a convenient bereavement. Yuichi’s love for Yumi is pure and surpasses any other concern in his life, as we discover in the moments that close both the original comic and the film it inspired. Yumi may live a lifetime in her scant days awake, but Yuichi lives a lifetime too, the old-fashioned way.

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

2009: The Year in Anime Books

It has been a good year for worthy books on Japanese animation. Apart from my own Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, of course, there have been a couple of books I have yet to read but suspect I will like: Andrew Osmond’s Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist and Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Surely the prize for best anime book of the year must go to Hayao Miyazaki’s Starting Point, lovingly translated by Frederik L. Schodt and Beth Cary, and treating the anime fans of the English-speaking world to an unparalleled glimpse inside the mind of the medium’s most famous director, warts and all. Miyazaki is surrounded at all times by a cloud of idle speculation and spin, and it’s great to see him speaking up in his own words. Not wholly about anime, but deeply illuminating about one of its best-publicised elements, was Lowenthal and Platt’s Voice-Over Voice Actor, also published this year.

Osamu Tezuka has enjoyed a revival, with two excellent English language studies of him arriving in swift succession, first from Natsu Onoda Powers in May, and then Helen McCarthy in October. Meanwhile, in Japanese, the “God of Manga” was the subject of the multi-authored The Osamu Tezuka That Nobody Knew, and Yuka Minakawa’s chunky, gossip-ridden tomes, The Rise and Fall of Japanese Animation: Osamu Tezuka School, 1: The Birth of TV Anime, and 2: Psychologist With an Abacus.

Japanese-language books on anime this year have offered some tantalising glimpses behind the scenes. Just before the end of 2008, the Association of Japanese Animations (sic) and Tokyo Bureau of Industrial and Labour Affairs published a new syllabus for trainee animators and those wishing to enter the business, which seemed to carefully airbrush out much of anime history before the millennium. You might argue that on a need-to-know basis, new animators don’t really need to know… but for those of us with a historical perspective, industry stories are vital for keeping a sense of institutional memory in a notoriously amnesiac business. Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, guiding light of Production IG, published The Animation Business and a Non-Conformist Producer’s On-the-Spot Revolution, and Masanobu Komaki published his memoirs from behind the scenes at magazine in My Time at Animec. Meanwhile, Mana Takemura published Magical Girl Days. And in 2008, although I did not acquire it until this year, Mamoru Oshii (yes, him) published a management guide called (deep breath) : Salvation Through Outside Help: Seven Powers for Work That Does Not Fail, which not only included some wonderful insights to the anime movie-making process, but some mental photographs.

Few of these works seemed to have troubled the reading lists of people who call themselves anime fans, or indeed who call themselves anime scholars. It irritates me that so much anime scholarship seems to revolve around the re-invention of the wheel, as hordes of newcomers blithely ignore what has already been published in the field. Enough respect, then, for Simon Richmond, whose Rough Guide to Anime, also published this year, took the trouble to acknowledge his predecessors. If you just like watching Japanese cartoons for fun, then this shouldn’t bother you in the slightest, but anime seems to be attracting a lot of self-styled experts these days, and it wouldn’t kill some of them to pick up a book every now and then. Starting with the Anime Encyclopedia, which really does have some very interesting essays in it, the contents of which I keep finding other people to have ‘discovered’ independently, which is frankly a waste of their time, and of mine!

Mostly Harmless?

Just stopped off for a week in Hawaii finalising materials for my forthcoming book on Admiral Togo, who spent a tense time there during the Hawaiian Revolution, and accidentally inherited an escaped murderer who claimed asylum aboard his battleship. I am sure I will write more about it here next spring.

In the meantime, on to San Francisco, spiritual home of anime and manga in the United States, where I have been staying with Frederik L. Schodt and poking around the alleyways of Chinatown. Friday was the official release date of the Astro Boy movie, so we were unable to resist the temptation to grab tickets and sneak unnoticed among the evening punters.

The audience in downtown San Francisco seemed split evenly between anime fans and families. Many of the children did not seem to have the faintest clue who Astro Boy was, which is the ideal way to approach this modern upgrade. The kids seemed to like it, apart from one little girl who started yelling “MOMMY I’M SCARED!” when Donald Sutherland started acting crazy… this is not an unknown reaction, even among adults.

There were a few tips of the hats to fans — a cameo for Tezuka himself, and occasional walk-ons for some of his other cast members — but the Astro Boy movie was largely and resolutely a reboot, toning down the death of Professor Tenma’s son Toby, but otherwise staying remarkably true to the spirit of the original. It was, in short, exactly what I would have expected a Hollywoodised Astro Boy remake to be, redolent in many places of Wall-E, although considering Tezuka’s influence on the world of cartooning, that might well be a case of putting the cart before the horse.

I sat there counting the number of Japanese names in the crew, and didn’t have to stretch my fingers too far. Astro Boy’s real influence, and its real future success, will not rest on the contribution of Hollywood — the likes of writer/director David Bowers and composer John Ottman already have resumes they can call on. It rests on Hong Kong, and on the many hundreds of Cantonese names that dominate the crew. Astro Boy might have a Japanese origin and an American sheen, but perhaps this film is better regarded as a work of Chinese animation. In American terms, it appears mostly harmless — a kiddie friendly, Saturday afternoon cartoon that is unlikely to make Pixar worry. But in Chinese terms, it could be seen to represent an incredible leap in talent and technique, lifting the capabilities of Chinese animators so high that they could now be positioned to give American cartoons, and indeed anime itself, a serious run for their money. And if money is the key, then this release is sure to be regarded in China as a “local” production, evading import quotas and heading out into the world’s largest market.

Astro Boy famously speaks more than 60 languages, but the only one he may really need is Mandarin.